Rowing Machine Workouts For Fat Loss, Plus Building Muscle, Speed And Endurance

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When did you last do some cardio training in the gym? Whenever it was and whatever your reason – a high-intensity bout to burn fat or a longer, slower session to improve endurance – we’d wager that you used a treadmill. And if all those machines were busy your next stop was a stationary bike.

But why are treadmills and bikes always the most popular cardio kit? After all, you can easily replicate the benefits of treadmill running in the great outdoors, or take your bike on the open road instead of staring at repeats of Cash In The Attic on a dusty gym TV – especially in summer.

But the rowing machine is practically impossible to recreate outdoors, unless you own your own boat – and besides, the multiple performance and physique benefits it can offer (it’s the only cardio machine to truly work your upper body muscles) means it’s a bit of kit you should no longer ignore. That’s the view of Tom Eastham, a strength and nutrition coach based at W10 Performance in London.

“Don’t get me wrong: the rowing machine is hard work and unlike the other cardio machines it won’t allow you to go through the motions at a slow speed or easy resistance,” Eastham says. “With the rower, it’s all or nothing. But by giving it your all you can make some big improvements to not only your cardiovascular fitness, but also your body composition by building muscle and burning fat.”

Rowing Machine Benefits

Eastham believes that the best way to get fitter and healthier is to work on your weaknesses, which for most people means more time on the rower once you’ve mastered the correct form.

“There’s tremendous cross-over benefits to other activities,” he says. “To get better at weightlifting, for instance, you need good triple extension of the ankle, knee and hip joints, which you’ll work on with every single stroke of the rower. It can also make a huge improvement to your aerobic fitness to build endurance, and your anaerobic fitness for more speed. And because up to 85% of your muscles are involved when rowing, you can also build muscle size, strength and power.”

But Eastham’s favourite thing about the rower is the constant performance feedback you get with every stroke. “The machine’s display details all the information you need to ensure that your planned session is right on track, so you know that you’re always moving closer to your fitness objective,” he says.

Below are some of Eastham’s favourite rowing sessions to help you achieve various fitness goals, but first here’s how to use the rowing machine correctly.

Rowing Machine Form

“Before you start any session you need to know how to use the rower correctly and safely so that every stroke is efficient and effective,” says Eastham. “So many of us now spend all day sitting down – on the way to and from work, and hunched over a desk when we are there – which causes tight hamstrings, rounded shoulders and switched-off glutes. That’s a bad start. Work on your posture and correcting muscular imbalances and weakness and you’ll be ready to row.”

The stroke

Each stroke is divided into two parts: the drive and the recovery. The drive is the work portion of the stroke, while the recovery is the “rest” portion of the stroke where you prepare for the next drive.

Start the drive by pushing your feet down to straighten your legs, keeping your arms straight and gripping the handle firmly. When your legs are almost fully straight, drive your elbows back to bend your arms and bring the handle powerfully towards your chest. At the end of the drive your torso should be leaning back slightly with your elbows behind your body.

The recovery portion begins as you reverse the movement back to the start, bending your knees and sliding the seat back towards your heels.

Rowing Machine Workouts

Row repeats

Put the damper setting at 10, then position yourself correctly and safely on the rower with feet securely fastened and an overhand grip on the bar. Make sure the screen is on and that the time and distance data are clearly visible. Row for five minutes at a comfortable pace, then row for 250m as fast as possible, while maintaining proper rowing form. Rest for 60 seconds, then row another 250m at maximum effort. Repeat this pattern for a total of ten all-out 250m rows.

Build endurance

This one couldn’t be easier to follow. After an easy-pace five-minute warm-up, row for 20 minutes at the highest effort level you can consistently maintain. At the end make sure to note your average stroke rate and average speed so you have a target to improve upon next time.

Burn fat

This is a fantastic high-intensity interval-style session. Warm up with an easy-pace five-minute row. Row as hard as you can for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds. Repeat this for a total of six rounds, then take a three-minute rest. That’s one set. Do a total of three sets. The aim is to maintain the same intensity – so you row roughly the same distance – every time. If you don’t need the full three minutes of rest you weren’t going hard enough.

Time trial

A rower’s best 2km time is the equivalent of a weight trainer’s bench press one-rep max. If you’ve ever tried a 2km all-out PB you’ll know it’s agonising. Seven minutes is the gold standard for us mere mortals but that’s still a tough target. If you want to set a decent time, try doing 4 x 500m with one minute of rest in between. This helps you get used to covering the distance as quickly as you can, and as you progress reduce the duration of your rest in five- or ten-second drops to push yourself closer towards doing 2km in one all-out effort.

CrossFit WOD

This CrossFit Workout of the Day session featured in the 2015 CrossFit Open. It’s a rowing and thruster combo, so you need a barbell (or dumbbells) of at least 20kg. Warm up on the rower, then set the display to detail calories burned. Row as hard and quickly as possible until it hits 27 calories burned. Get off the rower then perform 27 thrusters: hold the bar across the front of your shoulders (or the dumbbells by your shoulders), lower into a squat, then stand back up powerfully and press the weight overhead. Once they’re done, reset the row and burn another 21 calories, then do 21 thrusters. Next burn 15 calories and do 15 thrusters, then finish with nine calories and nine thrusters.

500m Sprint Repeats

Remember earlier on in the list when we said to try ten 250m repeats with a 60sec rest between them? Sounded hard, didn’t it? Well, this rowing workout designed by Jude Samuel, former MMA fighter and current BAMMA matchmaker, is a heck of a lot harder.

Instead of 250m, you’ll be doing 500m efforts, trying to keep your time for each 500m sprint under two minutes. You’ll be relieved to hear you’re not doing ten reps, but you are doing eight – and in case that makes it seem too easy, we should also say that Samuel has slashed the rest to 40sec between each sprint. So that’s 500m in 2min, 40sec of rest, repeated eight times. Make sure you warm up with at least five minutes of steady rowing before hitting your first sprint.

There’s every chance that 40sec of rest will start to feel way too short after a couple of sprints, so don’t be afraid to extend it slightly, but try to cap it at 60sec or 90sec at the most.