Rowing Crazy


“We Don’t Just Talk About Rowing
We Actually Row!”

“We Don’t Just Talk About Rowing – We Actually Row!”

Easy Erg Workouts for Beginners to Increase Your Cardio By Our Expert Rowing Instructor

easy erg workouts for beginners to increase your cardio by our expert rowing instructor

I’m Laura Tanley, Certified Indoor Rowing Instructor and Physical Therapist. Today, I am going to share with you 12 rowing machine workouts to help you do just that. These rowing workouts are geared toward the beginner rower but can easily be modified to challenge you no matter your level.

Let’s Talk a Little about Cardio!

To improve cardiovascular endurance, experts recommend 30 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise 3-7 days per week. This means increased heart rate and breathing rate.

According to the CDC, 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week notably improves overall health in adults.

The Benefits of Cardio Endurance Training

Besides making your heart and lungs work more efficiently, cardio endurance training offers so much more benefits, including the following:

Benefits of Cardio Endurance Training infographic

  • Decreases your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke
  • Lowers your cholesterol
  • Improves your blood flow
  • Boosts your metabolism, helping your body more effectively use fat for energy
  • Burns calories, to assist with weight loss
  • Makes it easier for you to complete your daily tasks, and even run up those stairs or hill without all that huffing and puffing!

Heart Rate Zones Explained

So how do you know if you are working hard enough and working in that cardio zone?

Laura Tanley working out on a Concept 2 rowing machine working all the major muscle groups including her upper body

For optimal benefit, you want to be able to sustain your rowing workout for 30 minutes (or more). That being said, you want to feel challenged but not exhausted 10 minutes in. Here’s what you can do.

  • You can monitor you heart rate during your workout. The American Heart Association recommends that beginners work out with a moderate intensity between 50 and 70% of your maximum heart rate.
    1. Figure out your maximum heart rate: Maximum Heart Rate = 220 minus your age
    2. Determine your target range: Your target range is between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate. As you become more fit you can aim towards increasing your target to as much as 85%.
    3. Pick the best heart rate training zone to match your fitness goals.

The 5 Heart Rate Training Zones are:

Zone 1 50-60% of your max heart rate
Zone 2 60-70% of your max heart rate (Best and most sustainable for cardio fitness)
Zone 3 70-80% of your max heart rate
Zone 4 80-90% of your max heart rate
Zone 5 90-100% of your max heart rate

Laura Tanley sitting on a rowing machine

  • Try utilizing a RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) scale. Judge the workout intensity based on how it feels. Consider your breathing rate, heart rate, sweating, and level of fatigue. There are various RPE scales available. The original scale came from a Swedish researcher, Gunnar Borg, who developed it in 1960. The Borg RPE scale measured effort/exertion from a score of 6 to 20.
  • 0-10 RPE Scale – this is the more commonly used scale today.
0 Rest
1 – 2 Very Light
3 – 4 Light
5 – 6 Moderate
7 – 8 Vigorous
9 – 10 Maximum
  • The Talk Test – try this scale to better understand the RPE scalersation9-10 – Hardly able to talk
3 – 4 Easy conversation
5 – 6 Breathing hard but still able to carry conversation
7 – 8 Breathing hard, can get some words in but not enough for a conversation
9 – 10 Hardly able to talk
  • To improve your cardio fitness level, you want the workout to be sustainable for an extended period. Try to stay in the 5-6 range overall. This may include some shorter bursts of the 7-and-above range followed by dropping back down into the 5-6 range.

Best Rowing Erg Workouts for Endurance

Laura Tanley using a rowing machine

With that little background about cardio endurance, heart rate zones, and RPE scale, we can now start talking about what you’re here for. Let’s get rowing!!! Give these endurance workouts a try.

  1. Get to know the RPE scale.

    Pick a comfortable rowing stroke rate that you can sustain (I recommend 20-26 strokes per minute). Maintain that stroke rate while varying your intensity utilizing the RPE scale. Begin your first minute in the 3-4 range, then alternate 5 minutes in the 5-6 range followed by 1-3 minutes in the 7-8 range. Repeat until you hit your 30-minute goal.

  2. Just row.

    Set the timer on your indoor rowing machine for 30 minutes, start rowing, and settle in to a comfortable, sustainable stroke rate (steady state). You can vary your pressure or try maintaining a consistent split throughout your rowing machine workout. Do whatever you like but try to keep yourself in that 5-6 zone of the RPE scale.

  3. Music makes it better.
    young woman listening to music at a gym with rowing machines

    Download a 30-minute playlist of songs with 150-180 beats per minute. Row hard with a higher intensity during the chorus then ease off to a paddle/easy pace and pressure between choruses. This brings your heart rate up and lets it drop just in time to go back up again. Just remember you have a long way to go, so don’t go all out in the beginning of your endurance workout.

  4. Try out that heart rate monitor.

    Calculate your target heart rate, which is 50-70% of your max (220 – age). Set that timer for 30 minutes. Row while keeping an eye on your heart rate. If it drops below 50% of your max heart rate, push a little harder. If it jumps above 70%, ease off. For an added challenge, try to maintain a consistent stroke rate throughout the row (I recommend 20-26 strokes per minute).

  5. Pump it up with RPE sprints.

    Set your monitor for intervals of 30 seconds and 60 seconds. Alternate 30 seconds working in the 7-8 zone of the RPE scale, followed by 60 seconds with easy/active recovery rowing. Repeat 20 times (for 30 minutes). The easy-pace phase should allow your heart rate to drop back down to let you keep on pumping.

  6. Take a test.

    See how long it takes to complete 5,000 meters. Be sure to track your time and average split time. A re-test every so often can help measure your progress. The average split can be helpful for determining your intensity with more advanced workouts.

  7. Power pyramid.

    Begin rowing with a light intensity then gradually increase your intensity (drop that split time or base it on the RPE scale) for each level of the pyramid – working up then back down. Follow this rowing machine workout:

    power pyramid infographic

    4 minutes light

    3 minutes medium

    2 minutes medium-high

    1 minute high intensity, close to full intensity

    2 minutes medium-high

    3 minutes medium

    4 minutes light

    Maintain a comfortable stroke rate between 20-26 SPM throughout your rowing workout.

  8. Lovely 30’s.

    Set the timer for a 30-minute rowing workout. Alternate 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off for the duration. The “on” phase should be high intensity, moderate to full pressure. Continue to move in the “off” phase with light rowing/easy pace or paddle pressure.

  9. 500 high to low.

    Begin with a fairly intense row for 500 meters and take a look at that split. For the next 3 intervals of 500 meters, drop your split each interval. Repeat this sequence for 30 minutes.

  10. Stroke rate settle.

    Row 1,000 meters at a stroke rate of 28 SPM with moderate pressure followed by 3-4 minutes of light paddle in the 18-22 SPM range. Repeat with 1,000 meters at a stroke rate of 26 followed by the 3-4 minute light paddle, then another 1,000 meters at a stroke rate of 24.

  11. 250-meter break up.

    Set 250-meter intervals for this rowing machine workout, alternating a stroke rate of 22 at 50% pressure with a stroke rate of 24 at 75% pressure.

  12. Ultimate pyramid.
    ultimate pyramid infographic for Rowing

  • Begin the first 500 meters with the Pick Drill.
  • In the next 1000 meters, focus on good technique with 60-70% pressure to get your heart rate up in the target zone.
  • For the next 1,500 meters, alternate 100 meters on (80-90% pressure) and 100 meters off (paddle pressure/active recovery).
  • In the next 2,000 meters, focus on lowering your split every 500 meters.
  • Work your way back down the pyramid.

Learn more from my video tutorial below:


My Top Tips and Reminders For Erg Machine Workouts

Top Tips and Reminders for Beginners by Laura Tanley

1. Faster is not better!

Moving up and down the slide quickly at a high stroke rate will likely cause fatigue and limit you from completing your rowing workout goals. For longer, sustained workouts, a stroke rate between 18 and 26 SPM is recommended for those new to rowing. You can row at a lower stroke rate with pressure to get your heart rate where you want it. The lower stroke rate allows a longer recovery phase, and remember, it is called the “Recovery Phase” for a reason.

2. Challenged but not exhausted.

For optimal cardio benefit, the goal is sustained exercise with the heart rate moderately elevated.

3. Yes, form matters!

Not only is rowing technique important for injury prevention, but it is also key for a more effective workout. Power output increases with a more effective drive phase – with the power coming from the leg drive. If you haven’t already, check out my links for rowing technique.

4. Listen to your body!

If something starts to hurt with a longer row, check your form but also take a minute. Stand up and stretch, then get back at it.

Long rowing sessions can be boring. Switch it up and have fun with some of the rowing workouts listed above!

Bottom Line on Erg Workouts

When using indoor rowing machines for your workouts, you don’t always need to row your hardest. What you need to do is row smarter by training at your optimal heart zone and using the RPE scale as your guide.

I hope that with this article, you’ll have a good chance of achieving your fitness goal and sustaining it.

Now, let’s get that heart pumping – starting with these 12 endurance workouts!