rowing machine alternative
Fitness

8 Rowing Machine Alternatives For An Enjoyable Workout

Rowing is an excellent way to build muscle and burn calories, making rowing machines a particularly popular piece of equipment. However, if you don’t have access to one, it can be difficult to know how to get the same benefits from other exercises.

Here are some great alternatives that’ll work your legs, core, and back as well as getting your heart rate up.

1. Bent Over Row

How To:

  • Hold a dumbbell in either hand down by your side. Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips, allowing your arms to hand straight down, with your palms facing inward.
  • With your back straight, squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your elbows back to bring the weights to your upper ribs.
  • Lower the weights back down and repeat.
  • Reps: 12-15.

Equipment Used:

  • Dumbbells

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

The clue is in the name; you’re performing a very similar movement to that on a rowing machine. What’s great here is that the extra weight is really working your back muscles, in particular the lats.

Pro Tip: 

When bringing the weights up, try to envisage holding a pencil in between your shoulder blades at the top of the movement; that’s how closely pinned they should be.

2. Kettlebell Swings

How To:

  • Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width and hold a kettlebell between them with both hands.
  • Hinge forward to bring the kettlebell through your legs, keeping your arms pinned to your quads.
  • Thrust your hips forward, using the force of your legs to push your arms up until they bring the kettlebell level with your chest.
  • Allow the weight to drop back down through your legs, under control, and repeat the movement.
  • Reps: 12-15.

Equipment Used:

  • Kettlebell

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

Kettlebell swings work several muscle groups, including your quads, glutes, and core. They can also be used as a great cardio workout, just like the rowing machine.

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Pro Tip: 

Your arms and back are not doing any of the work here, besides stabilizing the movement. The force and momentum should come from your legs and hips.

3. Inverted Row

via Gfycat

How to:

  • Set a barbell in a squat rack at roughly waist height. Lie under the bar facing up, with the bar in line with your upper stomach.
  • Grab hold of the bar with an overhand grip and your arms straight. 
  • Engage your abs and core, then pull your chest toward the bar by bending your arms. Your body should be in a straight line throughout the movement.
  • Lower yourself back down until your arms are straight again and repeat.
  • 12-15 reps.

Equipment Used:

  • Barbell
  • Squat rack

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

This exercise targets the majority of the muscles in your upper body, most specifically your lats, forearms, abs, and traps.

Pro Tip:

The lower you set the bar, the harder this exercise is, so bear that in mind.

4. Kettlebell High Pull 

How To:

  • Begin with the kettlebell on the floor, between your feet, which should be just wider than your shoulders.
  • Squat down with your gaze forward to take hold of the kettlebell with both hands.
  • Keeping your arms straight, drive up from your feet until you’re standing back up, then begin to bend at the elbows to pull the kettlebell toward your chin. Make sure your elbows are pointed upward and higher than your shoulders at the top of the move.
  • Lower the weight back down by straightening your arms again and squatting.
  • Repeat for 12-15 reps.

Equipment Used:

  • Kettlebell

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

Again, this movement is very similar to that of the rowing machine in that your entire body is getting involved.

Pro Tip: 

Keep the kettlebell close to your body as you bring it up and keep your abs engaged.

5. Thrusters

How To:

  • Hold a dumbbell in either hand rested on your shoulders so that your arms are bent and your elbows point forwards. 
  • Keeping the dumbbells where they are, for now, bend at the knees and squat down.
  • Drive back up to a standing position, and once you’re there extend your arms to push the dumbbells overhead.
  • Return the dumbbells to your shoulders and repeat the entire movement.
  • Reps: 12-15.
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Equipment Used:

  • Dumbbells

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

Not only are you performing a squat with this exercise, but you’re also working your upper body by pushing the dumbbells above you. This is excellent for building strength and working up a sweat.

Pro Tip: 

Keep your toes pointed out slightly while performing this move for stability and don’t try to lift too heavy; the focus is more on the number of reps, rather than the weight.

6. Seated Cable Row

How To:

  • Sit on the bench/seat with a slight bend in your knees, roughly 45-degrees. Hold the handle with both hands and your arms out straight in front of you and your back straight.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull the handle toward your sternum.
  • Hold this position for a moment, then extend your arms under control to return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 12-15 reps.

Equipment Used:

  • Cable row machine

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

You’re performing almost the exact same movement as the rowing machine, minus the leg work. Here, you can target your back muscles and build some serious strength in your lats.

Pro Tip: 

Avoid leaning back too much and make sure your legs don’t become fully extended. Remember, your back and arms are doing the work here.

7. Upright Row

How To:

  • Hold a barbell in front of you with your arms straight. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip and your hands close together.
  • Engage your core and pull the bar up to your chin, ensuring your elbows rise above your shoulders.
  • Lower the bar back down to the starting position and repeat.
  • Reps: 12-15.

Equipment Used:

  • Barbell

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

Your back and shoulders are getting a great workout here with the rowing movement, with no help from the legs, meaning they’re working extra hard.

Pro Tip: 

Keep your upper body in the same position throughout; don’t hinge at the hips or bend forward when letting the bar drop back down to your hips.

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8. Resistance Band Deadlift

How To:

  • Get your feet shoulder-width apart and run a resistance band under the arches of them so that you’re holding either end in each hand.
  • Lean forward slightly so you’re hinged at the hips and stick your bottom out, bending your knees so you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, glutes, and quads. 
  • Push your hips forward and straighten your legs to return to the starting position and repeat.
  • Reps: 15-20.

Equipment Used:

  • Resistance band

Why It’s A Great Alternative:

This is one of the few exercises which will help work your hip flexors while also loading your leg muscles, much like the rowing machine.

Pro Tip:

Keep your back straight and neutral throughout the movement, and keep your gaze at the same level.

Conclusion

While the rowing machine is a great piece of kit, sometimes it’s good to have some alternatives. These options will work the same muscles as the rowing machine (and most allow you to add extra weight) while also replicating the cardiovascular benefits of the equipment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you row without a machine?

Yes, as shown in these various exercises. You might need to combine a few to get the full-body workout of the rowing machine, but it’s fairly simple to replicate the movements. If you live near water, you could even try rowing for real!

Is 20 minutes rowing enough?

This depends on your goals, but 20 minutes of work on the rowing machine would burn plenty of calories, though this also depends on the resistance you set on it and the speed at which you row. As with any exercise, trial and error is the best way of figuring out what’s best for you.

Can you substitute rowing for running?

This also depends on your fitness goals but, as a general rule, yes you could. It’s perfectly fine to opt for one type of cardio training over another. Plus, as rowing is low impact, it’s also a little gentler on your joints than running.

George Gigney

George is a Level 3 Personal Trainer and qualified Behavior Change Specialist. He has been training clients for several years and writing for over a decade, focusing on sport, wellbeing, and fitness.

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