How to read a rowing machine

The rowing machine is the perfect complement to almost any workout routine. Here, a personal trainer explains how to get the most out of it – depending on your goals.

This content is sponsored by Virgin Active

The rowing machine is a staple of almost every gym. But many people aren’t utilising the rower to its full potential. Used correctly, this piece of equipment has a place in virtually any fitness routine – perfect for strength, cardio, and rehab from injury*. We spoke with Angus Whitaker, a Virgin Active personal trainer, for the full rundown on getting the most out of the machine.

The benefits of rowing

According to Angus, the rowing machine shines when it comes to efficiency. “I prefer it to exercise bikes and treadmills as it is a full-body movement,” he explains. “If you are looking to get fitter, stronger or burn more calories, then I would recommend rowing.”

When performed correctly, the motion of rowing engages your entire body. Angus breaks it down for us: “The pressing action engages the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Then, as you complete the ‘pull’ you’ll use your lats, erector spinae (lower back), rhomboids and traps. The final ‘stroke’ includes biceps, triceps, deltoid – as well as a little work from the pecs. Plus, you’ll be using your core to coordinate the whole movement.”

It’s the scope of this exercise that makes the rower such a versatile piece of equipment. In fact, as Angus points out, rowing is among the top sports when it comes to engaging the widest array of muscles (alongside swimming and cross-country skiing).

Make your #onechange

Record yourself on the rowing machine so that you can objectively evaluate your own form and correct any mistakes.

Getting started

According to Angus, there are three simple steps to getting comfortable on the machine.

  1. Fully extend your legs and try to pull the handle to the bottom of your chest. Then, press the handle away from you while maintaining an upright position. Do this for 20 strokes.

  2. Add the ‘hinge of the hips’. Continue the motion from step one, but lean forward from the hips when reaching for each stroke. This is the upper body portion of the exercise.

  3. Now it’s time to add the legs. When in the pressing stage, bend your legs once the handle has passed over your knees. As you bend, the seat will slide towards the base of the machine. Now, repeat the motion in reverse. Keep your arms straight and push through your feet. Once your legs are straight and the handle has passed over your knees, pull it in toward your chest. Try and keep your back straight throughout the entire movement.

Building endurance

If you’re new to rowing, don’t just dive into marathon sessions. “Always start slow with smaller strokes and build up to longer ones with added resistance. Once you set a good foundation for your form, your chance of injury is significantly reduced,” Angus says. If you feel any pain, stop immediately – don’t try to push through it.

Try this workout to get started

- Warm Up: 3–5 minutes of slow rowing concentrating on form (rest for 90 seconds)

- 3 minutes at 20 strokes per minute (‘spm’ on the machine’s screen) at a comfortable effort (1min rest)

- 3 minutes at 22 spm, harder effort (1 minute rest)

- 3 minutes at 20 spm, comfortable effort (1 minute rest)

- 3 minutes at 24 spm, harder effort (1 minute rest)

- 10 minutes of constant rowing, try adjusting resistance and stroke rate to push yourself.

Working rowing into your routine

Once you’ve mastered the basics, your next steps depend on your goals. For cardio improvements and calorie burn, Angus suggests increasing the duration of time spent rowing. For power and muscle development, focus on high resistance for shorter durations – combined with other forms of resistance training like free weights. If you’re recovering from an injury, take things slow. The rowing machine is low-impact, making it ideal for rehabilitation*.

Whatever your fitness goal, there’s a space for the rowing machine. “It’s a staple for all client’s routines. It is a great warm-up for weightlifting, part of a HIIT program, cardio endurance training as well as rehabilitation*,” Angus says. “I’m a huge advocate for implementing its use in almost any gym routine.”

*Always consult with your GP and relevant health professionals before undertaking rehabilitation, and have them assess whether rowing is a good fit for your needs.

This article is brought to you by Virgin Active. These world-class health clubs include swimming pools, spas and saunas, and the very latest equipment. AIA Vitality members can save 50 per cent on the cost of Virgin Active memberships. Plus, AIA Vitality members can also earn 100 AIA Vitality Points for each Virgin Active club visit.
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