Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Get Lean and Strong: The Rowing Machine

Rowing machine. Rower. Ergometer. Erg. Whatever you call it*, the erg is your best choice for a full-body workout, whether strength, weight loss, or fitness is your goal.

Rowing is a "strength-endurance" sport - physiologically, it's like lifting a weight again and again and again. It's not pure strength – all those "reps" limit the amount that you can lift. But neither is it pure endurance – all that weight will put a cap on the number of reps. Because it's both – and because rowing is a full-body motion – you can use rowing to enhance a wide variety of training dimensions.

*FYI: the usual term for a rowing machine is an “erg”.

JBSC (Just Burning Some Calories): Rowing for Fitness

If calorie burn is your goal, rowing to lose weight is a great option. Rowing machines are used by many trainers (and are featured on shows such as The Biggest Loser) because training on rowing machines burns more calories per hour than just about any other activity. Three critical elements: rowing with correct form, easing into rowing as 100% of your workout, and adding variety so that you don't get bored.

Rowing correctly

Check out Concept2's how-to or (shameless self-promotion) my NYTimes Well.Blog video for a quick intro to the rowing stroke. Ideally, get a friend who knows how to row to show you how, or check out a class at a rowing gym for actual instruction. If you're using correct rowing technique, it should feel challenging, but not like you're going to die after two minutes. Aim to take between 20 and 24 strokes per minute and try to go at least 5 to 10 minutes straight before taking it easy for a minute. The "fan setting" on the side of the machine, if there is one, should be at around 4. (Setting the fan at 10 will not give you a better workout on the rowing machine!) Adjust the feet height so that the straps run across the widest part of your foot.

Easing into it

If you've never run for a long (or short) distance before, the smart thing to do is run for a few minutes, walk for a minute, and repeat. Eventually, you'll be able to take shorter and shorter breaks until you can run continuously. The same goes for rowing. Aim for consistency, good form, and simple, strong strokes. Start out aiming to get in 20 minutes of rowing with 5 minutes of "paddling", or easy rowing (total workout length: 25 minutes). Break up the 25 minutes as 1 minute paddle, 4 minutes rowing, and repeat. Warm up before and foam roll/stretch after. Your legs, back and shoulders will thank you for it!

Add variety

The erg screen/monitor (right) and what it means!
Especially once you start getting comfortable with longer sessions on the rowing machine, you'll want to mix it up. The two ways to do this are stroke rating -- how many strokes you take per minute, usually between 20 and 30 -- and power, which you can monitor through your split -- the time it takes you to row 500 meters. Try breaking up your session into pyramids of different ratings or power - or both. For example, row 19 minutes as 4'-3'-2'-1'-2'-3'-4' at stroke ratings 22-24-26-28-26-24-22. Go faster (decrease your time per 500 meters, that is, your "split") as you increase the stroke rating.

Them Backs Though: Power Rowing

Rowing helps with Olympic-caliber strength (David Banks, left) and more power and endurance in your WODs (right).

It's no secret that rowers have some pretty nice backs. And legs. And arms. And abs. Part of that is that aside from rowing, most competitive rowers incorporate a good amount of strength training and core work into their training plans. But the rowing stroke is a great way to increase your "pull" strength and complements many Olympic lifts and related muscle chains. The keys: form and power.

Correct rowing machine technique

Check out the videos above for a visual on form. Even if you're rowing for power and strength, skip the underhand or alternating grip. The idea is to compress with a supported, upright body towards the flywheel, and then drive out powerfully with your legs, layering in a dynamic body swing and the arms finishing the stroke. Think 60-70 percent legs, 20-30 percent body, 10 percent arms. Just like a power clean or a high pull from the ground, the arms are mostly important for connecting the work you started with your legs and your back to the bar (or in this case, the erg handle). On the "drive", the powerful part of the stroke, you should feel engagement in your quads, glutes, core, and lats, and mostly be feeling the contact points of your feet on the footplate and the handle in your hands (more than your butt on the seat).

Power rowing

Some of the muscles activated in the rowing stroke. Image courtesy of GymNomads.

To build strength on the rowing machine, focus on taking powerful strokes at a low stroke rating. You will be able to do this at ANY fan setting; the harder you work, the stronger the machine's resistance will be. Do sets of 10-30 strokes as powerfully as you can with correct form, then "paddle" to recover for 10 strokes. Aim for a total of 80-120 strokes to start.  This is a work-recovery pattern similar to that of football, rugby, lacrosse, and many other sports: short bursts of power followed by some rest. Power-focused rowing is a great addition to just about any lifting program.

Rowing for Endurance and Cross-Training

It's always a hot debate whether rowers, swimmers, or cross-country skiers are the fittest athletes of all. (It's rowers, obviously.) Besides burning calories and building power, rowing is a great way to improve your endurance, whether your end goal is more rowing or another sport entirely. Rowing for running? Rowing for triathlon? Rowing for Ironman? Rowing to help your 10K, half-marathon, or marathon training? Rowing because you are recovering from a sports injury? Rowing will get you fitter! The keys are: good technique and breathing.

Rowing technique

Because rowing is a full-body workout, it's a great training supplement and even recovery tool to help you get in good training and strengthen your non-sport-specific muscle and endurance systems. If you've tweaked a foot or other body part in your training, rowing may allow you to keep training while giving that a rest. Check out the videos above and descriptions of good rowing technique to get started.

Breathing while rowing

Don't forget to breathe!

Whether you use rowing for interval training or to log miles, it will improve your aerobic system. Your goal while rowing should be to keep breathing well by sitting up and supporting your upper body. Most rowers take two breaths per stroke. Take a breath, roll up to the "catch", exhale on the "drive" (which will help you engage your core), then breathe in and out as your arms and body come back up the recovery. Then breathe in again as you roll up to the catch. Timing your breathing to the stroke, just like running, swimming, and cycling, will help you practice relaxation and efficiency.

Rowing Workouts to Lose Weight, Build Strength, and Get Fit

Power Rowing

  •       Minute On, Minute Off. 5 minute warm-up: paddle, get loose, and take a few hard 10s (driving hard, get the stroke rating up between 25 and 30 for 10 strokes). Workout: 1 minute "on", driving hard at stroke rate 28, then 1 minute "off", paddling at stroke rate 20. Do 10 interval sets (20 minutes total). 5 minute cool down. PRO TIP: Try to match your speed or go a little faster each "on" interval.
  •       1, 2, 3 Pyramid. Workout: 3'-2'-1'-2'-3'-2'-1'-2'-3' "on", with one minute paddle between each interval (i.e., 3’ on, 1’ off, 2’ on, 1’ off, etc.) Do your 3-minute pieces at stroke rate 22, 2-minute pieces at 24, and 1-minute pieces at 26. PRO TIP: If you're worried about keeping track of what piece you're on, use the menu [Select Workout: Intervals: Variable] to set up the whole workout ahead of time.
  •       Rugby Workout. 5 minute warm-up: : paddle, get loose, and take a few hard 10s (driving hard, get the stroke rating up between 25 and 30 for 10 strokes). Workout: 1250m - 750m - 500m - 250m - 750m. All pieces are at max. Rest between pieces is 2'-90"-1'-90". You can also do this workout with a partner, where your work is their rest and vice versa. PRO TIP: Go for consistency as well as aggression - your fastest pieces will be when you hold one speed or get a little faster as the piece goes on.
  •       Partner 500s. Workout: 8x500m, as fast as possible. Your partner's piece is your rest. PRO TIP: Use your average speed from your first piece as your starting point for subsequent pieces. "Negative split" (get faster within each 500m piece) for maximum training benefit.

Rowing Workouts for Fitness and Endurance

  •       Playlist Workout (The Hook Brings You Back). Make a 20-, 30-, 45-, or 60-minute playlist. Press play and start rowing. Every time a song's hook or chorus comes on, raise your stroke rating 2-4 beats and "drop your split" (speed up) 3-6 seconds (i.e., from 2:15 to 2:11) and hold the faster speed and pace for the full hook/chorus. When the hook ends, transition back to your original speed and stroke rating. PRO TIP: Harmonica solo optional. Need to get started with a playlist? Check out the ones right here!
  •       2K Variety. Set the monitor for 2000-meter intervals with 2 minutes of rest (you'll do four total). Treat each piece like four 500-meter pieces. Alternate, so that Piece 1 and Piece 3 are stroke rates 20/22/24/22 per 500, and Piece 2 and Piece 4 are stroke rates 22/24/26/24. "Paddle" (row with zero effort) or stand up and stretch during your 2' rest. PRO TIP: Keep consistent speed at each stroke rating from piece to piece - your stroke rate "24" 500 on Piece 1 should be the same speed as your "24" on Piece 4.
  •       Miles for Miles. If you're looking to go for longer distances and times, still try to mix it up with different stroke ratings and speeds. To boost training, don't stay at any one stroke rating for longer than 1K to 2K (4 to 10 minutes). As you row for longer sessions, aim to keep your stroke rating between 18 and 22, and your heart rate between 130 and 160.

CFit-Specific Workouts and The CrossFit Open

  •       For a faster Jackie and help with CFit Open workouts as soon as they're posted, check out my awesome teammate Erin Cafaro's YouTube channel for Crossfit Rowing tips.
  •       Need help now? Tweet me: @estherlofgren.
  •       What other rowing questions do you need answered? Post to the comment section below!


SarahF said...

Excellent tips for rowers from beginners to pro. Love the workouts, too!

JTracey said...

Great article Esther! Well written and useful for rowers and non-rowers alike.

G said...

Almost almost makes me want to get back on an erg...