Erg Love Not Fear: 10 Rowing Machine Benefits For All

Not only is it time to stop 'fearing the erg,' it's well past the point where we should recognize that the rowing machine is probably the best thing to ever happen to the sport. 

An illustration of a rowing machine with writing above it, saying 'fear the erg' with the word 'fear' crossed out

The rowing machine goes back a long way. There have been various (and some very strange) iterations over the years, but the main benefit of the rowing machine has always remained the same: bringing the full-body training experience from the water on land. 

These days, with immersive experiences available through streamable workouts and flat screens (or even tablets and smartphones), the distance between land training and training on the water has shrunk apace. It's never going to be a 1:1 feeling from the dock to the boat, and rowers (typically with not great ergs) are apt to point out that 'ergs don't float.' But again, that doesn't decrease the value to the individual, nor to the sport. 

Section 1: Understanding the Basics

For the uninitiated in the audience, there are some basic (and some very obvious) benefits to rowing machines, from a broad range of cardio and HIIT training, to its low-impact, full-body nature. Let's get a quick rundown.

1. Cardiovascular Health

It's no secret that rowing is great for training your heart and lungs. So often, you're living at the edge of the lactic acid threshold, laying a foundation for greater volume, power, and V02 max in the process. There's a reason why the best rowers tend to be long and lean — similar to basketball, it requires a combination of explosive power with the ability to sustain an effort for a long time. 

2. Full-body Workout

For the rowers in the audience, maybe it's a not-so-humble brag, but... Ever wonder why rowers are some of the fittest athletes around? It's because rowing engages something like 80% of the muscles in your body. From your legs (yes, newbies — it's not about having really big arms and shoulders), which drive the stroke like pistons, to your back and arms, which pull the handle towards you, every stroke is a symphony of muscle activation. And let's not forget about your core, which plays a crucial role in stabilizing your body throughout the movement. 

It's like doing a squat, a deadlift, and a pull-up all at once.

3. Low-impact Exercise

Unlike pounding the pavement or jumping around in a high-intensity workout class, rowing is gentle on your joints. The smooth, fluid motion of rowing means there's no jarring impact to worry about. So whether you're recovering from an injury, dealing with achy knees, or just want to take it easy on your body, rowing is a safe and effective option.

I started rowing in college after years of playing catcher in baseball — my knees felt a lot better once I spent more time in the boat. In effect, it was the perfect antidote to knee issues. It strengthens all the muscles around your joints, while taking advantage of the flexibility I had from baseball to lengthen my rowing stroke. 

4. Convenience and Accessibility

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the big one. The biggest issue with rowing is that you need a lot of expensive equipment, access to facilities, and a calm body of water just to get started. 

Unless you're using a rowing machine. 

Rowing machines are always ready and waiting for you, rain or shine — and thanks to some kind of stealth partnership between Concept2 and every hotel chain (just kidding I have no idea what the background here is), you basically can't go to a hotel gym that doesn't have one. 

[Side note: There's actually a great Mike Teti story about this. I forget the exact details, but essentially he had assigned workouts for a group of rowers while they were away from training camp. One of the rowers said that he couldn't find an erg because he was staying in a hotel. So Teti thinks, 'I mean, there are ergs in like every hotel and gym.' So he asks the athlete where he was staying. 'Boston,' the guy says.]

Not only are they out there, mostly sadly unused or simply used (very) poorly by newbies, you can acquire one for yourself at a relatively low cost compared to other fitness equipment. In fact, we've done a rundown of what we'd consider the best options for home rowing machines.

Rowing machine reviews:

But beyond the individual models, there is just no argument that rowing machines aren't the most important emissary for the sport for the mass market. Thanks to the rowing machine, there are hundreds of thousands of people being introduced to the sport via other disciplines, like CrossFit, who otherwise would never have any reason to learn about rowing. 

And while Concept2 effectively perfected the economical, efficient gold-standard of rowing machines, Hydrow's approach — attempting to bring people that much closer to feeling like they're on the water — continues to have huge potential. 

5. Objective Assessment of Fitness

Like it or not, the erg don't lie. The beauty of it is that it just tells you exactly where you are, right now, all the time. Of course, how you handle the truth is up to you. But having a tool that objectively measures your performance — and that so closely maps to the movements required to move a boat — is supremely useful when approached with the right mindset. 

Section 2: Some Hidden Benefits

Ok so we've covered the basics — but wait, there's (even) more to love about these damn machines! A couple extra things to note.

1. Posture Improvement

In a world where slouching over screens is the norm (whether your're WFH or RTO), rowing can make all the difference for your posture. By strengthening the muscles along your back and core, rowing helps you stand taller and straighter, combating the effects of hours spent hunched over desks or smartphones. It's like a gentle reminder to your body to sit up straight and show off your natural grace and poise. 

2. Balance and Coordination

Rowing isn't just about pulling and pushing—it's also about finding your rhythm and flow. With each stroke, you're not only working your muscles but also honing your balance and coordination skills. It's like a dance between you and the machine, requiring precise timing and control to keep everything in sync. If you're in a class with other people, moving in sync together on the rowing machines begins to simulate the feeling of flow on the water. And as you master the art of rowing, you'll find that those newfound skills translate into everyday activities — even standing on one leg to stretch your quads gets easier.

3. Mental Well-being

Rowing isn't just a workout for the body—it's also great for the mind.  There's a ton of data out there to support the idea that cardiovascular exercise helps brain function and memory. The repetitive, rhythmic motion of rowing has a calming effect, helping to quiet the noise of everyday life and bring you into the present moment — there is a zen quality that comes with that, which may be familiar to runners and swimmers. It's a chance to unplug, unwind, and focus solely on the task at hand, leaving behind stress and distractions in favor of clarity and peace of mind. 

Plus, the endorphin rush that comes with a good rowing session can leave you feeling euphoric and uplifted — Hydrow has even marketed this phenomenon as the 'Hydrow High.'

4. Rehabilitation and Injury Prevention

Whether you're recovering from an injury or looking to prevent one, rowing can be a safe and effective option — like I mentioned before, years of crouching behind the plate throwing down the signs had made my knees a litte creaky. That changed when I started rowing. 

Thanks to its low-impact nature, rowing puts minimal strain on your joints, making it ideal for those with a history of injury or chronic pain. Plus, the controlled, fluid motion of rowing helps to strengthen the muscles surrounding your joints, providing added stability and support to help ward off future injuries. Similar to yoga, rowing can help make sure that you can move with confidence and freedom, both on and off the rowing machine.

5. Time Efficiency

This is huge for the parents in the audience: Rowing delivers maximum results in minimal time. Even if I have 20 minutes, I can get a solid, full-body workout that balances strength and endurance. Cycling is great — but damn that shit can take a long time. Rowing, like swimming, let's you cover all the bases in 20-30 minutes, and while running is excellent in terms of efficiency, it can't hang with rowing when it comes to low-impact training. 

Section 3: Incorporating Rowing into Your Fitness Routine

Ok so for the non-rowing crowd, this one is big. After graduating from UCLA (go Bruins), I spent years teaching classes in Los Angeles along with Josh Crosby (now of Apple Fitness fame — at least one of us is famous) to people who may have been veteran spinners, gym rats, or even first-timers off the street, and given the right introduction, it's amazing how quickly people understand how rowing complements anything they're trying to accomplish. 

To get started, you need to nail these three things as a teacher or coach:

Proper Technique

From the moment anyone new walks in the door, it's vital to stress the importance of maintaining proper rowing form to maximize effectiveness and minimize the risk of injury. The best way to get people started is to have them get moving quickly, and run through some drills at the beginning of every session, so that 1) they're warmed up and ready for the workout; and 2) they use the time when they have the most focus and energy to refine their technique. 

For a run through of the basics to get started with technical rowing, check out our dedicated Rowing Drills page. 

Varied Workouts

Rowers and non-rowers alike often complain that the erg can be boring. Because the treadmill or spin bike is just so much more entertaining! It just comes down to this — doing anything in exactly the same way every time gets tedious, so vary your workouts. You can train across every zone, and even on Zone 1 or Zone 2 days, you can break it up with things like 5 minutes on, 1 minute off. 

This is especially true for non-rowers. Just slogging through a 10k early in your indoor rowing career is probably not a great idea. Start with some drills, then build for some power strokes to end a warmup. Break the meat of the workout into 2-3 segments, and maybe vary the rate and pressure across each segment. You'll be shocked how fast 45 mins of training goes by when you're intentional about structure.

Set Realistic Goals 

If you're training on your own or in a group, it's important to establish a baseline and set realistic goals once you know where you stand. We all know what it's like to 'fly and die.' Again, be intentional about how you approach training, and honest with yourself about where you are — like anything, it's about the journey, so don't be frustrated if you're not where you want to be on Day One. 

If you have a coach you trust, one of the best things you can do is get a training plan together. If she's up to snuff, she'll know more or less what your peak performance might look like, and put the steps in place to get you there without rushing things. 

To sum it all up, the erg has a lot of obvious benefits, whether you're a rower or not — as well as some benefits that might not be so immediately clear. It's undeniably a useful took for training and for assessment, and because of its objectively it allows you to get a true baseline and track progress in a wonderfully simple way. 

However, where the erg has failed to be properly recognized — in our humble opinion — is as the worldwide, accessible advocate for rowing. It's transportable, durable, and genius in its simplicity — the Concept2 Model C I've had since 1999 is still running without an issue, despite having traveled all over the state of California, and logging hundreds of thousands of meters. 


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