Is Rowing Hard?

Peter Donohoe

If you’re looking to mix up your fitness routine, you’ve likely encountered rowing machines as an option. However, you’re not alone if you’ve wondered whether rowing workouts are too difficult to adopt if you’ve never done them before. 

“Is rowing hard?” is a common question among newbies, as myths persist about rowing being too intense for beginners or only for elite athletes. While it’s certainly true rowing provides a powerful full-body workout, it is definitely possible to row as a beginner if you start slow and work your way up toward your desired intensity. 

In this blog, we’ll explore:

what can make rowing a hard workout, the physical and mental demands of rowing, and tips for starting to row for the first time

Is rowing hard? Factors to consider

When talking about the difficulty of rowing, the bottom line is that rowing is a hard workout—but certainly not impossible. There are various factors to keep in mind that will affect how hard rowing is, including:

1. Your individual fitness level and experience

Your fitness level will definitely influence how hard rowing feels to you. Beginners may find rowing more challenging, while experienced rowers will be able to handle more intense workouts. 

Even if rowing feels difficult in the beginning, continuing to row over time will make what once felt hard feel easy (or at least easier!). You will be able to gradually increase both the duration and intensity of your workouts to keep pushing yourself toward new goals. 

2. The intensity of your rowing sessions

Rowing isn’t a one-size-fits-all workout, which means you have a ton of control over exactly how much effort you are putting in. Your intensity here is largely determined by how much force and energy you put into pushing your legs against your footplate as you pull the handle toward your body. 

Want to take it easy to start? Don’t push off as hard or as fast, sticking to lower strokes per minute and higher split times. Or, if you’re looking for a more intense workout, you’ll want to go faster by increasing your strokes per minute and rowing at a lower split time

3. The duration of your rowing sessions

When it comes to the length of your rowing workouts, you’ll have a wide variety to choose from. As a general rule, you only need to exercise on a rowing machine for 20 minutes to get in a solid, full-body workout. But it’s possible to pick and choose from shorter and longer workouts to establish the right regimen for you. 

New rowers may want to start with shorter, steady-state rowing sessions (say, 10 minutes), while experienced rowers may be able to jump right into longer and higher-intensity rowing workouts (like 30 to 45 minutes). You can also mix and match your workouts, with a longer and more difficult workout sandwiched with shorter and less intense warm-ups and cool-downs. 

4. The type of rowing workout you are doing

Not every rowing workout is created equal. For example, a 10-minute steady state rowing workout at a single pace is going to be easier than a 10-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout that jumps through multiple higher-pace stroke rates. Do a little digging ahead of time to ensure you’re not jumping headfirst into a workout that’s going to overwhelm you out of the gate. 

The physical and mental demands of rowing

One of the reasons rowing is considered so physically demanding is the fact that it offers a full-body workout, using a whopping 86% of your body’s muscles in a single rowing stroke. When compared to other types of exercise equipment like treadmills, ellipticals, or bikes, rowing consistently offers an intense workout across your upper body, lower, body and core, while also improving your range of motion and keeping your workout low impact.

While rowing is an endurance and cardio activity, you’ll feel yourself getting stronger as you continue to row. Each rowing stroke involves a powerful push-off with your legs, a pull with your upper body, and a core engagement to stabilize your movements, all combined with the cardiovascular demand from engaging in the continuous, repetitive motion of rowing. Sustaining this effort over time requires endurance and stamina, which is taxing on both your muscular and cardiovascular systems.

Rowing’s difficulty level can also extend beyond the physical and into the mental realm. There is a particular level of mental focus and concentration required in rowing, as the efficiency of your workouts depends on maintaining proper form and keeping a consistent pace. Some people can also struggle with the monotony of rowing, finding it hard to stay motivated while doing the same motion over and over.

Tips for starting to row for the first time

Whether you’re just starting out or want to improve your rowing, use this tips to make your rowing workouts feel less hard and more rewarding:

  • Focus on your form: Keeping proper posture is absolutely essential for keeping your workouts efficient, effective, and injury-free. Rowing along with videos specifically designed to teach you about proper rowing form is a great way to start (and can be worth periodic rewatches to ensure you’re not developing any bad habits). 

  • Start slow: Building up your intensity and duration gradually will give your body time to adjust to the new demands you are putting on it, leaving you with less of a risk of injury and muscle soreness that could deter you from rowing consistently.

  • Seek professional guidance: There are a ton of resources available to new rowers, such as instructional videos and classes. For example, Hydrow’s workout library of on-the-water rowing workouts is all taught by world-class Athletes that provide you with instruction (and motivation!) along the way. 

  • Try cross-training with other sports: By mixing up your workout routine, you’ll give your body time to recover from your rowing workouts while focusing your attention on other parts of your body. 

Is rowing a hard sport? Final thoughts

At the end of the day, rowing can definitely be considered hard—but absolutely not inaccessible. By starting slow and gradually building up your strength and endurance, rowing is a fantastic workout for beginners and fitness enthusiasts alike. 

If you are looking to invest in a rowing machine for your home, be sure to check out Hydrow. Our state-of-the-art rowing machines are the perfect addition to any home gym, giving you an immersive and total-body workout in just 20 minutes a day. 

Hydrow’s extensive library of workout content is led by our team of world-class and Olympic Athletes and filmed in stunning locations around the world. Whether you’re looking to do a rowing workout or cross-train with yoga, Pilates, mobility, and circuit training workouts, you’ll be transported to stunning global destinations that keep you motivated to come back again and again. 

Learn more about the benefits of a Hydrow rowing machine today!

Peter Donohoe

Peter is our head strength and movement specialist. As an Olympian, conditioning coach, and corrective exercise specialist, Peter’s methodology continues to influence the movement of athletes from many sports. Join Peter for On the Mat workouts and benefit from increased mobility and enhanced performance.