I grew up loving almost every type of exercise, but I gravitated mostly toward running, cycling, hiking, swimming, weightlifting, and general sports.
It really wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that I got into a consistent routine of doing indoor rowing machine workouts.
Although running, triathlon training, and strength training are still my go-to forms of exercise, I have found that the rowing machine is a great cardio cross-training workout, especially if you do rowing machine interval workouts.
But, when planning your workouts you may wonder, how many rowing strokes should I do? And, how should I structure my rowing machine workouts?
In this guide, we will discuss how to use a rowing machine, ways to structure and measure rowing workouts based on your fitness level and training goals, and ultimately answer your question, how many rowing strokes should I do in each session?
Let’s jump in!
Is the Rowing Machine a Good Workout?
When I work with clients as a certified personal trainer, I often have them hop on the rowing machine for an aerobic warm-up before strength training or I will suggest a rower machine workout for low-impact cross-training for runners or other endurance athletes.
For those who have not used the rowing machine much or do not know how to use a rowing machine well, I get one of two common responses:
- Some people say the rowing machine is “too easy” so it can’t be a good workout.
- Some people say the rowing machine is “too hard” for their arms and they lack arm strength.
Ultimately, there are issues with both of these statements and it comes down to not understanding how to properly use a rowing machine or what the correct rowing technique is.
Like most pieces of cardio fitness equipment, the rowing machine can provide a great cardiovascular workout if you use it properly and structure your rowing workout in a way that is appropriately challenging for your fitness level and geared towards your training goals.
What I like about rowing for exercise is that it provides both a cardio and strength training workout in one, as long as you use the right resistance, employ proper rowing machine technique, and structure your rower workout properly.
According to a study from the English Institute of Sport, a rowing machine workout uses a total of nine major muscle groups that together comprise 86% of the muscle mass in the body.
However, returning to our common complaints about the rowing machine, if you do not have the settings correct and/or you are not using proper rower machine technique, the rowing machine will feel too easy or too hard.
Here are a few tips for how to get a good workout on a rowing machine:
Rowing Machine Tips
- Make sure that the power is coming from your legs for the drive phase of the rowing stroke (pushing back from the start position).
- Follow the sequence of proper rowing form: drive first with the legs, then hinge from the hips with your core muscles, and then pull with the arms for the first part of the stroke out to the finish and then reverse the motion as you come back towards the screen of the rowing machine such that you release with your arms, then hinge with your torso, and then bend your knees and allow your legs to carry you to the front of the machine.
- Focus on power not speed in terms of how fast you are going up and down the rail of the rowing machine. In order to drive down your rowing split (time for 500m), push harder not faster with your legs.
- If you are not using a smart rower, adjust the resistance of the rowing machine so that it is challenging. If you can easily pull back on the handle without needing to press explosively through your legs to drive your body back and use this explosive power to help provide enough momentum to pull the rowing machine handlebar, the resistance is probably too easy.
- Structure your rowing machine workouts with intervals to challenge your cardiovascular, metabolic, and muscular systems for a more efficient and effective workout. Check out our guide to rowing machine HIIT workouts here
How Many Rowing Strokes Should I Do Per Minute?
Before we talk about how many rowing strokes you should do in a workout based on your fitness goals, let’s provide a few definitions.
A rowing stroke on the rowing machine refers to one full “rep.”
There are four phases of one rowing stroke: the catch, drive, finish, and recovery back to the catch position.
At the catch position, you are right up front with your knees bent, shins parallel, and the handlebar of the rowing machine closest to its attachment point.
Then, you explosively press off the foot pads through the drive until your legs are completely straight, your torso is hinged back slightly, and the handlebar is all the way in at your sternum. This is the finish.
Then, the recovery phase of the rowing stroke is when you bend your knees and return your body and the handlebar towards the front of the machine.
Altogether, this is one rowing stroke.
When you are doing a rowing workout, one of the metrics that the rowing machine will provide is the strokes per minute (spm). This refers to how many times you are going down and back on the rail of the rowing machine in one minute.
You might think that it is harder to do more strokes per minute and that you’ll get a “better rowing workout,“ but what really matters is your power in watts and your 500m split.
Both of these rowing machine metrics are usually higher if you take fewer strokes per minute and focus on the explosiveness and intensity of each stroke rather than flying up and down the rail of the rowing machine without much power in your stroke.
In fact, some of the fastest rowers in the world take only 18 strokes per minute.
Most people will be somewhere in the 22 to 28 strokes per minute range on a rowing machine with some harder intervals potentially going up to 34 strokes per minute when you are combining explosive power and speed to maximize the intensity of your rowing workout.
How Many Rowing Strokes Should I Do To See Good Results?
Most rowing workouts are not measured or quantified by the number of rowing strokes you take in a workout.
Therefore, answering the question: “How many rowing strokes should I do for a cardio workout?” has little value.
Instead, as with a treadmill, rowing workouts are often measured by distance.
Rowing machines usually measure the distance rowed in meters. Beginners might strive to row 500m in two minutes and 30 seconds, or 1000m every five minutes.
Therefore, a good rowing distance for beginners if you are doing a high-intensity interval rower machine workout might be 3000m or 4000m, which would be a 15 to 20-minute rowing workout.
Advanced rowers typically can cover 500m in under two minutes.
A 30-minute rowing machine workout would maybe entail close to 8000m, with some hard intervals interspersed along with recovery periods.
You can also just row for time and focus on the intensity of your intervals or focus on maintaining a certain power on the rowing machine if you are doing a steady-state rower workout for building endurance.
I personally use the Echelon Row-S Rowing Machine for my rowing workouts.
I had a Hydrow rower but the monthly subscription fee for the rowing workouts seemed unreasonable.
Both of these rowers are “smart” rowing machines.
What I really like about the new Echelon Row-S rower that I am using is that the handlebar has Bluetooth resistance and there are 32 levels of resistance on the machine.
This allows me to control the intensity of my rowing workouts and focus more on rowing workouts for strength or rowing workouts for cardio, depending on the settings that I use and the resultant rowing strokes per minute.
It’s also super smooth and I feel like I get a better workout in 15 or 20 minutes on this rowing machine because I am able to be more explosive and use more resistance in the rowing stroke while not compromising my form.
There are tons of guided rowing workouts and the Echelon rowing machine makes it easy to keep track of all of my rowing workout metrics and progress.
It’s a perk that it folds up!
For some inspiration about some of the best rowing workouts for beginners, check out our beginner rowing machine workout guide here.