How to Actually Get a Work Out on The Rowing Machine

I can’t tell you how often I’m working out on the rowing machine and someone nearby says, “This isn’t hard.”

Running isn’t hard if you’re walking.

Swimming isn’t hard if you’re lazily backstroking.

Bicycling isn’t hard when you’re coasting downhill.

Ditto for rowing. If you’re not breaking a sweat on the machine, you’re doing it wrong and putting out zero effort. A 3 x 5-minute session can kick as hard as 2 x 10,000 meters. The secret lies in understanding HOW proper rowing technique translates to real effort and real results.

Here’s what to do to get a real workout on the rower:

Stop focusing on strokes per minute (spm)

In the Concept 2 monitor, the screen will always tell you strokes per minute, either in the upper right corner or lower left if in the large font setting.

SPM is not how rowers measure their speed. This number simply counts many times you complete a stroke in one minute. It does not tell you how far they’ve gone, how many calories burned, or their power output.

Wouldn’t those measurements be more important to understanding your workout?

Someone can go just as far rowing 24 SPM as they can 32 SPM. It’s all about HOW they row.

If you want a better measurement of your workout, track watts. This is the amount of power you generate per stroke.  Higher watts = more effort. Concept2 will calculate an average watts per workout, too.

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Create your own resistance

You are biggest factor in your workout difficulty. Again: you determine the challenge. Not any lever on the side of the machine or how you grip the handle. Don’t believe me? Read this from rowing machine manufacturer Concept2.

To feel more resistance from the flywheel and the chain, you’ll need to change your movement pattern to get that resistance. Notice we said “movement pattern” and not “number of strokes per speed.”

Focus on your drive speed

To create more resistance, turn up your drive speed. Not your strokes per minute! Your drive speed.

The “drive” is the rowing motion from the full compression to the release. Full compression for the able-bodied athlete occurs when your body is closest to the monitor. Your knees are up, shins are perpendicular to the ground, and arms extend forward but shoulders stay engaged and in their pockets.

To drive properly, push off the footplate while keeping shoulders down and arms extended. As your knees near parallel with the ground, tilt back with the hips and bring the handle into your body, squeezing the shoulder blades together. You should feel constant pressure of the handle in your fingertips

To increase the feeling of resistance during the drive, push faster off the footplate. Stay controlled and measured during the stroke recovery(the sequence from legs down, handle to body and back to full compression).

Get a hint of what your “drive speed” looks like by turning the Concept 2 monitor to the graph. This charts your force curve. The earlier your curve peaks, the faster your drive speed acceleration.

Find a real time measure of drive speed by downloading the Ergdata app. Sync the app with the monitor. Adjust the viewable setting in the app to show your drive speed, measured in meters per sec. A 2.00 score is faster than a 1.53.

There isn’t necessarily a “right” or “wrong” drive speed. Every person will be different based on factors like height, age, and physical fitness. Just know a faster drive speed equals more resistance.

As you experiment with drive speed, you’ll see a workout rowing at 24 strokes per minute can be equally intense as rowing 32 spm.

Try it out.

How else can you try to find drive speed?

Set the Concept 2 monitor to display watts. This is the power generated per stroke.

Row 3 x 4 minutes x 2 rest with a 24 spm rate cap. Make the first four minutes your baseline. Row as you normally would and get an average watt.

The second four minutes try to increase the average watts + 5 without exceeding the rate cap.

The third four-minute piece up the average watts +10 from your base.

You’ll find to up your watts you’ll need to drive faster while slowing down the recovery to stay under the rate cap.

Stop turning the lever to “10”

That lever on the slide controls the air that accesses the flywheel and changes the rate it slows down. This makes it feel heavier when you start each stroke. While it takes more effort to accelerate the flywheel, that does not mean you are getting more resistance. Again: YOU are the resistance.

According to Concept 2, “Making a sleek boat go fast requires you to apply your force more quickly. Making the slow boat go fast also requires more force, but the speed at which you apply the force will be slower over the course of the rowing stroke.” The same is true of the damper. The way you’ll apply the force over the stroke changes.

When you stick with a “10,” you have a greater risk of injury the longer you row with this resistance. You’ll risk becoming exhausted earlier in the workout, before you can gain the benefits from a rowing workout.

Watch and learn

Learning from others is a great way to understand rowing technique. This video from Australia covers rowing for beginners and proper technique. When searching for videos, stick with ones by published coaches, rowing manufacturers, and experienced rowers.

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