Are Rowing Machines a Good Form of Exercise?

People often see fitness as a series of separate attributes including cardio, strength, mobility, and muscle definition. Others aspects of fitness often overlooked are good posture, movement economy (moving through space with less effort), and the absence of pain in the body.


Are Rowing Machines a Good Form of Exercise?
by Michael Dugan
Jul. 18, 2022

The origins of rowing are deep. What used to be a necessary skill to have for the transportation of goods and for warfare, has transitioned into something that is now almost purely done for sport or fitness.

 

In addition to competitive rowing groups which can be seen paddling oblong canoes through lakes and rivers, it is relatively common to spot several rowing machines at your local gym.

 

This article will discuss the perceived benefits and potentially damages of rowing and call the reader to make an assessment on whether or not exercising in this manner has an overall benefit on the body or not.

 

Is Rowing a Good Form of Exercise?

Any form of stress on the body can create adaptation. Whether or not these adaptations are beneficial in the long-term is the hard question that needs to be considered carefully here. 

On the surface, one could observe the following about rowing (S):

·      It stimulates large muscle groups

·      It requires a large oxygen uptake which challenges the cardiovascular system

·      It stimulates primarily slow-twitch muscle fibers which may promote better endurance

·      It is relatively low-impact

·      It requires minimal technical understanding and is therefore a readily accessible form of exercise for most people

 

While these observations are valid, are these criteria really enough to draw the conclusion that rowing is a beneficial exercise for humans overall?

 

What Are You Preparing Your Body For?

Similar to the angle taken in our recent article on Cycling (Link Here), it is important to determine what you are trying to accomplish with your body when you are deciding on any given exercise.

 

People often see fitness as a series of separate attributes including cardio, strength, mobility, and muscle definition. Others aspects of fitness often overlooked are good posture, movement economy (moving through space with less effort), and the absence of pain in the body. After all, these are attributes that make a human body more healthy and in good physical condition.

 

When developing a fitness routine, these attributes often get separated and therefore trained in isolation from one another.

 

Some exercises are seen as great for cardio but not for mobility and strength. Other exercises are seen as great for mobility but not for strength or cardio – and so on.

 

In the case of rowing what we have is an exercise that is effective at creating improvements in cardio and strength while potentially being disastrous for posture and mobility over time (which will then negatively impact cardio and strength long-term).

 

Ultimately, there are an endless number of exercises that have isolated benefits while also having an extended list of potential detriments.

 

An ideal form of exercise should work to optimize all aspects of fitness to create long-term health. Towards the end of this article, we will discuss an alternative to the rowing machine that requires minimal equipment.

 

How The Rowing Machine May Set You Up for Pain and Injury

Is hitting large muscle groups repetitively always a good idea if those muscle contractions aren’t intentionally aimed to improve your posture and gait mechanics?

 

While rowing certainly hits many muscle groups and provides the body with a metabolic stimulus, the body will begin to adapt to the mechanics of rowing the more one performs this exercise.

 

When we look at anthropological evidence, standing and running on two feet is a defining function of the human species.

 

Something to consider is that if the body is being trained in a seated position, it will adapt to a seated position and away from a neutral standing position. As the body adapts away from a neutral standing posture, there may be an increased risk of pain and injury when trying to perform activities that do not occur in a seated position. 

 

Does an exercise being low-impact in the vertical plane of motion mean that it is not causing problematic shearing forces in the horizontal plane of motion?

 

You may have heard the term low-impact used to describe certain types of exercise. This term often refers to vertical impact forces that occur in the joints of the body due to things like running, jumping, kicking, punching, or plyometric exercises. Examples of low-impact exercises include things like rowing, swimming, yoga, Pilates, and walking.

 

Because of this simplified explanation of exercise, many people have developed the opinion that low-impact exercise does not have a risk attached to it. This is not always the case.

 

It is true that there is not a lot of abrupt vertical compression force happening during a rowing motion. What needs to be considered, however, is the horizontal shearing force that is occurring in the spine. The dominant location of this shearing is highly dependent on an individual’s postural asymmetries.

 

While not everyone will experience injuries, common injuries from rowing include damage to the lumbar spine, the ribcage, and the shoulders (S, S).

 

That being said, the rowing motion is not all bad and can be modified to attain more benefits while preventing injury. In fact, the rowing motion performed in the right context is one of the fundamental exercises used to produce the results we display across our platforms.

 

With the above information considered, what framework allows us to make the best decision for our training?

 

The FP Big 4 and How They Apply to Training the Human Body 

As we discuss frequently on our platforms, there are specific movements that make us unique from other animals.

 

Every animal has unique muscle and bone orientations that optimize their bodies for specific movements. The primary function of the musculoskeletal system in all species seems to be the ability to move the body through space.

 

Moving the body through space allows us to acquire nutrition, escape danger, and seek shelter.

 

The way the human body moves through space is unique to other animals in that we have the ability to stand on two feet while doing so. 

 

One of the major benefits of being able to move about on two feet is that this frees up the arms to perform other tasks. Anthropologists suggest that it was this attribute that made us superior hunters who have dominated their way to the top of the food chain. This is the origin of the FP Big 4: standing, walking, running, and throwing.

 

The fundamental basis of Functional Patterns is that if we can optimize muscles to perform within the context of these functions, we can build stronger humans, with less pain, more symmetrical bodies, and longer lifespans.

 

Subsequently, when we separate ourselves from training these functions, we observe higher rates of pain and injury.

 

The results produced and consistently reproduced from FP practitioners around the world seem to support these assertions.

 

At Functional Patterns, we aim to hold the fitness industry to a higher standard. Your exercise routine should enhance your life as a human by eliminating pain, reversing injury, and building muscle in ways that count.

 

With many forms of popular exercise, we see exactly the opposite. We’re here to provide the solution.

 

An Alternative to Rowing That Enhances Your Movement

The act of rowing as it is performed on the rowing machine does not help the body better adapt to the way we move in reality. That said, there is a way to perform a row that does achieve this – The FP Step Row.

 

The step row involves taking a backward step while performing a single-arm row with a weighted pulley or resistance band.

 

While this explanation of a step row may make it sound simple, the benefits of performing a step row with proper execution include:

·      Development in the lat and glute muscles

·      A more upright standing posture

·      Improved walking and running economy

·      Cardio training with far less risk of injury

·      Strength development while improving mobility

·      A more athletic physique

So how do you properly perform an FP Step Row to attain these benefits?

 

This is a complex question to answer as not everyone is the same. There are many variables to consider in the body while going through a motion like this in order to make it as beneficial as possible for each individual.

 

In order to get the full benefits out of an exercise like the step row, you must first understand your unique postural challenges and how they must be addressed through movement. This way, you can truly personalize each exercise to maximize your fitness gains.

 

The Functional Patterns 10-week course is the starting point for this learning process.

 

The 10-week course contains over 47 different techniques and 12 hours of video content that all come together to help you optimize the only human body you’ve got in this life.

 

At the conclusion of this course, you will be equipped to re-approach fitness with a new frame that will allow you to build all aspects of fitness simultaneously.