Get Ripped on the Rower

by Katie Prendergast

The erg is the best fat burning machine in the gym, period. Here's how to use it right, plus three killer workouts to try.

The Erg is the G.O.A.T.

One of the major reasons people do cardio is to lose body fat. So it’s no surprise that the most common question people have is, “Which is the best cardio machine?” Let’s end this debate, once and for all.

Purely considering the potential to burn the most body fat, the answer is the ergometer. The “erg” is better known as the rowing machine, and it’s hands-down the best fat burning cardio tool in the gym.

Why is the erg the best choice for cardio? First, it’s one of the few pieces of cardio equipment that requires both your upper and lower body to operate the machine. This makes it literally twice as effective as only using your legs on most machines.

Second, it’s low-impact so you can use it even if you have injuries or are overweight, without worrying about developing joint problems from repetitive high-impact activities like jogging on the treadmill. Finally, it’s a freakin’ brutal workout.

Before I share my favorite fat-blasting erg workouts, you need to understand the basics of efficient rowing technique. The erg might be the best cardio machine, but it’s also the most poorly used piece of equipment in the cardio room.

The Rowing Ergometer: Proper Technique

There are two main positions in rowing: the catch and the pull.

  1. The catch: It’s basically the starting position, where you lean forward to grasp the rower’s handle. Use an overhand grip. Once you’re holding the handle, sit up tall with your shoulders pulled down and back, and your chest up. Your back should be flat, not rounded, in this position. It should maintain flat throughout your workout.
  2. The pull: Start with your legs – drive your heels through the foot-plate and use your legs for power. Next, keeping your back flat, hinge backward at the hips and lean back. Finally, pull powerfully with your arms.

Since your legs are now extended, the chain should travel in a straight line without having to rise above your knees. Bring your hands into your ribs – not your throat – during the pull and keep your elbows tucked.

At the end of the pull, your legs will be extended straight out, your knees will have only a slight bend, your torso should be leaned backward, and your arms will have pulled the handle toward your chest. Reverse the movement in the exact opposite manner: arms, torso, legs. You’re now back in the starting “catch” position.

Repeat this at a slow pace to get the hang of the pattern: drive with your legs, lean backward, and pull with your arms; then straighten your arms, lean forward, and bend at the knees.

The power comes first from your legs, then from a strong pulling motion once you’ve leaned back. Your upper body should stay straight, oscillating between “10 and 2” like a metronome when viewed in profile.

Key Points

  • Always maintain a strong core and upright posture.
  • Avoid moving the chain up and down; it should travel in a straight line.
  • Drive through your heels to produce the most power with your legs.
  • Complete the movement by aggressively and powerfully pulling the handle to your ribs.

Now with that technique work out of the way, we can get to the fun stuff – conditioning.

The Workouts

The best part about the rower, especially for someone who wants to torch fat without spending an hour plodding along on the treadmill, is that it’s well-suited for interval training. These workouts are absolutely brutal. Don’t believe me? Give these bad boys a try and let me know how it goes.

Beginner: 5 X 200 meter sprints

Row as fast as you can for 200 meters. When you’re finished, rest for twice as long as it took you to row before repeating the next interval. Aim for consistency across all five sets (the same pace and total time to complete the sprint).

A shorter rower should complete this in 50-60 seconds, which means you should rest for around two minutes. A taller rower could complete this in about 40-45 seconds and rest for 90 seconds.

Try to maintain your pace and work/rest times. Then progress this beginner workout by adding an extra interval every week or two, like this:

  • 6 x 200
  • 7 x 200
  • 8 x 200

Intermediate: 4 X 250 meter sprints

Row as fast as you can for 250 meters, but only rest for as long as the interval takes you to complete. A shorter rower will complete the work in about one minute and rest for about one minute. A taller or more experienced rower will take about 50 seconds and rest for the same amount of time. Progress this workout by adding more intervals each week:

  • 5 x 250
  • 6 x 250
  • 7 x 250
  • 8 x 250

Advanced: 4 X 500 meter sprints

The working piece is going to take you about two minutes. The key is finding a pace you can maintain for the entirety of the set. Two minutes is taxing to your metabolic systems, which is good news for fat-burning, but bad news for your psyche. Avoid what rowers refer to as “flying and dying” – sprinting too fast out of the gate and coming to a painful halt when your oxygen consumption can’t keep pace with your energy expenditure.

When starting with these longer duration sprints, keep work and rest at a 1:1 interval. The work should take two to two and a half minutes. Progress by increasing your pace week to week and dropping the amount of time it takes to complete 500 meters.

When you’re able to recover well between sets, try the 4 x 500 drill with only one minute rest in between efforts. With less rest versus work, this will set your metabolism on fire.

For fat loss, I program these erg conditioning pieces at the end of strength training workouts as brutal finishers to ignite an athlete’s metabolism. Each workout takes only 10-20 minutes, including rest periods.

The Steady State Option

You can also use the erg for longer duration aerobic conditioning to aid in recovery. Find a pace that you can maintain for 10, 20, or 30 minutes straight and work to increase your pace week to week.

Since the erg utilizes both your upper and lower body, you don’t need to spend as long on the rower as other cardio machines. Trust me, 30 minutes of steady-state rowing is plenty.