15-Minute Rowing Workout Perfect for Beginners


Walk into any gym on any day of the week and you’ll see plenty of popular cardio machines being used: treadmills, ellipticals, bikes, and even stair steppers. But why not the indoor rower? Is it because it’s always unoccupied that people see right through it? Or does it seem to scare first time—and even well-versed—gym-goers into sticking to the machines they already know for full-body workouts? Either way, it’s time to dust off the indoor rowing machine and give it the attention it deserves with this 15-minute total-body workout!

Why You Should Try Indoor Rowing

Did we mention it’s a full body workout yet?

The rowing machine engages 86% of the muscles in your entire body, according to studies from the English Institute of Sport, which means you’re working almost—if not all—of your major muscle groups from head to toe…literally. In fact, the rowing movement begins with your feet, legs, thighs, and hips, and ends with your abs, shoulders, arms, and hands, and repeats itself with the next stroke; this means you can balance engagement of each muscle group in your upper body, lower body, and abs! And by “work” we mean you’ll build strength AND muscle endurance at the same time. The rowing motion can engage the same muscles that squats, push-ups, or the bench press would, but with the rower you don’t have to lift a dumbbell, barbell, or any other heavy weight or piece of equipment! Plus, studies have shown that incorporating strength training and cardio is the best way to burn calories and torch fat. Do we even need to keep going?

High-intensity, with little-to-no impact.

Have you been wanting an intense workout, without running on the treadmill, jumping, or lifting heavy weights five days a week? Good news, you can with the indoor rower! No matter your fitness level, as long as you put in effort to maintain good technique for the full session, the chances of injuring yourself are very low. This also means that you can increase your strength and endurance training each week, without adding extra impact or needing more time for recovery in between workouts. Oh, and if you’re recovering from an injury, the rower is one of the best choices you can make when getting back in the gym for the first few weeks or sessions.

Indoor rowers are versatile and have personalization options to help you reach your fitness goal.

No matter what your fitness level is, you can perform different forms of exercise on the rowing machine to help you reach them. If you’re someone who likes doing a quick cardio sesh before strength training, hop on the rower for 5-10 minutes with minimal resistance; it’s a great way to warm up your major muscle groups before a workout. Besides using the rower for circuits or total body workouts, rowing at a slow pace with light resistance can be a perfect option for active recovery on your rest days each week.

You don’t need to spend a lot of time on the rowers to get results.

Indoor rowing is perfect for those who have a busy schedule and don’t have a full hour for gym visits. If you focus your mind on putting in maximum effort from start to finish, you can squeeze in a great 15-minute or 20-minute full body workout that will burn more than 200 calories. All you need is a little motivation!

Keys to Indoor Rowing

If you missed our article on How to Row Using the Rowing Machine, now would be the time to check it out! But don’t worry, we’ll still go through a quick refresher to make sure you’re using the proper form on the rowers.Full strokes are made up of four phases: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery—each part being equally important as the others! In order to progress your skill in rowing, it’s crucial to learn the proper form of each phase to get optimal speed and power for your strokes. It can seem dauting in the beginning, but don’t let that put a damper on the sport! As long as you stick with it for a few weeks (or even months), you’ll start to see progress and results, and soon enough you’ll have perfect full strokes with good technique. Okay, let’s get to breaking the correct form down!

At the catch stage, which is basically just starting position, you’ll sit your butt down on the seat with your feet hip-width apart in the foot plates and knees bent, as you reach your arms out in front of you to grab the handle with each hand. You’ll need to lean slightly forward, so be sure to keep good posture in your upper body with your chest upright, abs engaged, and shoulders back.

For the drive phase, you’ll begin the stroke with your legs and thighs by powering off the foot plates with the heels of your feet, as you are still leaning forward with your arms. Once your legs are straight and your knees are no longer bent, hinge at your hips to open your chest and torso so that you’re leaning back. At this point, you will bend your elbows to your sides and row the handle towards your ribs in one motion—this shouldn’t feel like two separate parts.

In your mind, think of the finish phase as a very brief rest period, for only 1-2 seconds at the very most. Here, your legs and knees are extended in front of you, your torso, chest, and shoulders are all leaning back, and your arms and handle are pulled into your body with your elbows pointing out to the sides. You should have exploded off the foot plates so powerfully that your toes and feet are resting against the foot cages.

The recovery phase will repeat the actions you just did to get here, just in reverse order! Lean forward and release your arms back towards the erg, taking the bend out of your elbows. Make sure to hinge at your hips to power this movement. Note: this phase should take twice as long as the drive (one second for the drive, and two seconds for recovery).

And then, repeat! Completing each phase once is one rep, or one stroke.

How to Measure Rowing Sessions

Before we get to the actual rowing machine workout (we’re almost there we promise), let’s talk about one more thing: ways to measure your workout—because you have a lot of choices! With the treadmill and elliptical, you can track your time elapsed (minutes and seconds) and distance (miles), and you can also see calories burned once you enter your weight, too. With the rowing machine, you can also see time elapsed, calories, and distance—but note that distance is measured in meters, not miles. Where a lot of people get confused is when we start throwing terms around like stroke rate, split time, and watts. Stroke rate (SPM) is the number of strokes you take per minute, and it shows up on the erg as s/m. Your split time shows you how fast you can row 500 meters, which is equivalent to a runner stating their mile time. Lastly, the watts metric measures your power output, or more specifically, how much power and energy your strokes have generated.

15-Minute Rowing Machine Workout for Any Fitness Level

This quick, but effective, indoor rowing machine workout is one of the best total body workouts out there to supplement strength training and work on cardio endurance, all while burning calories and fat—and did we mention sessions only need to last 15 minutes?

Since this workout is measured by distance and speed, and not time, it’s perfect for any fitness level as you can go at your own pace (we have recommended target stroke rates down below). Grab your water bottle and let’s get to work!

  • 100m Slow: use this time to warm-up every body part and major muscle group, and really focus on the technique of your strokes. Aim for a stroke rate of 18-24 SPM.
  • 50m Fast: this is one of your first sprints. Go as fast as you can while still being able to have good form and technique—you should aim for 28-36+ SPM.
  • Break 2 minutes: grab a drink of water and regroup before your next 200 meters.
  • 200m Slow: use your strength here to get maximum power on each stroke. Aim for 18-24 SPM again.
  • Break 1 min: starting to get the concept now? Catch your breath if you need to.
  • 100m Slow: get into a rhythm with good technique, 100 meters will go fast! Continue to aim for 18-24 SPM.
  • 50m Fast: remember, don’t give up speed for technique! Aim for 28-36+ SPM and see if you can hit your top stroke rate for this workout.
  • Break 2 minutes: you’re almost there! These next two intervals will be the toughest yet—you got it!
  • 300m Slow: find your rhythm and target your speed at 18-24 SPM.
  • 100m Fast: drive through your heels and engage every muscle group in your entire body. It’s your last set of work; only a few seconds more! Aim for 28-36+ SPM.
  • 500m Slow for Cool Down: 500 meters is the longest row yet, but no worries—it’s just the cool-down. 😊 Go whatever pace feels good for your body.

If you’re looking to take your fitness level up a notch, or you’re looking for something new after a few weeks of rowing sessions, try turning this into a strength circuit next time that you and your friends can do together! Right before your rest periods, add in one—or two—exercises that you can do next to your rower on the floor with limited equipment (think dumbbell, kettlebell, barbell, etc.). Do reps of each exercise for a certain amount of seconds, or go for reps. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

  • Stationary lunge or lunge squats (be sure to do both sides)
  • Squat to overhead press with dumbbells
  • Bench press with dumbbell or barbell
  • Triceps extension with dumbbell
  • Bicep curl with barbell
  • Plank (elbows on the ground, or in push-ups position)

If you decide to add in strength movements to this circuit, be sure to use light weight and not heavy weight, as you don’t want to tire-out too fast. Also, plan and choose your exercises ahead of time to make sure you can balance out which body part and muscles you’re working!

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