Reap What You Row

The humble rowing machine can play a powerful role in propelling your cardio fitness.

people using row machine

The rowing ergometer, or “erg” for short, is the flywheel, slide seat, chain and handle contraption that strikes a decidedly low-slung profile among the treadmills and stationary bikes in just about every health club.

Ergs often collect dust among their higher-profile, high-traffic counterparts — which is a shame because they offer one of the best indoor workouts available. On the other hand, if a machine is consistently available where you work out, so much the better for you!

“Not only is rowing a demanding cardiovascular exercise, it also incorporates most major muscle groups,” says Charlene McEvoy, MD, MPH, a St. Paul, Minn.–based physician and rowing enthusiast. Like stationary cycling and running, rowing is primarily an aerobic exercise. But with rowing, the work you do with your legs is matched by the rest of the body. Rowers use more than 20 different muscles in each stroke, including the hamstrings, glutes, delts, traps, lats, pecs and biceps.

And all that work pays off: A classic 1988 study published by the American College of Sports Medicine placed rowing ahead of biking in terms of calories burned, assuming that the biking and rowing are done at the same perceived level of intensity. That research still holds true today and supports the continued findings of Frederick Hagerman, PhD, one author of the 1988 study.

A physiologist at Ohio University in Athens, Hagerman says that decades’ worth of research proves that the caloric burn produced during rowing beats that of many other activities, hands down. “And while it offers a weight-bearing component, rowing spares you the jarring and pounding of running,” adds McEvoy.

All of this means that rowing is a good activity for those looking to burn a lot of calories — without burning out their joints. Once you learn the proper form (see “Erg-onomics,” below), it’s a simple way to get a whole-body workout.

Effort Equals Results

While stationary bikes have resistance settings and treadmills have adjustable speeds, on the erg it’s all about you.  Your effort level, that is. On most ergs, users can set resistance levels by opening or closing a vent that adjusts how much air hits the vertical flywheel. Other ergs have a horizontal flywheel in an enclosed water tank, and you can make adjustments by adding or removing water. But these settings are only a starting point — ergs operate primarily on the principle of user-controlled resistance. In other words, your workout’s intensity is largely a function of how much force you exert.

“Some people think the erg is too easy at first because they haven’t yet learned to pull hard,” says Judy Geer, three-time Olympic rower and cofounder of leading erg-maker Concept2 in Morrisville, Vt. But once you increase your exertion level, you can’t help but appreciate the intensity of the workout.

You can measure your effort level through the erg’s data monitor, which translates your work into distance rowed on the water, strokes per minute or approximate calories burned (actual calories burned always varies according to individual metabolism).

Monitoring your heart rate is another excellent way to measure your exertion level — and your progress. (For more on heart-rate training, see “A Better Way to Burn Fat” in the January/February 2007 archives.) Some ergometers also come with a chest belt that connects to the monitor or provides a wireless connection that tracks your heart rate.

The erg raises your heart rate more reliably than most workouts, says Mayrene Earle, a former M.I.T. women’s crew coach who trains rowing teams through her company, MastersCoaching. “I also cycle, but I can’t get my heart rate up the way I do while rowing — unless I’m doing hills,” she says.

Getting Virtual on the Erg

Most monitors automatically adjust for differences in elevation, ensuring readings don’t differ by geography. This allows erg users from all over to compare times and participate in “virtual” group challenges by phone or computer.

Earle, for instance, assigns rowers in different locations a twice-weekly workout she calls “erg inspirations.” Participants do the workouts and then discuss their readings on a conference call.

Health clubs can also form teams to compete against rowers from other clubs. Concept2 hosts the annual 30-day North American Rowing Challenge. The company posts online rankings based on the distance that rowers at different health clubs complete during the monthlong competition.

Those who yearn for more competition can participate in indoor rowing events. More than 25,000 rowers from around the world compete each year in events such as the C.R.A.S.H.-B Sprints in Boston, the nation’s best-known indoor erg competition. Ergers looking to expand their experience to on-the-water rowing have plenty of opportunities as well. (See “Row Your Boat,” below.)

Rowing can be an addictive, enthralling experience. No matter where you are on the spectrum — from novice erger to C.R.A.S.H.-B competitor, this whole-body workout is sure to float your boat.

Georgia-based freelance writer David Lindsay sports a crossed-oars tattoo from his college rowing days, but has only recently rediscovered the erg.

A Beginner Workout for Intensity and Speed

In addition to tracking your activity by meters or calories, many erg workouts are described in terms of strokes per minute (spm). While spm rates track how quickly you complete each stroke, you can reach different levels of intensity at the same rate of speed: It’s all a function of how hard — not how fast — you pull. Harder pulls equal higher intensity. After a five-minute warm-up, try the following workout for beginners:

  • Three minutes at 20 spm, at a comfortable effort, followed by a one-minute rest
  • Three minutes at 22 spm, with harder pulls, followed by a one-minute rest
  • Three minutes at 24 spm, at a comfortable effort, followed by a one-minute rest
  • Three minutes at 24 spm, with harder pulls, followed by a one-minute rest
  • End with 10 minutes of steady-state rowing at a comfortable spm and power

Look for additional workouts under the “Training and Competition” tab at www.concept2.com. After you’ve done several varying workouts on the erg, you’ll want to try a 30-minute nonstop row, recording the number of meters you pulled. Repeat the 30-minute workout every few weeks. Comparing the number of meters you row each time will give you a good idea of how you’re progressing.

Erg-onomics

While risks of rowing injury are low, exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese, MS, CSCS, notes that using good form is key to avoiding posture problems. Solid technique means rowing can be a good activity even for folks with lower-back, hip or knee problems.

The stroke for both the ergometer and on-the-water rowing can be broken down into four parts — the catch, the drive, the finish and the recovery. Many ergometers provide an onscreen tutorial about form. Here, Judy Geer, three-time Olympic rower and cofounder of leading erg-maker Concept2, offers a step-by-step breakdown of the rowing stroke.

Step 1: The Catch
Sitting on the sliding seat with your knees bent to the point where your shins are vertical, reach forward and take the handle. Your upper body should be leaning forward at the hips, back straight but not stiff, arms fully extended and wrists flat.

Step 2: The Drive
Keeping your arms nearly straight and holding your back firm, push back with your legs. As you extend your legs, gradually start swinging your upper body backward and bend your elbows, pulling your hands to your chest.

Step 3: The Finish
At the finish, the handle should be pulled all the way into your upper abdomen, your legs should be straight, and you should be leaning slightly backward.

Step 4: The Recovery
Extend your arms toward the flywheel, lean your upper body forward at the hips and gradually bend your legs to slide the seat forward until you reach the catch position again.

All Aboard!

What do rowing-club newbies learn? For one thing, how to get moving in the morning; often, practices are in the predawn hours. But more important, they learn the feel of the boat, especially aspects of the stroke that don’t apply to erging, such as “feathering” (rotating the oar handle).

Most of those new to rowing start out rowing “sweep” — which means rowing with one oar on either the starboard or port side of a multiperson “shell,” or boat. Shells for sweep rowing typically come in four- and eight-person configurations. Four-person crews can row with or without a coxswain (an additional person in the boat who steers and calls out strokes). Some rowers with experience also take up sculling — rowing with two oars and no coxswain.

As they gain experience, rowers can also get a shot at regatta competition. Fall regattas are usually 3,000- to 5,000-meter “head” competitions, while spring races are typically shorter sprints. Rowers over the age of 27 are designated as “masters” rowers by U.S. Rowing, and they compete in various age and weight classes at regattas.

Update—Rowing Form Revisited

After we published this article, the Experience Life staff received an email from reader Alexandra, making some useful clarifications on proper rowing form.

To further illuminate the ins and outs of good technique, we asked Judy Geer, three-time Olympic rower and cofounder of leading erg-maker Concept2, to give her thoughts and suggestions, and she delivered.

See both letters below, and if you have questions or insights, please let us know!

Reader letter:
In the April issue, you have an article about using the rowing ergometer. Unfortunately, your description of a proper rowing stroke is not accurate.

The problem lies in the fact that rowing on the water requires impeccable technique. The erg is a little bit more forgiving, but it is too easy to develop bad technique and, thus, not get a good workout.

What I normally see erg users do is push back with their legs without straightening the back first. They then have to lift up with their lower back to continue the first part of the movement. That puts way too much stress on the lower back.

The other thing that I see is that users pull the handle bar all the way to their shoulders rather than pulling in to the abdomen. If you are sitting in a boat, the oars would be pushed way too far into the water, making the stroke almost useless because you are going down, not forward and backward.

Finally, on the backstroke, users will bend their knees at the same time they straighten their arms. The arms need to be straightened first and need to clear the knees before they bend. If you bend the knees too early, you need to lift the handle bar over the knees, which would move the oars downinto the water and therefore stop the forward movement of the boat.

The steps you provide, while not wrong per se, do not clarify these points. In the club, there is no sign that walks a user through the proper steps of rowing.

Rowing is a wonderful workout. Most people do not use it properly, stop after 5 minutes, because they do not understand what they need to do and how to do it.

Thanks,
Alexandra M.
______________________

Judy’s response:
Rowing is a wonderful workout, as Alexandra describes; it’s also a workout that requires attention to technique and some learning.

In the “Erg-onomics” section of this article, I pointed out the key parts of the rowing stroke, that, when done correctly, result in the proper stroke. Alexandra points out a few common mistakes that new rowers may make when using the indoor rower.

Concept2 is committed to teaching rowers around the world about good technique. That’s why we provide a FREE technique DVD, available at our Web site, www.concept2.com. The DVD reviews frequent technique errors and offers corrections to new users. Concept2 also offers a FREE poster, available to clubs to ensure that members have access to proper technique. This is also available online at www.concept2.com/us/commercial/support/default.asp. We encourage all clubs to access these resources and to contact Concept2 CTS at 877.887.7805 with any questions.

For those who want some personal feedback, our in-house rowing experts can review technique video uploaded to YouTube, or provide coaching by phone. Feel free to contact us anytime to discuss your rowing.

To specifically address Alexandra’s concerns: The first technique error Alexandra points out, also known as “shooting the tail” can put unnecessary strain on the back.

The key for new rowers is to hold the trunk firm, by engaging core muscles, to transfer leg power to the handle with a strong body position. This ensures that the largest muscle group used in the rowing stroke, the legs, takes on the majority of the stroke.

Pulling in toward the sternum at the end of the stroke’s drive ensures that the rower is not leaning back too far.

On the recovery, the arms should straighten before the seat slides as Alexandra describes. The harder you pull, the more resistance the indoor rower will put on the flywheel.

Rowing is an efficient, full-body workout that can be easily picked up with a little learning and practice. But for those who want some extra guidance and feedback, Concept2 is the expert to turn to for any and all questions. We look forward to hearing from you!

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