When you think “cardio,” a treadmill likely jumps to mind, right? But pounding away on this hamster wheel isn’t your only option. One of the most effective ways to get your heart racing also happens to be impact-free: the rowing machine.
“Rowing is one of the most effective forms of training because of the amount of large muscle groups that are used in every stroke,” says Greg Hammond, rowing coach and training subject matter expert at Concept2. Think about running or biking—even though your entire body is in motion, it’s mostly your legs powering your progress. But when you row, you recruit your legs, your core, and your shoulders, says Hammond. This means more muscles are calling for oxygen and fuel—and you’re burning more calories—all at once. (A half-hour of moderate rowing equals about 260 calories burn for someone who weighs 155 pounds, and 311 calories burned for someone who weighs 185 pounds, according to Harvard Health Publications.)
The full-body effort shows in the physiques of competitive and pro rowers. “They tend to have a good balance of muscle all over their body,” says Hammond. (Sounds pretty good to us!) And there’s another rowing perk that might just sell you: In addition to its muscular and cardiovascular benefits, rowing also spares a lot of wear-and-tear on your joints since it’s low impact. “Since you don’t experience a lot of pounding forces on the body, rowing is a great way for people who are overweight or have sensitive knees or hips to get in shape.”
But if this stationary contraption seems totally foreign (or old-school) to you—aside from its occasional appearance in and episode of House of Cards—you’re definitely not alone. Luckily, nailing the movement boils down to four simple steps. So take a seat on the rowing machine, strap your feet in nice and snug, and grab that “oar” handle.
This is the moment that your body is ready to spring into action—imagine an oar catching on the resistance of the water if you were rowing in a boat. Your upper body should be leaning forward with your arms straight, your core tense, and your knees bent.
This is when you start to apply force to the hypothetical oar. Pressing through your feet, and keeping your back upright (core tight!) and arms straight, powerfully push through and extend your legs. (While many newbies might think you row with your arms, the first part of the movement comes from your lower-body, says Hammond.)
Now you engage your upper body to dig that last bit of “umph” out of your stroke. At this point in the movement, your legs should be extended, but not so much that you end up locking your knees. Keeping your torso straight and your core tight, lean back slightly and pull the “oar” to your ribs by bending your elbows.
Once you’ve gotten the most out of your pull, you have to reset your position in order to catch the hypothetical water again and take your next stroke. To do so, perform the prior three steps in reverse order: Extend your arms, lean your torso forward until the handle passes your knees, and then bend your knees until you return to the starting position. (Think ‘arms, hips, legs.’)
If your still a little intimidated, don’t worry: There aren’t too many serious form ‘don’ts’ when it comes to rowing, since the exercise is so low-impact, Hammond says. Your form may even improve as you start to feel winded, since your body will naturally default to the most efficient movement possible. So just keep hauling along!
And since rowing doesn’t produce the joint-pounding forces that other forms of cardio and weightlifting do, it’s relatively safe for anyone to use during nearly any phase of training. Whether you’re old, young, a seasoned gym veteran, or just starting out, rowing is a great way to work up a sweat, suggests Hammond. Plus, a light and easy row can also provide a great recovery stimulus if you’re feeling super sore from a few days of going hard.
Ready to hop on the rower at your gym? Whether you’re going for a moderate, steady row or pushing through sprint intervals, you’ve just found your new favorite workout.
Pick one of these three workouts from Hammond, and get rowing!