The rowing machine is a killer workout.
Training on a rowing machine activates 85 percent of the body’s musculature and can get your heart pumping in a hurry. It requires a blend of both endurance and power, and the low-impact nature of the movement doesn’t pound your joints like running on a treadmill. Competitive rowers are some of the fittest and most powerful athletes on the planet, and the rowing machine plays a massive role in their training.
The gold standard of performance on the rowing machine is the 2,000-meter row for time. The distance comes from the fact 2,000 meters is the standard world championship race distance in the sport. Quite simply the 2K row for time might be the best all-around fitness test ever created.
All you need is a rowing machine, alternatively known as an “ergometer,” to perform it. Subpar performance cannot be blamed on bad weather conditions. Concept2 rowers are the competition standard, but use what you’ve got. The test takes just seconds to setup—you simply scale the digital screen to 2,000 meters, then pull until that number reads 0. It’s quite simple, but a strong 2,000-meter row requires power, endurance, mental toughness and an exhaustive contribution from all three of the body’s major energy systems. It all adds up to one of the most uniquely tormenting physical challenges you’ll ever encounter.
The chart below shows how our body’s three basic energy systems produce energy over time:
The ATP-PC system supplies the majority of the energy for very short (0 to 10 seconds) intense bursts of exercise; the lactic anaerobic system supplies the majority of the energy for longer (up to 1 minute or so) intense bouts of exercise; and the aerobic system supplies the majority of the energy for continuous exercise that lasts more than 1 minute. If any one of these energy systems isn’t up to snuff, you won’t be able to row a strong 2,000-meter time. I became introduced to the rowing machine via CrossFit several months ago, and it shattered my preconceived notions of the sport. As a former D1 football player, I always thought rowing was a bit dorky, but it’s a kickass workout. I’ve been working on my own 2K time ever since, and I’ve found it a fantastic way to track overall fitness.
The smooth nature of the rowing machine allows you to push past physical barriers that exist in many other fitness tests, leading you to explore dark, distant corners of your own mental fortitude. It’s in some ways akin to the dreaded Wingate test, but also 12-18 times longer.
To register a good time, you’ve got to start fast. The first 500 meters aren’t quite an all-out sprint, but they’re just a notch below that. The next 500 meters are when things really start to get freaky. By then, you’ve likely crossed the anaerobic threshold, meaning you’re now burning stored carbohydrates as your main source of fuel. Around this point, your body will start producing lactate faster than it can remove it. As lactate rapidly begins accumulating in the bloodstream, your mind goes from “this is uncomfortable” to “this is pure torture.” Your heart will race and your legs will ache, and you won’t believe you’re only halfway through. The third 500 meters is all about quieting the voice in your head screaming for you to stop while you try to hold on to a decent pace. One of the beauties of this test is that it’s impossible to cheat. Rep quality is directly reflected in the numbers on the display—a weak pull will see your splits rise, while a strong pull will see them fall.
As you get into the final 500 meters, you may not believe you’ve made it that far. Now is the time to access the reserves of your reserves. For the last 300 meters or so, you put the pedal to the metal and wring every last ounce of effort out of your body. If you performed the test correctly, when the number mercilessly hits zero, you’ll be absolutely drained.
What constitutes a “good” time on the 2,000-meter row test varies widely by age, size and fitness level. Tall people generally row faster than shorter people. Anything around 6:00 for a male is world class (the current world record is a sickening 5:35.8 by two-time Olympic silver medalist rower Josh Dunkley-Smith). Male instructors at Gym Jones, often referred to as the “World’s Toughest Gym,” are required to meet a standard of sub 6:50. Sub 7:00 is extremely elite for a female, while sub 8:00 is quite good. But again, what’s “good” for you will depend largely on individual factors. If you’re not happy with your time, work on your conditioning for a few weeks, then test again (Concept2’s website is chock full of useful tactics to drop your time, along with some great rowing workout plans). Like any fitness test, the purpose of the 2,000-meter row for time is to see if your training is actually getting the desired results.
Before you attempt this test, you must get comfortable with solid rowing technique. This article outlines the basics of the movement and hits on the most common mistakes rowing newbies commit. Once you get the hang of it, the rowing machine is actually quite intuitive. Just watch how deceptively effortless Dunkley-Smith makes this 5:38.6 pull look:
One piece of advice I can offer is not to let your adrenaline get the best of you during the first 500 meters. You want to row hard, but you must remember you’ve still get another 1,500 meters to go. During my first indoor rowing competition, I was way too jacked up and went like a bat out of hell for the first quarter of the race. I cannot begin to describe the amount of pain I felt during the last 700-800 meters, and the mistake probably cost me 5-10 seconds.
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