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Updated 14 November 2013

Row yourself fit

The rowing machine is often consigned to one of the darker corners of the gym, which is a pity considering it's one of the best cardio machines around and blasts kilojoules fast.

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Overshadowed by rows of treadmills and elliptical trainers, the rowing machine is vertically challenged, usually solitary and often consigned to one of the darker corners of the gym.

But experts say if you take time to explore this wallflower of the fitness centre, you'll discover a smooth operator that's easy on the joints and endowed with a powerful burn.

"It's probably the best piece of workout equipment in the gym," said Dr Timothy Hosea of the American College of Sports Medicine. "It's a total fitness machine. Unlike running or elliptical, where you use your legs, you exercise every major muscle group in the body in a smooth, controlled manner."

Hosea, an orthopaedic surgeon based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has rowed since college. He said the rowing machine actually burns more energy per hour than running or swimming.

"The average person can easily burn 2,940kJ to 3,150kJ per hour going at a pretty moderate pace," he said.

Why you should be using the rowing machine

So why is the rower ignored? Hosea thinks part of the problem may lie in the less-than-dignified position of the exerciser. "When you're rowing you're sitting down, and everyone's towering over you," he said.

Then there's the learning curve. In the gym physical prowess rules, but the rowing machine requires patience.

"It takes time to learn proper technique," Hosea said. "It looks really easy but people don't know how to row in an efficient manner, so tend to avoid that machine."

Power in rowing comes from the legs, Hosea said, but many people think it depends more on the arms and back.

"They get discombobulated if they don't understand that you drive with the legs first."

Another mistake, he added, is putting so much resistance on the machine that core strength is compromised, and the lower back is stressed.

Results in two to three weeks

Tiffany Boucher, a personal trainer at an Equinox fitness centre in New York City, suspects even some of her fellow trainers don't know how to use rowing machines properly.

"You don't have a lot of people coming from a crew or rowing background," she said. "People walk, climb and run on a daily basis, but they have no experience with that movement."

Trainer Jenn Burke said she rarely uses the one rowing machine at the Crunch gym in New York where she works, even though it burns a lot of kilojoules quickly.

"If you do it on a regular basis you can start to see changes in two to three weeks," she said. "But you have to have good technique."

But Richard Louis, another Crunch trainer, uses the rower with clients.

"For some people one-half hour of cardio is unthinkable," he said. "This gets them to start with short periods."

Louis likes to do intervals. "Row hard for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds and gradually increase rowing and decrease rest," he said. "Work hard, back off."

Rowing machine a great workout

Tom Spring, a Detroit-based trainer who works with high-risk populations, seniors and the chronically ill, uses rowing machines and recommends them, but he cautioned that the under-instructed are at risk for back issues.

"I cringe when I see the way people sometimes use rowing machines," he said. "That said, rowing machines are underutilised. There needs to be a call to action for trainers to become more comfortable."

Boucher agrees.

"Done correctly it's really a great workout," she said. "I just think people don't often think about it." 

(Reuters Health, July 2011)

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