The Rowing Machine: Get The Benefits Without The Boat

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Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and works all muscles in a single bound... look! It’s a rowing machine, and it offers a comprehensive workout by strengthening most major muscles groups while simultaneously providing a cardio kick [1]. Also called a rower, indoor rower, ergometer, erg, and Santa's Fitness Sleigh, it’s a useful tool for everyone from landlubbers to championship athletes.

Port or Starboard? — The Need-To-Know

No need to memorize any boating terms to get the most out of a rowing machine. Indoor rowing builds cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and evenly trains almost all muscle groups [2]The pulling motion works the arms, shoulders, back, and abdomen, but it’s the legs that do the brunt of the work by pushing off to start the stroke and retracting to end it. Ideally, rowing is done in a fluid motion (step by step technique below), making it a lower-impact option for those who want an intense workout without jarring knees, elbows, and everything in between. And because of the stroke’s large range of motion, rowing can also build flexibility [3].

The power in each stroke — or pull, for those keeping up with the lingo — controls a built-in flywheel on the machine, which can be adjusted to provide varying levels of resistance. In order to replicate the feel of rowing on water, however, it’s recommended to keep the resistance set at between 3 and 5 on most models (out of 10). This range reduces the chance of lower back strain and keeps all active muscles in balance.

Ready, Set, Row! — Your Action Plan

Fortunately there are no megaphone toting scullers to be found at the gym, so "catch, drive, finish, recover" will be the beat of choice for an indoor rowing machine. Be careful when sitting, because all rowers have movable seat pads, and then follow these four steps for a world-class stroke:

  1. Strap feet flat, straighten the torso while contracting the abdominal muscles, and grab the bar in a palms down grip by bending the knees, not rounding the spine. The shoulders and arms reaching forward are straight and relaxed. This starting position is called the catch.
  2. Drive back with the feet to straighten the legs and begin to pull the bar with the arms. Focus on a strong leg push, as most of the power in the stroke happens during this phase. Pull the handle in toward the abdomen as the legs approach full extension. The pulling stroke is a rapid, constant horizontal motion.
  3. Finish with the legs fully extended, shoulders back, and the handle against the upper stomach.
  4. Recover by stretching the arms straight out. The body moves forward over the hips and the knees will begin to bend as the seat moves back to the catch position.

Now do it all over again and again and again: catch, drive, finish, recover. Workouts can be adjusted for all sorts of variety, including long, steady state and short, intense interval training like Tabata Protocol. It’s music to our oars, er, ears.

Photo: sportsandsocial

Have you tried indoor rowing? Let us know your tips and tricks in the comments below!

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Works Cited

  1. Development of FES-rowing machine. Miyawaki k., KIwami T., Obinata G., et al. Annual International Conference of IEEE Medicine and Biology Society. 2007;2007:2768-71.
  2. Energy expenditure with indoor exercise machines. Zeni AI., Hoffman M.D., Clifford P.S. Sports Performance and Technology Laboratory, Medical Colloege of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1996 May 8;275(18):1424-7.
  3. Assessment of the flexibility of elite athletes using the modified Thomas test. Harvey D. Australian Sports Injury Prevention Taskforce, Australian Institute of Sport, Belconnen, ACT. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 1998 Mar;32(1):68-70.

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