How to use a rowing machine to lose weight

How to use a rowing machine to lose weight - A group of women using rowing machines
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When used correctly, a rowing machine is a fantastic way to lose weight. Rowing machines boast a unique combination of features that make them suitable for anyone of any ability - from beginner to Olympian. In this article we’re going to explain how to use a rowing machine to lose weight safely and effectively. We will also give you a few simple workout approaches you could try straight away to get you on this journey on any of the best rowing machines.

Thanks to its user-friendliness, ease of use and high degree of safety, the rower is the perfect solution for weight loss at home. On top of that, you can build it into your exercise routine whenever you like, as it’s available as an at-home product, or a staple of most public and private gyms. Read on to learn how and why…

The basics of losing weight

Weight loss is a case of expending more calories than you consume. This is commonly achieved in two ways…

  1. Consume fewer calories via dieting
  2. Increase your calorie expenditure through exercise

The most efficient exercise approach taken, therefore, is one that maximizes the energy expenditure during the workout. However, the intensity has to be such that the workout can be maintained for a suitably long enough period of time. If it’s too tough, you’ll tire quickly and won’t end up burning as many calories.

If we take running for example, a lot of people struggle to run for more than a couple of minutes, but there’s a limit to how slow you can run - past a certain point it turns into a walk! This means that although running can be good for weight loss because it burns a lot of calories, if you’re only able to manage a couple of minutes of running before you need to stop, it’s not an effective solution for you. 

The beauty of a rowing machine is that it can be operated at slow speeds, but still offers high calorie burn returns – it's one of the best exercise machines to lose weight. When compared to indoor cycling, research shows that rowing burns more calories at similar intensities. If you prefer bikes, we do have an investigation on whether exercise bikes are good for weight loss too.

According to a study at the Biological Sciences department at Ohio university, you burn more calories for the same amount of effort on a rowing machine than you would on an exercise bike.  

What is LISS cardio? Woman rowing on a rowing machine

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What are the weight loss benefits of rowing machines?

There are many reasons beyond simple calorie burn that explain why rowing machines are perfect for helping you to lose weight. Here’s a quick run through of them… 

It's relatively low injury risk 

For many people running can be a very bad idea. The increased impact on the joints through running for long distances or on unstable surfaces can be detrimental to many. Running can be painful, especially for those who are new to the sport and don’t know how to run properly.

There’s scientific backing to support these anecdotal claims too.

In a 2015 meta-analysis of 13 studies on incidence of injuries in running, recreational runners suffered an average of 18 injuries per 1000 hours of running. Compare this to injury data in rowing and the average masters age (43-59) rower suffered only 2.25 injuries per 1000 training sessions on the rower.

This data is particularly useful because it has been accumulated over a long period of time, using a wide number of subjects.

It’s perfect for home use

A rowing machine is a perfect machine to use at home. They’re relatively small and, unlike a treadmill or lots of other machines, they don’t have to plug in so don’t have ongoing running costs in terms of electricity. Some models can even be folded in two for easy storage.

They’re also neighbor-friendly machines, especially if you live in an apartment block. They’re relatively quiet because there’s no motor running, plus there’s no loud banging like there would be on a treadmill.

People using rowing machines

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There’s little technique to learn

Whilst there is some technique to learn, it’s not complicated and it can be picked up within a few minutes. The other good thing is that learning rowing technique makes you a more efficient rower - not necessarily a safer rower.

What this means is that even if you don’t have great technique, you’re less likely to hurt yourself... you’ll just make your workout harder!

It’s a whole-body workout

A rowing machine trains the upper and lower body simultaneously, so it maximizes workout efficiency. It even engages the core muscles too. Cycling, walking and running only train the lower body, so leave the upper body lagging behind.

Rowing is suitable for all fitness levels

A rower works for all fitness levels because it can be operated at any speed and intensity. If you’re brand new to exercise and can only go slow, that’s OK. The rower allows you to do that.

Compare that with other common cardio approaches: if you go too slow on a bike you fall off. If you run too slow you’re actually walking. If you’re too slow on a cross trainer it shuts down. In this regard, a rowing machine is the ideal way to lose weight.

A woman uses a rowing machine

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Using a rowing machine to lose weight

So far we’ve established why a rowing machine is a fantastic tool for helping you to lose weight. Now we’re going to move on to how to use a rowing machine to lose weight.

Decide on a frequency

Most people will benefit more from shorter, more frequent training rather than longer, less frequent training sessions. In this study from the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Hallym University Chuncheon Sacred Heart Hospital participants underwent 40 minute (10 minute warm up, 20 minute rowing, 10 minute cool down) workouts five days per week and benefited significantly from a fitness and body composition standpoint. As such, we suggest you aim for 4-5 shorter sessions per week rather than 2-3 longer sessions.

Work hard!

We’d love to be able to tell you that weight loss was easy, but we’d be lying. It requires hard work. The good news is that a rowing machine when used at a high intensity is proven to be effective at helping you to reduce body fat levels

But what does hard actually mean? There are two ways we can gauge that…

  1. Hard data - using a heart rate monitor
  2. Subjective data - working on the RPE (rate of perceived exertion scale)

If you wear a heart rate monitor, maintaining 70%+ of your maximum heart rate for 20 minutes or more is sufficient. With the RPE scale, working at around a 7 out of 10 of intensity for 20 minutes or more is sufficient. You want to be sweaty and breathless, but not on the verge of collapse!

People using rowing machines

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Use Interval training

There are essentially two types of cardio training:

  1. Steady state, where you work at a given intensity for a given period of time
  2. Intervals, where you mix periods of high and low intensity work

Interval training is consistently proven to be a very effective and efficient way of improving cardiovascular fitness. Even if only one or two of your weekly workouts are intervals, it’ll stand you in good stead.

There’s no need to over-complicated interval training either. Here’s three approaches you can use over a 20 minute workout...

  1. 30 seconds gentle pace, 20 seconds medium/fast pace, 10 seconds full sprint. Repeat x 20
  2. 30 seconds slow, 30 seconds fast. Repeat x 20
  3. 20 Seconds slow, 10 seconds fast. Repeat x 40

For best results, mix up the training. Just make sure you work hard and burn lots of calories!

A rowing machine is simple to use, very effective and helps you to lose weight in the comfort of your own home. Follow the tips shared here to lose weight quickly and safely with your own rower. And if you need more advice, check out our guide to how to get fit.

Steve Hoyles is a personal trainer and gym owner. He has written about health and fitness for over a decade, including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, BBC, Catalyst Athletics and hundreds of fitness websites as clients. He’s usually found at his gym or taking one of his two sons to their various sporting commitments!