Rowing Machines: How to Burn More Calories in Less Time

By Matthew Green | Updated on

Let’s face it – rowing machines aren’t always the most exciting cardio activity! While some people prefer the full-body nature of a rower, others find it tedious compared to indoor biking or sprinting.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore the humble rowing machine though. As we mentioned in our article on the best rowing machines, they can burn large amounts of calories by working both your upper and lower body. Rowing machines are also gentle on your joints – especially compared to treadmills.

In this article, we’ve listed five tips for burning more calories on a rowing machine. Keep these in mind on your next rowing session!

1. Climb a Ladder (Drill)

There are plenty of ways to change-up your rowing workout, so don’t just stuck to steady-state sessions.

A fun way to increase your calorie burn is a ladder workout. Start rowing at a slow pace, then once per minute increase your stroke rate by one until you hit your target. Then come back down.

For example, if your starting pace is 20 RPM, you could increase your pace until you reached 28 RPM which would take eight minutes. Then it would take another eight to get back to 20 RPM.

The benefit of this style of workout is that it allows you to get to higher speeds without feeling like you’ve got to keep it up for a long time. Just make sure you warm-up fully before you start the ladder.

2. Row with Proper Form

It’s vital that you row with proper form. If your back is bent, for example, not only will you be at greater risk of injury but your airways will be constricted. This can prevent you working out to your full ability.

We’ve written a guide to rowing with a water rower, but for a visual overview of correct form we recommend the following video:


The most important thing to remember is that your legs should be doing the bulk of the work. Your arms and core should also be involved, but aim to generate around 50-60% of your power from the legs.

Also, remember that rowing is a sequential activity. Don’t pull with your arms and push with your legs at the same time. Instead, initiate with your legs, then at the correct time engage your arms and shoulders. And always keep your back straight!

3. Vary Your Rowing

One of the key principles of exercise is that you need to vary your workouts and gradually make them more difficult. Once your body adapts to a regime, you won’t gain much from continuing at the same level.

For this reason, you should do a mix of workout types. By combining short high-intensity workouts with longer endurance session throughout the week, you’ll see faster weight loss than if you just focused on steady-state cardio for the same length of time each day.

We also recommend tracking your workouts. There are plenty of apps to do this, but a pen and notepad will do. When you’re about to start your workout, check back to the last time you did a similar program. How many calories did you burn? How far did you row and at what resistance level? Aim to beat these numbers. It’s not always possible, but this continuous improvement can help burn many more calories.

Remember, a workout doesn’t need to be long to burn calories. You can burn a lot of calories in a short time – so don’t feel every session needs to be a 40 minute endurance test.

4. Drive Backwards with Your Legs

It can be tempting to let your arms do most of the work when rowing – but that isn’t the best way to burn calories. Instead, focus on activating your legs and glues during the stroke.

This has several benefits. The first is your legs contain some of the largest muscles in the body, such as the quadriceps and hamstrings. This allows you to burn calories faster without working out for longer or doing more strokes.

The second advantage is that your legs have greater endurance than your arms and core. This means you can workout harder for longer to really get your heart pumping.

5. Try a HIIT Workout

We’re big fans of HIIT workouts at, as it’s proven to be a faster way to burn calories than steady-state cardio. There are plenty of HIIT workouts you can try, but here are a few examples (courtesy of T-Nation):

  • Row 300 meters with a 90 second gap in-between sets. Repeat as many times as you can.
  • Row for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds. Repeat for 10 minutes. If this is too hard to start with, increase the rest duration to 90 seconds.
  • Row 500, 400, 300, 200, 100 metres with 60 second breaks.

BONUS TIP: Combine Rowing with Bodyweight Exercises

Rowing by itself is an excellent exercise, but you can get a more varied workout by adding bodyweight exercises. Next time you think your workout needs a change-up, try the following routine:

  • 1000 metre row
  • 20 pushups
  • 750 metre row
  • 20 ab crunches
  • 500 metre row
  • 5 chin-ups
  • 250 metre row
  • 5 dips

Play around with the quantity of each stage until you find a workout that’s challenging for your fitness level. A word of warning though: unless you’re an advanced rower, you’ll probably be just about ready to cry by the end of this workout!

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