Switching up my workout routine has not only kept exercising fun, but as many experts will tell you, the variety may also be improving my overall athletic performance: cross-training allows the body to work different muscles and gain strength, while letting you avoid boredom.
It's especially key for people training for distance events like marathons and triathlons, since it also helps muscles recover and prevents injuries from overuse. It also ensures that you're keeping your entire body in optimal shape — not just legs for runners or arms for heavy lifters.
Recently, I spoke with Patrick McCrann, a marathon and triathlon trainer, about the best cross-training workouts for runners. He mentioned rowing as a particularly good method — and a popular one — especially for runners who want a high-intensity replacement exercise.
I've often overlooked the rowing machine at the gym, but a recent spin on the apparatus as part of Equinox gym's "Shockwave" class got me on board.
McCrann is right — in terms of building up your cardiovascular health, rowing is one of the best workouts you can do.
New York's Equinox gym is one of many using the Indo-Row machine, which is supposed to mimic the feeling of actually rowing on water; it also tracks your time, distance, stroke rate, speed/intensity and total calories burned.
The Shockwave class I tried had a familiar circuit-training structure, but with cranked-up intensity. The class had six stations, with two separate rowing circuits. Once you complete the exercise at each station — typically some kind of weight lifting or core workout — you can move on to the next one, but here's the twist: before anyone can move from one station to the next, every person on an Indo-Row machine has to complete his or her workout.
"Since the rowers are in charge of the time spent in each station, it adds a unique competitive component to the class," says instructor John Cianca, who says the competition is what keeps the class working hard. "It's a good motivator. ... If you're not fully breathless on each rowing station, then you are not getting the full benefit of its high intensity."
I wasn't sure if my heart was beating so fast from the Indo-Row, or because I was nervous about keeping my fellow exercisers holding up a plank for too long.
Either way, after just a few minutes on the rowing machine, your heart rate shoots up and your muscles are feeling the heat.
"During the exercise you're involving 60% legs, about 20% core and 20% arms," says Cianca. "You're using your whole body."
Learning the ins and outs of proper rowing form is tricky for first-timers, though, which is why Cianca has everyone complete a full practice run at the start of the class. For those unfamiliar with rowing, he recommends paying attention to three key factors — order, power distribution and timing:
The correct order of each stroke should start with your legs, then engage your core, and finish with your arms. When the stroke is done, you reverse the order by reaching first with your arms, then shifting your body weight forward and then starting back at original position with your knees bent.
"I like to cue by saying 'Legs, core, arms. Arms, core, legs,'" says Cianca.
Rowing engages your whole body, but it's important to pay attention to which muscle groups are used the most and which are used the least. As Cianca mentioned, power should be distributed 60% legs, 20% core and 20% arms. This distribution leads to more efficient strokes and better form overall.
This last component makes sure strokes are consistent. The general rule is to power through for one count (legs, core, arms) then release for two counts (arms, core, legs).
"Another good cue I use for this is 'Power, patience, patience. Power, patience, patience,'" says Cianca.
Definitely take your time learning how to use the machine right. In my over-eagerness I sped through my series, but my shoulders didn't feel too great the next morning. The classes at Equinox range from 30 to 45 minutes, which is plenty of time to get a hang of the rower and power through safely.