Rowing: a super human exercise

While treadmills and exercise bikes have long been the staple of the gym, the previously overlooked rowing machine is fast gaining attention within the fitness industry. With a swathe of boutique rowing studios popping up in London, New York and elsewhere, some even predict rowing classes could soon rival indoor biking as the new go-to group activity.

The reason for rowing’s newfound popularity? Simple. If you want to get fitter, stronger or burn calories quickly, there are few better exercises you can be doing.

Rowing, a super-human fitness

When the world’s best athletes descend on Tokyo in 2020 for the Olympic Games, the fittest among them won’t be the marathon runners, cyclists, swimmers or triathletes. It will be the rowers.

When it comes to maximal aerobic capacity - the measure of an athlete’s efficiency at delivering oxygen to working muscles - elite rowers pride themselves on having some of the highest scores ever recorded. British rower and three-time Olympic gold medallist Pete Reed is reported to hold the largest ever recorded lung capacity with an astonishing 11.68 litres. The average male’s lungs are just six litres, or roughly half the size.

What is it about rowing?

According to Dr. Cameron Nichol - a doctor and former international rower himself - it’s the unique way rowing uses virtually every muscle in the body that makes it so effective as an exercise.

Dr. Nichol recently conducted an experiment to compare the effects of running on a treadmill versus rowing on a rowing machine. Asking athletes of similar fitness levels to perform 20 minutes of each exercise, Dr. Nichol was able to measure ‘muscle activation’ or “how hard and fast the muscles are working” using electrodes attached to the athletes. The results showed rowing activated many more muscles than running.

It is a common misconception that rowing is primarily an upper body exercise. In fact, Dr. Nichol says rowing uses 85 percent of the body’s total muscle mass - far more than either running or cycling.

The rowing stroke begins at the ‘catch’ with an explosive drive of the legs, utilising the quads, calves and glutes to extend the knees and hips. Once those major muscle groups have fired, the back, obliques and abdomen engage around the core to stabilise the trunk before the traps, lats and arm muscles complete the movement, drawing the handle in to the body at the ‘finish.’

This entire sequence, using nine major muscle groups, is repeated 20-30 times per minute at normal rowing pace, burning calories at two to three times the rate of cycling.

Forced Adaptation
The full-body exertion involved with rowing places huge demands on both the aerobic and anaerobic systems of the body. The more stress placed on the body, the more adaptation is forced to occur.

Over time, the body creates more capillaries to carry blood and oxygen to working muscles, the muscles around the heart strengthen and grow and the lungs become more efficient at extracting oxygen from the air.

It is little surprise then that with high volumes of rowing training, elite rowers achieve such impressive levels of VO2 max - the maximum rate at which the heart, lungs, and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise.

In another example of the positive training effects from rowing, five-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave had trained his heart to be so efficient, he had a resting heart rate of 36 beats per minute. The average male has a resting heart rate between of 60 and 70 beats per minute. So, if there is one thing that we can be certain of, it’s that rowing makes you very fit.

Good for everyone
The good news is that you don't have to be an Olympic athlete or devote a lot of time to benefit from the huge fitness gains it provides either. Being so taxing on the whole body, rowing can be a very time efficient way of improving fitness. In as little as 20 minutes on a rowing machine you can burn up to 300 calories while receiving a strenuous cardio workout.

Another bonus is the low impact rowing has on the body and joints compared to the pavement pounding act of running. For those suffering with weekend or injured joints, rowing can provide a perfect alternative. If all this has tempted you to give rowing a try for yourself, here are a few essential tips to get you started on the rowing machine.

Rowing Stroke Basics

  • From the ‘catch’, or forward position, push your legs down first while keeping your arms straight, core strong and head and chest up.
  • Once your legs have pushed all the way flat, open your trunk, pivoting from the hips and driving the shoulders back.
  • Finally, the arms complete the stroke by drawing the handle all the way to your body.

Quick tips for rowing

  • Think about maintaining good posture at all times - keep your head up and chest up.
  • Find a good rhythm. Be explosive on the ‘drive’, then relax and breathe as you slide forward for the next stroke.
  • Aim for a 2:1 ratio - take twice as long on the recovery between strokes as you do on the drive.
  • Long, powerful strokes are better than short fast ones. Try to keep your rating or cadence between 20 and 30 strokes per minute.

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