At a sports-medicine symposium in Seattle shortly before the opening of the 1984 Summer Olympics, one of the research papers introduced stated that oarsmen were the fittest athletes at the Games.
Once this fitness news was made public, it wasn't lost on the home exerciser, who was searching for the "perfect" exercise, that all-in-one piece of equipment that would enhance aerobic conditioning and build muscles in the legs and upper torso as well. Rowing machines soon became a hot item in sporting-goods stores across the nation.
A rowing machine is a great overall conditioner. Using it three times a week for 20 to 45 minutes is an excellent way to build aerobic endurance and sculpt your body. Since you are pulling on oars that can be set at a full range of resistance levels, rowing will exercise and effectively strengthen your back, shoulder, arm and stomach muscles. Every stroke you take on the rowing machine stretches your calves, hamstrings and quadriceps as well.
Using a stationary rowing machine is also a great way to expend calories as you slide your way to fitness. Depending on your skill and workout intensity, you can burn between seven and 25 calories per minute. This is almost equal to cross-country skiing, the other total body exercise, and ranks at the top in terms of aerobics.
But caution must be used when exercising with a rowing machine. If you are one of the several million Americans suffering from lower back pain, you may find that the rowing motion will aggravate your condition. Check first with your physician.
Rowing at home can be a physically challenging exercise if you row with moderate resistance at a steady rate. Unfortunately, far too many people make the mistake of setting the resistance levels too high.
"Since you are using so many muscles as you row, you really get your heart rate up fast," said Peter Gardner, crew coach at Dartmouth College. "By not setting the resistance level too high, you'll avoid straining yourself and get a good workout."
If you have any doubts about whether you'd like to use a rowing machine for exercise, your best bet is to first try one out in a store. Don't be bashful about hopping on and rowing for five minutes or so--it is a $275-plus investment for a good machine.
When shopping for a rower, look for a machine made of anodized aluminum in the 30- to 35-pound range. Any machine weighing less is not recommended because it is not stable enough for the typical adult.
While sitting on the machine, check the smoothness of the tracks--the long bar that the seat slides along. As you slide back and forth on it, make sure that the seat feels firmly locked in place on the track. Since you'll be sliding at least 800 times during a typical 30-minute workout, you want to have smooth movement.
The resistance on a typical rowing machine comes from pistons (most are actually Gabriel shock absorbers similar to those found in many cars) located at the base of each rowing arm. Good machines have pistons with a range of 10 pounds of resistance on the low end to 300 pounds per oar on the high setting. Quality rowing machines using pistons are manufactured by Precor USA (Bothell, Wash., 800-662-0606) and Monark (Universal Gym, 800-553-7901).
One of the best rowing machines around, and certainly No. 1 with serious oarsmen, is the Concept II Rowing Ergometer ($650, Concept II Inc., RR1, Box 1100, Morrisville, Vt. 05661-9727; 802-888-7971), an 8-foot-long machine with a weighted flywheel and fan blades in front that create air drag (resistance).
The rowing motion on the Concept II is amazingly smooth and easy. "You start pushing with your leg muscles, the strongest in your body," explained Steve Kiesling, a member of the 1980 Olympic crew team who trains on a Concept II in his Manhattan apartment. "Then you go to your back muscles, the next strongest, as the load lessens, and finally you end up pulling with your arms, your weakest muscles, when the load on the machine is the lightest. This is exactly what happens when you're rowing."
Walking and running on a treadmill are two quick routes to cardiovascular fitness. Using a treadmill three or four times a week for 20 to 45 minutes provides an excellent workout for the heart and lungs and involves the muscles of the lower body, the hamstrings and calves especially.
While quality treadmills come with a Rolls-Royce sticker price, they can provide excellent workouts. "When it's raining, snowing or otherwise impossible to get a workout outdoors, you can laugh at the weather by running on your treadmill" said Marty Liquori, the former 5,000-meter world champion who now does a good portion of his running in his Gainesville, Fla., home.
There are two types of treadmills on the market today: motorized and non-motorized. The latter units are ideal for walking, Liquori said. "They will give years of service and, because they have so few moving parts, are virtually maintenance-free."
Non-motorized models, especially those with adjustable elevation, are great for people on a prescribed cardiac-rehabilitation program of walking. For running indoors, Liquori leans toward a good motorized treadmill because these machines have faster speeds and a thick, durable tread belt which cushions the feet.
A quality non-motorized treadmill will cost at least $1,695 (Sportech Aerobic Trainer, Sportech Inc., P.O. Box 99101, Cleveland, Ohio 44119, 800-221-1258), while a motorized model with adjustable speed controls and extra features starts at $2,500. Tredex, made by Universal (P.O. Box 1270, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 52406, 800-553-7901) and Precor USA (Bothell, Wash., 800-662-0606) have excellent motorized treadmills.