Here's what you need to know...
• Strength athletes typically eschew cardio machines, but the rowing machine deserves your attention.
• If you don't have any glaring back, hip, or postural contraindications, the rower can help you crank up your conditioning while sparing your lower body.
• There are a variety of workouts you can use with the rowing machine, with varying degrees of difficulty.
For the first decade of my career in the strength and conditioning field, I wasn't too charitable when it came to cardio machines. But recently I've learned the value of the rowing ergometer or "erg". I learned this by getting my butt handed to me!
Gassed, Wheezing, and Red-Faced
I bought my wife a rowing machine for her birthday. Believe it or not, at an intimidating 5' 3", she was captain of her nationally ranked college crew team.
The week we got it, I walked down to the basement to see her get after it on the erg. She was humming along, and making it look easy. I decided to hop on and try it out myself.
I cranked out a 500-meter time trial and narrowly edged the 500-meter pace she'd just maintained over 2000-meter. In short, my wife kicked my ass.
What's worse, when I got off the erg, I was completely gassed. When I was done wheezing, I joked with her that I couldn't believe she used to wake up at 5 a.m. to do that in the middle of winter on an icy river. It was awful.
Why was it so awful? Well, first, I was wildly inefficient with this cardio approach.
Second, the stress was distributed over my entire body, so I felt like I was limited more by my ability to breathe than by local muscular endurance.
Third, I'm a competitive bastard, and the thought of being out-rowed by my little wife didn't sit well with me.
As such, I decided I'd do it once a week as my interval training – and it's proved to be one of the best training decisions I've made.
Short Workout, Faster Recovery
So why the love for the erg? First, I can get in a lot of work in a short amount of time. Furthermore, because the stress was distributed over my entire body, rowing didn't gas my lower body like sprinting did.
It's a tough fitness challenge that actually helps me recover from heavy squatting and deadlifting far better than when I was sprinting twice a week (with rowing, I now only sprint once).
Is Rowing For You?
Before we get to the training protocols, I should note that it absolutely isn't for everyone, so let's outline the contraindications. You should not row if:
1. You have symptomatic low back pain, or a history of symptomatic intervertebral disc pathology. Repeated flexion/extension of your spine is an injury mechanism for discs, particularly under compressive loading.
2. You have hip pain of any sort. The full flexion nature of the rowing motion can exacerbate problems in this regard.
3. You have an outrageously aberrant posture. If you're really kyphotic (rounded shoulder), this approach to rowing will likely make it worse by feeding into your posture. You're better off doing more controlled, lower-volume rowing variations in your strength training program in a position of thoracic extension. If you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis, it'll just feed into that as well.
4. You sit all day. If you're at a desk for 8-10 hours a day, you really should avoid any sitting during your exercise session – and that certainly means avoiding it for 15-20 minutes at a time.
5. You plan to do deadlifts or good mornings the following day. No matter how good your technique is, you're still going to use your lower back a bit. I'll typically row a day or two after I do these exercises.
6. You have baggy shorts on. I made this mistake once. Don't do it.
A Brief Note on Technique
There are coaches who devote their entire career to building elite rowers and optimizing technique. I'm not one of them. However, I do have one bit of advice:
Move through your damn hips, not your spine.
Got it? Good.
That said, most advanced rowers pull a bit higher up, essentially toward their nipples/sternum. Effectively, it looks a bit more like an upright row (or Olympic lift pattern, when you effectively use your legs) than a true "row."
For the general fitness folks just looking for a training benefit as safely as possible, it's probably more shoulder healthy to pull a bit lower down. The upper abs is a good reference point, even if it means you'll go a bit slower.
I prefer to use the rower for shorter duration intervals. When people who haven't been properly educated on rowing technique try to crush 20-30 minute sessions, bad things happen.
For that reason, I like to encourage folks to stick to shorter bouts on the erg. I'll usually just get up and walk around between sets, adding in some filler mobility or activation exercises.
Here are six workouts:
1: 5 x 300-meter with diminishing rest intervals
The 300-meter distance is awesome because it invariably works out to about 60 seconds for most people of reasonably good fitness, but not elite rowing status. If you get lazy, though, your times will slip.
It's also a good set-up for people who are just starting out to see quick progress. Try this:
Week 1: 5 x 300 meters with 120 seconds rest between sets
Week 2: 5 x 300 meters with 90 seconds rest between sets
Week 3: 5 x 300 meters with 75 seconds rest between sets
Week 4: 5 x 300 meters with 60 seconds rest between sets
2. 500-400-300-200-100 meters with 60 seconds rest between sets
This is another low-volume, shorter duration protocol that's a bit easier to suffer through as each successive set is slightly shorter than the next.
You can also do it the other way around, going from 100-meter to 500-meter over the course of the sets. It's not great for pride, though, as your pace will slip significantly from set to set.
3. 2000-meter test
This was one of the top three most awful experiences I've had with exercise. I'd argue that it's right up there with super-high-rep sets of squats and deadlifts.
The first time I did a 2000-meter test, I had that awful "I sprinted outside in the cold air and now I can't seem to fully get my breath" feeling for about a day.
I came in at 7:40 for my first 2000-meter test. The world indoor record right now is 5:36. For the sake of my own pride, I hope his was as unbearable as mine.
4. 2 x 1000-meter
After I realized that I never wanted to do 2000-meter again, the logical next move seemed to be to cut the total distance in half and do two 1000-meter sprints instead. It was a much better fit.
5. 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off for 10 minutes
This is another good option because it goes by quickly, and none of the work bouts are so long that you'll get bored out of your mind if you're someone who hates cardio. The only downside is that the rest period is so short that you barely have time to stand up before you have to get back down and start rowing again.
6. As far as you can go in a song
If you have a few favorite songs that always get you fired up, turn one of them on and see how far you can go during that one song.
Music is a great motivator, but it can also be a great timer for bouts of intense exercise, as not many songs last longer than five minutes. Much like you might have personal bests on the bench press, squat, deadlift, and other exercises, you might have personal bests for distances on a few different songs.
Get In Your Conditioning!
Stop ignoring the rowing machine when it comes time to get in your conditioning. You don't need to throw out everything you've been doing and use this exclusively, but the erg can definitely be a great change of pace if you're the right fit for it.