I come from a rowing background so I could be accused of bias here, but I think the rowing machine is a phenomenal piece of kit, capable of withstanding the test of time while also staying fresh.

Unlike treadmills, the rowing machine design has remained fairly consistent with the standard-issue Concept 2 being the choice of almost every gym and rowing club.

I often wonder why the humble rowing machine is left unattended when large queues form for the more popular treadmills, bikes and cross-trainers at local gyms, with the simplest explanation being that the rowing machine is a misunderstood beast... 

What does proper rowing technique look like?

The fact the lonely rowing machine often sits in the corner of the gym gathering dust is perplexing because it offers a comprehensive full-body workout for athletes from a variety of sports. The complete rowing stroke is formed of 60-70% leg drive, with 20% consisting of the body rock engaging the core, with the final 10% of the stroke being arms-orientated.

Many newbies who are considering using the rowing machine for cross-training are intimidated by the challenges (and time consuming nature) of learning a new skill and getting the technique right. Thankfully, there are plenty of technical videos out there but it's worth remembering that the core basics of the stroke are: legs, body, arms.

So, the legs should be straightened before the body pivots over and then the arms squeeze the finish. The same is then applied in reverse. The stroke is extremely comparable to performing a deadlift for those weightlifters out there.

It’s not an intimidating technique to learn but is certainly important in the long run and it's well worth checking out Bill Chambers' short podcast episode with Dr Valery Kleshnev as they attempt to demystify rowing technique. 

Why use a rowing machine for cross-training?

Phillip Bendon, a personal trainer based in London, speaks highly of the use of rowing machines for his clients, who range from unfit or injured individuals to high-performance athletes.

If I get a client who comes in who’s particularly unfit or might have had a serious injury, using the rowing machine and not having the impact on joints that you’d get from a treadmill is a huge benefit.

Interestingly, the rowing machine is used heavily in training amongst CrossFit athletes. Their workouts often consist of sets of different exercises, with the bulk of distance work being performed on the rowing machines.

As Bendon went on to say:

In terms of actual CrossFit workouts, you can mix rowing in with a weightlifting set; do a 500-metre quick row, then do 20 clean and presses, then do a 400m row, and 18 cleans and presses, before dropping the numbers as the workout progresses.

It's a serious workout and the rowing machine marathon consists of 42k and is a staple event of the CrossFit Games each year!

A further benefit that was touched upon by Bendon is the use of the rowing machine to isolate certain muscles for either warm-up benefits or to train that particular muscle group.

Image Credit: WH Chambers ©

Speaking to Precision Fuel & Hydration founder Andy Blow about his personal experiences with the rowing machine and how he utilised it during his time as Sports Scientist with the Benetton and Renault Formula 1 teams, he said:

We used the machines a lot in the gym for conditioning work with the racing drivers and pit crew as it's such a great, time-efficient, all-body, and aerobic workout.

During my career as a triathlete, I was incorporating a weekly 5km steady row during the off-season when I was trying to spice things up and get away from just swim, bike and run.

I tended to favour a low stroke rate - 18 strokes per minute - to keep a focus on strength and good technique whenever I used it.

The rowing machine also possesses the benefit of offering a variety of different training methods. Whether the athlete is aiming to focus on a timed HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) routine or an aerobic session, the machine is fully capable of being adapted to the specifics of the workout.

There’s a fantastic book called The Erg Book, which is a brilliant tool for gym-goers and instructors alike as it details workouts that are suitable for your experience level.

Ultimately, being able to measure improvement and development is important for most athletes and the greatest appeal of the rowing machine is that if offers a range of ways to track progress towards goals.

How to add rowing sessions to your training plan

I’ve asked Masters rowing coach and host of the Faster Podcast Bill Chambers to share some of his top sessions that focus on improvement and development...

When starting out on the rowing machine for the first time, or getting back into training, it’s all about developing the aerobic energy system, and getting strong. The rowing machine is a great piece of kit to achieve both.

Rowers develop great strength and durability through the action of rowing.

Winter or base training is all about building or repairing your aerobic base. It involves progressively longer sessions on the machine, building from 20-minutes up to 90-minutes in duration, all at your aerobic threshold (or zone 2 in a 5-zone model), generally around 75% of your peak heart rate.  

Start out with 20-minutes, and every other day, add 5-minutes to the session until you can hold the session in zone 2. As you get more aerobically efficient, you will find your pace/power output will improve for the same heart rate.

Base builder session

  • 45-60 minutes at stroke rate 22
  • 20-minutes at stroke rate 20
  • 20-minutes at stroke rate 22
  • 20-minutes at stroke rate 20

To bring in the other energy systems, and to have some fun on the machine, you can introduce some higher intensity sessions to spice up the routine, and to stimulate adaption.

I generally recommend no more than two high intensity sessions a week, with two or three days of easy work in between, and only after you have done a good 6-weeks of low intensity, aerobic work.

I do a session of longer high intensity threshold work and one day of high intensity sprint work. Both are important as they provide a different stimulus through the intensity.

Threshold sessions

My 3 favourite threshold sessions are...

Threshold Session #1:

  • 2 x 8-minutes in zone 4 (90-93% of peak heart rate)
  • 4-minutes rest between intervals
  • Stroke rate 26-30
  • Build these up until you can do 5 x 8-minutes, with the goal of accumulating around 30+ minutes in zone 4

Threshold Session #2:

  • 2 x 15-minutes in zone 4
  • 7-minutes rest between sets
  • Stroke rate 26-30
  • Build these up until you can do 4 x 15-minutes, with the goal of accumulating around 40+ minutes in zone 4.

Threshold Session #3 ("The Ladder Of Death":)

All done at a hard pressure...

  • 6 minutes at rate 20
  • 5 minutes at rate 22
  • 4 minutes at rate 24
  • 3 minutes at rate 25
  • 2 minutes at rate 26
  • 1 minute at rate 28

High intensity sessions

My favourite high intensity - or as I like to call them, "hot and spicy" - sessions...

"Hot and Spicy" Session #1:

  • 5 x 1-minutes on and 1-minute off (full gas)
  • When doing more than one set, have a 5-minute break and then repeat
  • Stroke rate +32

"Hot and Spicy" Session #2:

  • 5-minutes of (15 secs on, 15 secs off) full gas
  • 5-minute rest (light paddle)
  • Repeat until you've done this 5 times, building up to 10 times

"Hot and Spicy" Session #3:

  • 5-minutes of (30 secs on, 30 secs off) full gas
  • 5-minute rest (light paddle)
  • Repeat until you've done this 5 times, building up to 10 times

The next time you're at the gym and the hordes of crowds converge around the bikes and the treadmills, consider the rowing machine tucked away at the back of the gym, it could provide a welcome form of cross-training and an alternative way to build fitness specific to your sport.

With thanks to Bill Chambers, who coaches Masters Rowers and offers online courses and training plans through his website Faster with Bill Chambers.

Further reading