Indoor Rowing Workouts – A Complete Users Guide

Indoor Rowing Workouts – A Complete Users Guide

There was a time when you could walk into any gym and regardless of how busy it was, you could pretty much guarantee that you’d be able to nab the indoor rower. Let’s be honest you’d probably be settling for second or even third best having glanced around the gym floor and seen the treadmills and bikes all occupied. With a deep sigh you decide on a rowing based warm up, making sure you frequently glance up to be in prime position to nab a better alternative as soon as it is free.

But here’s the thing … it’s got a little bit confusing in gyms recently. Suddenly the indoor rowers are getting plenty of attention and yikes aren’t always available! Fellow gym members aren’t just doing a few minutes waiting for equipment to become free, they’re actually doing full rowing workouts. Gyms are offering indoor rowing workout classes and the humble rower seems to have been elevated into a whole new league of its own.

What’s going on? Is indoor rowing the way forward? Is there a whole new workout regime and lingo you need to learn?

To help unravel the mystery we’ve created our indoor rowing guide which explains the benefits rowing workouts have to offer, need to know terms, ways to get started and top tips to maximise your workout success.

What Is Indoor Rowing?

Indoor rowing offers a low impact, total body cardio based workout that gets the heart pumping. Workouts are often referred to as ‘erg’, short for ergometer, which is the technical name for the rowing machine.

This type of workout allows you to improve your cardiovascular endurance, as well as muscular strength. You’ll be giving your heart a great work out as well as using all of your major muscle groups. On a rowing machine, you’ll be engaging your shoulders, hamstrings, back, quads, biceps, lats, traps, and abdominal muscles.

indoor rowing workout

Most gyms use one of two types of ergometers. Firstly, there’s the air or flywheel rowing machine, of which the Concept 2 is most commonly used. As the name suggests these use air for resistance. Secondly there’s the water rower, where the force of water gives the resistance. These are easy to spot as they are made of wood, and the water tank is visible. Overall they aim to deliver more of a ‘boat like’ rowing experience.

With your feet secure, and your desired resistance level set, you perform continuous rowing strokes using roughly 60% leg power, 20% arm power and 20% core. So the next time a gym buddy suggests an ‘erg’ workout, rather than looking a little puzzled stride over to the rowers full of confidence, and give it a go!

Terms You Need to Know

To be able to get the most out of the time that you spend on a rowing machine, it’s important to know the technical terms that apply to your rowing action.


This is simply one full rowing action, and each stroke is made up of four phases.

1 – Catch

This term refers to the beginning of a stroke; in a boat it is the moment when the blade enters the water. On the indoor rower your body position is compressed, sat forward on the slide with bent knees and your arms reaching out straight in front of you, set ready for the next phase.

2 – Drive

This next phase of rowing action is where you apply power. Drive should mainly come from legs, then straighten the back and then with the pull of the arms. The handle on the rowing machine should stay on a horizontal plane throughout and not bob up and down.

A common mistake that beginners make is pulling with their arms first or opening up with their shoulders before they’ve had the chance to drive their legs downwards.

3 – Finish (or Release)

As the term suggests this is the final or end part where the stroke is complete. Your legs should be straight with the handle of the rowing machine horizontally located at your lower ribs, and your shoulders behind your hips.

4 – Recovery

This is simply where you slide back to the catch start position. This can be performed to suit your own fitness levels, so if you’re starting out you can slide back slowly thereby maximising your recovery time in-between strokes.

Why Indoor Rowing Is a Great Exercise

We’ve mentioned that indoor rowing is a great exercise to boost heart health, but what else does indoor rowing have to offer your fitness routine?

It’s Easy!

Rowing is super easy to learn. There’s no complicated routine and once you’ve mastered the basics there’ll be no stopping you. If you’re a gym member, ask the fitness instructor to guide you through the rower set up and help determine the right start point for you. Or, why not sign up to an indoor rowing class run by a qualified class instructor who will be overseeing your progress every step of the way.

You Can Build Up Bit by Bit

While it’s great to channel your inner Redgrave, there’s no rush. Be careful not to overdo those first few rowing workouts or you’ll end up with serious muscle soreness and fatigue. Slow and steady wins the race so build up bit by bit and focus on these bite-size achievements.

Full Body Workout

Rowing offers a full body low impact workout that’s great for calorie burn and fat loss. Completing a full-body workout will allow you to target a large portion of muscles in your body (in comparison to other exercises), which means that you can count on a rowing workout to tone both your lower and upper body. Plus, it even helps to increase endurance which aids your overall fitness levels.

Amazing on the Abs

Rowing is great for toning the abdominal muscles because it burns overall body fat and keeps the core engaged throughout every stroke. It’s both the reduction in levels of stomach fat combined with toned abdominal muscles that lead to a strong core and well defined abs.

Appropriate for All

Indoor rowing offers a flexible, low impact workout that suits different age groups and fitness levels. A rowing machine can be adjusted to suit the desired level of resistance, and workout duration, which means you can customise your workout for your proficiency level.

It’s Low Impact

Rowing delivers a seated workout where you’re controlling the resistance. This means that unlike the treadmill or stepper for example, it doesn’t place stress on weight bearing joints. This is especially beneficial for exercise rehabilitation and injury avoidance to areas such as the knee and back.

It’s a fun, flexible workout

You can row by yourself, challenge a gym buddy to a workout or sign up to a dedicated indoor rowing class. Whichever route you choose once you’ve settled into the therapeutic rhythm rowing has to offer, there’s something that’s innately satisfying about this type of workout.

How to Master a Rowing Workout

If you’ve never completed a rowing work out before then it’s well worth learning how to perform the correct technique. This will allow you to maximise all the benefits rowing has to offer in terms of endurance, conditioning and strength.

Here’s our top tips to help master your rowing workout:

rowing workout

Prioritise Footwork

By prioritising the correct foot position while you’re completing a rowing workout, you’ll be able to transfer your energy from the foot plates, up the legs, through to your core and attain full extension at the finish position. The objective is simple, to gain full sliding length along the rower and maximise power through the feet and legs.

The three key elements to foot position are balance, strap position and mobility. The foot straps should be across the widest part of your feet. Both feet should feel in balance – a good test here is to press your heels down and determine if you weight feels evenly spread. As you return to the catch position you should aim to make sure your heels stay in contact with the foot stretchers.

The Perfect Drive

Think of your drive as the make or break part of your rowing workout. Maximum length and power here equals maximum workout performance. The power split should be roughly 60% legs, 30% torso and 10% arms. Remember correct technique holds the key so start with short attainable workout durations, say around three to five minutes for beginners, and be sure to utilise the power of every stroke, keeping an engaged core all the way.

Focus on Recovery

In simple terms the recovery phase is returning for your next stroke. But if you really want to master the benefits of your rowing workout it should be so much more than a little downtime. Keep yourself mentally and physically engaged by taking a quick glance at your workout performance, and prepare yourself to deliver consistently strong stroke action, bracing through the midline, with an engaged core, steady grip and an optimised breathing pattern.

Watch out for drops in performance such as erratic breathing, wobbly arms or legs and postural drops. If your performance dips stop, allow your body to recover and go again.

Measuring Your Success on the Indoor Rower

When you run on a treadmill, you’re able to take a glance at your speed, the incline that you’re running at, the distance run and how many calories you’re burning during your workout. The same concept applies to the rowing machine front screen, which will have similar numbers to show your progress.

Look out for the stroke rate to determine your speed which for a beginner should be between 18 and 40 strokes per minute, or SPM. It’s also really useful to jot down your pace for longer and shorter rows so you can see your progress for different distances such as 100, 200 and 500, and 1000 metres.

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