woman rowing on rowing machine

Best Beginner Rowing Workouts (Endurance, Strength, & More)

When it comes to cardio machines, indoor rowers are hard to beat. Whether you’re 25 or 55, the rowing machine makes it easy for you to get a full-body workout and stay on top of your fitness goals. And yes, this applies to you even if you’re a beginner.

Whether your fitness goal is to lose weight or build endurance, it’s achievable using a rowing machine.

Before we dive into indoor rowing workouts for beginners, let’s start with the basics.

Why is rowing a great workout for beginners?

Rowing is a great exercise for beginners because it’s a low-impact full-body workout that targets most of the major muscle groups in your body (around 86%) without putting too much stress on your joints and knees. This makes it a low risk exercise, which is perfect for those who are just starting out and are scared of injuring themselves.

Can you get in shape just by rowing?

Since rowing is a full-body exercise that works every major muscle group in your body, you can get in shape just by rowing. However, the caveat is that you must row consistently for at least 20 minutes 4-5 times a week at a challenging level to see results, as well as combine it with proper diet and nutrition.

Basic Rowing Technique

Proper form and good technique are the keys to maximizing your rowing machine workout efficiency and avoiding any injuries or pain. Before getting started, set the resistance by turning the knob (or lever on air rowers). Since you’re a beginner, choose the lowest setting.

Sit on the rowing machine with your back straight and feet on the foot plates. Your heels should rest against the heel cup and your shins should be vertical. Place the foot strap across the widest part of your foot and adjust it by pulling it across rather than up. Your foot should be snug, not uncomfortable, and you should be able to lift up your heels.

Proper rowing posture and form

The rowing stroke has 4 phases: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery.

The catch: This is the starting position before your first stroke. Assume the correct form with your seat close to your heels. Slightly lean forward from your hips and grab the handles.

The drive: Push on your legs through your heels, while keeping your upper body upright and arms straight. Once your legs are halfway extended, engage your arms and pull on the rowing handle. Lean backwards till your legs are fully extended.

The finish: Draw in the handle all the way back to rest just above your belly button. Your elbows should align with the handle and your wrists should be flat. Lean back slightly to engage your core.

The recovery: The recovery phase is just the drive phase in reverse. Sit upright and push the handle away from you in a straight line, while keeping your lower body as it is. Once the handle passes your knees, bend your knees back in till you return to the catch position. You’ve now completed one stroke.

Now that you’ve perfected your rowing stroke, let’s jump into some beginner-friendly workouts.

Beginner rowing machine workouts

Here are some great rowing workouts for beginner rowers.

Warm-up exercises

Before you start rowing, it’s important to warm up for at least 10 minutes to fire up your muscles and get them ready for movement. This reduces your chances of getting injured and maximizes your efficiency.

Here are some warm-up exercises you can perform:

  • Dynamic stretches
  • Light cardio exercises (jumping jacks, jogging/ brisk walking in place)
  • Low-intensity strength training exercises (push-ups, pull-ups)
  • Rowing at a steady pace of 18-20 SPM

Rowing for endurance: Time-based intervals

Rowing at the same moderate pace for a certain period of time, such as 15 or 20 minutes, is a great endurance workout because it helps build your base cardiovascular fitness and physical stamina.

To make your workouts more challenging, you can also increase your stroke rate and duration with each interval. The number of strokes you perform per minute refers to your stroke rate and is measured in SPM (strokes per minute). You can increase it by applying more power with your legs into your stroke.

Once you get the hang of it, slowly increase your rowing intensity and duration. Here’s a sample workout:

Workout Time (in minutes) Stroke rate (SPM)
Warm-up 5 18-20
Interval 1 5 22
Interval 2 10 24
Interval 3 5 22
Cool-down 5 18-20

Rowing for strength: Distance-based intervals

Distance-based interval rowing workouts are similar to time-based interval workouts, except they measure distance instead of time. You can measure the distance on your indoor rowing machine monitor, which will display something called split time (the time you take to row 500 meters).

Distance interval exercises require short intervals of rowing for a certain distance (say 250 m) followed by a rest period of 1 minute. These types of workouts help you burn calories fast and build strength.

Here’s a sample workout. Choose a stroke rate and stay consistent throughout. You can gradually increase the distance throughout the workout. Cease rowing completely during the rest period.

Workout Distance (in meters) Stroke rate (SPM)
Warm-up 100 18-20
Interval 1 100 24
Rest - -
Interval 2 200 24
Rest - -
Interval 3 300 24
Rest - -
Interval 4 200 24
Rest - -
Cool-down 100 18-20

Pyramid workouts

Pyramid workouts are a type of HIIT workouts where you vary your rowing stroke and interval duration over the course of your exercise. They make excellent endurance and strength exercises while torching calories in a short period of time.

Here’s a sample pyramid workout that takes a total of 29 minutes:

Workout Time (in mins) Stroke rate (SPM)
Warm-up 5 18-20
Interval 1 4 22
Interval 2 3 24
Interval 3 2 26
Interval 4 1 28
Interval 5 2 26
Interval 6 3 24
Interval 7 4 22
Cool-down 5 18-20

Tabata workouts

A traditional tabata workout is a HIIT rowing workout that involves short bursts of high-intensity work for 20 seconds followed by rest periods of 10 seconds, repeated for 8 rounds. This every minute on the minute rowing workout (EMOM) incinerates fat by burning calories fast and also builds your power, making it great for endurance training.

Workout Time (in seconds) Stroke rate (SPM)
Warm-up 300 18-20
Interval 20 28
Rest 10 18-20
[Repeat for a total of 8 rounds.]    
Cool-down 300 18-20

Suggested read:  How many calories can you burn rowing?

Rowing Machine Resistance Types

When you row a boat on a lake, you’ll experience a drag when you pull the oars towards you. In an indoor rower, this same drag is stimulated by resistance.

There are 4 rowing machine resistance types, and each one offers a different rowing experience–right from effectiveness and noise level to size and storage capacity.

Air resistance

Air rowers have a spinning flywheel which creates resistance using air. When you pull on the handle, the flywheel rotates and draws air in. The harder you row, the more air you drag in, creating a higher resistance, which means you get to control the amount of drag. By increasing your workout intensity, you can get a challenging set done.

Pros Cons
Relatively inexpensive Noisy
Can be folded up for storage Most of them don’t have the option to adjust exact resistance settings
Resistance is based on your rowing intensity  
Resembles outdoor rowing  

Ascend’s 16-level hybrid air rowers combine magnetic and air resistance for a maximum challenge.

Water resistance

Water rowers have a tank filled with water that’s used to create resistance. The tank has paddles that rotate each time you pull on the handle. The amount of resistance differs based on the speed of the paddles and the water level in the tank. The more water in the tank, the higher the resistance. However, not all water rowers allow you to change the water levels, so if you need more resistance, you need to row harder.

Pros Cons
Closest experience to rowing a boat in water Heavy
Relatively inexpensive Needs a lot of storage space
Can adjust resistance based on water levels and rowing intensity Difficult to adjust exact resistance level
Pleasant water splashing sound Needs a completely flat surface
Can accommodate users weighing up to 350 pounds  

Mimic rowing right at home with Ascend’s water rowers.

Magnetic resistance

Magnetic rowers create resistance using a magnetic braking system. These rowers have a metal flywheel with magnets attached around them. When you pull the handle, the flywheel spins, allowing the magnets to get closer to each other, creating resistance.

Pros Cons
Can adjust resistance settings using a knob/ button Resistance is weaker
Very quiet and smooth  
Ideal for beginners  
Available in all price ranges  
Can be folded for storage  

Get a full-body workout at home with Ascend’s silent magnetic rowers.

How long should a beginner use a rowing machine?

A beginner should start off with rowing sessions of 15-20 minutes at a stroke rate of 22-24 SPM. After 4-6 weeks, slowly increase the duration to 30-45 minutes at a stroke rate of at least 26-28 SPM for optimal results.

How far should a beginner rowing workout be?

Rowing for 250-500 meters at an easy pace is ideal for people who just started rowing. You can slowly increase your speed and distance over time.

Start rowing your way into shape with Ascend

Rowing offers physical and mental benefits and is low impact, making it one of the best whole-body workouts for those who are just starting out, no matter their age or fitness level.

You can set up a rower inside your home and get your cardio workout done without having to step out of the house. Ascend offers magnetic, air, and water rowers for your home that are easy to assemble, come with various resistance types and levels, and make it easy to measure your progress over time.

Get a luxurious, performance-oriented rowing experience with Ascend rowers.

Justin Tardif-Francoeur

Justin Tardif-Francoeur

With over a decade of experience in the health and fitness industry, Justin has a rich background ranging from personal training in bustling gyms to practicing massage therapy in health centers, and eventually running his own practice. An avid advocate for self-improvement, he tirelessly pursues the latest research to broaden his knowledge of human physiology and the body's potential. When he isn't enriching his understanding or assisting clients, Justin can be found embracing the great outdoors through paddle boarding, yoga, and hiking, or immersing himself in a challenging workout. His passion transcends personal growth, as he's equally committed to inspiring others on their own journey of self-improvement.


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