How to Get More Out of Your Rowing Workout

rowing workout
 Photograph by Justin Steele

Rowing is a discipline that, when done well, looks easy.

It’s anything but.

Like swimming, rowing is a full-body sport, which explains why it can tire you out in minutes. “Because all major muscle groups are involved—legs, back, glutes, shoulders, arms, and abs—each stroke requires a lot of power, and you run out of oxygen very soon,” says Peter Mansfeld, the high-performance head coach at Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia.

Newcomers to the rowing machine, also called an erg, make two main mistakes. The first: too much weight. There’s an arm on the flywheel called the damper that controls the resistance. A damper set at the heaviest is a sure sign of a novice. “Even for a warmup, you’re putting a lot of strain on your back,” Mansfeld says. Keep the resistance at medium.

The second error is too much focus on the pull. “There’s a misconception that rowing is about upper body and arms,” says Cameron Kiosoglous, men’s assistant coach for U.S. Rowing. “It’s about your ability to use the legs and hip connection.”

So begin by powering through the legs. Then, as you start to hinge back, initiate the pull. That whole process should take 1 second, while the reset takes 2 seconds. Even as your stroke gets faster, that ratio should stay.

When you begin training on a rower, set a time, from 2 to 10 minutes, and use the digital display to see how consistent you are with each pull. Watch the strokes per minute and the pace per 500 meters. If the stroke count goes up but the pace doesn’t, you’re losing power. Once you’ve found your groove, try the quick and gnarly
1-minute test. (“After 40 seconds, you’ll feel like your eyes are about to explode,” Kiosoglous says.)
Now you’re ready to cover some distance. Use the erg’s computer, which is preprogrammed for 500-, 1,000-, and 5,000-meter intervals. You can treat the rower like a treadmill with tempo runs and intervals.

Be warned: Rowing in an erg is like running on a treadmill. It’s a workout, but the fun part about the sport is being outside. Visit a local rowing club, join an adult crew team, and find out what pulling yourself across the water really feels like.

Friendly Duel
For serious rowers, it’s all about teamwork. Re-create that indoors. Find a buddy,
 set up parallel rowers, and
race each other. It’ll push you both to go harder and keep things interesting.