3 Rowing Workouts to Get Strong and Lean

3 Rowing Workouts to Get Strong and Lean
Photo: Pond5

Give up on that treadmill line and forget the weight machines. You can tone your whole body with just one underutilized piece of equipment. Sure, many athletes and CrossFitters already flock to the rowing machine (or “erg”) for cardio endurance work, but did you know it can be used to build strength, too?

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“You’ll see a lot of development in quads, glutes, lower and mid back and biceps [when rowing,]” explains Peter Stramese, Head Coach of T.C. Williams High School’s rowing team in Washington, D.C. And when you push with your legs and pull with your arms, you’re strengthening your whole posterior chain.

It’s a common misconception that rowing predominantly works your upper body. “The majority of the effort comes from your lower body and your core,” says Debra Frohlich, co-owner and co-founder of Row House, a boutique rowing studio in New York City.

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If you’re an athlete who’s worked with the row machine before, check out these 30-minute-or-less strength workouts, plus tips on how to maximize your sweat session. Beginners or those who are totally new to the rower, try one of these routines instead to focus on your form and build up your endurance.

Your Warm-Up: The Reverse Pick Drill

This five-minute warm-up, suggested by Stramese, is performed on the rowing machine itself. The objective? To pick the stroke apart (as in break down the movements of an individual row stroke), which will wake up your muscles and prep them for the rest of your workout.

  1. Hop on the erg and start with your knees bent, hips pivoted forward, back engaged and arms straight. Grip the rower’s handles and extend arms, keeping away from chest while also keeping back straight and shoulders relaxed. Push off with the soles of your feet and straighten legs so your seat moves away from the flywheel. Next, bend your knees so your seat moves towards the flywheel, returning to starting position. Repeat for 15 strokes.

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  1. Straighten your legs again and lean back from the hips slightly past upright position. Then, keeping your spine and neck neutral, reverse the motion: Hinge forward slightly at the hips, bend your knees and move forward so your seat rolls towards the flywheel. Be sure to stay relaxed while keeping movements controlled, arms extended throughout. Repeat for 15 strokes.
  1. After you lean back from the hips, bend arms so the handle is pulled fully into your chest, thumbs touching your lowest rib. Now reverse the movements. Keeping your back and legs straight, extend your arms away from your body, reaching towards your feet. Hinge at the hips, then bend your knees. Repeat for 15 strokes.

3 Rowing Workouts to Build Strength, Stat

These three workouts are designed to emphasize pressure (aka effort) over moving the seat really quickly, with the goal being for you to remain in control. Try one of these conditioning workouts suggested by Stramese and Eric Frohlich, co-owner and co-founder of Row House. Ready all, row!

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The 30-Minute Body Blast

Just because the stroke rate isn’t very high during this workout doesn’t mean that this is a leisurely paddle. Aim for 22 to 24 strokes per minute for the work intervals. For the resting intervals, take light strokes and recover so your heart rate comes down.

30-Minute Body Blast Rowing Workout
Photo: Pond5

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The Low and Slow Rowing Workout

When you take fewer strokes per minute (like the workout above), the flywheel of the rower delivers more resistance per stroke. “Since you’re working against a heavier load, there’s more of an emphasis on strength,” says Stramese. By slowing things down, you can really concentrate on finding a good rhythm. He recommends quickly driving with the legs for one count and then recovering, or moving your seat up the slide for five counts. Turn your damper setting to five or six, since a higher one might overwhelm your back, adds Stramese.

18-Minute Low and Slow Rowing Workout
Photo: Pond5

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The Strong and Speedy Ladder Workout

Here, you’ll emphasize smoothness and consistency, explains Frohlich. Put your damper setting to 4 and perform two-minute sprints with one minute of rest in between. “This pyramid requires real mental fortitude,” says Frohlich, since you’ll be competing with yourself for each interval. Keep a close eye on your 500-meter splits, and try to lower that metric (your split) each time you sprint.

15-Minute Speed Ladder Rowing Workout
Photo: Pond5

Originally published November 2015. Updated August 2016. 

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