Health and Fitness

Is Rowing a Full Body Workout? Benefits and Sample Workout

Rowing might seem intimidating at first. But it’s a kick-ass full-body workout that truly gets your whole body pumping, and it provides several important health benefits.

We teamed up with a rowing expert and put together an amazing workout that mains rowing but incorporates other movements to help you take that sweat overboard. We also explain how rowing can pack some surprising benefits for your bod.

There’s a common misconception that rowing is all about upper-body strength. But rowing also has you pushing with your legs and engaging your core, so it’s a super effective full-body workout.

Here are the other benefits of rowing.

1. Rowing burns a *bunch* of calories

As with indoor cycling, you control the intensity, so you’ll have to keep yourself accountable. But if you keep up your form and intensity, rowing is a workout like no other.

According to Harvard Medical School, 30 minutes of vigorous rowing burns 300 to 440 calories, depending on your body weight. That’s roughly equivalent to a half-hour of stationary cycling at 14 to 15.9 miles per hour, which is a pretty speedy bike sesh.

For this reason, some people use rowing to support weight loss efforts.

2. High intensity interval workouts like rowing are kick-ass for cardio

Workouts that alternate bursts of intense activity with rest periods are an absolute blessing for your heart and lungs.

According to a 2021 research review, high intensity interval training (HIIT) may improve how your cells function, especially when responding to insulin (which helps remove glucose from your bloodstream).

But above all, HIIT is safe for most people to try, and folks seem to stick with HIIT routines. And consistency is essential to maxing out the benefits of exercise.

3. Rowing builds endurance — and endurance can boost your overall health

It’s no secret that the more cardio you do, the longer you can run/swim/row. Plus, it reduces adiposity (the presence of fatty tissue) throughout your body and boosts your cardio health.

But improved endurance can also contribute to:

Rowing ticks those endurance boxes. Over time, you might feel improvements in all the above areas.

So jump on that rowing machine, and let’s get it!

Rowing is “a total-body workout that works 84 percent of the muscles in your body,” explains Annie Mulgrew, certified fitness instructor and program director at City Row in NYC.

But most people have no idea what to do on a rower besides sit there and, um, row. Adding other exercises to a rowing workout — making it an interval rowing workout — can engage other muscles throughout your body for max benefit. It’s not just about the motion of the ocean.

Ready to get into action? Try this 20-minute interval routine that Mulgrew created based on her classes at City Row.

Getting started

You’ll start with a warmup and isolations. Then, you’ll move into a pyramid-style circuit that alternates between sprints on the rower and strength moves off of it.

You’ll notice mention of split time, which is the amount of time it takes to row 500 meters. The screen on the machine will display your split time so you can keep track of it.

With speedy intervals on the rower and strength moves performed off the machine, this killer routine torches fat, improves endurance, and is actually fun.

Before you start, it’s key to nail proper rowing form — which can be tricky. Here, Mulgrew breaks it down in four simple steps.

There are right and wrong ways to pull off the perfect row. But instead of asking your nearest pirate, you can try the following:

  1. Start in catch position, with your knees bent, back straight, butt back, and arms reaching forward.
  2. Push back through your legs while leaning back almost at the same time. It’s best to avoid leading with your hips.
  3. Once you’re leaning back at a 45-degree angle, pull the bar to the top of your upper abs (just below your bra line if you’ve got one), keeping your elbows lifted. This position is known as the drive, and you should hold it for a solid second before the return.
  4. For the return, extend your arms straight before your torso.
  5. Come forward with a hip hinge, keeping your core firm.
  6. Bend your knees to return to catch position.

Make sure to keep your core strong and firm throughout the stroke. This prevents a wiggly spine and reduces the risk of lower back pain or injury.

Getting your row spot-on is an important part of a rowing-centric workout. But if your form is off during the intermittent exercises in this workout, you might be depriving yourself of benefits — or, even worse, putting yourself at risk of injury.

Air squat

Air squats help you build your glutes, hamstrings, and quads and bolster your core.

  1. Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart.
  2. Extend arms straight out with palms facing down, or hold your hands in prayer position in front of your chest (whichever is more comfortable).
  3. Squat down, sending hips back as your knees bend. Make sure your chest and shoulders stay upright.
  4. Keeping the weight in your heels, drive back up to a standing position.

Walk-out

Walk-outs help you engage your core while getting your shoulders and upper arms involved.

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Bend down, placing hands on the floor in front of your feet.
  3. Walk hands forward as you brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and maintain a flat back (as if you were doing a plank).
  4. When your hands are under your head, reverse the direction and walk your hands back to the starting position.

Shoulder tap push-up

Push-ups focus your exertion on your chest and shoulder muscles. Add shoulder taps and you’re maxing out the gains. One rep involves the following:

  1. Do a push-up. (We’ve got tips on achieving the perfect push-up here.)
  2. At the top, hold high plank position.
  3. Tap left shoulder with right hand.
  4. Tap right shoulder with left hand, engaging your core to keep your hips level.

(Pro tip: The wider your feet are, the easier this will be.)

Triceps dip

Don’t forget those triceps!

  1. Use a bench, box, or even the rower to perform dips. Face away from the object and place your hands on the edge, keeping arms straight and heels on the floor.
  2. Lower your body until your arms are bent at 90 degrees, keeping torso as vertical as possible.
  3. Press back up until your arms are straight.

Rowing can provide benefits throughout your body — as long as you do it safely.

It’s low impact, sure. But as an Olympic sport, rowing has quite a high rate of injury, especially in the back, rib cage, and shoulders, according to a 2020 review of studies.

The review authors recommend working on your leg extension strength outside of rowing. You can use exercises like squats and lunges to bolster your leg extension power.

If you’re just starting out, you’re unlikely to be operating at an Olympic level, but now’s as good a time as any to get your form on point while you keep the resistance lighter. This may help you reduce your risk of injury.

If you’re coming back to exercise after an injury, it might be beneficial to pick up your rowing journey under the supervision of a trainer who can help you maintain the correct form. We’ve got a handy guide to perfect rowing form here.

Rowing packs a punch for your whole body and can help boost your cardiovascular health, endurance, and joint strength.

By alternating rowing with strength exercises in a 20-minute interval circuit, you can highlight these benefits even more. Plus, you’ll burn loads of calories in the process — and it’s fun!



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