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Rowing for the Deconditioned Athlete

By: Katie Grace Kissel

Lead Coach, Row House Dublin Green

It's easy once you've been an athlete to believe that because you are generally more physically fit, the road to recovery following injury, may not be as long. After all, the body has muscle memory - doesn't it? Indeed, our muscles develop a lasting memory which can help us spring back into shape post-recovery. But jumping back in can also be risky in many cases. Deconditioned athletes can incorporate low-impact exercises such as rowing, which help recondition our bodies and aid in nurturing our musculoskeletal system back to good health.

What you may not realize is that rowing is one of the primary workouts many athletes incorporate into their routine training, and rowing machines, or ergs (which is their technical name), are often prescribed by physical therapists for patients as they offer a low- to no-impact workout that not only aids in recovery, but helps build and support the largest number of muscles in the human body. 

We have a saying here at Row House, “Those Who Know Row.” And if you’ve taken class with us, then you know exactly what we mean! While indoor rowing workouts are gaining popularity with the masses, you may be wondering if you have what it takes to jump into a rowing class. Not only is indoor rowing an amazing, full body workout, it’s a great place to start for the deconditioned athlete!

Indoor rowing is a low-impact, non weight-bearing activity so it’s going to be an easier introduction back into exercise for those who have taken some time off. Perhaps you’ve been out with an injury, taking time away from your workouts after a pregnancy, or maybe you have just been in a place where prioritizing your exercise routine is not an option. Regardless of your reason, there are seasons of activity level for every athlete, and we have all experienced the feeling of being deconditioned to exercise. During these off-seasons, our cardiorespiratory systems adapt to the lack of heart-pumping activity. This also rings true for our muscular and skeletal systems, so we have to be mindful of these bodily changes as we return to physical activity. Our muscles may be able to handle the load of whatever exercise we pick back up, but our connective tissues are more prone to injury in this deconditioned state. This is where the low-impact, non weight bearing qualities of rowing workouts come into play. With indoor rowing, you are able to effectively begin training your cardiorespiratory, muscular, and skeletal systems in a safe way that prevents over-stressing your connective tissues.

Sold yet? There are a ton more benefits to indoor rowing workouts after some time away from exercise. Indoor rowing is 100% effort-based. This means that you as the athlete have complete control of your workout. Whenever I have first time rowers come into the studio, I explain the effort to them like this: “If you feel like you’re not being challenged and your heart rate isn’t up yet, push harder with your legs. On the flip side of that, if you feel like you are tiring quickly, lighten up and don’t push so hard.” This effort-based design of the indoor rowing machine allows us to build strength and endurance over time, while feeling a sense of accomplishment each time we complete another workout.

Another great benefit of indoor rowing workouts is that it is a full-body exercise! Rowing engages eighty-six percent of the muscles in your body - EIGHTY-SIX PERCENT! The three-point rowing sequence guides you through a full-body motion: Push with your legs, move the power to your core, then finally shift to your upper body and pull through your arms. Remember, legs-core-arms, arms-core-legs, repeat.  Aside from rowing, swimming is the only other exercise that’s able to provide an efficient workout that engages most of your muscles, and a gateway back into sustainable conditioning. So if you’re looking for an accessible low-barrier exercise to tone and build muscle from head to toe while recovering from sustained injury or if you're seeking to improve your overall health, then indoor rowing can be one of your best options.

Following a physical injury, our mental well-being is often overlooked. For those who have been athletic or competitive, the lack of physical exercise can also affect our mental wellness, because the mind is engaged at a different level when the body is being pushed farther. Another benefit of rowing in a group setting is not just how fun it is to be pulling together with others, as we do at Row House, but athletes get to enjoy tapping into the competitive aspect which may have dwindled while enduring the wait of physical healing.

Now that you know, it’s time to row! Head to your local Row House, or try a workout on an erg (we’re partial to the Concept2). Wear comfortable workout clothes, being mindful that you’ll be in a seated position. Other things you may want to bring with you include a towel, a water bottle, and maybe a post workout snack. Remember, getting back into shape takes time and consistency, and as you embark on your rowing journey, you’ll be able to see the benefits in your performance as well as your body. And like any other new exercise, please consult your doctor before you begin. Happy Rowing!


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