The 8 Hardest Indoor Rowing Workouts to Try

Rowing, both on and off the water is tough. It’s a full-body workout, which taxes almost all of the major muscle groups and will give any other exercise a run for its money in terms of cardio strain. It’s certainly true that many people in the rowing community are gluttons for punishment. I’ve pulled together a list of the top 8 hardest rowing workouts for people who really want to push themselves on the rowing machine.

I will add a warning that if you’re just starting out at rowing, these workouts are probably not for you! Unlike standard 15 minute rowing workouts, these are geared towards people who have been rowing for quite some time and are looking for a “fun” challenge to try. A lot of these are also ones which are great to do if you are part of a rowing squad and looking to do something competitively as a group. Seeing who can wrack up the most metres across the duration of the workout can be a great way to bring a crew together. There’s nothing quite like suffering through the same workout to get people to bond!

1. The Hour of Power (AKA The Power Hour)

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We start off our list with an absolute classic. Going for 60 minutes at steady state but maximum pressure is not for the faint of heart. This is an absolute monster of a workout which is going to have muscles and lungs screaming by the end. You are going to burn an unspeakable amount of calories if you manage to get through the whole workout – just one of its many benefits. If you’re seriously committed to your rowing, you could think about undertaking a piece like this once a week or perhaps once a fortnight. Make sure you get plenty of recovery after a full-out effort like this. Going hard for an hour takes a toll on the body and you need to make sure that fluids and glycogen are replaced sufficiently once you finish.

One piece of advice from me on this – don’t do the workout too late in the evening (do it in the morning if at all possible). It will put your system into overdrive and has definitely affected my ability to get a good night’s sleep when I’ve worked out too lat in the past.

2. 500m x 30 1:00r

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This is known to be a favourite of the Kiwi Pair who nominated it one of their favourite “hard” rowing machine workouts: 30 x 500m on, 1 min off. So you can race others. Fastest person wins session!

This is something I’ve completed a couple of times and every time, without exception, has been a psychological battle. You have to do 30 (yes you read that correctly – 30!) intervals of 500 metres with a minute rest in between. The first minute will feel like far too long, but as your reps tick up and the lactate starts to build in your legs, you will realise why this is such a horrible, challenging workout. That being said, it will do wonders not only for your aerobic capacity, but your lactate tolerance will go way, way up.

3. The 2000m test

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Although this isn’t anywhere near as long as many of the workouts in this list (in fact – it may well be the shortest), this is really the pinnacle of rowing machine workouts. This is the olympic distance used by top level rowers and as a result, this is used as the benchmark for rowing clubs anywhere in the world. Depending on how fit you are, this could take between 5:25 – 10:00+. Regardless of your fitness level, if you commit and do the workout with the highest level of intensity that you can manage, it’s going to hurt. Your lungs and muscles will be burning by the end which is why it’s not unusual to see many rowers collapse, cry, throw up or do some combination of the three after completing the test. Even the best of the best fear this workout, as you can see from this video of Sir Steve Redgrace (perhaps the greatest rower to have ever lived)

4. 30 minutes rate 20

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At first glance, it might seem strange for us to start the list with a Power Hour and then for a much shorter workout – only half the time – to also feature in our list. What makes this different is that the workout has its rate capped. This means that you can only do a certain amount of strokes (in this case 20) each minute. This makes things much, much harder and any sense of momentum is taken away and you have the feeling of essentially starting again, each time you pull on the handle. The purpose of this workout is to work on power generation, at the same time that you are challenging your cardiovascular endurance. You have to think about and focus on every single stroke, generating power from scratch. You also have to pay close attention to your rowing machine screen and make sure you remain disciplined about keeping your stroke rate low.

This workout is used by many top flight teams, with the standard for the Heavyweight men for the British rowing team at a staggering 9,000m for this workout. For most people this may not mean much, but trust me, that’s an absolutely insane figure to achieve in 30 minutes, given you have so few strokes at your disposal.

5. 100km

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What is the furthest you’ve ever rowed in one go? For some people, 5km might seem like an impossible goal. For others, they may have really pushed the boat out and gone for something like 20km, 30km or even a marathon. What about 100km? Yes, believe it or not, there are some people out there who row 100km – in one go – without stopping. Don’t believe me? Here’s just one example of the herculean effort which takes 5 and a half hours to complete (usually much longer) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlwwD4iV1aU. The amount of calories that you’ll burn doing this is hard to calculate, but I would estimate to be at least 6,500. Committing to something like this is not for the fearful and you need to make sure you have a number of things (water, food, an easily accessible bathroom) arranged before you start on this unbelievable journey. You will also need to consider things like your hands and whether you should be purchasing a pair of gloves.

6. Tabata Squared

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Tabata is a simple enough concept. You work hard at an exercise for 20 seconds, then rest for ten, then repeat eight times. Easy, right? With the tabata squared workout you go through those eight rounds – eight times. That’s right; 64 sets of 20 seconds pulling your absolute hardest each time. You will be breathing hard after the first four or five rounds and it only gets worse from there. It’s still “only” a 32 minute workout, which is far from the longest here, but the lactate generation may be unique. It can be good fun to do this with a team of people and compete to see who can wrack up the most metres before the time is up. Good luck, and keep a bucket close!

7. 5x2k – 2 minutes rest

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Often referred to as Erg Supremacy, this is an absolute beast of a workout. Not only are you doing the mother of all erg tests (the 2,000m) – you’re doing it 5 times in a row! It’s essential that you pace yourself for this one. There could be the temptation to go out too fast but please try not to. You will only hate yourself as you struggle to complete the third repetition, with another two to go. This is one which requires discipline in the beginning and grit at the end.

8. The Spiral of Death

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God only knows who dreamed up this nightmare. This is a team effort which is often undertaken by multiple ergs on sliders.

  • 3 x four minutes, with a four minute break
  • 3 x two minutes, with a two minute break
  • 3 x one minute, with a one minute break Breakdown as follows:

The breakdown is like this:

  • First four minutes: Two minutes at 18 strokes per minute (spm), two minutes at 20 strokes per minute
  • Second four minutes: Two minutes at 20spm. two minutes at 22spm
  • Third four minutes: Two minutes at 22spm, two minutes at 24spm
  • First two minutes: One minute at 24spm, one minute at 26spm
  • Second two minutes: One minute at 26spm, one minute at 29spm
  • Third two minutes: One minute at 28spm, one minute at 30spm
  • First one minute: 30 seconds at 30spm, 30 seconds at 32spm
  • Second one minute: 30 seconds at 32spm, 30 seconds at 34spm
  • Final minute: 30 seconds at 34spm. 30 seconds at 36spm

You should be aiming to beat each of your previous splits whilst matching the rate of the nominated stroke. Each member of the team should take turns in the stroke position. The winning crew lives. Losing crew dies (metaphorically)!

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