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15 Reasons to Exercise on the Rowing Machine Right Now

Image: Concept2

Move over, spinning machines! Here come the indoor rowers. The once-neglected piece of exercise equipment is making its way back from the dark, dusty corners of the gyms to be the centerpiece of fitness centers and commercial studios.

But the oft-unasked question remains: Is the hype for real? Or is it just another bout of shiny object syndrome that will fade away when the furor dies out?

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Well, to be honest, we can’t say for sure if the hype will die down. After all, once a hot new piece of exercise equipment comes along, the rowing machine could possibly be relegated to the sidelines once again.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. As it turns out, the hype is real. Yes, the hype is real, people! And if you haven’t hopped on a rowing machine just yet, it’s about time, especially if you’re serious about whipping yourself up into shape. Here are the reasons why.

1. It’s a powerful, full-body exercise you can get using a single piece of equipment.

Do not let the seeming effortlessness of the rowing movement fool your into thinking rowing is for sissies. Not at all, it isn’t. Rowing is one hell of an exercise that forces all the major muscle groups in your body to exert a lot of effort.

Squats, lunges, and pushups are great, but you still have to figure out the best combination of these exercises to get the most out of them. Exercising on the rowing machine gives you the benefits of all these exercises (and more) in a single workout. In fact, you won’t find any other cardio activity (e.g. running, walking, cycling, etc.) that can work as many muscles as rowing.

In the drive phase, you force the muscles of your legs (hamstrings, calves and glutes) to work as you straighten your legs and extend yourself back. As you move your upper body backward, the muscles in your core and lower back are called on to work. Finally, your shoulders, biceps and triceps get a good beating when you pull the handle back.

2. Anybody can exercise on a rowing machine.

There’s simply no exercise made for practically everyone than rowing. Anybody, from a first-grader first starting to learn the benefits of physical activity to an adventurous nonagenarian looking to stay fit and healthy in a way that doesn’t hurt their bones and joints, can go on a rowing machine and exercise to their heart’s content.

Even people who are severely overweight can use indoor rowing as a great way to start shaping themselves up so they can transition to higher-impact exercises in the future. And, of course, professional athletes and bodybuilders have been silently praising the boons of the rowing machine within their own circles for decades.

3. It’s a low-impact, injury-free exercise that won’t strain your joints.

Rowing, when executed using the proper form and technique, offers virtually no room for injury. The key words here, of course, are proper form and technique. That’s why it is important that beginners spend a good amount of time learning how to execute the rowing movement.

Once you master the technique, you can go through the movements without putting yourself at a high risk of injury. Unlike weight-bearing exercises such as running, hiking or team sports, rowing will give you a great low-impact workout without causing unnecessary stress on your joints.

That’s because your feet, which are strapped into the footrests, are always resting on the footboard. Your hands, too, are always in contact with the handles. That leaves little impact for your ankles, knees, hips, elbows, and shoulders to feel, which means there’s very little chance you can injure yourself on a rowing machine.

This is why rowing is highly recommended for people with joint problems. Those nursing an injury, for instance, can continue to stay in shape by going to the rowers. If you’re overweight and haven’t done any exercise for a long time, the sliding movement of the rower’s seat displaces your weight and takes some of the load on your body. But don’t take my word for it. It's always crucial that you consult your physician if you're planning to take on any kind of exercise program for health.

4. It’s helps you lose weight faster.

Any exercise can help you lose weight, but there aren’t as many cardio workouts that can help you do that in a shorter amount of time. Rowing is one heck of a calorie-burner. In fact, rowing for 2,000 meters will burn two times the number of calories than running down a 3,000-meter obstacle course.

And, as we all know, weight loss occurs when the number of calories expended is more than the number of calories ingested. It is actually more complicated than that, but to put it simply, intensity and duration is the key if you want to lose weight while rowing.

You can, for instance, row longer distances, say 10,000 meters, to burn more calories. However, for most people, it’s impractical to row every day for long periods because they’ve got other things to do with their lives.

The solution is to do intervals. High-intensity interval training gives you better results that longer steady-state workouts of moderate intensity. You can, for instance, row for 60 minutes of moderate intensity every day. Or you can save more time and get better results by alternating 1 minute of hard rowing with 1 minute of easy rowing for 20 minutes every day.

5. It keeps you in good physical shape.

Rowing is a cardiovascular activity. It needs to burn fat, especially if it's done with high intensity. When you work out on the indoor rower, you get to burn as much as 800 calories per hour, depending on your intensity. That is way more calories than you’ll ever use up running on a treadmill or spinning in a studio.

But being a low-impact exercise also means your body doesn’t get subjected to the same wear-and-tear that it gets when it does other kinds of exercises. The muscles in your core, upper body and lower body all develop strength as well as endurance thanks to the repeating movements of the exercise. So not only does rowing torch off extra fat, it also helps make your muscles stronger.

If you’re not looking to shed off any extra flab (because you’re one of the lucky few people in the world who don’t have any to burn), rowing is still a great exercise to keep you looking strong and lean.

6. It keeps your heart healthy.

Cardiovascular activities condition your heart. Rowing, in particular, is one of the best ways to make the heart adapt so that the changes you want in your body can start to appear.

Because rowing requires a huge number of muscles to exert effort in a steady, repetitive way, it has to pump more blood into your blood vessels to quickly deliver the oxygen and nutrients in the blood to the muscles that are continuously being worked out.

The process also keeps the waste products such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid (which builds up in your muscles to make you feel sore after a workout) away.

If you work out regularly, your body will be forced to adapt and make adjustments so that it won’t have to work harder in the future. You feel this when you realize that a 30-minute bout of interval training on the rowing machine no longer feels as difficult as it once used to. That’s your heart’s way of telling you it’s stronger now and can take on more intensity for your future workouts.

7. It increases muscle strength and endurance.

Your muscles can only become stronger when you subject them to work against a resistance that is beyond what they are normally exposed to. This kind of resistance is available on the rowing machine.

On the Concept2 Model D, for example, resistance comes from a spinning air flywheel. On the WaterRower models, resistance is water-based. You can check out the Concept2 Model D on Amazon here

Beginners can start with low resistance levels, but increasing the amount of resistance by increasing your speed will strengthen your muscles over time.

The repeated action of pushing and pulling against the resistance will also improve your muscle endurance. Strength and endurance are different things. Strength is more about how much resistance your muscles can take, while endurance also looks at how long your muscles can work if you keep getting the same kind of resistance over time.

Because your muscles are repeatedly working against the flywheel or water-based resistance of the indoor rower, your body will force itself to adapt so that your muscles can continue working without feeling fatigued.

8. It boosts your body’s ability to absorb oxygen.

Even just 30 minutes of steady-state rowing at moderate intensity can improve your lungs’ ability to deliver oxygen to your heart. Your heart, in turn, has enhanced capability to send the oxygen-rich blood to all parts of your body, making them work more effectively and efficiently.

It’s something we take for granted, as though it will always be there. However, if the body loses its ability to absorb oxygen, it doesn’t take long before damage to your brain and internal organs settles in.

Long-term lack of oxygen in your internal organs leads to cardiovascular diseases and brain damage, but the effects can be quickly felt in minutes. Lack of oxygen results in an impairment of judgment, poor vision and shortness of breath. In more extreme cases, it can also cause dizziness, fainting and loss of consciousness.

9. It makes your bones and joints healthier.

Your bones, just like your muscles, are made of living tissue. The more you exercise, the stronger your bones become. Rowing is a great exercise to maintain healthy bones and joints. And because it is low-impact, it is also the perfect exercise for people with bone and joint problems such as osteoporosis and arthritis.

Rowing develops muscle strength and endurance. Unlike other workouts such as jogging and bicycling, which force your muscles to work against gravity, rowing makes your muscles take in load via muscular pull. This significantly lessens the impact on your joints, while still maintaining enough resistance to positively affect the health of your bones.

Also, the more muscles you work out, the more bones are involved. And, as you already know, rowing exercises at least 80% of all the muscles in your body. It also helps increase lean muscle mass, which research has shown to be positively correlated with bone mineral density.

Moreover, the wide range of movement required in rowing helps improve your flexibility while minimizing stiffness in your joints.

10. It helps you manage stress and stay happy.

The actual act of rowing is very meditative in itself. If you’re rowing on a WaterRower, it becomes even more relaxing as you hear the sounds of water sloshing around in the water tank, the way it would splash up against the fiberglass hull of a boat had you been rowing on a real lake.

It also releases anandamide, which causes you to feel that mildly euphoric feeling when you’re done working out. Anandamide is one of your brain's chemicals that work to keep you happy (the others being endorphin, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, etc.). It acts as your body's natural marijuana and gives you that calm, restful feeling after exercise. 

But the positive effects on your mental and emotional well-being don’t stop there. Well after you have finished your workout, you’ll notice the effects of rowing when you notice you feel more self-confident, experience lower levels of tension, and sleep better every night.

11. It improves your motor control.

Rowing helps fire up your stabilizer muscles, those set of muscles that help you deal with movements that would otherwise easily throw you off balance, such as catching a falling child while you’re standing on a single leg.

Stabilizer muscles work at reflex. Unlike the muscles in your core, for instance, which you can strengthen by working them out, there are only two ways to train your stabilizer muscles.

One, you can practice holding something heavy (like a suitcase or a small child) in your hands or carry it overhead. Or two, you can find out your dysfunctional movement patterns and work to correct them.

Rowing is very largely all about executing the proper technique using the proper form. Simply by performing your strokes properly, you are training your stabilizer muscles to stay alert in case you get thrown off balance, so you can easily catch yourself if you do.

12. It is easy to learn.

Don’t worry if you have never rowed before. The rowing movement may look all too complicated, but it is actually very easy to learn. If you pay close attention, you can easily master the perfect technique in less than 10 minutes.

The rowing movement consists of three focus points: the catch position, the drive phase and the release phase.

a. Catch

This is the starting position. Sit tall with a strong core and the seat placed closely to your heels. Your chin is up, your eyes look forward and your shoulders are relaxed and away from your ears. Your arms are straight, and your wrists are flat while gripping the handles. Your shins are vertical to the floor.

b. Drive

This is where you do most of the work. From the catch, push your body back off the footboard, using the power of your legs to move backward. Keep your spine straight and your eyes looking forward. Your arms should continue to stay straight as they hang off the handle, keeping your upper body at a slight bend forward from the pelvis.

Once your legs are extended (with a slight bend in the knees and your arms still straight), move your body through your core so you are leaning back a bit. Then pull with your arms, placing the handles just below your chest (that’s the braline for you, ladies).

c. Release

Extend your arms back straight out, keeping your spine straight, shoulders relaxed and eyes forward. Pull back into the catch position until your shins are vertical to the floor once again. You have just completed a single rowing stroke.

A few things to keep mind. Do not pause at the end of the drive. This will encourage you to “two-piece” the stroke and slump on your way back to the catch. The different phases of the rowing stroke should slide smoothly and seamlessly into one another.

Also, take most of the power from your legs. Your legs, having the biggest muscles in your body, should account for 60 percent of the power, while the core and the arms contribute 20 percent each.

13. It is completely self-paced.

Rowing keeps you in control of how much resistance you get to work against. The mechanisms for this are slightly different if you’re using a Concept2 or a WaterRower, but the results are always the same. You simply increase the intensity of your stroke if you want more resistance.

The harder you push, the more resistance you will feel. Consequently, you feel resistance when you use less power during the stroke.

Contrary to what many people think, resistance is not about increasing the damper settings on a flywheel-based rower, nor is it about increasing the amount of water in the water tank. There are no settings that need to be adjusted up or down. You simply have to vary the amount of power you want to use. As you row harder, your time and pace will improve.

14. It keeps you accountable for your results.

Most rowing machines worth your money come equipped with their own performance monitors. The capabilities of each vary, with some coming with fancier features than others. But they all work by giving you data on the same basic fitness parameters.

Tracking your stats on your rowing machine will show you things such as how much time you took finishing an entire course, how many strokes you made, or how far you’ve gone for a set duration.

Having these numbers mean you know exactly where you are in your fitness journey, and you have a clear reference point as to where to go from there.

15. It pays for itself in the long run.

A rowing machine is not exactly a cheap piece of equipment. The best models you can find on Amazon range anywhere from the high hundreds to the low thousands. However, compared to other exercise machines, even the highest-end indoor rowers are far more affordable than, say, a premium elliptical or treadmill.

If a gym session costs you around $30 for an hour’s work on the rowing machine, you can easily recoup the cost of buying your own equipment by working out on it every day for the next 365 days.

And considering most of these machines last several years (even decades) into the future, your rowing machine would have paid for itself in the long run, with all the health benefits to boot.

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