21 Benefits of the Rowing Machine

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Magic mirror on the wall, what’s the best cardio equipment of them all? I may have a slight bias, but considering all the benefits of the rowing machine, you’d be hard pressed to find any other cardio equipment more efficient and effective at getting in shape.

I’ve been a nationally competitive rower since 1995 and have spent countless hours on the rowing machine, or as we rowers call it, “the erg.”  Much of my time on the machine has been brutal doing land workouts during the winter when the weather didn’t allow us to be on the water or doing time trials when trying out for the top competitive boat.  It has taken me a few years to change my relationship to this machine but in doing so, I’ve found it to be less tormenting and instead very beneficial and dare I say, enjoyable.

Keep reading to learn about the many benefits of a rowing machine.

Term

There are many terms specific to rowing and I do use one in this article that will be helpful for you to know:

  • Drive – 1 of 4 parts of the rowing stroke where you’re feeling the most resistance and producing the most force. In the “drive” you take your body from a little ball with arms and open up to your legs extended, your back leaning at a 30 degree angle and the handle against your body. This is the “legs, back, arms” portion of the stroke.  Check out my article How to Use a Rowing Machine for a comprehensive guide on how to row, including the full break down of all 4 parts of the rowing stroke.

Benefits of The Rowing Machine

The benefits of using a rowing machine are plentiful so here are 21 of my and other people’s favorites:

  1. Low impact
    • The rowing stroke is fluid and gentle on the joints, as long as you row with proper technique.
  1. Full body
    • As long as you use proper technique, rowing uses 86% of muscles in the body!  This makes rowing one of the most efficient ways to workout and get into shape because it works most of the body.
  1. Power and endurance (cardio and strength)
    • Rowing builds both your cardio fitness and muscular strength at the same time.  A truly efficient and effective way to workout.
  1. Being in great rowing shape means you are a “YES!” person
    • Being a “YES!” person means you can do any physical activity, mediocrely!  How does this look?  A friend may ask:
      • “Want to do Ragnar?”
      • “Want to do a leg in our triathlon relay team?”
      • “Want to go on a 40 mile round trip bike ride to a brewery to grab lunch?”
      • Want to do the 18 mile Enchantments through-hike?
    • If any of these invites peaks your interest you can say, “YES!” You won’t break world records but you’ll be able to do a lot of physical stuff and have fun while doing it.  
  1. Accessible
    • Sight-Impaired people are 100% able to use the rowing machine.  Competitive rowers who use a cox’n actually do a drill called “eyes closed.”  Every person in the boat, except the cox’n, closes their eyes.  The rowers row by feel. They feel the boat’s position in the water, the stroke and the power application they and their teammates are using.  The drill helps rowers in a team get into perfect unison. If you don’t need to see to row in a boat on the water you don’t need to see to row on a rowing machine!  
    • Some rowing apps, like Concept2’s ErgData, work with VoiceOver features on phones and tablets. This allows sight impaired people to get data while they row. 
    • There are different attachments available to make the rowing machine more adaptive.  These supplemental attachments allow people with other physical disabilities the ability to row.
  1. Easy to learn
    • Anyone can learn to row as long as they have patience to learn the proper rowing technique.  There are 4 parts of the stroke, that’s it.  Once you nail those parts all the rest is fine tuning and building your cardio and power.
  1. Steep learning curve
    • Steep learning curve isn’t a bad thing.  With rowing what it means is there are no “secrets” to rowing you learn only after years of doing it.  It doesn’t take decades to hone your skills.  What you learn in the first few weeks of rowing, with patience and practice, will be the same stuff you use throughout your entire lifetime whether you are a recreational or elite rower.   
  1. Work out versatility
    • If you want to do a light steady state row on the machine, you can.  If you want to do high intensity intervals on the machine, you can!  If you want to do some high intensity intervals and then do a light steady state immediately following, you can.  On some machines, like the concept2, you don’t even have to change any settings, you just move through the drive faster or slower depending on what you want to get out of your workout. 
  1. Mental health
    • Aerobic activity, like rowing, improves mental health. It has shown to decrease depression, anxiety and stress and it increases general life satisfaction. [1]
  1. Improves sleep quality
    • Rowing can improve your quality of sleep.  Moderate activity increases the duration of deep sleep.  The body and brain rest and rejuvenate the most during deep sleep cycle. [2]
    • Full disclosure – Workout intensity and timing can play a factor in whether it helps or hinders sleep. It is recommended to not workout 1-2 hours before bed to allow your endorphin levels to come down and your core body temperature to regulate.  If you work out too late, you can be amped up and have trouble falling asleep.
    • Figuring out what works for you will take some personal trial and error because the recommendation may not work for you. I know for me, if I do a vigorous workout later than noon, I have trouble sleeping but short moderate workouts in the afternoon don’t seem to affect me negatively. For some people, afternoon or evening workouts may help them sleep.
  1. Cross training
    • Since rowing uses so many muscles in the body it’s a great way to cross train for other cardio and power specific sports.
  1. Good for everyone of all levels of fitness
    • Anyone can start rowing.  Anyone can row as hard or as light as they want.  As your cardio and strength fitness improves you’ll notice completing workouts in less time or if your workouts are a set amount of time, you’ll go further.
  1. Great for home workout
    • Some rowing machines are really cost effective and also compact enough that it makes them perfect for home use.  Some even fold up for easy storage.  It also makes it VERY convenient, which is the entire intent of this website.  I actually just spent 10 min on my rowing machine to take a wee break from writing this article.
  1. More efficient workout than other cardio machines
    • You’ll be hard pressed to find any other cardio machine that works as many muscles with the level of intensity of a rowing machine.  If you want to get a lot, or a little, done in less time, the rowing machine is the best.
  1. Improve grip strength
    • In my article How To Use a Rowing Machine I describe holding your fingers like hooks when you’re holding onto the handle.  In fact, many coaches explain the feeling of your hands on the oar at the beginning of the drive like “hanging.” What’s one way to train grip strength?  You hang from a bar.  When you start the drive you’re not pulling on the handle, you’re pushing with your legs and your fingers and arms are literally holding on and doing little else.  So, mediocre rock climbing is much easier when you’re in rowing shape (see the “YES!” person benefit above).
  1. Improves bone health
    • People who create a higher force output on the rowing machine increase their spinal bone density.  A study done compared novice and competitive collegiate women rowers.  The novice women did not experience any remarkable increase in their bone density.  The competitive women, by contrast, did.  This doesn’t mean you have to be competitive to increase your bone density. The more proficient you become with the rowing stroke, the more force you learn to generate, the greater the chance your bone density increases. [3]
    • This is a balancing act because in another study it shows that elite athletes who don’t allow their body enough recovery can have a decrease in bone density.  So if reading this article lights a burning fire under your bum to row and you end up in the Olympics, remember this and thank me later. 🙂 [4]
  1. Better posture
    • Many of us spend a good portion of the day hunched over a desk and when leaving work we’re hunched over a steering wheel.  There are few things during a day that allow us to open our chest and strengthen the muscles required to actually do that.  Well, let me introduce you to the wonderful world of rowing.  Core engagement, of the abs and back, are imperative for the stroke, which helps with posture.  When you bring the arms into the body at the end of the drive, you are working all the muscles in your back, including the ones that allow you to keep your chest more open, which also helps posture.
  1. Machines keep track of progress
    • Some people like data and data is a great way to track improvements, reference past workouts and work towards becoming a stronger, faster and more proficient rower.  A lot of rowing machines have their own display and track workouts and many also allow you to use apps, which also have their own data tracking system.
  1. Good for warming up
    • I know more than a few people who weight train and hate cardio but one of the most effective and quickest ways to warm up is a full body warm up.  Since rowing utilizes 86% of all the muscles in the body, using a rowing machine is a terrific way to warm up for other physical activities.
  1. Meditative
    • I heard some people find the rowing machine meditative.  It has all the makings of a meditative experience.  It’s a repetitive motion, it takes body awareness and you can really zone in on your present experience in attempts to quiet the mind.  You’d be hard pressed to find a current or former rower describe a rowing machine as meditative but that’s also because we had to disassociate to make it through time trials without throwing up or passing out. For those not traumatized by this machine, yeah, sure, meditative.
  1. Heart and lung health
    • To look at heart and lung health we’re going to look at a measurement called VO2 Max.  VO2 Max measures the maximum amount of oxygen your body can process through the blood at maximal effort.  The more oxygen you can process the stronger your cardio-respiratory system. Research has shown that anything from moderate to maximal efforts of working out improve your cardio-respiratory system. [5]

What Next?

If this article inspired you at all you’ll definitely want to check out my article covering all you need to know about how to use a rowing machine.

In the wilds outside a boathouse it’s very rare I see a person, including personal and studio trainers, on the rowing machine using proper technique and if I do, they are almost always a fellow rower.  I wrote Common Rowing Mistakes covering some of the most common mistakes and how to correct them.

I have also written two articles specific to the Concept2 Row Erg. One covers the damper and how to set appropriate drag and also how to make sense of the PM5 display and all the settings and metrics you see.

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AUTHOR

As a highly disciplined competitive athlete for 35 years Jess is now working to find more balance, more fun and more ease in the way she moves her body. In building her home gym she's been able to integrate a lot of equipment that helps her find play and she hopes to inspire others to do the same. She is a former nationally competitive rower, Concept 2 CIRI and 500 RYT Yoga Teacher.