WHEN IT COMES to generating the most cardio and conditioning bang for your buck, very few pieces of fitness equipment are more effective than the rowing machine.
No matter if you choose a two-minute HIIT sprint or a 30-minute steady state row, cardio rowing can hit a range of energy systems that will ultimately leave you gassed (in a good way). At the same time, each pull, push, and hinge is working your entire posterior chain—from your back and your glutes to your feet—helping you to hone your muscles as well.
One of the cardio row’s ultimate tests is the 500 meter sprint, an all-out row assault in which the goal to hit the target distance in the shortest time possible—do it in under a minute and a half and consider yourself a superstar, say Men's Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and advisory board member David Otey, C.S.C.S.
“We're getting a lot of quad involvement and you're going from pushing and pulling— pushing with the lower body, pulling with the upper body—it can become very challenging,” Otey says. “The 500-meter portion tends to sit right in between some of those energy systems, which is why it's such a common and brutal program you’ll want to try and do.”
Read more: Best Rowing Machines
To better maximize your rowing speed and strength requires more than just rowing (although that will help). You’re also going to need a crushing combo of movements that will help to improve the two components of the rowing machine movement: hip extension and the actual pulling row motion.
Samuel and Otey have you covered with these five exercises you should consider incorporating into your routine to make you a stronger rower once you hit the machine to test that 500 meter sprint.
5 Must-Do Exercises to Power Up Your Cardio Row Workouts
3 to 4 sets of 30 to 45 seconds
Most training routines can benefit from the farmer’s carries, since doing the exercise properly requires a full-body, top to bottom effort—from transferring force production power from your feet through your core all the way to your shoulders and back.
Farmer's carries work your grip and core stability as you move from points A to B. If your rowing goal is to pull for 90 seconds, imagine the challenge of holding on to a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells for that same period of time. It's a taxing, full-body exercise, just like the row.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
You may not notice at first how this traditional back-blasting move mimics the top position of the cardio row—load pulled to your torso, legs extended—but bent-over rows put you in that same spot.
With bent-over rows, you work on squeezing the shoulder blades in a manner similar to when you stretch and pull the row machine handles. This is going to allow you to develop greater velocity with each pull.
“As we go through our rows, we can really learn how to allow that shoulder blade to move forward when we're letting the hand go away,” Otey says. “But then when we're going to initiate that pull, we're bringing that shoulder blade back to a comfortable spot to utilize both the shoulder girdle and back in the way we want to for this machine."
3 to 4 sets of 15 to 20 reps
When fatigue hits during a row, it’s your lower back that takes the brunt of the force—which can lead to less cardio endurance and slower pull speeds. So like any other muscle, preparing the lower back is fundamental.
Back extensions are a great move for learning how to make that connection from mid to lower back. Although you don’t need to stay rigid throughout, extensions, like the row, will require a degree of controlled flexibility and stability. You can also do these with just body weight or with an external load to help build core strength and train upper spine mobility.
4 to 6 sets of 3 to 5 reps
Rowing requires plenty of power as you squeeze your glutes to get into hip extension. You can build up the strength you need for this by moving heavy weight—which makes deadlifts your best friend for cardio rows.
Creating power is one of the reasons why you’ll see top-level powerlifters excel at cardio rows, and no matter whether you prefer using a trap bar or straight bar, heavy pulls will help you get acclimated to the powerful glute squeeze you’ll rely on each time you’re pulling the row handle.
With each deadlift rep, work on pulling with intent and speed—just as you would be pulling the row handle.
3 to 4 sets of 10 to 20 reps
It may not visually resemble the same motions as a cardio row, but the hip force and power generated by each kettlebell swing rep translates perfectly to your cardio row.
Why? The movement hits the same muscle groups and muscle patterns, from hip and knee extension to the position's spinal stability and integrity to the way you'll create and generate force from the hips and feet. All of this is in play you when you're rowing at top-flight power.
Kettlebell swings allow you to play around with rep schemes too. You can grab heavy weights and swing with low reps or light weights for high reps. You can even add cluster sets to your swings in order to continue generating max power. With cluster sets, you can go all-out heavy, but instead of slowing down as the reps get higher, drop the weight, reset after a few reps—maybe five sets of two work—then once again explode. Nail these and watch your cardio row time drop.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men's Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.