Rowing Machine Workouts for Beginners

If you want to lose weight and keep it off, exercise is a must. Working out burns calories while you do it and also causes a small but meaningful increase in your resting metabolic rate so that you burn more calories 24/7.

There are lots of different forms of exercise, and almost all of them can help you lose weight and get fit. The main things to consider are enjoyment and consistency; even the best workout won’t help you lose weight if you don’t do it often enough.

A lot of exercisers enjoy rowing. Rowing machines can be found in most gyms, and a lot of people have them at home too. Rowing is a full-body activity, which makes it especially useful for weight control.

But, rowing is also a demanding exercise and one that a lot of beginners find too challenging. That’s usually because they go too fast too soon or exercise for too long.

In this article, we’re going to provide you with three rowing machine workouts for beginners and make sure you’re rowing correctly. Proper rowing techniques will make your workouts more comfortable, safer, and more effective.

Rowing Machine Workouts for Beginners

How to Use a Rowing Machine

Starting rowing machine workout

Unlike exercise bikes and ellipticals, it’s all too easy to row incorrectly. Improper rowing technique will make your workout harder than it needs to be and can put unwanted stress on your lower back.

Follow these steps to make sure you are rowing correctly.

Step 1

Sit on the rower and put your feet on the footplates. Tighten the straps to hold your feet in place. The straps should cross the broadest part of your feet. They should be snug but not overly tight; don’t cut off the blood supply to your toes!

Step 2

Grab the handle with an overhand grip. Hold it firmly, but you don’t need a “death grip.”

Step 3

Extend your arms in front of you and slide forward. Try to sit up tall and avoid rounding your back too much.

Step 4

Extend your legs and push yourself backward. Keep your arms straight until the handle passes over your knees.

Step 5

As the handle comes level with your knees, pull with your arms and draw the handle into your midsection. Keep your wrists straight and your upper arms close to your sides.

Step 6

Extend your arms and then bend your legs, sliding forward again.

Tips to Remember

  • Sit up as tall as you can
  • Start each rowing stroke with your legs and not your arms
  • Try not to round your lower back
  • Keep your head up and look straight ahead
  • Keep your wrists straight
  • Maintain a smooth, steady pace – about 24-30 strokes per minute is usually about right

The Benefits of Using a Rowing Machine

Rowing is a very effective and beneficial form of exercise. Reasons to make rowing part of your workout regimen include:

Low Impact

With no jumping or heavy landings, rowing is easy on your ankles, knees, and hips. This is especially good news if you are overweight. Rowing is often far more comfortable than running for heavy exercisers.

Full Body

Done properly, rowing is a full-body workout. Your legs get you moving, but then you use your arms and back to complete each stroke. This means rowing is a very time-efficient and effective calorie-burning workout. If you only have time for one type of exercise, rowing would be an excellent choice.

The Harder You Pull, The Harder Your Workout Will Be

Woman doing a rowing machine workout

Most rowing machines are self-regulating, and the harder you row, the harder they resist. This means they’re ideal for beginners.

If you want an easy workout, don’t pull so hard. If you need more of a challenge, pull a little harder. Simple!

On the downside, sitting on a rower for long periods can be uncomfortable. Most rowers have very firm, lightly padded seats.

However, an aftermarket gel seat cover will cure this problem, and, as a beginner, you probably won’t be on your rower for so long that your butt begins to hurt.

How Long Should A Beginner Use A Rowing Machine?

To benefit from any cardiovascular exercise, you need to do it for 20-30 minutes and work out at least three times a week. According to the American College of Sports medicine, you should try to accumulate around 150 minutes of physical activity per seven days.

However, if you are new to exercise or rowing, that may be too much and something you need to build up to.

Instead, start off with 5-10 minutes, and then add a minute per workout until you can row for 20-minutes straight. Then, as preferred, you can row a little faster or row further.

If you cannot row for more than a few minutes, you may be going too fast. Slow down so that you feel comfortable and are only slightly out of breath. In terms of exercise intensity, you should be working at around 60% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Calculate 60% of your MHR like this:

220 – age in years x 0.6 = 60% of your MHR.

On a notional scale of exertion, you should feel like you are working 5-6 out of 10. You should feel like you are exercising, but also that could continue for more than just a few minutes.

Can You Lose Belly Fat on A Rowing Machine?

Rowing can definitely help you lose weight and burn fat. Exercise burns calories and, providing you are eating a little less, will contribute to the negative energy balance that forces your body to burn fat for fuel.

However, while some of that fat may come from your abdomen, no type of workout preferentially targets belly fat. Fat is accumulated according to your genetics and hormones and is used for energy in the same way.

Spot reduction, the idea that you can reduce fat from localized areas of your body, is a myth; it’s not how your body works. However, if you row consistently and eat healthily, you will lose fat, and some of that fat will come from your abdomen. Stick with it long enough, and you may even lose all the fat around your waistline.

Remember, though, if you are eating more calories than your body needs, your workouts will not be as effective. To lose weight and keep it off, you need to reduce your calorie intake AND increase your calorie expenditure.

3 Easy Rowing Machine Workouts

Some rowing machines have built-in programs, but most don’t. While you could just hop on your rower and start pulling, you’ll get better results if you follow a more structured approach. Here are three straightforward workouts designed specifically for beginners.

Proceed each workout with 3-5 minutes of easy rowing to warm-up. Do some gentle stretches and joint mobility exercises before getting back on your rower and starting your workout. Warming up will make your workout more comfortable and reduces your risk of injury.

1. Maximum Meters

For this workout, choose a time such as 10, 15, or 20 minutes, and then try and row as far as you can while maintaining a comfortable pace. Ideally, you should stay at about 26-30 strokes per minute. Record the distance covered.

The next time you do this workout, your goal is to row a few meters further.

2. Basic Intervals

People doing intervals on rowing machines

Interval training involves alternating periods of faster rowing with rest periods of slower, easier rowing.

It’s a very time-efficient way to work out and also increases your calorie expenditure, both during and after your workout.

Row three minutes fast, and then row slowly for two minutes. Repeat four times to total 20 minutes.

How fast should you row? Just a little faster than usual is fine. There is no need to sprint; that’s too intense for most beginners. Instead, work up to around 70-80% of your maximum heart rate or 7-8 on our notional scale of 1-10.

3. Descending Distance Pyramid

Once you are warmed up, complete the following sequence. Row slowly or get off your rower and walk around during the rest periods.

  1. Row 1000 meters slowly (7 out of 10 effort)
  2. Rest 2 minutes
  3. Row 750 meters a little faster (8 out of 10 effort)
  4. Rest 90 seconds
  5. Row 500 meters faster still (9 out of 10 effort)
  6. Rest 60 seconds
  7. Row 250 meters as quickly as possible (10 out of 10 effort)
  8. Finished!

Bottom Line

Rowing is an excellent fat and calorie-burning workout. Unlike running, it’s low impact, so it’s easy on your joints. Rowing is also a full-body exercise, which means it’s potentially better for you than stationary cycling or using a stepper.

However, it can take a few workouts to become a proficient rower. After all, you’ll need to coordinate your arms and legs at the same time, and that’s not always easy. If you pull with your arms too much, you’ll soon get tired, and if you round your lower back, you could end up with unpleasant aches and pains.

However, once you’ve mastered rowing, your efforts will be rewarded. It’s one of the best calorie-burning exercises around, and because it works your arms, legs, and core, it’s very time efficient.

If you are new to rowing, start off with just a few minutes at a comfortable pace and then build up gradually from there. Work up to doing 20 minutes without stopping. Then, when you are ready, kick your training up a notch with one of our tried and tested rowing machine workouts for beginners.


Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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