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Row like a pro: the boat race challenge


Page last updated: 21st December 2021

The rowing machine is a staple bit of kit in most gyms, but is often overlooked in favour of other cardio machines like the treadmill or cross-trainer. If you've never used the rowing machine, this is your sign to try it. 

5 Rowing Machine Benefits

  1. It delivers a full body workout. One of the most common misconceptions about the rowing machine that it is strictly an upper body workout, but the movement actually involves almost every muscle group in your body - including your upper back, core, hamstrings, and glutes. 
  2. It combines strength and cardio. Spend just ten minutes on a rower and you'll be convinced it is a cardio only workout, but the resistance that the machine provides can help to build muscle strength. Upping the resistance delivers a more resistance-focused workout, while lowering the resistance and focusing on speed provides more cardio. 
  3. It's low impact. Rowing is low impact, which means you can work as hard and fast as possible without worrying about your joints. 
  4. It burns a lot of calories. Rowing is hard work, and this is reflected in the calories burnt in a session. If managing your weight is a goal of yours, adding in a few rowing sessions each week means you are expending a lot of extra calories. 
  5. It's engaging. Not everyone finds cardio fun, and machines like the treadmill and cross-trainer can feel very monotonous very quickly. Using a rowing machine requires thought and focus on every single rep, which makes it much more engaging - which can keep you motivated to go longer. 


If you want to incorporate more rowing into your workouts, why not set yourself a rowing challenge to stay motivated? The annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is a world famous rowing challenge where the two teams go head-to-head and attempt to out-row one another on a 6.8km stretch of the river Thames. 

Working your way up to this challenge from your gym is a great way to improve your rowing endurance. Once you've reached 6.8km, you can work on increasing your speed, or achieving this distance on a higher resistance. 

How to train for the Boat Race Challenge

As with all new exercise regimes, it's important not to just dive in head first without a plan in place. 6.8km is an achievable distance, but preparing your body and mind over a few weeks will help prevent any injuries and make it a more enjoyable experience. 

Perfect your form

Proper form is extremely important in all physically demanding activities. It’s a way of preventing injury and targeting the right muscle groups during weight training, a way of avoiding slipping a disc while lifting heavy boxes, and also a way of improving efficiency in sports like rowing.

One of the best ways to improve your time and distance on the rowing machine is to perfect your form.

Instead of trying to row as hard and fast as possible, slow it down just enough for the movement to feel smooth and natural rather than forced. Take longer, slower strokes, and be sure to use your legs for the first part of the movement before pulling back with your arms. Each stroke should finish under your pecs, around your solar plexus. Finishing your strokes too high increases the risk of injury and can cause you to become fatigued more easily.


Strengthen your abs

Weak or tight core muscles can wreak havoc on your ability to perform at the peak of your ability on the rowing machine. A strong core is essential in maintaining a smooth, efficient technique. If your core begins to falter, the fluidity of the entire movement will break down and cause strain and fatigue.

Get into the habit of stretching regularly after your workouts to loosen up areas of tension and prevent postural imbalances – a yoga or Pilates routine would work well for this.

Be sure to work a good amount of ab strengthening exercises into your training routine as you’re working up to your 6.8k effort – just be sure to go easy on the training in the week leading up to your attempt. You don’t want to go in for it completely pre-exhausted.


Mix up your training

Of course, rowing machine work should be the core of your training when trying to improve your distance and performance on the rowing machine.

But it definitely doesn’t hurt to shock your system and keep your mind fresh by throwing in some other exercises, too.

Strength training with free weights can be a fun way of switching your attention to something completely different. Any extra strength you build will also help to keep you going for longer before becoming fatigued, as long as you maintain proper form and don’t try to use brute force to power through your strokes.

Other forms of cardio such as running, swimming or cycling can also be a great way of keeping you from feeling burned out, while also improving your lung capacity and muscular endurance – skills which will carry over directly to rowing performance.


Build up to it slowly, marathon style

When training for a marathon or similar event, it’s common to do around three runs a week. The first, an “easy” run – slow and for a short distance. The second, a more intense run where you aim to cover roughly the same distance as the first, but maintain a quicker pace throughout. The third, a “long” run, where you keep a calm, manageable pace, but commit to being on the road for up to several hours at a time, coming as close as you can to covering the total distance you plan to run in the competition.

Of course, this template carries over to the 6.8k rowing machine challenge no problem. Commit to rowing three days a week, at least to start with. A short row at an easy pace, a more intense row covering the same “distance,” and a “long” row done at a manageable pace. Increase the intensity as required over the course of your training.

Rest days should regularly be taken to allow for recovery, with your supporting workouts squeezed in where convenient.

Although rowing is an excellent workout, we recommend pairing it with strength training if you don't already! We have plenty of workout ideas here to choose from, or there are over 600+ workouts available on the free PureGym app

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