First popular in the 1980s, rowing machines are now making a comeback, starting to nudge aside elliptical trainers in many health clubs, gyms, and workout schedules.
Indoor rowing classes are proliferating, sometimes including music, teamwork, and/or interactive video technology to provide scenery and competition. And cities around the country have seen a mini-boom in on-water rowing classes and clubs.
There are good reasons why rowing is popular again. Among the very fittest of all athletes are members of the Olympic rowing teams. Rowers typically use more muscles and burn more calories than just about any athletes except cross-country skiers. They get the aerobic benefits of running a marathon without impact on their knees or feet, plus they get an upper-body and “core” workout.
So it’s no surprise that studies on rowing and rowers, young and old alike, confirm a full range of health benefits—from improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels and bone health to enhanced weight control, muscle strength and endurance, and markers of cardiovascular fitness.
From simple to high-tech
If you’ve tried rowing machines and know you like them, you might want to invest in one for your home. They cost anywhere from $150 to $2,000, but a satisfactory model can be purchased for $300 to $500. A good machine will mimic a real scull—the type of boat used in crew, the sport of competitive rowing—with two handles to simulate oars or else a single bar, attached to adjustable pistons or a flywheel-and-pulley system to provide variable resistance.
The padded or contoured seat slides on rollers or ball bearings along the stationary frame. Foot rests should hold your feet firmly in place; some swivel as you push back. At the least, any rowing machine should sit solidly on the floor and not wobble as you row. Its seat and handles (or bar) should move smoothly and not stick.
Fancier machines usually have a monitor that calculates speed, distance, stroke count, and calories burned. Some also have video displays that provide varying rowing workouts and challenges and allow you to row with onscreen rowers. A few use a flywheel in a small water tank to better mimic on-water rowing, complete with wavelike sounds.
Getting a grip
It’s best to learn good technique from an instructor, but here are some basics:
- When you row, don’t have a death grip on the handles or bar. Hold on securely but semi-relaxed, with your wrists straight, not bent.
- When you extend your arms forward, don’t hunch or tense your shoulders.
- Use your legs to push, lean back slightly, and engage your core muscles, still keeping your shoulders relaxed.
- Pull back until your hands are in line with your ribs; don’t lean back too far.
Bottom line: If you’d like to add variety to your gym workouts, try rowing machines or rowing classes (if available). If you prefer the outdoors, find a rowing club where you can learn and train on the water. The U.S. Rowing Association lists programs, clubs, and associations organized by state.
If you have cardiovascular disease or other serious medical conditions, check with your doctor before taking up rowing or any other aerobic exercise that can raise your heart rate rapidly. Rowing with proper technique puts little strain on back muscles, so it’s usually good for people with low back pain, but consult a doctor or physical therapist before taking up rowing if you have back, shoulder, neck, or knee problems.