The Rowing Machine Engages 86% of Your Muscles—Here’s How It Benefits Your Fitness Routine

Photo: Getty Images/skynesher
I always feel bad for the rowing machine. The treadmills are always packed, the ellipticals are never lonely, and the stair climber stopped counting flights. Yet the rowing ergometer always seems to collect dust. But that's just because not everyone has experienced its true potential.

You've more than likely seen row machines at your gym, but because they're often overlooked, you may not know exactly what all you can use it for. The rowing machine stimulates watercraft rowing, allowing you to reap all of the benefits of rowing in the water but on land. And speaking of benefits, first, it's a great substitute to traditional cardio. If you're someone who avoids running whether it be indoors or outdoors but loves to get cardio in, we highly recommend rowing. Additionally, if you enjoy running but don't love achy joints the next day and too much impact leaves you out of commission for weeks at a time, rowing is a great low-impact option.

In comparison to other cardio machines such as stationary bikes and treadmills, there won't be any pounding on your joints. If you're short on time, you want to spare your joints, and you still want to get aerobic work in, rowing is where it's at. Plus, you're guaranteed to get in a full-body workout. Your legs are constantly working as you create power during the "drive" portion when you push off of the foot stretcher. And your arms are also working as you hold the handle and use your upper body to stroke. So, don't be surprised when you wake up the following day to sore lats, pecs, obliques, quads, hamstrings, calves, and other muscles you didn't know existed.

The benefits of a rowing machine are impressive. In a study from the English Institute of Sport, researchers found that the rowing machine engages 86 percent of the muscles in your body—not just your legs, as many people believe. (Take that, treadmill.) Aside from toning your legs, arms, core, and more, it's also low-impact and great for all fitness levels. I mean, even astronauts are doing it; research has found that rowing for just 30 minutes a day is as effective as 90 minutes of cycling when it comes to keeping hearts healthy in space. And on Earth, incorporating the benefits of a rowing machine into your workout routine is easy.

No matter how you choose to implement rowing into your routine, it's important to engage your abdominal muscles with every stroke to prevent low-back pain, and you should also make sure to maintain an upright posture (no slouching!). A common mistake people make while rowing is to drive and lean back simultaneously, but these movements should be separate. Push with your legs first, then lean back (maintaining core engagement), and then pull your arms toward your sternum. Now that you know what to do with a rower, check out all the ways you can use it ahead.

How to incorporate the benefits of a rowing machine into your routine

1. Do it as a warm-up

If you like to get in a little cardio before your workout as a warm-up but don't like the treadmill, hop on the rowing machine instead. Even five minutes will get your heart rate up.

2. Use it as your workout

Instead of using the rowing machine as a warm-up, spend a little extra time on it to get in a full workout. Libby Peters, the former associate head coach of the University of Pennsylvania women’s rowing team, says you can get in a killer quick-hit cardio session in just 12 minutes by doing intervals. Complete one minute of slower strokes that focus on form and strength (which equals around 16 to 18 strokes per minute), then spend the next doing more casual strokes, alternating until your time is up.

3. Use it for active recovery

If you want to get in some active recovery after an intense workout, the rowing machine can help out in that department, too. Instead of going all out like you would during a rowing sweat session, do a few minutes of more casual strokes, says Peters. It's a great way to wind down while still doing your body good.

But first, make sure you're doing it right

Before you start using the rowing machine, make sure you're using proper technique. Not only is it important to master the parts to proper rowing—the finish, the catch, and the drive—but also make sure you're not making some of the most common mistakes such as using your arms too much and not engaging your core. In order to work 86 percent of your muscles, you have to strive for 100 percent accuracy with your form.

The best at-home rowing machines to buy

1. Concept2 Model D Rower, $900

best rowing machine

If you want to buy a rowing machine that’s a favorite of Olympic rowers and coaches, this is it. It’s compact, affordable, and uses a performance monitor to measure your progress.

Shop now: Concept2 Model D Rower, $900; also available immediately from Amazon, $1,300

2. Hydrow Rower, $1,995

The high-tech Hydrow rower provides an immersive experience. Because the instructors are filmed in an actual rowing boat on the river, you’ll feel like you’re rowing right there along with them.

Shop now: Hydrow Rower, $1,995

3. WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine, $1,285

This water rower gives you a smooth rowing experience thanks to a special paddle that cups the moving water and reduces slippage.

Shop now: WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine, $1,285

4. Ergatta Rower, $2,199

Anyone who needs a little extra motivation to work out will love Ergatta, which has gaming-inspired content that keeps you moving. (Side note: As you can see, it's also really pretty.)

Shop now: Ergatta Rower, $2,199

5. NordicTrack RW900 Rower, $1,600

This rowing machine comes with a unique 22-inch rotating touchscreen, 26 resistance levels, and manual air resistance.

Shop now: NordicTrack RW900 Rower, $1,600

Keep your core strong with this 15-minute ab workout:

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