You’ve heard that rowing is a great workout, but how exactly does it work?

Do you row as fast as you can for 45 minutes, or do you do intervals? And what are “spm” and “SP”? Not to mention, how do you maximize your calorie burn?

We chatted with trainers Judy Naegali and Stacy Munn from The Row House and Senior Instructor Shea McAdoo from CITYROW to get some of their favorite rowing tips and workouts.

It can be intimidating to use a machine for the first time, and the rower isn’t the most intuitive piece of gym equipment. Take the time to practice your form and technique.

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can use your favorite workout strategies, like high intensity interval training (HIIT) and Tabata, to change things up, keep your muscles guessing, and burn fat speedy fast.

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Coach Munn offers some key technique and form tips:

  1. Sequence is key! On the drive (the backward motion), move your legs first, then swing your torso back, then bend your arms to bring the handlebar into your body. On the recovery (the forward motion), do the opposite sequence. Straighten your arms, then swing your torso forward, then bend your legs. McAdoo adds, “Focusing on overall proper mechanics will lead to a better workout and injury avoidance.”
  2. Keep your lats engaged by pulling them down and back to ensure the handlebar moves in sync with the sliding seat.
  3. Keep your spine straight all the way through the stroke.
  4. Let the handlebar pass your knees before bending your legs on the recovery.
  5. Think “Power, Patience, Patience” to get the drive-to-recovery ratio right. Drive back quickly, then spend 2–3 times as long coming back up the slide in the recovery.

McAdoo offers, “Rowing is all about form! It isn’t something as familiar as riding a bike. Try not to get discouraged after the first workout — it will all come together. Don’t stress about speed. Rowing fast is incredible, but the real benefit can come at slower tempos.”

The key is consistency and developing muscle memory. “When you’re first starting out, commit to a consistent schedule and you’ll have the basics down in no time,” McAdoo says.

1. Beginner 19-minute pyramid

This workout comes from Naegali. While it is a beginner workout, you’ll feel this one. It’s a descending pyramid at specific strokes per minute (spm) followed by an ascending pyramid. In the process, you’ll learn to watch your strokes and sustain your power while burning through the calories.

  • 4 minutes @ 22 spm
  • 3 minutes @ 24 spm
  • 2 minutes @ 26 spm
  • 1 minute @ 28 spm
  • 2 minutes @ 26 spm
  • 3 minutes @ 24 spm
  • 4 minutes @ 22 spm

Pro tip (from Naegali): At first, beginners should aim for 20-minute workouts 3 times a week. I would also recommend a lower intensity to really focus on technique. Learning to row is not that intuitive, and it takes a lot of mental focus to get your body to do the right thing. As good technique becomes second nature, you can increase intensity.

2. Tabata rowing workout

Tabata workouts are a short type of HIIT that burns through calories in a hurry. These workouts last only 4 minutes, so they’re a great option when you’re running short on time.

  • Row at a high intensity for 20 seconds.
  • Rest for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat for a total of 4 minutes (8 rounds).

3. Reversed Tabata rowing workout

Switch things up by doing a Tabata workout in reverse. Row like a tornado is chasing you for 10 seconds, followed by 20 seconds of rest. Repeat for 8 rounds.

4. 10-minute intervals

This workout may be short, but you can scorch some serious calories:

  • 2-minute warmup
  • 2 minutes @ 22 spm
  • 2 minutes @ 26 spm
  • 2 minutes @ 22 spm
  • 2 minutes @ 26 spm

5. Row and push-up

“Remember that rowing is a leg sport. A lot of people want to row because they think it will build their upper bodies. But if you’re doing it right and applying the most efficient power to your stroke, your legs (mostly quads) will be burning!” says Naegali.

This workout aims to balance out the workload by adding push-ups to challenge your biceps and triceps.

  • Row 100 meters.
  • Do 10 push-ups.
  • Row 100 meters.
  • Do 10 push-ups.
  • Row 100 meters.
  • Do 10 push-ups.
  • Row 100 meters.
  • Do 10 push-ups.

6. The 250 Set

Looking for a no-nonsense quick row? Jump on and row until you’ve burned 250 calories. You can choose the intensity and pace to get whatever your body needs from your workout.

7. 54-minute pyramid (advanced)

Advanced rowers or those who’d like to put themselves to the test can take on this pyramid workout, courtesy of Naegali. It’ll put your technique and endurance to the test.

  • 1 minute on, 1 minute off
  • 3 minutes on, 1 minute off
  • 5 minutes on, 1 minute off
  • 7 minutes on, 1 minute off
  • 9 minutes on, 1 minute off
  • 8 minutes on, 1 minute off
  • 6 minutes on, 1 minute off
  • 4 minutes on, 1 minute off
  • 2 minutes on, 1 minute off

Pro tip: Aim for a 20 spm stroke rate (SR).

“on” = as hard as you can go at a 20 spm

“off” = active recovery at 20 spm (easy paddle pace)

8. Distance intervals

This workout uses distance intervals and has a 1-to-1 work-to-rest ratio. You pick the intensity, but try to keep a consistent SP through each work interval.

  • Row 100 meters.
  • Rest 1 minute.
  • Row 200 meters
  • Rest 1 minute.
  • Row 300 meters.
  • Rest 1 minute.
  • Row 200 meters.
  • Rest 1 minute.
  • Row 100 meters.

9. 30-30-30

This workout challenges your whole body while using the rowing portion to get your heart pumping.

10. 1-minute drills

This one comes to us from McAdoo, who says, “One of the beauties of rowing is that there is so much variation within the workout!” And that’s what this workout does.

  • Do three 1-minute rows, increasing the speed with each one.
  • Do three 1-minute rows, decreasing the speed with each one.

Pro tip: The slower you row, the harder you have to work. Keep that in mind as you’re working on your power and intensity.

11. EMOM (Every minute on the minute)

McAdoo’s personal favorite is EMOM.

In an EMOM workout, you combine rowing intervals with other exercises, such as lunges, bent-over rows, or thrusters. Do your intervals for 1 minute with 30–60 seconds of rest in between. Aim for 3–4 circuits. “You will be dripping sweat in no time at all!” says McAdoo.

Pro tip (from McAdoo): Committing to consistency over a longer period of time is more important than burning out after doing a workout every day for only a few weeks! As far as intensity, based on your goals, there are various types of workouts you can do on a rowing machine, including ones that focus on endurance, strength training, and even total-body burn.

Rowing machines offer a great workout, whether you’re a gym newbie or an experienced rower. It’s important to take the time to practice and develop your technique before jumping into workouts longer than 20 minutes. Change up your interval times, power, or distance to prevent boredom and keep your body guessing.

Get out there and get your row on!