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a man uses a rowing machine

Indoor rowing is a full-body exercise that can be used to build strength, power, endurance, and cardio conditioning — all with minimal impact.

“There’s almost no strain on your joints,” says indoor-rowing champion and coach Kristina Duggan.

This makes rowing a great option if you have a history of strains and sprains or you want a low-impact option that still allows you to push your limits. (Duggan herself discovered indoor rowing after an ankle injury cut her running career short.)

The flywheel construc­tion of the rower (also called an ergometer, or erg) means that the harder you row, the harder the movement becomes. So no matter your fitness level, rowing remains challenging.

Meanwhile, the digital screen keeps constant tabs on your exertions. “That monitor right in your face is a huge motivator,” says Duggan. “You can row, but you can’t hide.”

Duggan shares three of her favorite erg workouts here: the Pyramid, the Detonator, and the Long Haul. Each includes options for novice, intermediate, and pro rowers.

The workouts are designed around strokes per minute (SPM), so make sure to find that metric on your monitor. As with any exercise program, listen to your body, and scale back the difficulty as needed.

Ready to get to work? Take a seat and choose your indoor-rowing adventure.

The Workouts

Warm up for five to 10 minutes with a combination of calisthenics, easy cardio, and at least a couple of minutes of easy rowing on the erg. (For  ideas, visit “The Perfect Warm-Up“.)

Perform each workout by itself, with no other forms of exercise (aside from a warm-up and cool-down) before or after.

When you’re first starting out, perform intense rowing workouts no more than three times a week, on nonconsecutive days.

Adjust the speed and duration of each workout to match your fitness level.

The Pyramid Rowing Workout

This workout accustoms you to rowing at different intensities, from low to high and back again.

Novice

Intermediate

Pro

4 minutes, 16 SPM 5 minutes, 18 SPM 6 minutes, 18 SPM
3 minutes, 18 SPM 4 minutes, 20 SPM 5 minutes, 20 SPM
2 minutes, 20 SPM 3 minutes, 22 SPM 4 minutes, 22 SPM
1 minute, 22 SPM 2 minutes, 24 SPM 3 minutes, 24 SPM
2 minutes, 20 SPM 1 minute, 26 SPM 2 minutes, 26 SPM
3 minutes, 18 SPM 2 minutes, 24 SPM 1 minute, 28 SPM
4 minutes, 16 SPM 3 minutes, 22 SPM 2 minutes, 26 SPM
4 minutes, 20 SPM 3 minutes, 24 SPM
5 minutes, 18 SPM 4 minutes, 22 SPM
5 minutes, 20 SPM
6 minutes, 18 SPM

The Detonator Rowing Workout

Each work period in this interval workout is a relatively short three to four minutes. But you’ll move at high speed and finish each one with a 30-second jump in speed before your one minute of rest — and you’ll increase the stroke rate of your “fast” 30 seconds with each successive interval. So, if you hold 22 strokes per minute in the fast 30 seconds in your first interval, try to hold at least 23 strokes per minute for that 30-second jump in the second. 

Novice

Intermediate

Pro

2 1/2 minutes, 18 or 19 SPM 3 minutes, 20 or 21 SPM 3 1/2 minutes, 21 or 22 SPM
30 seconds at a slightly faster pace 30 seconds at a slightly faster pace 30 seconds at a slightly faster pace
1 minute rest 1 minute rest 1 minute rest
Perform the cycle four to six times. Perform the cycle five to seven times. Perform the cycle six to eight times.

The Long Haul Rowing Work Out

After you have some experience under your belt, try this longer workout format. Like a boat race, this workout builds in intensity as it proceeds, forcing you to hold a progressively faster speed. “This isn’t for beginners,” says Duggan.  Consider yourself warned.

Novice

Intermediate

Pro

8 minutes, 16 SPM 12 minutes, 17 SPM 16 minutes, 18 SPM
1 minute rest 1 minute rest 1 minute rest
6 minutes, 17 SPM 10 minutes, 18 SPM 12 minutes, 19 SPM
1 minute rest 1 minute rest 1 minute rest
5 minutes, 18 SPM 8 minutes, 19 SPM 10 minutes, 20 SPM
1 minute rest 1 minute rest 1 minute rest
4 minutes, 19 SPM 6 minutes, 20 SPM 8 minutes, 21 SPM
1 minute rest 1 minute rest 1 minute rest
3 minutes, 20 SPM 4 minutes, 21 SPM 6 minutes, 22 SPM

Rowing Machine Technique for Beginners

Just starting out on the rower? Spot-check your technique with these tips to get the most out of each workout:

  • Feet first. Think of “erging” as a lower-body move in which your arms finish the motion. On each stroke, push with your feet first, then pull the handle toward your abdomen. You’ll know when you’ve got it right because you won’t have to raise and lower the handle to get around your knees.
  • Back straight. As you come forward on the seat, bend forward at the hip joint — don’t round your back forward. Think “tall spine” the whole time.
  • Hips behind shoulders. In the catch position — the beginning of the stroke — your hips should be behind your shoulders. (When you finish, you should be leaning back slightly.)
  • Shoulders and elbows down. Keep your arms close to your torso and avoid overworking your upper body.

This article originally appeared as “Reap What You Row” in the March 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Photography: Chad Holder; Styling: Shannon Darsow; Fitness Model: David Freeman
Andrew
Andrew Heffernan

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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