Rowing Machines 101 – Everything You Need To Know

You’re no doubt well familiar with common exercise equipment like treadmills and exercise bikes, but what about rowing machines?

Although this type of exercise machine is not (yet) on the same level of popularity as some of the more established favorites, it’s definitely on its way up.

For those in the know, it’s not hard to see why. Rowing machines like so many other exercise machines are a stationary mimicking of an actual workout/activity that involves movement and travel from Point A to Point B...except you stay right where you are.

This concept is certainly not groundbreaking at this point by any means, but the actual workout itself is different and at times more beneficial than other exercise machines. Oh, and rowing machines are pretty fun too.

Intrigued yet? You should be. If you’ve been wondering about that rowing machine you keep eyeing at the gym or are simply curious as to why anyone would use one in the first place, this is a good place to be.

This article will take you through all the basics and general info you need to know about rowing machines, including how they work, why they were developed, and what they can offer you in your fitness journey.

What Are Rowing Machines?

In the simplest terms, rowing machines are exercise machines that provide a workout by replicating the motions associated with rowing a boat. More specifically, this motion is similar to the rowing motions employed by actual competitive rowing teams.

Rowing Machines 101 – Everything You Need To Know

This is accomplished in any number of ways. I’ll touch on this further down, but the rowing motions can vary depending on the type of machine you’re using.

Some offer a strikingly similar rowing motion, while others sort of play off the idea, but add a different spin to it in order to make it more feasible on their particular style and design of their machine.

When examining different types of rowing machines, you’ll find that some emphasize certain muscle groups a little more than others, but all of them follow the same general idea.

However, certain types are designed to be used as training devices for actual competitive rowers when they can’t be in the water on a boat with other teammates or training partners.

How Do Rowing Machines Work?

Like the name says, they these machines are designed to mimic a rowing motion while seated. Since there is no water to float on, you instead slide up and down the seat on the rowing machine body, while simultaneously working the handle or handles with your arms in a rowing motion.

This engages your upper body and back, while also causing you to use your legs to push back with each row. Rowing machines can vary in their design and types, but all of them use some sort of resistance in order to provide a proper workout. The resistance always involves the handle portion.

History Of Rowing And Rowing Machines

The concept and implementation of rowing go back thousands of years to when people were using paddles to propel different types of boats. Eventually, oars were invented around 500 BC, which began to change the approach.

history of rowing

Around 1100 AD, rowing crews became a popular way to propel sailboats during uncooperative weather, and for when approaching land before a battle. This led to the development of the trireme warship, which typically depended on 170 oarsmen divided into three levels to propel the boat.

Rowing is still used in various facets across the world, whether it’s someone out for a leisurely boat ride around a pond with a boat with two oars or Olympic rowing teams that race on streams in narrow boats.

Rowing machines were initially developed as a way for competitive rowers to train when off the water, but some quickly realized that anyone could benefit from them due to the nature of exercise they provided.

Eventually, some exercise equipment manufacturers got the brilliant idea to make their own rowing machines for the general public, and here we are now.

Types Of Rowing Machines

Rowing machines used to be fairly limited in their scope and available varieties, but you can now find four main types on the market, each with their own advantages and modes of operation.

Air

Rowing machines work based off of resistance, and with air rowing machines, the resistance is, you guessed it, air. These machines use a flywheel that rotates against the wind force in order to create that resistance.

air rowing machines

With an air rower, each time you perform a rowing motion, that energy is transferred to the connected flywheel, which begins to spin in the opposite direction. In most models, the harder you row, the faster the flywheel spins, which increases the resistance.

The result is a smooth, fluid workout that lets you adjust the resistance and intensity as you go, and offers a similar feel to how it would be if you were rowing in water. These rowers are mechanically simple and require little maintenance. They can often be very inexpensive as well.

Air rowers are great exercise machines and are typically the most popular rowing machine for gyms and health clubs. The only real downside to them, if any, is the noise the flywheel creates, which is basically similar to a loud box fan on a high setting.

This normally isn’t an issue for most, however, unless you have a living situation where you need to workout in quiet, or simply don’t want to have to turn the TV or music up.

Air rowing machines are sometimes referred to as “flywheel” machines, which isn’t entirely accurate since other types use forms of flywheels as well.

Water

Water rowers are arguably the most advanced form of rowing machines and go the furthest in terms of recreating the feel and motions of actually rowing in a boat. These are among the unique exercise machines you’ll see, as they combine craftsmanship and organic materials with a natural form of resistance: water.

water rowing machines

These rowers are made from wood, giving them a natural aesthetic and welcome break from the typical metal and plastic assemblies of practically every other exercise machine in the world.

The setup of a water rower replicates a standard rowing motion, with the seat portion sliding backward as you pull the handles and push with your legs.

The handles are connected to a type of flywheel that sits inside a tank of water, which is then turned each time you “row.” The resistance is very comparable to using paddles in water and creates a fluid and challenging workout that uses a good portion of your body.

The wood construction helps to dampen vibrations, making a water rower incredibly quiet and smooth. All you can hear when using one is the gentle sloshing of the water.

Water rowers are the preferred trainers for competitive rowers, and you can often find them in many gyms. They are usually the most expensive to purchase, but many view them as the best rowing machine overall.

Magnetic

Magnetic rowers come in a lot of different forms, but all of them use magnets to create the resistance required for a good workout. These rowers have a flywheel assembly that’s located towards the front, and operates similarly to an air rower, except it uses opposing magnets to create resistance as the flywheel spins.

magnetic rowing machines

The magnets actually work like brakes, so each row is working against the resistance of the brakes, which in turn creates the actual workout. This ensures a smooth and fluid motion that is practically silent throughout the operation.

Some magnet rowers use the standard side-handle design commonly seen with other types of rowers, but you’ll also find versions that use a sort of pull cord in the center.

The cord is attached to a single handle that you grip on both sides and leads to the flywheel in the center. You then pull the cord towards you with your hands on each side, which is similar to a rowing motion.

Magnetic rowers are simple, quiet, and generally take up less space than other types, making them more attractive buys to some.

Piston-Based

A newer and more budget-minded form of rowing machines is the piston-based types that use a sort of hydraulic shock instead of a flywheel. This resistance system can be found on some other types of exercise machines too and works very well when used on a rower.

piston-based rowing machines

With these powers, the piston is usually found under the main body portion, and connects to the handles, working against the piston each time you row. As you perform this motion, you push off with your legs and slide the seat backward.

It can take a little getting used to in order to synchronize your movements at first, but once you get it down you’ll have an efficient and effective workout.

These rowers can usually be compacted down to a much smaller size, and even folded up as well. They are great for those needing to save some space, and also for anyone looking for a great rowing workout at a much lower cost than other types.

How To Use A Rowing Machine?

Rowing machines aren’t exactly an exercise machine you can just hop on and figure it out like you would with a treadmill or bike. There is some extra coordination involved, and also more attention to form, posture, and breathing.

using a rowing machine

Stretching is always crucial for better exercises, flexibility, and the avoidance of soreness, so we’ll start there.

Pre-Rowing Stretches

Before you begin your stretching, use the rower for a few minutes to lightly warm up.

Also, remember to take deep, full breaths, and never force your position or have any bouncing or sharp movements.  You’ll want to do around 5 reps of each stretch and hold for 10 seconds.

  • Begin by squatting, and holding both of your heels to the floor.
  • Lay on your back, pull one leg towards you, hug it, and then extend it towards the ceiling. Repeat for the other leg.
  • Place your arm behind you head like you’re trying to scratch your back, then gently push down on the elbow to stretch your triceps. Repeat for the other arm.
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    Stand three feet from a wall and rest your hands on it. While alternating, gently place each foot as far back as you can while keeping your heel flat on the floor.
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    Place your leg on a chair or raised flat surface and straighten it. While keeping your back upright, lean forward until your hamstring stretches.
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    Repeat for your other leg.
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    For your quads, Stand arms-length at a wall while facing it, then place your left hand on it. Bend your right leg back and grab your foot. Now softly pull your leg up against your glutes, then repeat for your other leg.

Note: It’s also beneficial to go through these stretches again after your workout, and hold them for 30 seconds instead of 10.

Proper Rowing Machine Posture And Grip

In order to get the most out of your rowing exercise and avoid straining yourself, a proper approach to posture and grip is required.

Keep your head up - Sometimes people have the tendency to rock their head forward as they row, which will then cause you to sag, and possibly end up straining your neck muscles. Always keep your head up and looking straight ahead, no need to look down, up, or to the sides.

Keep your back straight - It can be tempting to slouch while you row, especially when things are getting more difficult. Always make sure you’re keeping your back straight up and down, and your shoulders up and squared as well. Do not bend.

Keep your hands in the same position - Hold the handles like you would a bike, using your thumbs for added grip. Don’t move your hands up and down the handles while rowing, and make sure they are at the same positions length-wise on each handle.

Rowing Technique

The actual rowing technique on one of these machines takes a few reps of practice before you’re really locked in an automatic with it, so don’t get frustrated if it takes you a few minutes until you’re in sync.

Since you have a lot of freedom of movement on a rower, you’ll need to be mindful of where you’re getting your force from. Always row with an emphasis on your back muscles, rather than just your arms. It will cause everything to fall in place.

  • Begin by sitting down on the seat and strapping your feet into the foot platforms. Grab the handle, and slide the seat to the front of the machine, so your knees are bent.
  • Using your legs, push yourself backward to the back, while keeping your arms extended and holding the handle.
  • When you reach the back, and your legs have pushed you back as far as you can go, pull the handle towards your upper abdominal area while pulling your elbows back and to your sides.
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    Once you’ve pulled the handle towards you, extend your arms back out, and then let the seat slide back down to the front where you’ve started.
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    Repeat.

When first starting out, do each of these steps in a deliberate order with a small break in between each so you can map out each step and get the hang of the process.

Once you’ve got it all down, you can then begin to speed things up and do the process in a much more fluid way that replicates a full rowing motion.

Benefits Of Using A Rowing Machine

The physical process of rowing involves several different muscle groups, and also works to provide a fuller workout in regards to both cardio and anaerobic exercises.

Prior to rowing machines, this efficient workout was reserved for those that had access to rowing equipment and water, but now anyone can experience these benefits.

rowing machine benefits

Multiple Muscle Groups

Rowing involves more muscles than you may think. While some tend to see it as mainly involving your arms, the motions of a rowing machine involve muscle groups throughout your body, something that few exercise machines can offer.

Upper Body

The pulling of the handle or handles involves most of your upper body muscles, including the deltoids, pectorals, biceps, abs, and obliques. Your arms may seem to be handling most of the load, but your core is getting in on the action as well.

Your back muscles stand to benefit the most with proper form. This includes your lats, upper back, and your triceps.

Lower Body

When using a rowing machine, you’re constantly sliding up and down the body platform with each row, which puts the weight on your lower body, using your own body weight for exercise.

This motion involves your hamstrings, calves, and quads, and also your glutes.

Aerobic And Anaerobic Combined

A rowing machine’s repetitive operation and full body workout make it an excellent form of aerobic exercise for cardio training and endurance, especially for when you want to mix things up a bit and add some variety to your training.

aerobic rowing machine workout

In fact, many people first get into using rowing machines at the gym as a way to try something new when they’re worn out with bikes and treadmills.

However, you’ll quickly discover that the rower works your upper body using resistance, and when combined with handling a load of your bodyweight with your lower body, it’s actually an anaerobic exercise as well.

So, that means you’re getting two types of workouts in one, something that can help you burn more calories and fat, while also making gains in your endurance due to switching things up.

Low Impact

Exercises such as running and aerobics are always great for your fitness, but not everyone can withstand the impact that comes with them. This can be due to injuries, chronic conditions, recovery, or age.

Rowing has virtually no impact whatsoever, and won’t harm your joints. This makes it a great option for anyone looking to get an efficient full-body workout, but can’t perform exercises with any real amount of impact on a regular basis.

A rower can sometimes replace several workouts in your routine if need be.

Non-Weight-Bearing

There are also some people that can’t perform weight-bearing exercises for similar reasons. The smooth action and customized resistance levels of a rowing machine allow you to get a great workout in that don’t involve lifting or holding weights that may be too stressful on the joints and body for some.

Rowing Machine Maintenance

Like any exercise machine, rowing machines do typically require maintenance from time to time, whether that’s addressing issues that arise, or preventing others from occurring.

Different types of rowers require different maintenance approaches, but here are some you can use for any type:

  • If possible, use a mat under the rower to add stability and also protect your floor.
  • Don’t let anyone use the machine if they are over the weight limit.
  • Use the machine in a dry area, and always wipe up any moisture after use. It’s also good to dust occasionally.
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    Every so often, run the seat up and down the body by itself to see if it’s running smoothly, and use canned air in the grooves to remove buildup.
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    Check for loose nuts and screws, and if your rower requires lubrication, make sure to stick the suggested lube schedule.
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    Check and cords or chains for wear.
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    If you use a water rower, make sure you follow instructions on when to use water purification tablets, and also when to drain the reservoir and refill.

Conclusion

Rowing machines are still catching on as more people become aware of not only their benefits but how fun they can be to use. They remain a great way to train as well, whether you’re a rower outside the gym or not.

Are you looking to add a rowing machine to your home gym? If so, be sure to check out our rowing machine buying guide, where we’ve reviewed several of our favorite rowers on the market of all types, and with something for every budget range.