How to Get a Rowing Workout Without a Rower

No fancy machine (or eight-man team) necessary to benefit from the sport's full-body motion

April 6, 2023 6:23 am
Crew teams training on a glittering lake.
These folks get in pretty good shape. If you don't have a water body nearby, we've got some exercises for you.
Joel W. Rogers/Getty Images

Rowing was originally a means of transportation in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, prior to it becoming a sport in 17th-century England. These days, rowing is a can’t-miss exercise.

Some recent rowing headlines: “Latest, Greatest Trend in Studio Fitness,” “Next Hottest Workout Trend” and “A Seriously Good Workout.” The consensus is clear. If you want the body of Adonis, you’re going to have to row your way there. 

It makes sense why rowing has such pull. The cycle of “catch, drive, and release” efficiently and effectively targets up to 85 percent of the muscles in the body, including your quads, glutes, lats, deltoids, and core muscles. 

That said, it’s easy to be skeptical when the latest round of hype comes from Khloé Kardashian, a brand ambassador for Hydrow, an at-home rowing machine and digital platform of workouts for $2,495. And that price point highlights an obvious problem with rowing — only certain people can afford the equipment, not to mention a home with enough space to accommodate a large machine.

Boutique fitness studios like Row House and Rō Fitness have emerged offering group rowing classes, but at roughly $20 a class or more, access still remains an issue for a lot of people. Fortunately, there are a number of hacks that individuals can do at home to achieve similar effects of a rowing workout without installing costly, cumbersome equipment.

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My personal favorite comes courtesy of strength trainer and fitness blogger Antranik Kizirian. In this YouTube video, he uses around-the-house items to simulate rowing’s pushing and pulling sensation. (Kizirian describes it as essentially a push-up in reverse.) His first exercises requires you to pull yourself up from below a sturdy table, while the other only requires a door and bedsheet.

Given that my kitchen table is literally on its last leg, I went with the bedsheet method. Living on the first floor of my apartment building, I figured that if I fell flat on my ass, it at least wouldn’t disturb any neighbors. As Kizirian points out, closing the door, locking it, and knotting the bedsheet at the top, should keep you from falling — so as long as you can hang on. 

I went with the front door, as it was the sturdiest, and learned very quickly that this is a home workout you have to do in shoes. Socks are going to have you sliding all over the place. Once I got a handle on my alignment, I did three sets of 10 reps, and continued this every other day for a week. By day seven, I had been able to increase to four sets of 12 reps and lowered my hip height for greater resistance.

Ultimately, I was sore on my off days and didn’t get injured, so for a free workout that only freaked my dog out a little bit, it was more than worth it. Sure, the bed sheet made me feel ridiculous, but it felt better than dropping thousands of dollars on influencer-approved equipment.

Although Kizirian did not respond to requests for comment, certified personal trainer Macy Westlund confirms that, “a rowing machine is the most efficient way to perform rowing exercises, but you can still achieve similar benefits without equipment.” If bed sheet workouts are a bit much for you, Westlund shared three additional ways to achieve a rowing workout without a rower.

Seated Rows

“Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you and your knees slightly bent. Keep your feet flat on the ground,” Westlund explains. From there, hold either a resistance band or towel with both hands and loop it around your feet. “Keeping your back straight, pull the band or towel towards your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together.” Then slowly release for eight to 12 reps. It’s kind of like a sit-up, but with your arms and shoulders getting in on the action. 

Bent-Over Rows

With your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, Westlund advises to “hinge forward from your hips.” Holding a pair of dumbbells in each hand with your palms facing toward your body, and “keeping your elbows close to your body, pull the dumbbells towards your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together.” Again, slowly release and repeat. It should feel like you’re a really jacked butterfly spreading your wings. 

Plank Rows 

After getting into plank position with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and feet hip-width apart, keep your hips stable and pull one hand towards your chest, “squeezing your shoulder blades together,” Westlund says. “Lower the weight and repeat on the other side.” 

For added resistance, do the same motion but with dumbbells. And a dense dumbbell is exactly what you are if you avoid rowing workouts just because a Kardashian tried to hustle you over one. In the end, none of us need “boat money” to row. We just have to be willing to embarrass ourselves at home. It’s as simple as putting in the time and showing up, like all exercise. Easy come, easy row.

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