Laird Hamilton’s Guide to Mastering the Rowing Machine

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Photograph by Peter Bohler

The latest trend in cardio is one that I hope sticks around for good: rowing. Gyms across the country are incorporating the rower into group workouts or even anchoring entire classes around the machine, and it’s a major component of high-intensity routines like CrossFit. My only wonder is why it took so long to catch on. Look at collegiate rowers and you’ll see what I mean – it’s hard to find fitter guys. That’s because, similar to stand-up paddleboarding, rowing is a total-body workout. You burn through tons of calories and strengthen every part of your body, particularly your legs and back. But getting the rowing motion down – and knowing how to maximize your time – isn’t immediately intuitive. Follow these cues.

Nail Your Form
Sit on the seat, shoulders back and abs engaged, leaning slightly forward and gripping the outer edges of the handlebar (this ensures you engage more back muscles as you pull). Drive your feet through the pedals to push backward – rowing power comes from your legs, not your upper body – then pull the bar toward your torso, leaning slightly back as you finish your stroke. Think of your torso position as a hand on a clock: You begin your stroke leaning forward at 2 o’clock and end it at 11 o’clock.

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Go for Time
One of my go-to workouts to increase cardiovascular fitness is a row-for-time test. I give myself 30 minutes and see how many meters I can log. The key to this is not to start full bore, pushing and pulling as hard and as fast as you can – you’ll fade in minutes. Instead, concentrate on methodic, powerful movements (to a bystander, it might even look like you’re going slow) that keep your strokes per minute in the high 20s or low 30s. Breathe through your nose the entire time. This helps control your speed; if you’re moving so fast that you need to gulp in air through your mouth, you know to dial it back.

Create a Circuit
One of my favorite ways to build strength fast is to combine rowing intervals with dumbbell exercises. You force your muscles to work in two totally different ways, and because you’re working at a higher intensity, you don’t need to do more than 15 minutes. Here’s a routine to try: Stack two weights to the side of the machine, and warm up with a steady pace on the rower for two minutes. Then go all out for three minutes – fast enough that you can’t do another second by the end. Immediately get off the rower to do a minute each of dumbbell shoulder presses, then triceps kick-backs, weighted squats, and wood chops. Finish with another three-minute rower sprint (try to hold your earlier pace), followed by a few minutes of slow cooldown.

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