Rowing Crazy


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

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

Simple Rowing Machine Workouts for Seniors or Elderly

Benefits of Rowing Machine Workouts to Seniors

Laura Tanley Certified Erg Trainer

Hi I’m Laura Tanley, a certified indoor rowing machine/erg instructor, an experienced indoor & on-the-water rower, and a licensed physical therapist. One thing I have learned for sure – in my many years as a physical therapist and a rower- is that seniors come in all shapes, sizes, health, and fitness levels. I have rowing friends in their 60’s that 30-year-olds struggle to keep up with. Then I have patients in their 60’s that struggle with walking up a flight of stairs or can’t squat down to pick up an object.

The great thing about rowing is that it is good for “every body” (slogan used by UCanRow2), regardless of age, size, fitness level. It can be modified for your body!

Is Rowing Good for Older People?

Rowing is not only good for older people and seniors, it could in fact be called the “perfect” exercise for them! Like I said, rowing is good for “every body”. More importantly, it is a low-impact activity, which is beneficial for old and weak joints. 

Watch my video above on basic rowing techniques

Benefits of Rowing Machine Workouts to Seniors

Rowing is perfect for the elderly because of the following reasons:

  • Low-impact exercise – Rowing is easy on your joints. Studies show that regular low-impact exercise can help reduce arthritis pain. A regular low-impact exercise routine is the recommended treatment for individuals with knee or hip osteoarthritis to extend the life of their joints and delay joint replacements.
  • Range of motion – When rowing, your hips, knees, and ankles are taken through a decent amount or range of motion that might actually help reduce stiffness and achiness to help maintain your mobility.
  • Full-body exercise – Rowing is a full-body workout. You get a lot of “bang for your buck” because 80% of your muscles are working when you row, including your legs, core, and arms. It’s more beneficial than walking or biking, which are predominantly legs.
  • Muscle strengthening exercise – Rowing helps to strengthen muscles which can contribute to decreased pain and improved overall function or activity level.
  • Cardio exercise – Rowing is a great way to get that heart pumping for improved cardiovascular fitness. Studies show that regular cardio workouts help decrease cholesterol levels and improve blood pressure.

Benefits of Rowing Machine Workouts to Seniors

  • Works A LOT of muscle groups – More muscles working means more calories burned, Accompanied by a healthy diet, rowing will contribute to weight loss. In fact, rowing burns between 300 and 500 calories in just 30 minutes, depending on the weight of the individual.
  • Improves posture – It works key muscles that help support your skeletal system to maintain an upright posture. When rowing correctly, the spine is maintained in a good upright posture. Holding this position while you row helps to strengthen those muscles, and over time, it becomes easier to maintain on and off the rowing machine.
  • Improves balance – As we age, our balance system generally declines. We become more cautious, and we no longer challenge it. We hold on when we step up onto a curb, or sit down (rather than stand up) to put our pants on. Our balance system is a use-it-or-lose-it type of system. We need to do things to challenge it on a regular basis. Although you are sitting down to row and not challenging your standing balance, sitting on the moving seat and sliding up and down the slide does activate some of the balance receptors to wake up. You are also working your core and leg muscles which are key contributors to your balance. A good little self test of your balance is to see how long you can stand on one leg. At any age you should be able to stand on one leg for at least 10 seconds. Studies have reported inability to do this suggests fall risk. If you are close to the 10 seconds but not quite, try practicing it a few weeks along with your rowing and see how it improves. Not even close to that 10 seconds? Seek out a physical therapist specializing in Fall Risk and Balance.
  • Positive effects on mental health – Rowing has definite mental health benefits. Exercise in general helps to release endorphins that positively influence your mental health. Completing a rowing workout can help give you a sense of accomplishment, which has a positive influence as well.
  • Improves overall health and quality of life – Studies have shown that regular exercise can extend life, improve blood pressure, improve cholesterol, and decrease risk of heart attack and stroke. Rowing done regularly can have these benefits.

Side Note:  Check out our rowing machine workout plans for beginners

Is Rowing Safe for Seniors? Absolutely!

Rowing can be modified for fitness level as well as physical limitations making it safe for almost anyone. As with beginning any new exercise program, it is wise to check with your doctor beforehand.

old man training at the gym

If you have a history of total hip replacement, back surgery, or have been given any restrictions on weight bearing or motion, it is especially important to check with your doctor first.

Certain heart medications can impact your heart rate when exercising, so it is also wise to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program if you are on heart medications to better understand what to expect.

How Often Should Seniors Row?

As we age, it takes the body longer to recover from a workout. Just how long depends a little on the intensity of your workout, but a good general recommendation is to allow your body 1-2 days of rests between workouts.

Discover these Top 10 Rowing Tips by Rowing Expert Rachael Taylor:

What Modifications Can Be Made?

As I mentioned, rowing is good for almost everybody; however, not every body is the same. It is not uncommon for older individuals to have stiffness in their joints, tight or shortened muscles, pain, and declining balance. The great thing about rowing is that it can be modified to work for you!

  • Poor Balance? Think about the placement of your rowing machine or erg. Place it next to a sturdy piece of furniture that you can use to support yourself with while climbing on and off the rower. The moving seat can be a little intimidating when climbing on and off. Slide it all the way back and lay a towel over the slide just in front of it to keep it from sliding. Once you are sitting comfortably, just pull the towel out of the way, slide up and strap in.
  • Stiff ankle-limited motion? Having trouble getting to that full catch position with perpendicular shins? No worries, try adjusting the foot plate to compensate. Raising the foot plate up will give you a few extra degrees. Still having difficulty? It is perfectly OK to row at partial slide. Slide up as far as your ankles allow while maintaining the rest of your body in a strong catch position with arms out/body over.

elder woman rowing at the gym

  • Stiff knee or hip? As I mentioned above, partial slide rowing is safe and still effective. Move up the slide as far as you are able while still maintaining proper technique. You will likely find your stiffness improves and you gain motion in your joints over time.
  • Tightness in the back of your legs, in the hamstrings when legs are fully extended at the finish or body over position? Keep a little more bend in them, don’t fully extend. It is very important to still maintain proper form through the rest of your body, just keep a little bend in the knees at the finish to free up a little tension. You will likely find that over time the gentle dynamic stretch you are placing on your hamstrings will help stretch them out, and before you know it, the issue may resolve.
  • Low or mid back stiffness or pain when you row? First check your rowing posture and form! You may want to have someone video you to take a closer look. Be sure your pivot is occurring at hips rather than through the back. Upright spine posture should be maintained throughout. Second, Drop the damper! Less drag is better when it comes to back pain. Third, build up your rowing time gradually to build up those muscles. Intervals are great, row for 2-3 minutes followed by a 1-3 minute break. Gently stretch, stand up and move during these breaks. Your back should be ready to go again after the break. As you build up strength and mobility you should find your tolerance improves, and before long, you are rowing without back pain!

Physical therapy for tendonitis

  • Rowing wears you out? Huffing and puffing within minutes? Slow your body down. Pay attention to your stroke rate (strokes per minute, SPM). Take it down a notch. Remember that faster is not better when it comes to rowing! (Want to learn more about this? Check out my article on Stroke Rate). Drop your damper setting for less drag. Higher drag is like rowing upstream against the current in murky water… exhausting! You can also throw in some intervals. Interval training is a great way not only to build up your rowing tolerance but also to build up your endurance. I have included an interval workout below- give it a try!

Simple Beginner Workouts for Seniors

As I mentioned at the start of this article, seniors come in all shapes, sizes and abilities. Regardless of your age, developing proper technique with rowing is your number one priority not only for injury prevention but also to get a more effective workout.

Check out my article and videos on proper rowing technique. I also recommend rowing drills to help you out. Check out my videos on the Pick Drill, Reverse Pick Drill and Pause Drills.

For the more active and “fit” senior who does some type of cardio regularly, once you feel pretty good with your technique, you may find my beginner workouts in my previous article a good starting point. For those of you who are just getting started with exercise in general including rowing and need to make some of the modifications as described, here are some good beginner workouts to try.


I always recommend a nice warm up with the Pick Drill regardless of your rowing experience level. It is a great way to pick apart your rowing stroke and wake up that muscle memory to move correctly. You can stay in any one position of the drill as long as you like. If you need a little reminder, you can row along with my Pick Drill video. (link video here). Limit your warm up to no more than 10 minutes, then stand up and stretch a little before you move on.

Watch Certified Indoor Rowing & Erg Instructor Laura Tanley Show You the Rowing Pick Drill 

Interval Work for Building Time

Building up your tolerance for rowing can be a slow process. You are moving your body in new movement patterns that may take a little practice to get comfortable with. Be sure to develop your correct form and rowing technique before moving on. Always listen to your body, if something is starting to get uncomfortable or likely fatiguing, it is ok to take a little break.

Monitor on Concept 2 rowing machine showing times

The following interval workout is a great way to gradually build up your body’s rowing tolerance. The workout can be progressed by gradually increasing the interval time and lessening the rest time.

  • When starting off, do not worry about setting your monitor, the intervals are going to vary based on how you feel after each interval.
  • Throughout the entire workout, row at a comfortable stroke rate, less than 20SPM.
  • On the rest phase, stop rowing and stretch a little, maybe even stand up.
  • Below is the progression. However, if any one step feels difficult, remain at that level for the rest of the workout today. (For example, if after phase 2, your back feels tired, stay at phase 2 for one or two more intervals.)
  • Five phases are included below for a total of 19 minutes of rowing, but not all 5 need to be completed if you are not ready for it.
(total of 19 minutes)

Phase 1

Begin with 2 minutes of rowing followed by 3 minutes of rest

Phase 2

3 minutes of rowing followed by 3 minutes of rest

 Phase 3

4 minutes of rowing followed by 3 minutes of rest

 Phase 4

5 minutes of rowing followed by 3 minutes of rest


5 minutes of rowing followed by 3 minutes of rest

  • When you mastered the 5 phases with ease, the next time you row, give this a try. Once again, you can repeat or stop at any phase depending on how you feel.
(total of 21 minutes)

Phase 1

 3 minutes of rowing followed by 2 minutes of rest

Phase 2

5 minutes of rowing followed by 2 minutes of rest

 Phase 3

6 minutes of rowing followed by 3 minutes of rest

 Phase 4

7 minutes of rowing followed by 3 minutes of rest

Interval Work for Building Power

Feeling pretty good about your rowing technique and your body is now comfortable with rowing? Ready to put a little more oomph into your stroke? Try this interval workout focusing on your rowing split. Your Split is a measure of your power output. It is the time it takes you to row 500 meters. Remember- the power should come from your legs!

You might also like to read my article on how to improve your split time

rowing split time

  • Be sure your monitor is set to show your Split and Stroke Rate.
  • This will be 3-minute intervals with 2 minute rests, if your monitor allows, you can set it up for Intervals-Time
(total of 3 minutes)

Phase 1

  • Minute 1 at Stroke Rate of 18, easy comfortable pressure, during the minute look at your split
  • Minute 2, still at Stroke Rate of 18, drop that split a little (50% effort)
  • Minute 3, still at Stroke Rate of 18, let your split come back up to to your comfortable level from minute 1

Phase 2

  • Minute 1, Stroke Rate 18, Split at your 50% effort level from last interval
  • Minute 2, Stroke Rate 18, Comfortable easy pressure
  • Minute 3, Stroke Rate 18, first 30 seconds, Split at your 50% effort level, last 30 seconds, drop that split even lower 60-70% effort
 Phase 3
  • Each of the 3 minutes, Stroke Rate 18,
  • First 30 seconds of each minute drop that split to what it was at the end of your last interval (60-70% effort).
  • Second 30 seconds row comfortably.
  • With this workout you can repeat or stop at any phase that feels difficult.
  • Want a little more time? Repeat any of the intervals or work your way back down- interval 3 then 2 then 1.

Beginner Continuous Steady State Row

Concept2 Monitor Displaying Rowing Stroke Rate

  • Feel ready to try a bit longer row? Try this steady state row to build your endurance and burn some calories.
  • Set your monitor to display Stroke Rate and Split. Select single time of 15 minutes.
(total of 15 minutes)

Phase 1

Minutes 1-3, Maintain Stroke Rate of 16, effort should be such that you can carry on a conversation

Phase 2

Minutes 3-6, Maintain Stroke Rate of 18, effort should be such that you can carry on a conversation

 Phase 3

Minutes 6-9, Maintain Stroke Rate of 20, effort should be such that you can carry on a conversation

 Phase 4

Minutes 9-12, Maintain Stroke Rate of 18, effort should be such that you can carry on a conversation


Minutes 12-15, Maintain Stroke Rate of 16, effort should be such that you can carry on a conversation

  • Want a little longer row? Add another minute to each phase or add in another phase in the middle at stroke rate of 20.

Enjoy your row!! Before you know it, you will be rowing like a pro!