Train Hard

Rowing workouts that (don’t) suck

Written by joelsnape

I probably spend too much time thinking about rowing.

Last year I set my gym-sights on (and barely managed) a 7-minute 2k row, which is considered the minimum acceptable standard among the fine men and women of Gym Jones. This year I’ve been hitting different distances, and managed a borderline-acceptable 10k time (39:46), and an actually-pretty-decent-for-my-weight 500m PB (1:28.6). I’m currently signed up to Concept 2’s Million-Metre Club, and I’m about twenty percent of the way through. I also talk to my wife, half of the trainers at my gym, a few of the people at work, and a bunch of people on Twitter, about stroke rates and damper settings and pacing strategies and split times, basically all the time.

Like I say, I think about it a lot.

The plus side of this is that I also acquire a lot of rowing workouts: whenever someone sends me a new one, I feel honour-bound to try it out, but trying a slightly new ‘thing’ is more fun than doing a 2k/5k/10k every time you crank up the flywheel. With a decent selection of different distances and times to improve on, there’s always something to beat.

So: here’s a selection. The good thing about rowing, as opposed to running, is that there’s basically no adaptation period needed: you aren’t going to get shinsplints or impact injuries by doing too much, too soon. That said, the pacing strategies suggested here are mostly on the ‘hard’ side of things, so if you’re new to rowing/the gym/exercise, downscale them to something that lets you get a decent amount of metres in without blowing yourself out of the water in the first 60 seconds. Real unpleasantness takes time.

#1 Dean Martin

I feel sorry for people who don’t drink.’ Dean Martin once said. ‘When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” Well, Deano, I drink: and I like doing this workout first thing in the morning, because – unless you get fired or hit by a car or something – it is definitely the worst thing that will happen to you all day. Thanks to the guys of Gym Jones for this: the stupid name is all me, though.

  • Row 150m in 30 seconds.
  • ‘Rest’ for 90 seconds, but do 10 press-ups and 5 goblet squats (I’d suggest a 24kg dumbbell) during the rest.
  • Row 151m in 30 seconds. Rest/pressup/squat again, then row 152m, and so on…until you can’t get the required metres.

The ‘strict’ version of this requires that you just do more metres in each interval, which takes concentration and gets bad quickly if you accidentally hit a 156 early thanks to overzealous pulling. If you’re unused to pacing, just aim to hit the required, and gut it out through at least 15 rounds – if you’re very light or deconditioned, start at 140.

#2 Tabatas

Most people, as previously discussed, get Tabatas completely wrong: doing 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off, for 8 rounds, is not a Tabata, however much you might wish it was. However, they work pretty well in any format where you can thrash yourself to death for 20 seconds and then barely recover. Advantage: rowing.

  • Row all-out for 20 seconds.
  • ‘Rest’ for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 8 times.

There are two ways to do this: either ‘pace’ it by aiming for a minimum distance per interval (100m is sensible), or just go all-out, every single time. They’re both pretty bad.

#3 The Descent


This comes via the excellent George Mayhew, who is almost definitely a better rower than me. I’ve called it The Descent because, much like the 2005 film, it starts out pleasantly enough, gets very nasty surprisingly quickly and ends in absolute horror. Here goes:

  • Row 500m in 2:00m
  • Rest for 2 minutes.
  • Row 500m in 1:58. Rest 2 min. Keep going, dropping by 2 seconds each interval: 1:56, 1:54…until you can’t make the cutoff. Getting into the 1:40s is a good target – the round of 1:34 is impressive stuff.

#4 The Descent 2

Michael Blevins suggested this one: it’s very much like The Descent, except that it turns bad faster and leaves you more broken.

  • Row 500m in 2:00m
  • ‘Rest’ for 2 minutes – including 5 pressups.
  • Row 500m in 1:58. Rest 2 min, including 10 pressups.
  • Keep going, dropping by 2 seconds each interval: 1:56 + 15 pressups, 1:54 + 20 pressups…until you can’t make the cutoff. If you make it to round 7, you’ll have done 105 pressups. Keep going.

This is also a good test of balance: if you’re struggling to finish the pressups before the rowing gets hard, you probably need to do more pressups – and vice versa.

#5 Death by 500

Over to George again: ‘This is a rowing workout the Scarletts rugby squad have used. I managed 12 rounds at sub 1:42, but I had that horrid feeling for about three hours afterwards.’ Hoorah!
  • Row 500m in under 1:42
  • Rest 2 minutes
  • Do as many rounds as possible.


#6 The 2K Predictor

‘Here’s the secret,’ says Pieter Vodden, who sent this my way. ‘The average pace you can hold for these intervals will be what you can hang onto for a 2k. Translation: if you want to hit a sub-7 2k, you need to hold a 1:45. It’s no fun.

  • Row 500m
  • Rest 1 minute
  • Repeat 10 times

#7 Stairway To Heaven

George again: ‘This is a great one.  You go at your 2000m row PB pace.  Crossfit do a version of this but they peak at 1000m. This peaks at 1250m and that makes all the difference. I believe this is a proper session for rowers, rather than a rugby one.  The toughest rounds mentally are 6 and 7.’ Solid.
  • 1: Row 250M (3 min. rest);
  • 2: Row 500M (3 min rests);
  • 3: Row 750M (3 min rest);
  • 4: Row 1000M (3 min rest);
  • 5: Row 1250M (3 min rest);
  • 6: Row 1000M (3 min rest);
  • 7: Row 750M (3 min rest);
  • 8: Row 500M (3 min rests);
  • 9: Row 250M (3 min. rest);
  • Do it all at your target 2k pace.

#8 The Count

If you want a nice long session that’s not boring and forces you concentrate on pacing, this is the answer. ‘This is a proper rowing workout,’ says George. ‘By which I mean: one by those who actually row in a boat.’ If it’s good enough for them…

10 min row to warm up

6000m row completed in 500m continuous blocks.  Pacing is done by strokes per minute (s/m). Start @ 18s/m for 1st 500m. Then increase pace by 2s/m every 500m to 28s/m, then go back down to 18s/m. Last 500 is done @ 20s/m. Pace stays between 2:00 and 1:50.

0-500m @ 18s/m
500m-1000m @ 20s/m
1000m-1500m @ 22s/m
1500m-2000m @ 24s/m
2000m-2500m @ 26s/m
2500m-3000m @ 28s/m
3000m-3500m @ 26s/m
3500m-4000m @ 24s/m
4000m-4500m @ 22s/m
4500m-5000m @ 20s/m
5000m-5500m @ 18s/m
5500m-6000m @ 20s/m

Cool down row

‘It’s a different experience rowing to strokes per minute rather than the 500m pace indicator,’ says George. ‘You end up pulling a lot harder. The key is to stick rigidly to the given pace.’

#8 Up To Eleven

Okay, best-for-last time. George again: ‘I really like this as you get a sense of how good you are on the rower. This is a proper rowing workout and there’s quite a lot of talk about it on the rowing forums.  I did 10:54.  My advice is to sit down with a pen and paper first and work out pacing.  To get under 11 mins you have to be going quicker than 1:45 for all of it.’ 
  • 1000m followed by 3min rest +
  • 750m followed by 2:30min rest +
  • 500m followed by 2min rest +
  • 250m followed by 2min rest +
  • 750m finish. Record total row time.
 Total Time
World Class
Very Good

BANG. Add those to your regular rows, and you’ll be hitting new PBs in no time. Hit me up on Twitter: I’ll be happy to congratulate you.

About the author


Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.


  • This inspires me to get on the rowing machine again! Great ideas here.

    The most effective workout I ever did was:
    30secs on/30secs off
    60 on / 60 off

    Absolutely brutal if you go all out for every interval. Once is enough but occasionally rest 10mins (you’ll need it) and do a second round. Got me a sub7 2k surprisingly quickly a few years ago.

  • Great workout here! I run my own personal training company and like to see lots of different workouts being created. This is a great one for rowing!

  • Great selections of workouts I know some competitive rowers that will love the variation.
    I use this one some clients
    500m row
    50 Burpees
    30 Burpees
    20 Burpees
    10 Burpees
    Record time and aim to beat it each time.

  • Love rowing…..I use this one a lot.

    5mins On / 1min off
    4mins On / 1min off
    3mins On / 1min off
    2mins On / 1min off
    1mins On / 1min off
    2mins On / 1min off
    3mins On / 1min off
    4mins On / 1min off
    5mins On / 1min off

    • I’d have to consult George for a ruling, but that seems pretty reasonable to me. Bear in mind, though, that differences of ten seconds or so can feel like a LONG time in rowing.

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