Awhile back, we had a Mystery Workout at the gym – a 500m Row. That’s it. “Just” a 500m Row!

I wish I had taken a video of the people coming out of class that morning! I am sure not a single one thought it was “just” a 500m row – or that it was easy. We even had a few people with some dry heaves afterwards. I am never a fan of working out so hard you vomit, but I do appreciate when people have enough intensity for under 2 minutes to have that feeling. There is a LOT to be said for intensity (Fran anyone?1?!)

So, let’s take a look at why rowing faster isn’t necessarily your best plan when rowing – whatever distance you’re tackling.

Imagine if you will, that I asked you to do as many burpees as possible in 1 minute. I would guess that you could knock them out pretty quickly, probably one every 4-5 seconds. That works out to between 12 and 15 burpees. Let’s call it 14. That is pretty fast but I bet you would be pretty tired after that.

Now let’s look at the same challenge with a slightly different rule set. You can go as fast as you want, or you can do one burpee every 6 seconds, but every burpee has to be good form. No shark fin, no slouching or worming your way off the ground. The catch is, you get 2 points per burpee if you do them at the 1 every 6 seconds pace. So as fast as possible you would get roughly 14 (and be exhausted) or you could go slow and steady and get 20. Which would you choose

Let’s make it even trickier. Let’s keep the exact same ruleset as the second example but add in the fact that you need to run a mile as fast as possible as soon as the 60 seconds are up. The second option seems even better right? But what does all this burpee nonsense have to do with rowing? I am glad you asked!

This translates almost directly to the little Strokes Per Minute (s/m) number that usually hangs out in the lower left of the screen. That number shows just how fast you are pulling on the chain. The faster you go, the bigger the number. Big numbers are good right? You should crank that thing up to 40 and win everything!

Just because you are flopping back and forth on the rower so fast you are threatening the sound barrier does not mean that is actually translated into work happening elsewhere on your rower. I frequently watch people row by ratcheting back and forth, arms and legs out of sync, back rounded and head flopping about. And then I sidle up behind them and take a gander at the screen.

Sure enough their s/m is in the 30s but they are moving 3-4 meters on every pull. If they slowed down (waaay down) and kept their strokes per minute at 24-25 but made sure each and every pull was in sync (legs->body->arms->arms->body->legs), they could easily pull 8-10 meters per stroke. “Wait – so I can move slower and get more work done?” I hear you ask. Absolutely – that’s what we refer to as EFFICIENCY!

A better stroke is far more useful than a faster stroke almost every time. This is even more clear if you need to do anything taxing after (or before) you row. So next time you see rowing in a workout, take the time to set up and focus on your rowing form. Make your work count for more!

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