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Out of the gym, onto the marina

Rowing can be tricky to master, but it's a great way to work several muscle groups. Plus, you can't beat the view.

May 05, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Rowing has been called the perfect workout -- and with good reason. A rower's stroke works three major muscle groups -- arms, torso and legs -- and burns calories as efficiently as cross-country skiing or full-court basketball. And while improving conditioning and building strength, rowing also boasts a low injury rate compared with many other sports.

Despite its obvious appeal, rowing is something of a neglected sport. In Southern California, with its ample water and sunshine, it's rare to see rowers guiding their sleek boats -- or shells -- through the water. And at the gym, the rowing machine is often tucked away in some obscure corner, barely noticeable among the legions of elliptical machines and stationary bikes.

I'd never rowed a scull, and despite hundreds of trips to the health club, never hopped on the rowing machine either. It seemed like a good time to give it a try. My first stop was Marina del Rey, where I got a lesson from Steve Hathaway and Craig Leeds of the California Yacht Club. Hathaway and Leeds have won prestigious East Coast rowing competitions in the over-40 category and also share the two-man record for rowing from Marina del Rey to Catalina Island, 32 nautical miles that they covered in just over 4 1/2 hours.

Luckily, when I reported bright and early one recent morning, my goals weren't so ambitious. I just wanted to row around the marina and work up a decent sweat. But before I could hit the water, they wanted to know if I could swim. It seems some rookies can go for unscheduled dips.

A quick look at my shell demonstrated why. My beginner boat was about 21 feet long and weighed a mere 40 pounds -- squatly shaped by racing standards, where single shells can be 30 feet long and less than 30 pounds. I quickly learned that simply moving a hand too far could be enough to flip the narrow vessel.

Another lesson centered on technique. If you watch a rower, you might think that the arms and shoulders are doing all the work, but actually it's the legs. From the crouched position, the correct rhythm is to extend the legs, tilt the back, pull the arms. Or, as Leeds put it, legs, back, arms. Its converse is equally critical -- arms, back and legs -- in returning the rower to the start position as rapidly and efficiently as possible.

Between repeating the mantra and fearing an unscheduled dip in the water, my first time in the shell didn't prove to be much of a workout. I was told that it can take the better part of a day to sufficiently master the basics of the stroke -- and that's when the workout begins in earnest.

In about 20 minutes of rowing, I probably completed three clean and consecutive strokes. My biggest trouble was returning my oars to the start position without dragging them in the water and killing the speed I'd just created. It was frustrating, but the few times I put together a couple strokes, I got a hint of the exhilaration of gliding on the water.

By contrast, the rowing machine at the gym took a minute or two to figure out. My technique may not have been perfect (I did repeat the rower's mantra), but the workout was as heart-pumping as promised. After 30 minutes on the machine, I was drenched in sweat.

After my experience on the water, I found getting into a smooth rhythm on the machine within minutes satisfying. It's not as thrilling as being on the water, of course, but it's also no more monotonous than the elliptical machine, which is my usual workout.

And there's no cheating with the rowing machine like with the ellipticals, where you can rest your arms on the machine for a minute. Either you're moving your arms, back and legs or you're not, so you keep going. The next day, I had some minor soreness in my lower back and upper shoulder muscles. I wouldn't hesitate to hit the rowing machine again in my next visit to the health club.

Unless you live near the beach, frequent excursions to row could quickly become costly and time-consuming. Private lessons range from $40 to $60 per hour, while classes usually charge about $75 for four sessions. Meanwhile, renting a single shell can set you back about $70; a decent used shell can run about $1,000. (For more information, including about National Learn to Row Day on May 31, go to

If time and money were no consideration, I'd definitely row on the water again. But the next time I hit the rowing machine, I will miss the blue sky and gentle waters.



Snapshot: Rowing machine

Duration of activity: 30 minutes

Calories burned*: 493

Heart rate*: Average, 141; high, 162

*This information was obtained using a heart-rate monitor.


Martin Miller can be reached at

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