Boat Race 2019: 6 things you need to know about the fitness benefits of rowing

7th Apr 19 | Lifestyle

Inspired to get out on the water, or jump on a rowing machine? Lauren Taylor gets the fitness low-down from a British Rowing trainer.

Cambridge University Training Session - Fore Mill Wash

The annual Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race takes place today along the Thames, London, and this year it features legend of the sport, James Cracknell. At 46, he’ll be the oldest person ever to compete in the race.

In case you’re wondering why double Olympic gold medallist is allowed to compete in the university club race – he’s studying for an MPhil in Human Evolutionary Studies at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.

Anyone who’s ever stepped into a boat and actually rowed on water, knows there’s nothing quite like gliding across the surface, oars perfectly synchronised (hopefully). According to British Rowing, 700,000 people now row – indoors or in boats – in England, and for good reason: It’s a whole body workout.

Cambridge University Training Session – Fore Mill Wash
James Cracknell training with the Cambridge University team (Joe Giddens/PA)

And if watching Cracknell and his fellow competitors, or tuning into the 2019 World Rowing Championships this summer, inspires you to give the sport a go, you don’t have to risk capsizing in a river if you don’t want to. You can achieve the same fitness benefits on a rowing machine at the gym – although we bet the views aren’t nearly as pretty.

Here, Matt Gleed, a master trainer at British Rowing, explains everything you need to know…

1. It’s not actually all about your arms   

It’s a common misconception that rowing is purely an upper body workout. Gleed says: “In reality, the rowing stroke works 85% of muscles in your body, across nine major muscle groups, including quads, hip flexors, glutes, abdominals, lower back, all the way up to upper back too.”

He explains the main power actually comes from your legs (or it should, if you’ve got the correct technique), followed by the core, then the arms. “Think of it as 60% legs, 30% core and 10% arms,” says Gleed. “The major muscles working in the legs will be quads and glutes, these are the most powerful muscles that help create the distance with each stroke.”

2. It’s low impact

If you’ve previously run, or played other sports that are hard on your knees, you might be looking for a more joint-friendly activity – rowing is low impact on weight-bearing joints. “That means people who may not be able to take part in other high impact activities are able to get a good cardiovascular workout on the indoor rowing machine,” says Gleed.

“For those who are new to exercise, or easing back into fitness after a period of inactivity, this makes for a great way to get started – no matter their age, size or fitness levels.”

3. The combination of movements means you’ll get results fast

“The rowing movement is great for core strength and flexibility, and the combination of cardiovascular and muscle toning means you will see changes to your health and fitness, fast,” says Gleed.

He describes rowing as a highly efficient cardiovascular and fat-burning exercise: “On an indoor rowing machine, for example, you can burn over 300 calories in 30 minutes.”

It’s also easy to control the intensity, which he says can help keep you motivated: “You can increase the intensity of a workout by increasing the stroke rate or pushing harder with your legs.”

European Championships 2018 – Day Two
Last year’s European Championships (Ian Rutherford/PA)

4. It’s amazing for your core

“Your core muscles attach across a larger area than most think,” says Gleed, “from collarbone to mid-thigh.”

“This is experienced clearly when you have completed the ‘drive phase’ of the stroke and are leaning back at a one o’clock position on a clock face,” he adds. “You might feel a little shaking in the core as your body is extended and working hard to hold the position.”

So, in other words, great for developing abs.

5. You might get a slightly more powerful workout on a rowing machine than on the water

Fresh air and river or lake views are likely to be more pleasant – and it can be more motivating to row in a team – but the actual workout isn’t any better, although stability will be an additional factor on the water.

“The fitness benefits are very similar, as the action you do is the same,” Gleed explains. “On water the balance of the boat will challenge more stability, but then, in a similar way, the added stability on a rowing machine means a user could produce more power because there is less instability.”

6. But technique is super important 

Gleed stresses that to get the most out of an indoor machine workout, technique is key. “It’s simple to get started and is easy to master once you’ve got the hang of it.”

He says a sub-optimal technique is unlikely to lead to injury unless your knees are way out of alignment from your hips and ankles, or your back is flexing too far forward when you drive with force.

However, he says having good technique on the rowing machine will make your workout even more effective.

“The indoor rowing machine is the single most effective piece of equipment for a total body workout, especially if you are short on time,” he adds.

Have a go at one of British Rowing’s Go Row Indoor 20 minute workout videos on YouTube – just like a HIIT workout but on a rowing machine. Visit for more information.

The Boat Race 2019 will be broadcast on BBC 1, Sunday, April 7 from 1:20pm. The women’s race is at 2.15pm, and the men’s follows the same route at 3.10pm.

© Press Association 2019