Up The Intensity With This 20-Minute Rowing Workout

Man rowing on indoor rowing machine
(Image credit: Getty Images / Thomas Barwick)

When you’re in the gym and want a complete workout but are short on time, make a beeline for the rowing machines. You’ll strengthen muscles all over your body and improve your cardiovascular fitness to boot, and if you push the pace it takes no time at all to completely exhaust yourself on a rower, burning a proverbial boatload of calories in the process. (And so it follows that when you’re looking for a home cardio machine, look no further than the best rowing machines.)

If you’re looking for a top-notch rowing workout to fit in your lunch break, try this session from former GB rower Morgan Hellen. Hellen is also the founder of the app Rowith, which is chock-full of audio-guided rowing workouts led by the sport’s greatest names, including the mighty Olympian Steve Redgrave.

If you enjoyed this taster, try these rowing machine workouts next, or build all-round fitness with this rowing workout plan. Or if the duration suited your schedule, try one of these 20-minute workouts. Or to get the blood pumping, try these cardio workouts.

Pro Tips To Nail Your Rowing Technique

Before we detail the workout it’s worth checking out these form tips from Hellen. After all, how often do you get to hear a Team GB rower explaining how to row properly?

“The start – also known as the catch – and the finish are key positions and something you should practise before taking a stroke,” says Hellen.

“At the catch, you should have your legs compressed [knees bent, bum to heels] with vertical shins, have a straight back, be leaning slightly forwards (about 15°) and have your arms out straight in front at chest level with your shoulders down and relaxed. You should be holding the handle with your thumbs under, fingers on top and little fingers almost hanging off each end.

“At the finish you should have your legs extended with knees flat, a straight back leaning slightly backwards – again, about 15° – and arms bent at the elbow with flat wrists. The handle should be just below your pecs and hand positioning should remain the same throughout the stroke.

“Starting from the catch you should drive your knees down flat, keeping your arms straight and your body slightly forwards. Swing your body back and then pull with your arms, bringing your thumbs to your chest. Each of these stages will slightly overlap but should stay mostly separate in a continuous loop. To get back to the catch, do the same in reverse.”

For more advice to master your stroke, read these five tips for improving your rowing technique from Olympic gold medallist Andrew Triggs Hodge.

Rowing Machine Workout

The intervals get shorter as you proceed through this workout, but the intensity gets higher. You’ll be judging the intensity by stroke rate (strokes per minute or SPM), but it’s important to make sure your strokes are still of a high quality, so keep Hellen’s guide to good rowing form in mind.

“Generally, the more strokes you take the faster you will go, but not if you compromise the stroke length or let off the pressure,” says Hellen. “Stroke rate should increase with the intensity of the workout. Try about 20SPM for longer, low-intensity workouts and about 30SPM for shorter, higher-intensity workouts.”

In terms of the damper setting on the rowing machine, Hellen recommends 4-6 as the most realistic representation of what it’s like on the water.

After warming up on the rowing machine try this 20-minute workout, and make sure to warm down afterwards.

Interval 1

Time 5min SPM 22 Rest 1min

Interval 2

Time 4min SPM 24 Rest 1min

Interval 3

Time 3min SPM 26 Rest 1min

Interval 4

Time 2min SPM 28 Rest 1min

Interval 5

Time 1min SPM 30 Rest 1min

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.