5 Great Rowing Machine Workouts For Your Next Cross Training Session

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When most people scope out the cardio equipment at the gym or look into what type of exercise machine they want to purchase for their home, they gravitate towards a treadmill, elliptical machine, or indoor cycle.

But rowing machine workouts also can provide a fantastic cardiovascular and strengthening workout. What was once the long-forgotten dusty piece of exercise equipment in the corner of your gym has gotten a facelift and an exciting refresh.

Many gyms now have nice rowing machines, such as the Concept2 RowErg, and the rowing machines for home use, such as the Hydrow, Aviron, and Ergatta, have changed the game with their smart technology, streaming classes, and virtual games.

However, if you’re new to rowing or have yet to sit down on a rowing erg machine, it can be really overwhelming in terms of what type of rowing workout you should do.

In this guide, we will share a bunch of great rowing machine workouts you can try. You might just find that rower workouts are your new favorite way to cross-train!

We will discuss: 

  • How to Get a Good Workout On a Rowing Machine
  • 5 Great Rowing Machine Workouts

Let’s get started!

A group doing a rowing machine workout.

How to Get a Good Workout On a Rowing Machine 

Before we go into specific rowing machine workouts to try, it’s extremely important to cover how to get a good workout on a rowing machine.

Many beginners sit down on a rowing machine, also called an erg, for the first time and have no idea where to start.

The first thing you need to do is adjust the machine to your body. 

If the footplates can be moved up or down, you want to raise or lower the footplates until the foot strap is lined up along the widest part of your foot. This is typically directly over the ball of your foot.

Depending on the type of rowing machine that you are using, you may also need to adjust the resistance.

For example, the Concept 2 RowErg uses wind resistance, so there is a damper that you can adjust. Level one will provide the least amount of resistance, and the difficulty goes up from there.

A person rowing.

Other rowing machines, such as the Hydrow, use electromagnetic resistance. With the Hydro rowing machine, you should set the drag, a measure of the resistance, to 104. This is said to best mimic the resistance felt in the water.

The Ergatta rowing machine uses water resistance, so there is a tank of water that you can fill to various levels.

No matter what type of rowing machine you are using, you want to make sure the resistance is adequate for your fitness level

This may require a little bit of research on your end to learn about the machine and the recommended settings for beginners or athletes of your caliber.

Once your feet are strapped in, and you have the proper resistance, you are ready to row.

The primary metrics that you should pay attention to while you do your rowing workout are your stroke rate (also called your rhythm) and your 500m split, and your watts to a lesser degree.

Your stroke rate, or rhythm number, is the number of strokes you do per minute— basically, how many times you pull the rowing machine handle and slide up and down the rail per minute.

Your 500m split refers to how long it will take you to row 500 meters at your current pace and effort level. 

The lower this number, the faster you are rowing.

For example, if your 500m split is 2:15, you are covering 500 meters every 2 minutes and 15 seconds. 

This would be better (faster) than a split of 2:45.

Your watts are an indication of how much power you are generating while you row. The higher this number, the better.

Watts is essentially an indication of how hard you are working.

A person rowing.

Most beginner rowers make the assumption that in order to drive down their 500m split, they need to increase their stroke volume and move up and down the rails faster.

This is actually not the case. Although increasing your stroke rate can enable you to row faster, you will see much more significant improvements in your splits if you press harder with your legs

It’s all about generating as much power (watts) as possible. This comes down to a huge leg push at the start of every stroke, followed by a quick snap of the handle accelerating into your chest.

Although most people think of rowing as an upper-body workout, rowing is said to use 86% of the muscles in your body.

It is actually a leg-dominant sport, and the single best way to row faster is to press with your legs as hard as you can.

You want to use your glutes and quads to really push away at the start of each stroke rather than trying to pull with your upper body

Proper rowing form has a sequence. When you’re up at the catch (closest to the machine with your knees bent), you push first with your legs, then swing back with your core by hinging at the hips and then pulling with your arms. 

At the finish (the end position), you reverse these motions in order: lead with your arms, lean forward with the core, and then allow the legs to come back to the starting position.

Though a detailed explanation of proper rowing form goes beyond the scope of this article since we want to focus on the best rowing machine workouts themselves, we will leave it to this simplified description with the note that if you are not using proper form, you will not be getting the most out of your rowing machine workouts.

When in doubt, press harder with the legs!

A person rowing.

5 Great Rowing Machine Workouts

#1: 15-Minute Beginner Rowing Machine Workout

If you run, bike, swim, or do some other type of exercise regularly, a 15-minute rowing machine workout may sound like a measly exercise session. However, if you are a beginner rower, this is a great place to start.

Rowing machines use different muscles and movement patterns than you’re likely used to, so it’s a good idea to start with just a short workout and progress from there.

  • Warm up with 2 minutes of easy rowing. 
  • Complete 4 sets of rowing 45 seconds hard, 45 seconds easy.
  • After the fourth set, give yourself an additional 60 seconds of easy rowing (1:45 total).
  • Complete 4 more sets of rowing 45 seconds hard, 45 seconds easy.
  • Finish the last minute with easy rowing to cool down.
A person rowing.

#2: Rowing Machine Tempo Workout

This rowing machine workout is akin to a tempo run. It involves working at that “comfortably hard level“ to improve your lactate threshold.

Row at a pace that you might be able to sustain for 30 minutes of maximum effort rowing, or an intensity level that feels like you’re running on a continuum of walking (easy), jogging (moderate), running (hard), sprinting (max effort).

For most rowers, your tempo pace, or “run” effort pace, will be about 10 seconds per 500m slower than the 500m split you can hold for 2000 meters or 5-8 minutes of max-effort rowing.

For example, if you can maintain a 2:40 split for 5-8 minutes, you would row a 2:50 split for this workout.

  • Warm up by rowing for 5 minutes at an easy pace.
  • Row 4 minutes at your tempo pace.
  • Row 1 minute easy.
  • Complete 2-6 cycles, depending on your fitness level.

As you get fitter, reduce the rest to 30 seconds and increase the work interval to 4:30.

A person rowing.

#3: 20-Minute Rhythm Rowing Workout 

This workout plays around with your stroke rate.

  • Warm up with three minutes of easy rowing at 18-20 strokes per minute (spm)
  • 4 x 3 minutes at max effort at 26, 28, then 30 spm (minute one of each set at 26 spm, minute 2 at 28 spm, and minute 3 at 30 spm) with 60 seconds at 20 spm recovery effort in between each.
  • 1 extra minute after the last one of easy rowing to cool down.

#4: 20-Minute Rowing Machine HIIT Workout for Advanced Rowers

This advanced HIIT rowing machine workout has very little rest, so you’ll be feeling it!

  • Warm up with five minutes of easy rowing.
  • 6 x 45 seconds of max effort rowing, 15 seconds super easy.
  • 1 full minute of easy rowing.
  • 6 x 45 seconds of max effort rowing, 15 seconds super easy.
  • Cool down with four minutes of easy rowing.
A group doing a rowing machine workout.

#5: Cardio Rowing Machine Workout 

Not every rower workout has to involve changing stroke rate or rowing pace. Just as how you can do a steady-state run, bike ride, or distance swim, so too can you just row at a constant pace.

Row for 20-60 minutes or more, aiming to keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, moderate-intensity cardio corresponds to a heart rate range of 64-76% of your maximum heart rate.

Gradually progress the distance or time of your rowing workouts as your fitness and technique improve.

For other low-impact cardio ideas, check out our Cardio Alternatives to Running guide.

A person sitting on a rowing machine.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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