One of the underrated advantages of treadmills and bikes is that they attempt to replicate something with which most people are already familiar—walking, running, or biking. The barriers to entry are low, and the task of planning and completing a workout is a little more intuitive, since most people know what those activities feel like. Those heuristics are out the door with a rowing machine, though. Do you just... pull? How far? How hard? And why does it insist on measuring distance in meters? We asked Caley Crawford, the Director of Education at Row House, for tips on getting started so that, hopefully, your experience doesn't end with you throwing your hands up in frustration and crawling back to the elliptical room.
This isn't about speed
Most people assume that a speedier row is a more intense one, says Crawford. It's not. The power that each stroke generates is far more important to the workout's intensity. When your energy is dedicated to rowing as fast as possible, you end up exhausting yourself quickly without getting any meaningful work done. To get a sense of the power you're generating, focus on lowering your splits over a certain period of time, and/or on increasing your wattage. Most rowing machines track these metrics automatically
This isn't like running, where the treadmill spins at a certain speed and you have to match it. The rowing machine gives back only what you put in, so if the workout seems easy, you're not working hard enough yet. One helpful point to remember is that each stroke should be about 60 percent legs, 30 percent back, and only 10 percent arms, and that the ideal ratio of time for drive (the pull) versus recovery (the release) is 1:2. Think about using your legs to push in an explosive manner with each stroke, almost like you're doing a squat or a deadlift.
The length your stroke covers doesn't
It's cool that you can reach really far forward and pull really far backward, but focusing on getting the longest possibles strokes risks "over-compression," explains Crawford, a condition that causes knee pain by transferring the load to the quads. Hamstrings and glutes are the big muscles here, and you want them doing the big work. Be sure to keep your core braced, and when you lean forward, stay closer to 1 o'clock than 3 o'clock.
Not to put a damper on it
Rowing machines are equipped with a device called the damper, which is often pushed all the way up to 10 in gyms. Higher damper levels don't affect resistance, though—they just increase the drag. (Crawford likens it to stacking bricks in your boat). Try moving it down to somewhere between 3 and 5, she says, and focusing on maintaining that explosiveness, which is the key to propelling you farther in a given period of time.
Back to basics
Don't let chronic lower back pain deter you from giving the rowing machine a try. Done properly, this is a great exercise for strengthening your back, and as a bonus, it rarely leads to the type of chronic knee, ankle, and foot injuries that can plague runners. If you have a temperamental back, be sure to keep your core braced, and that you're not laying too far back at the conclusion of each stroke. (Here, closer to 11 o'clock than 9 o'clock.)
30 minutes or less
If you're used to spending a half-hour on the treadmill, Crawford offers this simple regiment that will keep your schedule intact.
Warm-up (3 minutes)
Spend a few minutes getting loose, focusing on that 3-count stroke and 1:2 ratio. Recovery is the part of the stroke that is most often done incorrectly, so be sure you're taking adequate time.
Find your power (4 minutes)
Complete 8-10 sets of "Power Tens"—ten powerful strokes at about 90 percent effort, with 20 seconds of light rowing in between.
Stroke rate ladder (7 minutes)
Start with one minute at 24 strokes per minute, and then additional one-minute intervals at 26, 28, and 30 strokes per minute. Work your way back down after that. Try to maintain your wattage or split time throughout, which will be most challenging on the back end of the pyramid.
Intervals (8 minutes)
Get your heart rate up. Do four rounds of 40 seconds of max-effort rowing and 20 seconds of light rowing, and then eight rounds of 20 max-effort seconds and 10 active recovery seconds.
Reset your monitor and row as many meters as you can in two minutes. Take a 90-second rest, and then cover your monitor and do it again, this time trying to beat your first number.
Give yourself a break
You should always stretch after a workout, but this is especially true when trying something new. Target the hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, and lats in particular. See you in 23.5 hours.