Are Rowing Machines A Good Type of Exercise?

I am the proud owner of a seasoned ‘dad-bod’, with more spare tires than Michelin, but my wife has been urging me for months to do some exercise.

I have to grudgingly admit that it’s not a totally unreasonable request, but I don’t know too much at all about gyms, or exercise in general, really. I guess it’s time I learned.

Exercise has all kinds of benefits, not least of which are improved heart condition and longer, healthier life. But, not knowing the first thing about exercise, it’s important to consider what options there are for one’s workout. Bike? Elliptical? Weights? How about…the ergometer? That is, the rowing machine.

Did you know that an alternative name for a rowing machine is an ergometer? Those in the know apparently call it the erg. Yeah, I didn’t know that either.

It turns out that the rowing machine is a hugely underrated exercise choice. Why is rowing considered so ideal?

What benefits does it offer?

The Pros

How much weight can you lose with rowers?

Well, firstly, they are a great way to lose weight. According to Harvard Medical School, an 83kg man can burn 377 calories in 30 minutes, which is apparently an impressive figure.

Research at Pennsylvania State University found that rowing machines are tougher fat-burners than treadmills and exercise bikes. The Internet is full of all kinds of exercise routines utilising rowing machines to help you to burn all the fat you want.

A full muscular workout

Rowing impacts all sorts of muscles in every major muscle group. Initially, there’s the “catch”, where the back, quadriceps, hamstrings and calf are engaged, then the “drive”, using the abdominals, triceps, chest, shoulder, wrists and glutes, and finally the “finish” activating the biceps and obliques.

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), and with stronger muscles comes more energy, reduced back pain and stronger bones. 60% of the effort is in the legs, 30% from your back movements, and 10% in the arms.

Keep that heart in shape

Rowing is perfect for maintaining your heart. Rowing increases your heart-rate, which over time reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. It also has benefits for your pancreas, brain, skin and lungs.

Pushing your aerobic and anaerobic systems hard and consuming more oxygen as a result. Apparently, Sir Steve Redgrave at his peak has a resting heart rate of 36 beats per minute. The average man has between 60 and 70.

Strengthening joints

If you’re recovering from an injury or otherwise have joint pain, rowing is great for healing with minimal impact on your bones and joints.

It’s simple!

Finally, it’s simple to set up. Sit down, set the resistance, grab the bar, and off you go. Compare this with the five minutes’ fiddling around on the ellipses or bike setting resistance, incline and seat height.

There are some downsides, though:

And the Cons

Is it really that simple?

The secret to a good rowing session is technique, and it can take time to find it and get into a good rhythm. It’s certainly trickier than getting into a routine with the ellipses or the exercise bike. There’s a lot of coordination involved, which isn’t a bad thing, but it is an additional challenge to overcome.

Wear and tear

That seat is really uncomfortable. After 30 minutes, your posterior is numb from the constant awkward positioning, and your hands may be sore from being clenched around the narrow rubber grip. Apparently there are special rowing shorts you can get, and maybe some gloves.

The Rowing Racket

And good grief, they make a hell of a lot of noise. The wheel in front of you, called the damper, contains a fan that produces wind resistance to give you something to ‘pull’ against, and when you’re really going at it the wheezing noise can make you feel somewhat self-conscious in the gym.

Get smashed!

They’re exhausting. At least with ellipticals and bikes you can cheat a little by letting go of the handles to restore your arms but keep using your legs. Rowing machines? Nah. Everything’s committed.

Alright, so I guess it’s not a real negative as you get a full workout, but you’ll likely collapse into a heap before long. So while in theory you can burn all those calories in 30 minutes of rowing, chances are you’ll manage an hour or even more on a bike.


The important thing about rowing machines is that, yes, they are top-notch tools for burning fat, strengthening your heart and toning muscle. The real advantage of the rowing machine isn’t simple numbers, but that it’s an exercise that hits nearly everywhere in your body.

While ellipticals and bikes target your legs and arms, the erg encompasses your back, abdomen and other muscle groups too. It’s a powerful advantage that makes rowing stand out. Just make sure you give your wrists and back a rest if you’re still recovering from an injury.

Of course, other choices, such as ellipticals and bikes, offer either just as good or even better choices depending on what you want out of your workout. As a main event, rowing is pretty decent, but if you’re seeking to train for a run or other specific activity the best kind of workout has a variety of exercise types.

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