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5 Calorie-Torching Rowing Machine Cardio Workouts


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Rowing may be considered one of the more “old-school” cardio workouts — but frankly, it’s one of the best, too, blowing away other alternatives when it comes to calorie burn, stamina building and full-body muscle stimulation. And the rowing machine is low impact to boot.

“I bought my rower before any other big-ticket items for my home gym because of how versatile it is and all the benefits it offers,” admits Gretchen Zelek, an AFAA-certified group fitness instructor and functional aging specialist. I knew I’d be able to incorporate it easily into my workout routine — and it often took the place of running or biking for cardio during inclement weather.”

Here, Zelek shares five of her favorite quick-hit rowing sessions, from an entry-level short-interval rowing session to an all-out four-minute fat incinerator.

Your Rowing Primer

“Your legs do the real work when rowing,” Zelek explains. “You don’t want to pull with your arms — instead, you push off from your feet so the power in your legs starts and finishes the row. Keep your shoulders in front of your hips until your legs are done pushing, and then you can bend your arms to finish.” 

Rowing instructors refer to the form as “catch, drive, finish and release.” “When you start each stroke, make sure your arms are long and straight — you should feel as though you are reaching for something in front of you,” Zelek says. “When the handle is touching your sternum with bent arms, your legs are straight and your body is angled slightly back, extend your arms straight before you bend your legs or reach forward with the handle toward where you started.”

You’ll also need to know one more thing before getting started — what a “split” is. “When we talk about splits, that means how long it takes you to row a certain amount of meters,” Zelek says. “For instance, ‘split per 250’ would mean how long it takes you to row 250 meters. Strokes per minute is straightforward: That is literally how many strokes you can complete in a minute.”  

Finally, be sure that you take the time to warm up and cool down before doing any of the workouts listed here, either with a slow easy row, an easy five- to 10-minute bout on another cardio machine, or a dynamic stretching and plyometric routine. “Music can make a big difference when you row, too, by helping you maintain the rhythmic rowing cadence,” Zelek adds.

5 Rowing Machine Cardio Workouts

(Photo: yoh4nn / Getty Images)

Workout No. 1: 250-Meter Rowing Intervals  

For this workout, you’ll do 10 sets of 250-meter rows, aiming to go 250 meters in about a minute, followed by two minutes of an easy recovery rowing motion — essentially, you’ll aim for a 1:2 ratio of higher-intensity followed by lower-intensity exercise.

“When just starting out, I’d even suggest doing an easy row for all 10 250-meter distances instead of going hard every third minute,” Zelek says. “The important thing when learning is to maintain your form and allow your body to acclimate.”

Workout No. 2: Pyramid Row 

For this workout, you’ll strive for a 1:1 ratio between your higher intensity and recovery pace rowing, building up by two total minutes per round and then back down for nine rounds total. Your pyramid will look like this:

1-minute row/1-minute recovery 

2-minute row/2-minute recovery

3-minute row/3-minute recovery

4-minute row/4-minute recovery

5-minute row/5-minute recovery

4-minute row/4-minute recovery

3-minute row/3-minute recovery

2-minute row/2-minute recovery 

1-minute row/1-minute recovery

“This should be treated differently than the usual 1:2 active-to-recovery cardio training ratio,” Zelek cautions. “Try to actively rest while in recovery with a slow, easy row.” 

Workout No. 3: Row + Burpee

Row two minutes, then step off the rowing machine and do as many burpees (or push-ups) as possible in two minutes (AMRAP). Return to the rower and continue with an active-rest rowing pace for one minute before speeding up to a high-intensity pace for two minutes to repeat the cycle.

Complete four full rounds.

“Try to maintain the pace without stopping to rest in between rounds, and strive to get the same number of burpees in your two-minute time frame each time,” Zelek says. “A nice, gradual cool-down afterward is essential, as well.”

Workout No. 4: Speed Session

Start with 30 seconds of hard rowing (level 7 to 8 based on your rate of perceived exertion), followed by 60 seconds of an easy rowing recovery pace.

Repeat the sequence until you have finished 10 rounds.

Workout No. 5: Max Row

This is an all-out, go-big-or-go-home effort — keeping your stroke rate under 30 strokes per minute, the goal is to row as many meters as you can in four minutes. Slow to a recovery pace for two to four minutes, then repeat one more time.

“Because you’re going as hard as possible, it’ll be tricky, but really focus on maintaining a rhythm and paying attention to your split time so you can keep your stroke rate below 30 strokes per minute,” Zelek says.





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