3 indoor rowing workouts

A champion rower shares her favorite fat-burning, muscle-building routines

Rowing is on the rise and has been receiving some well-deserved attention recently (thank you House of Cards and Francis Underwood). I think it’s the most effective, low-impact, fat-burning, muscle-building, cardiovascular-conditioning sport on the planet. As the director of the indoor rowing program at Equinox Sports Club in Los Angeles, owner of my own private rowing studio, and competitive rower, I spend time every week creating new ways to challenge my students and myself on the machine. Regardless of your fitness level, goals, and time available to train, there is a rowing workout for you.

Most competitive rowers deploy an 80/20 principle when it comes to training. Eighty percent of the workouts are controlled, power-focused, and “steady.” The other 20 percent are based on speed. Both types are challenging and provide varying methods of intensity for effective training.

Below are three diverse workouts to try. Each one should begin with a 10-minute warm-up. Start with easy rowing and transition to more intense work in the final minutes.


WORKOUT: 3x12’, 5’ Rest, 20-22SR

DIRECTIONS: Row 3, 12-minute pieces with a 5-minute rest between each piece. Row all pieces at a 20 to 22 stroke rating (strokes per minute). The intensity should be "moderate plus," which means you are working hard at a sustainable pace and split.

OBJECTIVE: The goal is to improve your distance on each piece. Due to the steady stroke rating of 20 to 22, you will need to apply more force with the legs to improve your distance.


WORKOUT: 12x30s, 1’ Rest, 28-30SR

DIRECTIONS: Row 12, 30-second pieces with a 1-minute rest between each piece. Row each piece at a 28 to 30 stroke rating (strokes per minute). This will be very intense and challenging. If you are not toasted at the end, then have the confidence to push harder the next time you do the workout.

OBJECTIVE: The goal is to make it though the workout knowing that you gave it your best effort from the very first piece. Ultimately, you would want to negative split the pieces (each one faster than the previous), but just knowing you gave each 30-second effort your best while maintaining control and proper form is an excellent base to build upon.


WORKOUT: 5x5’, 2’ Rest, Increasing SR 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 750m Finisher

DIRECTIONS: Row 5, 5-minute pieces with a 2-minute rest between each piece. Increase the stroke rating for each piece. Row the first one at a 20SR, second one at a 22SR and so on. Complete the workout with a best effort 750-meter piece using a stroke rating that combines quality rowing with power (26-30SR).

OBJECTIVE: The goal is to increase distance and improve your split on each 5-minute piece. This should be challenging but doable, considering the increased stroke rating. Empty the tank on the last 750 meters.



Focusing on this alone will do wonders for your rowing. As you use your core to push the arms away and bring your body forward at the finish, keep your knees down until you absolutely must release them. Look down and watch the handle cross the knees and be on its way to your ankles before you release the knees to begin the recovery.


While rowing can look like an upper body-focused exercise, it is far from it when done properly. The upper body works, but only under the direction of the legs. Think of your legs as the chef and your upper body as the sous chef who is there to take direction. Push where your power and mass are held (the legs) and avoid pulling where your mass is compromised in comparison (the arms).


Your seat and handle should move together on the drive. As you become more experienced, focus on relaxing the handle until it is above the ankles and then make that strong push (with the legs) to initiate the drive.


Regardless of your stroke rate, you must get your arms away from the body quickly at the finish. This allows time to set your upper body by hinging forward with the hips and pelvis. The position you create at this point is critical because it establishes your positioning as you come into the catch for your next stroke.


Rowing is special in that with every stroke you are given a recovery opportunity. Learning to take advantage of this will do wonders for your rowing. Just remember, the drive is always much quicker than the recovery. You can even create a mantra while rowing by saying, “push” (one beat) on the drive and “rest, rest” (two beats) on the recovery to help train the body to take advantage of the recovery.


Train your breath and watch your rowing improve. Focus on exhaling at the catch and as you complete the drive. The inhales will be short and happen naturally. Focus on audible exhales and the inhales will take care of themselves.


In rowing, we consider the legs the powerhouse. But the core supports a powerful drive, protects your back, and assists in getting the arms away and setting the upper body to begin the recovery phase. Engage the core at the catch and keep it engaged all the way through the finish. Relax the core on the recovery.


Master this concept and you are well on your way to becoming an excellent rower: The speed at which you physically move on the rowing machine (up and down the slide) does not equal actual speed. You will travel much further and efficiently by slowing down the recovery phase and powering up on the drive using the legs. Test this concept out for yourself and observe how your split improves.


When done properly, rowing is a very challenging sport. It takes time for your muscle memory to accept the order of the movement to create a truly efficient stroke. Be patient and commit to the process. Always revisit and practice the basics. Rowing is a lifelong activity that provides continuous learning opportunities.