Rowing Workouts

Rowing Technique and Rowing Workouts

When weather forces you to stay indoors, a rowing machine can save your physical fitness and your sanity.  This article helps you make the most of rowing machine exercise. We cover everything from rowing technique to workout routines and workout music.

Rowing is one of the healthiest and most efficient aerobic exercises. It improves heart health, tones the major muscle groups and is gentle to your frame. This full-body activity also blasts calories quickly and tends to keep boredom at bay. People who row are likely to reach their fitness goals!

Here you can learn how to row correctly and get suggestions about how to use your workout time from warm ups to cool downs. This article includes helpful videos and ends with suggestions about rowing workout music. Here are quick internal links:

Perfect Your Technique

Distance Workouts

Stretches for Rowing

Interval Workouts

Warm-up Exercises for Rowing

Music for Rowing Workouts

How to Row with Style: Perfect Your Technique

Before you make a habit of rowing indoors or out, it’s important to learn the proper technique. Here are some smart reasons:

  • Using the right technique makes rowing more effective. That’s because it helps you avoid wasting energy on unnecessary movement.
  • The right technique also makes exercise more comfortable.
  • The right technique helps prevent injuries. People who don’t row correctly can strain their muscles.

Of course, using the right rowing machine and custom settings can make a difference. Most of the better rowing machines are adjustable for almost any body size. Some of the cheapest rowing machines are surprisingly adjustable, too. Check for customization options on your rowing machine’s seat and footplates before you begin.

Rowing Technique Video

Below is a “how to row” video from Concept2, the leading brand of air rower. The narrator and model break down the stroke cycle into smaller movements. Keep these tips in mind while watching the video:

  • The correct sequence for muscle movement is legs, core, arms.  A mnemonic device like “Love Conquers All” (or something grumpy, if you prefer) might help you remember.
  • Notice how the model keeps her back straight. Take care to bend at the hips, not along your spine.
  • These small movements are helpful not only for learning how to row, but also are excellent warm-up exercises!

More notes about this video are posted below.

Notes: The Steps in Rowing

Here’s a summary of the movements shown in the above rowing technique video. Start with your legs outstretched and the handlebar pulled up to your lower chest.

  1. Stretch out your arms, letting your upper body tilt from and 11:00 position to 1:00.  
  2. Bend your knees slightly as you push off the footplate with your hamstrings.
  3. Focus on your core. Start to lean backward. When you’re almost at the 11:00 position, pull the rower bar toward your lower chest.
  4. Finish by reversing the movement. Extend your arms. Pull your torso forward and then bend your knees.

Exercise in front of a mirror or film yourself rowing. Compare your style to that of the model in the video.

More Tips about Rowing Technique

These simple tips help lots of newcomers to rowing. Read our list and see the video below for more advice to avoid common mistakes in rowing technique.

  • Make sure that your rowing machine fits your body. Sometimes a small adjustment in the footplates or seating makes a big difference to performance and comfort.
  • Watch the level of the handlebar. It should remain constant. If you need to lift your hands over your knees at any point, then your technique needs refinement.
  • Keep your back straight but loose. Your back should only tilt between the “11:00” and “1:00” positions. Most rowing is actually done not with the upper body but with the legs.
  • Avoid rushing. Especially as you are honing your form, a good pace to start with is about 20 to 25 strokes per minute. A sprint pace for more experienced rowers is about 26 to 32 strokes per minute. In the suggested workouts below, we mention that beginners could start with simple distance workouts. These let you focus on pace and form, keeping a steady stroke rate to reach your goal.

This video from WaterRower identifies common mistakes in rowing technique:

Where else can you get help with rowing technique? Here are three suggestions.

  1. Most indoor rower owner’s manuals illustrate how to use the machines properly. These manuals are easy to find online. You can follow any of our product reviews to the manufacturer’s website and find the free PDFs.
  2. Workout DVDs and online videos for rowing also typically begin with a focus on technique. Some of the most popular rowing videos are in the Indo Row series. You can click here to buy it through WaterRower.com. DVDs are also included with purchase of a few rowing machines that we’ve reviewed, such as the home version of the WaterRower Signature.
  3. For personalized advice you could visit a gym or hire a personal trainer. With a big budget you could get an Olympian consultation: People who buy the WaterRower Signature rower get feedback from rower Xeno Muller, who medaled in the Olympics (silver and gold) and now coaches crew.

Now that you know the correct technique, it’s time to warm up for rowing!

Warm Up for Rowing

Why warm up? A rowing warm up reduces your risk of injury and can help prevent muscle soreness. It literally warms up your body, gradually raising your body temperature as it increases blood flow to your muscles and readies your cardiovascular system for more intense action.

Safety Note: It might be wise to check with a doctor before starting any aerobic exercise. Some of the many situations in which this applies: if you have not exercised regularly in the past three months; if you have (or don’t know whether you have) a heart murmur; if your ankles swell (especially at night); and if you smoke or recently quit smoking. A more complete list is provided by the Mayo Clinic.

Stretch Before Rowing

Rowing workouts ideally begin with stretches. For how long should you stretch?

  • Rowing coaches typically advise that each muscle group should get about three to five reps of stretches, with each stretch held for 10 to 20 seconds each.
  • The longer and more intense your workout, the more you should stretch beforehand.

It’s especially important to stretch your neck, back and hamstrings before a rowing workout. Complete stretch sessions like those shown below prepare your whole body.

The first video below is from WaterRower, a leading brand of water rowing machine. This video begins with neck stretches, then moves to the arms, core and lower body. All of these stretches are done while the trainee is seated on the machine. (In the next video, no rowing machine is involved.) We like this video because it’s thorough and easy to follow.

The next video from The Stretching Institute shows rowing stretches done without an indoor rower. It’s helpful if you’re preparing for rowing outdoors or inside. This video guides you through a 10 minute stretch routine. Like the WaterRower routine above, it starts with neck exercises and moves down the body.


Warm-Up Exercises for Rowing

Warm-up exercises, like stretches, can be done on the rowing machine. The most relevant warm-up exercise routine breaks down the full rowing cycle. In other words, it consists of partial stroke movements as seen in the “how to row” video above. Over about 10 minutes, these partial movements build up into a full stroke. Here’s a summary:

  1. Start with just your arms. Extend them back and forth for a few minutes.
  2. Add your back to the warm-up. Tilt from an 11:00 position to 1:00 as your arms move forward and back. Repeat this for two or three minutes.
  3. Add your legs to the drill. Bend them slightly, but not as much as you would for actual rowing. Repeat for two or three minutes.

After stretching and taking partial strokes, your body will be primed for a full rowing machine workout! After the workout, you can cool down with the same exercises used in warming up and stretching.

Full Rowing Machine Workouts

Indoor rowing workouts can be basic or complex. For basic workouts, some people simply row until they tire. Others set simple session goals in terms of calorie burn, stroke count or elapsed time. These workouts can be especially good for beginners because they let a person concentrate on form and pace.

By “complex workouts” we mean interval training workouts. Interval training involves alternating between high effort and low effort. For example, you might row vigorously for 30 seconds, then row gently (or rest entirely) for 30 seconds, and then repeat.

Distance Rowing Workouts: Beginner & Intermediate

For beginners in particular, a basic distance rowing workout is especially helpful because it provides an opportunity to focus on your stroke rate. Remember, a goal for all rowing workouts is keeping great form and rhythm! This helps you use energy the best way. A distance workout lets you focus primarily on form and cadence.

Here are steps to try in a distance workout. With this intermediate-level plan you will row in 1000-meter medium effort intervals that are broken up by long gentle intervals. A beginner’s alternative follows the steps below.

  1. Warm up for 5 – 10 minutes.
  2. At a medium perceived exertion level, row 1000 meters while maintaining 28 strokes per minute.
  3. Row gently for four minutes.
  4. At a medium effort level, row 1000 meters while maintaining 24 strokes per minute.
  5. Row gently for four minutes.
  6. At a medium effort level, row 1000 meters while maintaining 26 strokes per minute.
  7. Cool down for four minutes.

Easier Variation: A simpler variation of this workout would use 750 meter intervals, two-minute rest periods and a constant 26 strokes per minute.

After you have mastered your rowing technique and pace, you can move on to more advanced interval training.

Interval Training with Rowing Machines

Why do interval training? Interval training can be more efficient than simply rowing for a set amount of time or strokes. There’s a certain element of surprise that makes interval training remarkably effective at training your muscles. It also keeps your heart rate up — even during the low intensity intervals — and thus burns fat especially quickly.

Some rowing machines have pre-programmed interval training workouts. These programs will automatically adjust the rowing machine’s resistance after a set amount of time.

Here are three interval training programs to try. They range from 30 to 42 minutes.

Music! Medium Intensity Interval Training (30 Minutes Including Warmup)

Use favorite music as your rowing coach! This workout is fun because you don’t need to focus so much on time — just pay attention to the music and how it changes. Load your music player with 30 minutes of fast-moving motivational music.

Basically you will speed up when the chorus kicks in. Here are the steps:

  1. Warm up during the first song. Move from low intensity to medium intensity activity.
  2. When the second song starts, keep rowing at a constant medium intensity.
  3. Whenever the chorus starts, row at high intensity. Return to medium intensity when it stops. When the chorus comes back around, speed up again.
  4. For the next songs, start off at a medium perceived exertion level and speed up whenever the chorus is sung.
  5. Cool down from medium to low intensity during the last song.

Tip: The ideal song pace for this rowing workout is 150 to 180 beats per minute. You can find workout song playlists on YouTube or find songs that are a certain bpm at https://jog.fm/workout-songs. Also see the next section for workout songs and playlists!

Pyramid Rowing Workout (42 Minutes with Warmup Included)

The following pyramid workout is an interval training plan taken from a Concept2 console program. It is an intermediate level rowing workout. You will row for a minute, rest for a minute, row for two minutes and rest for two, and so on — down and up a virtual pyramid with four minutes as the longest rowing interval.

Aim to keep a constant pace of 26 to 32 strokes per minute for each interval. This workout is 42 minutes including the warm up.

  1. Warm up for 10 minutes.
  2. Row at 75% max effort for 1 minute. Rest 1 minute.
  3. Row 2 minutes. Rest 2 minutes.
  4. Row 3 minutes. Rest 3 minutes.
  5. Row 4 minutes. Rest 4 minutes.
  6. Row 3 minutes. Rest 3 minutes.
  7. Row 2 minutes. Rest 2 minutes.
  8. Row 1 minute. Rest 1 minute.
  9. Cool down for 5 – 10 minutes.

In a rush? See the next rowing workout for an even higher-intensity cardio blast.

High Intensity Interval Training (31 Minutes with Warmup)

High intensity interval training (HIIT) can be a great calorie-burning option when you’re short on time. After warming up for 10 minutes, follow a program like the 30/30r in Concept2’s menu. This program has you row vigorously for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds, then repeat.

In the plan below, every five minutes you can break the 30/30 cycle with another exercise such as air squats or pushups.

Do steps 1-4 three times for a 21-minute workout:

  1. 30 Seconds Row High PCR (Perceived Exertion Rate)
  2. 30 Seconds Rest
  3. Repeat 1 & 2 for a total of five cycles (five minutes).
  4. Do pushups, chest presses, lunges or squats for two minutes.

Finish with a cool-down.

Design Your Own Interval Workouts

Computers on many higher-end rowing machines let you design and save interval workouts. For example, a program template might have ten interval fields that you fill in with desired time increments and resistance levels.

You can also keep track of your activity the old fashioned paper way. Concept2 publishes a free PDF that you can print. It helps you plan interval workouts and track your progress.

Music for Rowing Workouts

Music can support your fitness success. To easily find music that’s at your preferred pace (maybe 150 to 180 beats per minute), check out a website like the Dave Tompkins Music Database or bpmdatabase.com. These websites let you search by bpm and have links to play or buy the music.

You can also get apps that search your own music library for an estimated beats per minute.

To inspire playlists in different musical genres, here are 12 songs with 160 bpm:

  • Dancing Queen – ABBA
  • Gangsta’s Paradise – Coolio
  • Halo – Beyonce
  • I’m a Believer – by The Monkees or Neil Diamond
  • Paint It Black – The Rolling Stones
  • She Talks to Angels – The Black Crowes
  • Surfin’ Safari – The Beach Boys
  • Sex and Candy – Marcy Playground
  • The Outernationalist – Thievery Corporation
  • Touch of Grey – The Grateful Dead
  • Undone (The Sweater Song) – Weezer
  • Wide Awake – Katy Perry

Help us build rowing workout playlists! Comment or email us about your favorite free online rowing workouts and workout songs.