Rowing Machine Workout: More Muscle and Less Fat in Under 30 Minutes

This is Frank Underwood.

Frank is America’s most hated and loved fictional president of the United States.

Why am I talking about President Underwood in a fitness blog?

Well, if you can’t figure it out just go to a scene back in season 1 of “House of Cards.”

Frank Underwood is using a rowing machine.

Interesting seeing this machine being used in a popular drama series.

This is Jason Statham.

He looks nothing like Francis Underwood.

Underwood doesn’t look fit.

But it’s pretty obvious Jason Statham is fit.

And he probably knows how to use cardio to his advantage.

He’s quite athletic.

So why do I bring them up.

Before I answer that I have to point one thing out.

There’s two camps in fitness.

Those who do cardio.

And those who don’t.

For some reason there’s this belief that cardio isn’t necessary.

Or there’s this belief that cardio will make you lose muscle and get skinny.

If you’ve read previous articles on this site you’ll see examples of how cardio helps you maintain muscle.

In some instances you can gain muscle.

It all depends on how you use it.

Muscles Worked By Rowing

(That’s USA Rower Susan Francia)

I’ve seen rowers many times.

Especially in the Olympics.

I’ve seen the way the exercise works.

Grab two oars, hold them in your hands and start rowing.

Naturally, I used to think that the biceps did all the work.

But rowing is way more complicated than that.

It’s possibly one of the few total body cardio workouts around.

Done right it is similar to a power clean movement.

Check out the rowing motion.

The following muscle groups are involved.

  • Legs
  • Buttocks
  • Calves
  • Lower Back
  • Lats
  • Traps
  • Biceps
  • Abs

The entire body is getting a workout.

But lost in the motion is the idea that only the upper body is doing all the work.

The truth is it’s the opposite.

Done right, the legs and core do the majority of the work.

Your biceps are only there to finish the job.

How To Properly Row

First thing’s first.

In order to make a rowing workout effective you have to follow a series of steps.

Here are the steps:

  • Hold the bar with two hands
  • Start at knees bent position
  • Without leaning forward use your legs to push off
  • Once your legs are completely straight, lean back slightly
  • Now use the momentum to pull the bar into your upper ab area

That covers the first half of the exercise.

The motion of the exercise should be smooth and controlled.

Don’t jerk the handle and don’t rush through each step.

Now comes the 2nd part of the motion.

Going back to the starting point.

  • Once the bar touches the upper ab area, smoothly let the bar glide away from your body.
  • As the bar crosses above the thigh area let your upper body come back to an upright position.
  • The legs should be straight at this point, now bend at the knees and go back to the starting position.

Again, this should follow a controlled effortless motion.

The 2nd part of the motion should be slower than the first part of the motion.

It’s important to learn the proper way to do this exercise for the following reasons:

Doing this exercise incorrectly will lead to injury.

Not doing the exercise properly will screw up the benefits of rowing.

You’ll struggle with your rowing stamina and tap out too soon.

Choose Your Damper Setting Wisely

A big mistake most people make when using a rowing machine is underestimating how good of a cardio exercise it is.

One of the first things that people notice when trying out rowing is that it feels pretty easy.

Unlike sprints or a jog on a treadmill, if you’re out of shape you’ll tap out pretty fast.

A few minutes into a light jog and it’s possible to get winded.

On a rowing machine going for a few minutes can feel easier.

The first instinct is to make it harder by increasing the setting.

It’s also common for beginners, and even more experienced rowers, to not know that settings can be changed on a machine.

Look at a rowing machine and you’ll see that the front looks like a wheel.

On the “wheel” of the machine you’ll see a black round piece that can be adjusted.

That’s what’s called the “damper.”

The damper is basically the part of the machine that adds more friction to your rowing.

Naturally, you’d think that the higher the setting, creates a tougher and better cardio workout.

But the damper determines how much air flow enters the machine.

  • A higher damper setting (like a setting of 10) causes more air to enter the machine. The higher setting allows more air to enter the machine during the recovery period. More effort will then be required at the next stroke (Damper Setting 101).
  • A lower setting allows less air flow in the recovery phase of rowing.
Lower Damper Setting vs. High Damper Setting

If you’re just starting out it’s best to use lower damper settings.

A lower setting in the range of 3 to 5 will give you a better cardio workout.

If your goal is to focus more on strength goals, then a higher damper setting in the range of 7 to 10 is a better option.

However, a higher setting is recommended if you’ve been doing rowing for a while.

It’s important to learn to properly row and perfect the steps of a proper row.

A lower setting will also help you build stamina and keep you from gassing out too soon.

4 Benefits of Rowing Machine Workouts

#1 The first benefit to rowing is the overall athleticism involved in this workout.

Sure, you can get on a stationary bicycle.

You can use an elliptical if you want to burn some fat.

But rowing requires your entire body, including your core, to be engaged in the workout.

I’ve talked about the importance of making workouts as athletic as possible if you want to look fit.

#2  A second benefit is the combination of muscle building and cardio.

There’s few ways to combine both of these factors in one cardio workout.

Most cardio workouts have their limitations.

Some cardio workouts are mostly effective for just that- cardio.

Muscle building isn’t possible, as in the case of the elliptical.

A stationary bicycle can help you gain muscle in your lower body along with cardio.

But rowing will help you gain muscle from your calves and thighs to your traps and lats.

In fact, research in the Journal of Applied Physiology has shown that rowing, paired with strength training, helps maintain muscle, prevents atrophy in important muscle groups and helps improve cardiovascular health.

#3  A third benefit, which is popular, is the low impact of the exercise.

If you row the right way you won’t be busting your joints.

In fact, it’s pretty tough to mess up your joints.

Unlike sprinting and jogging which put strain on the knees, ankles and lower back, rowing doesn’t cause this problem.

Rowing is a smooth exercise that doesn’t impact your joints in any way.

#4 I’ll throw this as a fourth benefit- the meditative/zen like feeling of rowing.

One of the benefits I’ve  gotten from using a rowing machine is the peaceful yet focused feeling i get from it.

The repetitive motion of using my legs, core, arms and back in a controlled manner has a peaceful feeling.

The sound of air going into the machine, steady repetitive movement and staying in tune to your body and breathing keeps you focused throughout the exercise.

It’s hard for your mind to wander.

Rowing feels like meditation.

And i’m sure that rowing in the outdoors is even more meditative.

A Rowing Workout to Get Extra Lean

Getting ripped is not tough.

One of the best ways to do so is by using HIIT.

Rowing for distance works for burning fat.

But you can combine distance along with intervals to maximize fat burning while gaining muscle.

Here’s a way to combine the two.

  • Warm Up (10 minutes)
  • Set your damper to level 3.
  • Row for 10 minutes at an easy to moderate pace.
  • Stroke rate should be at an average of 20 during this phase.
  • Intervals (15 minutes)
  • Increase your stroke rate to 24 for the next 15 minutes.
  • Break your intervals by 2 minute intervals with one minute rest in between.
  • So it’ll look like this:
  • Rowing for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 1 minute
  • Row for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 1 minute
  • Row for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 1 minute
  • Row for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 1 minute
  • Row for 2 minutes
  • Rest for 1 minute

Finish by walking on a treadmill for 10 minutes at an easy pace to cool down.

Some training programs break up intervals by distance.

These work too but I find it tougher to follow distance intervals for beginners and even intermediate rowers.

Beyond Intermediate Rowers

However, if you want to follow a more challenging interval plan you can do it in the following way.

Warm up by doing 10 minutes of rowing at a moderate pace.

Follow the warm up with the following:

  • 500 meters of rowing
  • 1 minute rest
  • 750 meters of rowing
  • 1 minute rest
  • 1000 meters of rowing
  • 1 minute rest
  • 750 meters rowing
  • 1 minute rest
  • 500 meters rowing
  • 1 minute rest

Finish by walking on a treadmill at an easy 10 minute pace.

Try including some rowing into your workouts 2 or 3 times per week.

Add rowing at the end of strength training workout day.

Or do it on a cardio day.

There you have it.

Rowing is a great way to switch things.

By doing rowing as a cardio workout, you’ll find it providing many benefits.

You won’t have to worry about getting skinny.

Quite the opposite.

Rowing is an excellent way to build your back, traps, strengthen you core and get strong legs.

Combined with strength training you’ll see how athletic you’ll look.

Try it out.

Comment below and let me know what you think of rowing workouts.

To your fitness,

Sam- Look Like An Athlete

Source:
Krainski, Hastings, Heinicke, Romain, Pacini, Snell, … & Levine, (2014). The effect of rowing ergometry and resistive exercise on skeletal muscle structure and function during bed rest. Journal of Applied Physiology, jap-00803.

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