For a long time, rowing machines (also known as “ergs”) sat idle on gym floors, unused and collecting dust. But today, the rowing machine has become an increasingly popular workout tool, appearing in everything from CrossFit WODs to House of Cards episodes. Not to mention, boutique indoor rowing studios keep popping up all over the country, making it easier than ever to learn how to use the rowing machine — and get in all those awesome rowing machine benefits.
But what exactly is all the indoor rowing hype about? Read on to find out.
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What Are the Benefits of Rowing Machine Workouts?
1. It’s a total-body workout
Rowing separates itself from other cardio exercises, like running and cycling, because it works your entire body. “The rowing machine is one of the few steady-state cardio exercises that taxes muscles from head to toe, building both upper-body and lower-body muscular endurance,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content.
“There is a push-then-pull sequence in a correct rowing stroke,” says Chelsea Moore, cofounder and president of Rō Fitness, an indoor rowing studio in Austin, Texas. Every time you push away from the machine, you engage muscles throughout your lower body — especially your quads. Then, when you pull the handle toward your chest, your delts, lats, and biceps take over. And let’s not forget about your core — it’s engaged the entire time.
The result: a full-body endurance and cardio challenge.
2. It’s low impact
Cardio activities like running and plyometrics can be great for building fitness and shedding fat, but they can also be tough on your joints. That’s where rowing stands out — there’s no loading or ground striking, so the wear and tear on your joints is minimal. In short, it’s a low-impact cardio workout. “The rowing machine is one of the few workouts that works all the major muscle groups without much impact on your joints,” Moore says.
3. It can boost fat loss
The fact that rowing is a total-body effort means it’s also an effective cardio exercise for fat loss. “Because you’re using about 84 percent of all your muscles in each stroke, the calorie burn [from rowing] is intense,” Moore says.
To put the caloric burn from rowing into more concrete numbers: In 30 minutes, a 150-pound person will burn roughly 164 calories rowing at a moderate intensity, and 205 calories rowing at a vigorous intensity.†
When you’re exercising for fat loss, you want to find an activity that will burn maximum calories not only during exercise, but also afterward (through a phenomenon called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC). Because of this, rowing can definitely fit into your plan to shed fat and lose weight.
4. It helps increase cardiovascular endurance
As with any form of cardio exercise, rowing machines can help you build cardiovascular endurance (the ability of your heart and blood vessels to supply your working muscles with oxygen during sustained activity).
You can build greater endurance by rowing at moderate or high intensities. Don’t know how to measure your workout intensity? Check out this handy guide.
Where to Buy a Rowing Machine
You can score a great indoor rowing workout at any number of local and national rowing studios and classes (Google is an easy way to find a studio or class in your area). Many gyms also provide access to rowing machines. Or, if you have the space — and the funds — you can invest in your very own erg.
If you want to skip the heavy lifting on finding the best rowing machine, start with our list of favorite rowing machines, including options at multiple price points.
And while you can always purchase a rowing machine right off Amazon, it’s always a good idea to “try before you buy” whenever possible. Many sporting goods stores and fitness equipment retailers sell indoor rowing machines (Dick’s Sporting Goods and Johnson Fitness & Wellness offer wide selections), although you can also find good options at general retail stores such at Target and Walmart.
†Calorie values tabulated using Cornell University’s METs to Calories Calculator, based on a 150-pound person.