What’s the Deal With Rowing Machines?

Row machine workouts Row machine workouts

What’s the
Deal With
Rowing Machines?

Curious about the most versatile
piece of cardio equipment?

With most gyms closed over the past year, it made everyone get a bit more creative with how they exercise. And those looking beyond the standard stationary bike and TRX set have embraced the rowing machine. Why? Because it's a low-impact activity that's shockingly effective.

A smart alternative for anyone who has achy joints or needs to avoid consistent impact on the knees or ankles, rowing not only builds muscle and strips fat, it dials up your overall fitness and endurance with a full-body workout. To put it into perspective, a Harvard University study found that the average 185 pound man can torch nearly 400 calories by rowing for just 30 minutes.

We recently caught up with Shane Farmer, a former collegiate rower, Crossfit Games athlete and founder of Dark Horse Rowing, to get some intel on how to start implementing rowing into our training routine. “The rower is truly a complete workout,” he says. “There's not an exact percentage, but the majority of the body has to work to perform the rowing motion.”

The piece of equipment you use for indoor rowing is called an Erg. It's that “intimidating” machine at the gym that usually has a small screen and a seat that slides and handles to pull on (a bit confusing, right?). Turns out, it's not that confusing or scary. You just need to approach it with a little background knowledge and a rough idea of what you want to accomplish.


Row machine workouts

Form Is Everything

Row machine workouts
Row machine workouts

Proper form while exercising on an erg is the key to getting the most out of your rowing. It will take you from very odd-looking and ineffective bicep curls to a true full-body workout.

“The first thing you need to understand is that mechanics come first. It's a learned behavior and nobody gets it right at first,” says Farmer. “After learning those basics, it's a ripple effect to achieving great results.”

Start coiled close to the rower, gripping the handles. Extend your legs (keeping your heels down), then your hips, and finally follow through by bringing the handles to your chest. It will feel unnatural. Repeat after me: legs... hips... arms... arms... hips... legs. Engrain that in your brain and you'll be pain-free and actually get all the benefits of the rowing motion. “The form ensures you work more muscles—more of the right muscles, and ultimately have more fun.”

Beginners Workout

“Just hopping on the rower with no plan can feel like a never-ending hamster wheel,” Farmer warns. “And that's not good for anyone.” Dark Horse offers this beginner workout that will get you acclimated to the erg and also allow you to test out various ways to get a good workout from rowing.

The best part about rowing is that from beginner to advanced, you'll always get a great workout. Farmer says it's completely scalable because there's no final time barrier or effort level that can't be beaten. “It's like a boxing match that you'll never win.” For a more structured plan, check out Dark Horse Rowing Crew's training plan. “It's a formalized introduction to the indoor rower and how to build your base to ensure you can have fun using the rower for the rest of your life.”

The Best Ergs

If you’re not a fan of using the gym’s equipment, or maybe you just want to row in the comfort of your own home, there are a few options that’ll arrive right on your doorstep.

NordicTrack Rowing Machine

NordicTrack RW500
Rowing Machine

A simple, straightforward rower to get you started.

$999 / $799 at Best Buy

Rogue Concept2 Rowing Machine

Rowing Machine

This sturdy model is the favorite used by Crossfit gyms and serious rowers.

$900 at Rogue

MoMA Design Store WaterRower Rowing Machine

Rowing Machine

A handsome wooden model made famous (infamous?) by House of Cards that uses water for resistance.

$1,500 at MoMA Design Store


Rowing was one of the original sports in the modern Olympic Games.

NOTE: Items featured in this story are independently selected by the editorial team. Purchasing via our links may earn Valet. a portion of the sale, which helps fund our editorial mission.

The Smart Way
to Start Your Day

The Daily Valet. is your cheat sheet to what's happening, what's cool and what's making headlines. It's your secret to being the most interesting man in the room.

More on
Getting Into Shape