Rowing Machine Workouts – Great For Any Fitness Goal

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The best thing about rowing machine workouts is that they can be adapted to achieve any health and fitness goal. Rowing is a full body workout, engaging every major muscle group. You can vary pace, resistance and duration, meaning you can use them for high intensity interval training or steady state cardio exercise.

They are found in every serious gym or health club. However many people choose to work out at home on a rowing machine in the spare room or garage. For lots of detail on the benefits of rowing machines check out our article on the benefits of rowing machines.  If you are researching rowing machines because you are thinking of purchasing one to use at home, then we have a written a review on things to consider when deciding on which rowing machine is suitable for your goals and circumstances. There are few other home exercise machines that provide such a complete workout, building muscle while strengthening your cardiovascular system.

This guide will outline some of the best, most popular ways to train on a rowing machine. Highlighting how different workouts will help train for varying goals.

Correct technique on a rowing machine

Before getting started on a rowing machine is it important to understand how to use one correctly. Rowing with incorrect form will prevent you from working out efficiently and increase the risk of injury.

Check out this video for a basic guide:

Wikihow have a great article on rowing machine technique, check out the link below:

Wikihow – How to row on a rowing machine

Remember before starting any exercise it is important to warm up, just as it is important to cool down afterwards.

Rowing machine workouts for weight loss

Many people start off using a rowing machine as it is a great way of burning calories, which combined with a good diet produces significant weight loss. Athletes and models that already have good body composition also use rowing machines to get lean before an event.

There are several training approaches to losing weight on a rower. High intensity interval training (HIIT) burns a lot of calories per minute, and can only be carried out for short periods of time. Steady state cardio style workouts do not burn calories at the same rate. however they can be carried out more often and for longer, with higher total calories burned. Some routines concentrate in keeping heart rate in a certain “fat burning zone” to get results.

The best approach is to combine all three, HIIT twice a week, with steady cardio and heart rate sessions on the days between. This takes advantage of the extra calories burned with HIIT while being able to train more often, using recovery days.

The below workout is a classic interval training routine. It only takes 18 mins but packs a lot into that short space of time. It will burn a lot of calories as you exercise, using anaerobic energy stored in the muscles. Even better you will continue to burn calories long after you stop as the body replaces the energy you have burned, and your oxygen debt.

The above workout is suitable to be carried out 2 days a week. If you are using a rowing machine on the days in between it is important not to push yourself as hard as this. Set the resistance at a medium level and row at a pace that does not get you out of breath. You will be able to do this for much longer than the 18 minute HIIT workout, so although calories burnt per minute will be lower, you can still burn a considerable amount. This will get the blood flowing back through your muscles again, helping your body’s flexibility, and quicker recovery for that next HIIT session.


Rowing machine workouts for muscle endurance

Perfect when you want to develop your muscles to be able to keep going for longer under stress. Muscle endurance relates to aerobic and anaerobic endurance, the aim is to increase strength endurance and speed endurance. Strength endurance is the ability to maintain a level of contractile force over time. Speed endurance is the ability to prolong the length of time maximal (or near maximal) speed is maintained.

The best way to train for this is with interval sprints, pushing yourself hard for a short period, having a short period of rest, and then repeating a number of times. This trains the muscles to be able to work in an oxygen deprived state, to recover more quickly, and to clear lactic acid build up more efficiently.


The workout below is designed to improve your muscles ability to work for long periods and to recover quickly from exertion. During the sprint periods you need to push yourself at the fastest pace you can maintain for 60 seconds. You then have 60 seconds to recover before pushing yourself again. This cycle is repeated 5 times before a longer rest period is allowed. After this longer period, go back to the 60 second on 60 second off cycle again, carrying out a total of 3 times.

This will get your muscles working in an anaerobic state, i.e. without the use of oxygen. The longer the muscles are able to do this, and the faster pace at which they do, the greater your muscle endurance becomes.


Rowing machine workouts for cardiovascular endurance

Many people use rowing machines to improve their cardiovascular endurance. The ability of the heart to pump blood around the body, and the lungs to supply oxygen to muscles, via the blood stream.

The key to working out to improve heart and lung performance is to push them hard as you exercise. Heart beat rate must increase significantly, close to maximum, and breathing needs to become laboured. By pushing the body with this stimuli, it adapts anticipating the same in the future. The hearts becomes stronger, able to to pump more blood with one beat. Plus lung capacity increases, with more oxygen taken in with one breath. Plus the lungs become more efficient at diffusing oxygen into the blood stream.

The workout below is designed to keep your body in a state where heart rate is up and breathing increases. However below the threshold where anaerobic energy production kicks in. This level of training requires oxygen to fuel the muscles, and the body will adapt over time to do this more efficiently.

Aim so that the 1,000 metres stage are completed at the fastest pace you can without getting out of breath. You need to judge this but it shouldn’t be too tough with a little experience. Challenge yourself over time by speeding up the pace of the 1,000 metres, remembering still not to get to the out of breath stage.


Rowing machine workouts for increasing power

Power is a function of strength and speed. The ability to apply maximum force as quickly as possible. Technique is also important to generate power, and poor technique will hold you back when training on a rower.

Rowing machines are great for power training as they require you to generate power using all of the major muscle groups. This functional form of training teaches them to act as one unit, which translates to other sports far better than other isolated power exercises.

The workout below is perfect for increasing your power. The focus is on rowing as fast as possible for 20 seconds. Then giving enough time to recover so that you can push yourself to 100% again. The length of the rest period is key, this is what allows you push yourself to your limits. If it is not enough time to recover then extend it. We are not training endurance, so let your breathing rate return to normal before sprinting again. Put the resistance as high as possible. The higher resistance requires greater strength. Combined with the speed, this requires maximum power.


Rowing machine workouts for beginners

Rome wasn’t built in a day, it’s important to build up gradually and not push yourself too hard when you are starting out. Start at a slow pace, with low resistance to begin with, and don’t row for too long. Focus should be on perfecting technique at this early stage.

Once you have good technique and a base level of fitness and and experience on a rowing machine you can move on to more challenging workouts.


Common mistakes to avoid

As we mentioned earlier correct form is key to getting the most from training on a rowing machine. Below are some of the common mistakes to avoid during your workout.

Not checking (and changing) the damper setting

The damper setting is normally easy to find, often a lever by the side of a flywheel. Similar to gears on a bike you can determine the level of resistance and therefore the level of exertion required to undertake the rowing action.

If the resistance setting is too high it will exhaust your muscles too early in the work out. Therefore start out at a setting that is not too demanding. Building up resistance over time as you become fitter and more accustomed to the machine.

Going too fast or hitting your backside on your heels

If you are going too quickly you may be bumping into your heels and forcing your body forward uncontrollably. This is poor technique. You are expending too much energy on the movement forward rather than the backward stroke.

The recovery stroke must be smooth and relaxed, with the effort focused on the pull stroke, at a ratio of a 1:2 count.

Using arms only to row

Putting too much strain on your back, arms and shoulders is bad for you and can cause injury.

You should be generating around 60% of your power from your legs with 20% coming from your core and 20 % from your upper body. Focus on the power from each stroke coming from pushing against the panel where your feet are strapped.

Hunching back during the stroke

Poor posture in other areas of your life will mean you bring it onto the rowing machine with you. This means your technique will be poor. You increase chance of injury and do not get the most from your work out.

Sit upright with your back straight. Concentrate on engaging your core muscles with your shoulders relaxed and pulled down and your spine in neutral.

Using body parts in the wrong order

There is a three-step process to a rowing stroke. Performing these steps out of order can place an unnecessary strain on your body.

First push off with your legs. Then pivot backwards at the hips so your shoulders pass behind your pelvis. Finally pull the arms into your chest just below the sternum. Once your hands are at your chest reverse back through the sequence to the starting position.

Final thoughts on rowing machine workouts

As we have discussed above, the rowing machine is a piece of equipment that is suitable for a number of fitness goals. Anything from fat loss to increasing muscle power. If your are thinking of buying one to exercise on at home you have made a great choice. Rowing machines give the best full body workout of any cardio machine.

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