Are Rowing Machines a Good Form of Cardio?

When you hear the word cardio, you may feel a chill run down your spine. You might think that cardio is dull and robs you of time from more rewarding activities. But cardio has its place, and you can still lose weight and build muscle while doing it.

When properly matched with a regimen of weight lifting, cardio can be at the centre of your regular healthy workout and contribute to having a great figure.

What is cardio, anyway?

Cardio is exercise that works your heart, the most important muscle in your body. By pumping blood around your body your heart performs all kinds of functions, supplying oxygen, removing waste, and transferring white blood cells to protect you from disease.

Having a strong heart means your own blood will rush around your body faster, making your body able to perform even better when undergoing physical activity, building endurance. While it’s constantly working from before you were born and until the moment you die, it can grow weak without proper exertion to extend its endurance.

To do that, you need plenty of cardiovascular exercise. So what is a good cardio exercise? Well, some people opt for running, or cycling, swimming or aerobic classes. But also popular are rowing machines.

It’s generally well known and claimed in such august editorials such as Men’s Health that rowing machines are among the best ways to keep your heart in good condition. Rowing machines are combination machines – this means they combine calorie burning, muscle development and cardio.

They can burn up to 800 calories per hour, and they are renowned for their ability to engage a wide range of muscle groups on your arms, legs, back and abdominals. They require 25% effort from your upper body and 75% effort from your lower body.

This means that while you work your heart, you’re working nearly your whole body, losing weight and gaining muscle mass at the same time. Rowing is also low-impact, meaning that it places little stress on your body and can be good for healing certain injured joints.

To get anywhere with the rowing machine on a cardio workout, you need stamina, rhythm and form. Brush up on how to properly use the rowing machine to ensure you do get the full benefits of the machine.

Initially, there’s the “catch” – start with your legs bent, your feet in the base, your hands on the grip. Then, the “drive”, pulling the grip with you as you push your legs away from the base.

With the “finish”, draw the grip into your chest, your legs and your back straight. And finally, the “recovery”, where you bend your legs and straighten your arms again, drawing your body back to the start.

As it gets easier (if you stick it out, of course), you can make it harder by adjusting the ‘damper’ (that rod sticking out the wheel at the end of the rowing machine). 60% of the effort is in the legs, 30% from your back movements, and 10% in the arms.

A hearty workout

One way to get a great cardio workout on the rowing machine is to do ‘sprints’ – sudden 15- to 30-second periods of greatly heightened activity and more strenuous drives – which will elevate your heart rate to a very high level.

Once you begin to return to a more moderate intensity, you heart rate will still be elevated for some time, and it’s getting stronger with each beat. Taking advantage of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) strategies can be an efficient and highly effective way to also lose weight, as it consumes tons of calories.

For example, doing these ‘sprints’ for 20 seconds with intervals of moderate pacing for 60 seconds, repeated 8 to 10 times, would be an excellent way to train your heart.

Jack Nunn, a former American Under 23 national rowing team member, has a number of great exercise routines to get some intense cardio workout.

The first involves 30-second sprints followed by 30-second periods of reduced intensity to recover (known as ‘resting’),  interspersed with a set of at least two air squats or push-ups after every 5 rounds. Your heat will be beating at a constant elevated rate, your breathing will likewise increase, leading to intensive strengthening of your heart.

Nunn’s second workout has you maintaining a fixed pace for a duration, but gradually lengthening: 1-minute row, 1-minute rest, 2-minute row, 2 -minute rest, 3-minute…you get the picture. Once you reach 4-minute rest, begin shortening again until you finish a 1-minute rest.

Nunn’s third workout is the most intense and is anaerobic by design. Sprint for a minute, then rest for a minute. Do this 5 times. Compete against yourself by trying to pack more rows in each sprint-minute than the previous one.

This is a tough workout that will really get you gasping for air and get your heart rate up. You’ll hate it at the time, but your heart will thank you.


Using these workouts will really demonstrate to you the benefits of a rowing machine for cardio training. They are a popular option because they engage plenty of muscles surrounding your heart, and with a decent amount of effort, you can elevate your heart rate to levels which will deliver great results. Not only that, but it also strengthens your muscles and burns lots of calories at the same time.

Jack Nunn’s exercises will help you to optimise your cardio workout. Remember, however, to instill some variety into your exercise routine. Weights can be a good choice.

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