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How to Use Rowing Machines for Strength & Endurance

Woman on Rowing Machine


Rowing machines can provide excellent full-body workouts. They support two great measures of physical fitness—muscular strength and muscular endurance. In other words, with smart training you will be able to lift more weight in a single try, and be able to engage in physical activities such as rowing, hiking and biking for longer periods of time. Rowing can help increase your performance in just about any sport. It might appear to be an upper-body exercise, but it actually involves leg power the most – and it recruits about 85% of your muscles! Compared with other workouts for strength and endurance, rowing machine workouts are low-impact and much less likely to lead to injuries.


The Basics

The basic steps of rowing for strength and endurance are simple. The key is to gradually increase the rowing machine’s resistance and the distance that you cover per workout. After you stretch, here’s what you need to do:


Step 1

Adjust the rowing machine’s footplates and then properly secure the foot straps. This step is more important than many beginners realize. The strap on each footplate should cross over the ball of your foot. If your feet are set in a higher position, then you won’t be able to take full strokes the right way.


Step 2

Warm up! Our favorite warm-ups are completed on the rowing machine. You can start with partial strokes as described here. Basically you will first move only your arms, then add your back, and finally add your legs for a full stroke cycle. This sort of warmup is called a “pick drill” because you “pick apart” the stroke. It’s a great way to ease your muscles into a workout.


Step 3

As with any new exercise, start slowly despite your enthusiasm. After a month or two you might row for 30 minutes or more each time. Starting with just 10 minutes is respectable and wise!

In the first week, choose a low resistance level (unless the machine is naturally adapting like a WaterRower). Also set a short distance for each workout.


  • Resistance: On some rowing machines a resistance level of 1 can be quite challenging for beginners – and even if it isn’t, it could be a good starting point. Generally a level of 1 to 3 is appropriate for the first sessions.
  • Distance: For your first few workouts a distance of 150 to 200 yards is recommended.
  • Speed: Your speed can be rather slow; focus primarily on your technique. Around 15 or 20 strokes per minute (SPM) is an appropriate goal for most beginners.


Step 4

In each subsequent week, slightly increase the rowing machine’s resistance, your number of strokes per minute, and the distance covered. In the first month you can likely increase your speed to 25 SPM.

Following the above steps will help you ease into training without hurting your body. Your muscular strength and endurance will both begin to improve. By the time you row distances of about 1000 yards per session, even at a low resistance level, you will also enjoy the cardio benefits of reaching your target heart rate during exercise.


Man on Rowing Machine

Advanced Rowing Workouts & Interval Training

Our basic steps above have you exercise at a single pace and resistance level for each session. For more variety and efficiency, interval training workouts are popular. These involve alternating periods of high intensity and low intensity exercise. We’ve provided three examples with workout sessions lasting from about 30 to 45 minutes.


Preset Rowing Workouts for Strength and Endurance

Keeping track of your time, strokes per minute and other data might not be your cup of tea. To make exercise easier, our favorite rowing machines under $1000 are equipped with preset workouts. These take the guesswork out of training by supporting specific goals for calorie burn, time, distance, resistance and speed.

Wireless heart rate control is included on the best rowing machines too. This technology automatically adjusts the machine’s demand in respond to your heart rate. Heart rate control helps ensure that each exercise session is efficient.


A Final Word

You have unlimited potential as a rower. Just about any rowing machine can help you seriously improve your muscular strength and endurance. Even better, some rowing machines can support your unlimited potential; they literally can’t be outgrown! The harder and faster you row, the more these machines push back. Two such brands that we highly recommend as long-term investments for strength and endurance are the Concept2 and the WaterRower.

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