Rowing Against the Current of Fitness Habits

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

We get occasional e-mail from experienced rowers here at Moving Crew World Headquarters. And while we typically decline their offers to whack us upside the head with an oar, we concede we are overdue in recognizing rowing as an excellent and efficient full-body workout. (Since most of us would be ill-suited to, and perhaps outright dangerous around, a scull on the Potomac, we speak here mainly of rowing machines used in health clubs and homes.)

Rowing "burns more calories for equivalent power output than cycling or treadmill running," said Frederick C. Hagerman, director of the Work Physiology Lab at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Rowing for 20 minutes at a given perceived rate of exertion (say, a 6 on a 10-point scale) burns 10 to 15 percent more calories than would cycling at the same time and difficulty, he said. This is because rowing engages more muscles than most other forms of aerobic exercise, thus burning more energy. Hagerman has published many rowing studies in peer-reviewed journals.

Rowing "uses more muscles than any other sport except cross-country skiing," said Noel Wanner, a rowing coach, former member of the U.S. national rowing team (1992-1993) and marketing staffer at Concept2, a rowing machine maker in Morrisville, Vt.

The motion primarily works the quads, hamstrings and gluteus (butt) muscles, Wanner explained, and also exercises the upper back, shoulders, lats (upper back), deltoids (shoulders) and the muscles surrounding the spine. As you complete a stroke, you use your biceps, triceps and forearms, Wanner says.

"At the end of the stroke, you're leaning back slightly, about 15 degrees from perpendicular, engaging your abs for support."

One caution: Leaning back farther than that puts novice rowers, especially those with a history of low-back pain, at risk of back injury, Hagerman said. "Elite rowers lean way back to maximize power," he said. "But you don't need to do that."

Sounds like miracle exercise. So why do so many of these machines sit idle in gyms, while lines form for the treadmills?

"People don't know how to use them properly and most gym employees have no clue," Wanner offered. "Most people tend to think only of their arms, when it is really the legs and back" that are driving the motion.

Plus, he added, "you can't just sit there and read the paper" while getting exercise, like you can on a stationary bike. To ensure you develop good technique in the early stages, Wanner recommends taking fewer strokes while being careful to use good form, "not whipping back and forth like a windshield wiper."

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), an effective, safe rowing stroke is a "continual motion":

Start with knees bent, shins vertical and shoulders and arms reaching forward.

Grab the handle and extend the legs, keeping your arms straight.

Near the end of the leg extension -- when your back is about perpendicular to the floor -- pull the handle toward your upper stomach.

The stroke ends with legs fully extended, shoulders back, elbows bent and the handle against the torso.

Return to the starting position -- leaning forward with your torso and arms before bending your knees -- and repeat.

Do strokes slowly and carefully until you have the right pattern down; once you do, you should be able to establish a rhythm fairly quickly. ACSM recommends beginners start with a 15-minute workout, plus five minutes each of warm-up and cool-down.

Why just read fitness when you can chat about it? The Moving Crew is online, 11 a.m. to noon today, at http://www.washingtonpost.com .

-- John Briley


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