A Stroke of Fitness

Rowing provides a comprehensive workout for athletes at every level


In season one of Netflix’s “House of Cards” Frank Underwood, the seedy politician played by Kevin Spacey, receives a rowing machine from his wife, Claire. During season two, when media pressure keeps the Underwoods housebound, the machine makes repeat appearances as a great way to stay fit indoors. The show has raised indoor rowing’s profile, but in reality the activity has been increasing in popularity since CrossFit hit big with fitness enthusiasts – it is an integral part of many such programs. According to experts, it’s also an ideal workout for those looking to shake up their strength-training programs.

“Anybody can learn how to row. It’s something that’s really good for every single person,” Nell Shuttleworth, owner of Rowfit Chicago, a fitness studio located in the Windy City that provides training in areas ranging from rowing to triathlon.

There are quite a few benefits to be had from rowing, especially for overall fitness. Rowing utilizes the upper and lower body and building muscle significantly in the same movement. This makes it especially attractive for people who are looking for thorough workouts. 

Josh Ozeri, one of the founders of Brooklyn Crew based in Brooklyn, N.Y., agrees: “Rowing is a full-body exercise – you use your legs, your core, your back, your shoulders, your arms.”

Starting a new exercise program is never easy, but because rowing is such an all-encompassing workout, it’s easy for people to feel overwhelmed when they’re first starting out. Shuttleworth says not to let this become an obstacle.

“People should definitely know that it takes a few sessions before they understand the rowing stroke,” she cautions. “It doesn’t feel like a very fluid or very natural motion. So we usually tell people to give themselves a few sessions … It’s usually around the sixth session that people begin to get it.”

Garrett Roberts, owner of GoRow Studios in Hoboken, N.J., warns that improper form during the exercise can do damage to the back, and advises anyone with a pre-existing back condition to visit a specialist before signing up for rowing classes.

Ozeri emphasizes that the bulk of the workout takes a toll on the legs. “Everyone thinks rowing is about the arms, but it’s all about power with your legs,” he explains. “Rowing is essentially a leg press.”

Even though the lower body receives the majority of focus in rowing, the exercise uses muscles all over the body, making it an attractive workout for someone who wants to maximum fitness in a short time slot.

“If you can spend an hour a day exercising, you want it to be the most effective workout,” Roberts says of rowing. “You don’t really need to do much else because you’re taking care of pretty much every muscle group in your body.”

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