EDITOR'S NOTE: If you're looking for a rowing program to use as a template with your clients, look no further! Scroll down in this article, and you'll see a sample program has been provided for you. Click where indicated and the program will open as a PDF in another window.
When compared with rowing, there is no other single aerobic exercise that utilizes so many muscle groups in a coordinated fashion through such an extended range of motion. And the level of force integrated into the workout is completely determined by the user. This means that the most de-conditioned individual can receive as much benefit as the most competitive athlete. The nature of rowing makes it an ideal exercise activity for any fitness level or age as witnessed by the growth of rowing programs for school kids as well as masters age groups.
As an aerobic activity, we have to look at the sport of rowing in relation to running, biking, walking, cross country skiing and swimming, many of which can be done either outdoors or indoors on machines that mimic the activity. The rowing motion can be divided into three parts. The rowing stroke begins with “The Catch.” In a boat, this would be the moment when the oar catches the water. Your legs are compressed so that your shins are vertical. Your arms are extended and you have a comfortable grip on the handle. Your upper body is leaning slightly forward from the hips. The work is done on “The Drive,” which is started with the powerful muscles of the quads. The back joins the effort next, swinging through the vertical position. Finally, the arms engage to pull the handle into your abdomen. Legs, back and arms should all be smoothly connected into one powerful drive. “The Recovery” prepares you for the next stroke. Start by pushing your hands away from your body, then let your back swing forward past your hip and finally let your knees bend to bring you back to the Catch position.
When rowing, the measure of aerobic exercise is elevated heart rate, which increases blood flow, bringing oxygen to power the muscles. This is accompanied by increased rate and volume of breathing. All of this elevated activity of the lungs and heart trains and conditions the cardiovascular system and burns calories. Any exercise that does this is of course good for you. However, rowing has some unique advantages that are often overlooked.
Advantages of Rowing
Rowing Works More Muscles
The entire civilized world wants to know which exercise “burns the most calories.” The reality is the amount of energy used in any exercise is determined by the person exercising. You can run hard for 10 minutes on a treadmill and burn a lot of calories, or you can run easily for 10 minutes and you will use fewer calories. It is about how much work you are making your muscles do. The advantage of rowing is that more muscle mass is used doing the activity than while running, walking or biking. Your legs, glutes, core, back, shoulders and arms are all being worked. That means a lot of oxygen needs to get out there and a lot of calories can be burned quickly. However, the actual amount of calories burned relates to how hard you work. Even on a rowing machine you can paddle easily or train like an Olympian.
Improved Range of Motion
Rowing puts all of your major body parts through a large range of movement. This is something you will not find with most other aerobic activities. Consider the joint rotation during the rowing stroke cycle: the ankle rotates through 70 degrees, the knees 130, the hip 80, the shoulder and elbow each about 100. This wide range of motion can aid in flexibility and joint health. (Note: This range is as observed in a person with no restrictions.) Another advantage of rowing is that the stroke can be shortened as needed for an individual who does not have this range of flexibility.
Level of Force
Rowing isn’t only about going through the motions. On the water, the rower’s effort propels the boat through the water. As the rower tries to move the boat faster, the amount of effort required goes up rapidly, and the force on the oars increases as well. A quality indoor rower should mimic this “speed/force relationship.” The user applies force from the legs, through the core, back, shoulders and arms into the handle of the machine. The amount of force is determined by the user. The fan simply “absorbs” their effort by spinning faster and producing more wind resistance. Less “effort” and the user will experience less force. The harder you pull, the more force or resistance you will feel. If the user is putting in a large effort, these forces can be higher than typically experienced in an aerobic activity and can add a strength training component to the aerobic exercise.
Extensive Workout Variety
Rowing with this effort-based resistance is a very versatile training method, which offers the user complete control of the intensity of the workout and supports a wide variety of workout structure and purpose. Rowers that feature this speed/force relationship can and are being used at every level, from rehab to preparation for international competition. Workouts can be of any length, measured in either elapsed time or “meters rowed.” One can also row all types of interval workouts, including variable length intervals, measured in distance or elapsed time. A good machine will have a performance monitor that will let you track your output in a choice of units, display your heart rate if you are wearing a compatible chest belt and store your workout data for later analysis.
Coordinated Rhythm and Balance
Anyone who has tried on-water rowing or observed a skilled oarsman rowing in a racing shell can appreciate the coordination and balance required at the highest level of the sport. Even on a rowing machine, the large movements of leg, back and arm are done in a rhythmic, coordinated way. Your movements are not defined by the machine like they are on, say, an elliptical device. Legs, back and arms need to fire in a precise sequence to get the most power out of your drive. But on a rowing machine, you don’t have to worry about tipping over or getting wet!
Sample Training Program
We have created a sample training plan that will provide structure and discipline to your workouts, while also allowing you the flexibility to target the workouts to your own personal goals. CLICK HERE to view the program. This program is based on six rowing sessions per week. If you are unable to do six workouts per week, complete the workouts in the order given, ignoring the days of the week, and the program will last more than three weeks. For best results, try to row at least four times per week. Be sure your rowing technique is good. For beginners, try either of the first two columns, using the low end of the range for workout time/distance or add additional rest days as needed.
For those who wish to lose weight or avoid gaining it, keep in mind the longer you row at any given intensity, the more calories you will burn! To improve your general fitness or maintain conditioning for another sport or activity, use a variety of workout types to improve performance at both aerobic and anaerobic levels. If you're training for an indoor rowing competition or serious competition in another sport, maintain a balance of long and short intervals, longer distance work and some speed.
Some additional program notes include:
- Recommended damper setting range: Three to five (for those who prefer to use Drag Factor: 105-125)
- Recommended stroke rate range: 24-30 SPM (unless otherwise specified for a certain workout)
- Standard warm up: Row easily for five to 10 minutes. Take a short break off the indoor rower to stretch, paying special attention to your hamstrings (see suggested stretches).
- Standard cool down: Row easily for at least five minutes then get off and stretch again.
- If at any point you feel you need an extra day off due to sickness, lack of sleep, travel, etc., take the day off and get back to the program as soon as you can. Don’t skip any workouts; just do them later and let the program last longer than three weeks.
Remember to log all your meters in an online or paper logbook.
Motivation - The Hidden Element
Indoor rowing has grown out of the sport of rowing, and since 1980, it has developed into a sport of its own. There are now hundreds of indoor “regattas” held every year in the U.S. and around the world. This racing is made possible by rowing machines that have the technology to offer identical scoring on every machine regardless of location. This means that achieving 7500 meters in 30 minutes on a machine at home is identical to 7500 meters in 30 minutes done on a machine in the health club. At the highest level, this has resulted in serious international indoor racing among elite athletes. Thousands of indoor rowing enthusiasts post their scores for various times and distances on the “world ranking” web site. This gives each an idea of how their performance stacks up and also the name of someone of comparable ability with whom to compete. A less intense approach is the accumulation of meters rowed. Look for a rowing machine manufacturer who offers recognition and motivation such as “million meter clubs” and special web-based challenges where prizes are available. These are fun and powerful, motivational tools to be used with clients of all ability levels.