If you could invent the perfect gym machine, chances are, it would provide a good cardio workout, burn calories and give you a full muscle workout at the same time. Good news: it's already been invented, and it's called the rowing machine. This odd-looking contraption you've probably been passing by on your way to the ellipticals and treadmills packs a cardio wallop by incorporating upper- and lower-body movements, burns more calories than running at the same intensity and works almost every muscle group in your body.
While the rowing machine is as basic as it gets, mechanically speaking, you have to use it right to get the most out of it. To start, you'll be crunched up with your knees bent to the point that they are in line with your ankles. This will cause your feet to flex back. Next, you'll lean forward from the hips, contracting your ab muscles, to grab the cable handle with an overhand grip. To begin the row, push off with your legs until they are fully extended but just shy of locking your knees, then lean back slightly at your hips, keeping your head back and pelvis aligned. Follow this by pulling the handle toward your midsection while keeping your elbows down. Finish by pulling your elbows as far back as you can. The return is exactly the opposite; that is, extend your arms, lean your torso forward and slowly slide forward to the bent-knee starting position.
The rowing machine challenges your core as no other cardio machine does. Going from the starting position of leaning forward to the ending position of leaning slightly back is like doing partial situps. If you've ever done partial situps, you know they are much more challenging than full ones. To ensure your strong ab muscles hollow in rather than pooch out, make sure to keep your abs contracted throughout. And remember that the movement is only slight -- from the 1 o'clock to the 11 o'clock position and back again.
It shouldn't be a surprise, once you understand the technique, that the rowing machine works your leg muscles. The movement is just like a leg press except that you are starting with your legs bent at a narrower angle than the usual 90 degrees, requiring even more muscle work. Just like the leg press, the rowing machine push-off and return work your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles.
Back, Shoulders and Arms
The resistance of the cable when extending your arms and pulling them back works the biceps at the front of your arms and the triceps at the back. The pulling back motion also works the muscles of your upper back, while bringing your elbows back as far as you can hits the lats of your midback. When you've finished, about the only muscles you haven't hit are your pecs, so you will still have to get off the machine to do some pushups or flys.
To avoid injury, focus on different parts of your body or simply vary your workout, you can break the row into segments. For example, if you've had previous knee pain or injury, you can avoid the extreme bend in the knees by keeping your legs extended and doing only the upper-body portion. To challenge your core, every five or 10 rows, stop and do just the torso portion while holding your arms extended, or you can challenge your core and back by leaning back and doing only the arm portion.
Nancy Cross is a certified paralegal who has worked as an employee benefits specialist and counseled employees on retirement preparation, including financial and estate planning. In addition to writing and editing, she runs a small business with her husband and is a certified personal trainer with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).