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What does the rowing machine work exactly?

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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You finish your on ramp, and you go to your first CrossFit class ever. You walk into the box and see that today’s WOD (workout of the day) is DT, 5 rounds for time of 12 deadlifts, 9 power hang cleans, and 6 push jerks – movements you just learned how to do but movements you fully enjoy.

You load the bar with a weight that you can move while still being able to reasonably do as many repetitions as you can without putting the bar down for too long. The clock starts and you’re off! By the end of the WOD, you look at the clock, take note of your time, give it to the coach, and you’re hooked on CrossFit for life!

a man showing what does rowing machine work
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Getting bored from other training than rowing machine?

You come in the next day and look at the whiteboard. Your heart sinks because there’s nothing but running in the WOD. Running for time, running as many runs as possible, running every minute on the minute, running, running, running. It’s as if Chris Hinshaw snuck into your box’s programming and went to town trying to kill everyone with cardio.

As much as you dislike running, though, it is a terrific way to lose weight and improve your cardiovascular endurance. You also know that cardiovascular endurance is one of the pillars of strength that you will need to improve as a CrossFit athlete. You know you need it, but you also know that physically, you may not be able to run as much or as far as every balanced workout requires. What other option do you have to build your cardiovascular engine then?

Rowing machine is great for cardiovascular and full body benefits

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People rowing while taking high intensity cross training fitness classes at a gym

Rowing machines or simply, rowers, provide a great alternative when the workout programs call for running, but the athlete finds themselves at a disadvantage from any sort of physical limitation that prevents or hinders their ability to run. Rowers can be found in just about every CrossFit Gym across the globe and are a staple at the CrossFit Games.

Best Rower for Beginner
Sunny Water Rowing Machine

Based on our testing, this is the best rower for beginners. For less than 500$, this silent water rower will last you for years. It also comes with a 12-year warranty.

  • Affordable
  • Quiet
  • Amazing warranty
See latest price See all Rowers below 500$

They come in various shapes, sizes, makes, and models. The most popular, if not the CrossFit standard, is the Concept 2 Rower. This rower seats the athlete atop a seat fixed to rollers on a rail where the athlete pulls a handle attached to a chain that pulls an ergo meter. To provide meaningful metrics, the Concept 2 Rower has an onboard performance monitor that can track distance, time, pace, rowing stroke, etc.

How does the Rower Work?

A rower simulates the movement and feel of propelling a rowboat on water without being on water or being in a boat. As mentioned above, the Concept 2 Rower uses a handle attached to a chain that is connected to an ergo meter. Other types of rowers use a belt instead of a chain and a self-contained water tank that provides resistance.

Most rowers have footrests with straps to keep the athlete’s feet in place while they perform their rows. Rower construction varies by manufacturer with some opting to use wooden parts instead of metal. The one thing that all rowers do, however, simulates resistance when the handle is pulled.

What Muscles Does the Rower use?

The beautiful thing about rowers is that, with proper form and muscle engagement, they use a lot of the body’s major muscles. The rower has the athlete start in the catch. This is the position where an athlete’s legs are bent so that their knees are against their chest, their arms extended while holding the rower’s handle.

The athlete then uses the leg muscles to extend their body away from the rower. The force is then transferred when the hips are fully extended and the back leaning a little. The movement ends with the smaller muscles in the arm pulling the rower’s handle toward the athlete’s sternum/ribcage. As rowing machine muscles worked are numerous, it makes it a great total-body workout.

Rowing offers full body benefits

This movement fully engages the concept of core to extremity where our body uses the core muscle group before using the smaller muscle groups. In other words, all the movements that we do in CrossFit and in just about every aspect of our daily lives originate from our core. Think about standing up from a seated position. You don’t initiate the movement with your arm muscles – you initiate it with your core.

The same principle goes for rowing. The athlete starts each row by engaging the core muscles. From there, the transference of power goes outward to the athlete’s legs. As the legs extend, the hips extend, and finally, the arms pull the handle toward the athlete’s body.

Learning to initiate movements with your larger muscles and learning to keep your core at its, uh, core, is what will you get those heavy clean and jerks, snatches, deadlifts, and squats. Rowers do just that and more.

Advantages and Benefits of Rowing Machine

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Speaking of core, at its core, rowing has several advantages over exercises such as running. As mentioned earlier, you may not be able to run due to injury, inexperience, pain, and other factors that may be beyond your control. If you fall into this category, grab a rower because here are a few of the advantages and benefits of incorporating rowing into your workout routines:

  1. Rowers Strengthen Your Core

If you don’t already know, pay attention. Rowers strengthen your core. Repeat after me… rowing, rowers, strengthen your core and transform your body. It builds muscle mass and lower and upper body musclestrength faster than running so don’t feel bad if you must scale a row for a run during your next cardio workout.

  1. Rowers Improve Your Posture

Like most of the modern world, you probably spend a good portion of your day seated and in front of a computer. Rowers require that you extend your hips and lean back slightly as you pull your arms toward you to finish the rep.

The extending and lengthening of your body during this movement also opens up your shoulders, helping to relieve any tension that builds up from being hunched over a keyboard all day. It also helps build strong back and abdominal muscles for your posture.

  1. Rowers are a Great Alternative to Running

The truth is that running 1000m will burn more calories than rowing the same distance but if you can barely run 10m due to some physical limitation, rowing is the next best thing. As mentioned above, it helps muscle gain and calf muscles quickly while providing a low-impact movement – just be prepared to row a little farther or a little longer if you substitute this for running. It is also an effective low impact workout for weight loss.

Rower effective Workouts

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To quote the infamous words of Mortal Kombat, it’s time to ‘TEST YOUR MIGHT!’ Here are a few rowing workouts and perfect exercises for your cardio routine that will challenge you just as much as running, if not more!

20-Minute Rowing EMOM

– Every minute on the minute, row 200m and rest for the remaining time. The goal is to row 200m within 45 seconds and rest for the remaining 15 seconds of each minute.

– If you cannot get to the 200m goal within 45 seconds, row hard for 45 seconds and rest the remaining 15 seconds

2000m Row for Time

– This popular CrossFit benchmark has you rowing 2000m as fast as you can. Once you get to 2000m, take note of your time and retest after about 3 months

Row Rest Row

– 10 rounds of a 1:1 work/rest ratio where you row as fast as you can for 1 minute, then take 1 minute off. You will be doing 10 minutes worth of work with 10 minutes worth of rest in between for a total of 20 minutes


– For time, 1000m row, 50 thrusters at 45 #, 30 pull-ups (scaling options – substitute ring rows for pull-ups)

Best Rower for Beginner
Sunny Water Rowing Machine

Based on our testing, this is the best rower for beginners. For less than 500$, this silent water rower will last you for years. It also comes with a 12-year warranty.

  • Affordable
  • Quiet
  • Amazing warranty
See latest price See all Rowers below 500$

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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