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The Rower: Missing the Boat on the Ultimate Cardio Machine

The Cinderella of Cardio


Cardio Queens


Treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes dominate the cardio landscape in most gyms. Throw in a few stair climbers here and there, but in a huge gym like LA Fitness, you will be lucky to find two or three rowing machines. My local gym has about 20 treadmills 10 ellipticals, 20 bikes, a few stairclimbers, and ZERO rowers.

Of course treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes are all useful and perhaps necessary components of a gym. But compared to the rower, these three are like the three stepsisters hogging all the glory while Cinderella is locked up in the basement. Much like that hidden beauty, the rower gets no love, and it is a  severely UNDERRATED piece of cardio machinery. There are few, if any factors where it doesn’t stack up to the wildly popular elliptical and treadmill.

If your gym has one, give it a shot. If you’re trying to decide on a cardio machine for your house, get a rower.

I did, and here’s why.

The Practicality and Experience

In most areas, it’s pretty easy to replicate the experience of a treadmill or stationary bike. Go outside and walk/run, or jump on a bike and take a ride. Both experiences are relatively common and economical. The elliptical stands alone on this one, because I don’t know how you mimic that movement without a machine.

If you live near a body of water, you might be able to jump in a kayak or a canoe, but most of us are never going to have the convenience of rowing a boat on a regular basis. Anyone, however, can purchase a rower, and they occupy about the same space as a treadmill or elliptical. And a quality rower like the Concept 2 runs about the same price as a quality treadmill or elliptical (around $900).

The Workout



This is what most people care about, and this is where rower kicks butt. According to U.S. Olympic rowing coach Mike Teti, “Rowing machines provide the best total-body workout of any cardio machine.”

Nice unbiased source right there.

All the articles comparing rowing to other forms of cardio cite the same Harvard Health Publication, which breaks down the calorie expenditure per hour for a 125 lb. person as follows:

Moderate cycling: 210 kcal

Moderate rowing: 210 kcal

Vigorous rowing: 255 kcal

Elliptical Trainer: 270

It’s hard to know the exact parameters used to define “vigorous,” and I have no idea how the elliptical trainer generates that caloric expenditure. Based on my own perceived rate of exertion, the elliptical is by far the easiest form of cardio I’ve done.

The numbers are there, so I’ll reluctantly fist-bump the elliptical here. However,  the rower still stacks up solid. These numbers also do not factor the amount of post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) generated by each form of exercise, and it also doesn’t account for post exercise energy expenditure (boosted metabolism), which I’ll mention later. Rowing has the potential to elevate your energy expenditure for up to three days post-workout.

The biggest cardio machine game-changer for the rower is that it involves your entire body in the workout.  Almost all cardio machines predominantly involve the lower body. There may be a little arm-moving here and there, but the significant contribution comes from the legs. 

With rowing, both lower and upper body are key players. Rowing heavily involves your calves, hamstrings, quads, glutes, back muscles, shoulders, and forearms.

If you’re going to put yourself through a cardio beatdown, you may as well get the entire body involved and get the most bang for your buck.

Speaking of a beatdown, how hard is rowing on your body?


Depends. It can be a brutal workout, but rowing is also low-impact, and easy on your joints and connective tissue, You don’t have to worry about the hundreds of pounds of pressure shooting up your legs with each footstrike on a treadmill.

Perhaps one reason people avoid rowing is that it can be pretty brutalizing if you’re overzealous, which is the same for any form of exercise. But with a little bit of sensible pacing, the rower is a remarkably low-impact, body massaging experience. Forget the foot, ankle, knee and hip pain that every runner knows is lurking around the corner.

A word of caution: It is definitely possible to jack up your back with poor form, but this is relatively easy to avoid with a little technique instruction.


The biggest drawback of the rower is that it’s TOUGH. Ironically, I think a lot of people stay away from it because it’s doing exactly what you need it to do: It’s using almost every muscle in your body to provide an intense, relatively short duration cardiovascular workout. It’s tough to row for 30, 45, or 60 minutes, like some are prone to do on the elliptical or treadmill.

Floating along for an hour on the elliptical or treadmill might satisfy your exercise conscience, but they may be minutes ill-spent. Unless you ENJOY the long treadmill strolls, you don’t need to be spending anywhere near that long to get the needed benefits of a cardiovascular workout.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommendation  for minutes of daily activity DECREASES relative to the INTENSITY of your exercise. The recommendation can be met through 30-60 minutes of “moderate” activity 5 times a week, OR 20-60 minutes of “vigorous” activity only 3 times a week.

The rower will deliver the bigger bang for your buck, and you won’t need to spend as much of your day using the thing.

Range of Motion

Exercise that takes your body through a range of motion is a good thing. It promotes flexibilty, better form, and it can address some mobility restrictions that contribute to poor posture and movement patterns. Rowing takes you through ankle, knee, hip, flexion and extension, not to mention actual “rowing” motion that requires full use of your upper back muscles.

Cyclying puts you in position where you’re predisposed to round your back and roll your shoulders forward, which is a terrible pattern that affects your posture and ability to safely perform pushing movements like pressing and pushups. Walking and running do not require or promote any great degree of flexibility, and the range of motion on an elliptical is paltry at best.



Poor Postural Pattern–Might be necessary for cycling, but it’s detrimental to almost everything else.


This is one reason why many people use the rower for warming up and cooling down.

Muscle Power

The rower is unique among cardio machines in that it can actually pull double duty as resistance exercise. The harder you pull, and the more force you exert on the leg drive,  the more resistance you encounter. This means you’re building a bit of muscle, and when you engage in resistance exercise you boost your energy consumption (metabolism stays up) for up to three days.

An article in NSCA’s Strength and Conditioning Journal reported that “high intensity RE (rowing could work here) results in EPOC for periods of up to 38 hours after exercise, and others report “elevations in EPOC and EE for up to 72 hours.”

That’s three days of extra fat blasting, and you don’t even need to stay on the rower as long as you would a treadmill or elliptical.

Kill Exercise Boredom

Treadmills, ellipticals, and stair climbers are all forms of exercise purgatory. I like the rower because of how easy it is to mix up workouts. You can cruise for 20 minutes if you want, or you can blast out 30 second interval sprints. Throw in a few body weight movements, and you can build a 15 minute circuit around the rower.

Like this;

Repeat for 15 mintues:

  • Row 250 meters
  • 5 Burpees
  • 10 air squats
  • 5 pushups

Or this::

  • Row 500-400-300-200-100 meters
  • Accumulate 30-60 seconds of plank in between each bout of rowing.

Or this:

  • Sprint 30 seconds, rest 30 seconds. Repeat 12 times, and attempt to match the meters rowed from the first interval.

The possibilities are endless, and sometimes it’s fun.

Quality Rowing Machines



Almost two years ago, we purchased a brand new Concept 2 Model D for about 900 bucks. You can find the Concept 2 on Craigslist for anywhere between 600-900, but they are snatched up quickly. You will be hard pressed to find anything negative about this machine.



Water rowers are an excellent alternative. They’re a bit more expensive (around $1100 brand new), but they offer a smoother, less mechanical experience. The Concept 2 uses a flywheel and air for resistance, and the pulling mechanism is essentially a bicycle chain. The water rower uses a nylon strap, and it’s built of wood. It feels smoother and more organic, but it may present more issues with maintenance. I’ve seen a few of these on Craigslitst, and some of them had damaged water reservoirs.

The water rower is used at Invicta Fitness, and people love the experience. Most people I’ve talked to who have used both prefer the water rower. I like them both, but I went for the Concept 2 due to price, and universally positive reviews on durability and low maintenance.

Personality Test

The benefit of any cardio machine is going to come down to your personality, your preference, and what you will use. The best machine in the world is useless if you don’t stick with it.

But you should give the rower. LA Fitness does not know what is best for you. 24 Hour does not know what’s best for you. They don’t even give you the option.

Get on a rower, sign up for a class (some gyms like Invicta Fitness offer rowing classes). At least give the most underrated piece of cardio equipment a fair shot.

Photo: Cardio Queens

Photo: Cyclist


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