Written by Shane Farmer of Dark Horse Rowing

One of the most popular questions about rowing for the sake of CrossFit is how to row for calories. Calories show up frequently in workouts as a unit of measurement and seems to be one of the more challenging parts of rowing to understand. Check out our article about the frequency of rowing in CrossFit programming history to see how much it shows up.

It isn’t an overly complicated explanation, but one that warrants a read. We’ll lay it out for you here, so you don’t have to worry about it again.

Being Efficient is Being Efficient

The first question to answer is whether or not we row differently for calories versus other units. And the answer is no.

The most important part of rowing is that you are efficient and that you are able to connect to the machine. Speed comes from your ability to connect to the machine and not from any gimmick or change in technique. What you should strive for is to optimize your connection to the machine which will allow you to apply as much force, acceleration, and distance as possible.


So when we are rowing for calories our goal is not to row any differently than usual but to prioritize connection through good mechanics which you learn with skill and drill work such as the pick drill below.

When you use good mechanics and technique you can’t help but move faster. But if you introduce movement patterns that aren’t based on sound principles you will only confuse yourself in the effort to move faster.

What is the Monitor Asking For?

When the monitor is measuring for calories what it is actually measuring is calories per hour which correlates to power output which is measured in Watts.

Watts and calories per hour are related in a linear fashion meaning they move together. So when you row for calories you are rowing for power output.

If you wanted to move twice as fast as you were currently rowing, it would require eight times as much energy when rowing for watts or calories. This isn’t meant to scare you but to help you understand the relationship of what is required to go faster.

What this means is that to go that much faster there is an exponential increase in output needed, which reduces both time and the distance necessary to accomplish the required calories.

This concept also works in reverse though. So if you row too slowly, you are punished with an exponentially increasing amount of time and distance.

How can I plan to improve this?

Start by testing various distances, times, and calorie numbers and know your numbers in both pace and calories per hour as it relates to those tests. For example, you can do:

Row x 60 calories for time

Rest exactly 10 minutes

And then…

Row x 21, 15, 9 calories for time w/ 1 minute rest between each

This is just one example. In the Dark Horse program you will find an endless supply of workouts and exercises that will help you build and test your numbers over time. As a result, you will begin to understand how to interact with the machine no matter what workout is thrown at you.

Going into any workout on the rowing machine requires that you understand how to use it. There is no gaming the rowing stroke that can outperform good movement patterns and efficiency. Taking the time to learn the skill will improve not just your calorie rowing but any of your rowing workouts.

Photo Credit: Preston Smith; @prestonsmithphotography

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