The Physiology of Rowing – A Perfect Form of Cardiovascular Exercise

So rowing is one of the alternative forms of cardiovascular exercise that many people prefer, and for good reason too.

It has little to no impact on the body, is not a ‘contact’ sport, has minor risk of injuries such as sprains or twists due to the ‘linear’ and relatively ‘narrow’ range of motions a rower performs, and it’s practically a full body workout with more emphasis on muscular strength/mass/size/endurance than say…running.

But with that being said, let’s take a look at the actual physiology of rowing and get down to the intricacies.

NOTE: That due to the tremendous complexity of the science behind all of this stuff, we will only be focusing on the Aerobic aspect of rowing and nothing else. The Anaerobic portion as well as the ‘muscular’ component will have to wait for another time as it would drastically increase the length of this article too much.

Basics of Aerobic Rowing

The first thing one should understand is that the Aerobic system contributes roughly 75 – 80% of the energy used in rowing. So obviously, it’s rather important to be as aerobically fit as possible.

Components of the Aerobic System

Now that we’ve established the importance of having a ‘strong’ aerobic system in place, let’s actually break down this system that we don’t really know much about at this point into its sub-components to get an even better understanding of just what exactly is going on in your body when you’re rowing.

There are three ‘sub-systems’ (if you will), and they are:

  • Respiratory System
  • Circulatory System
  • Muscular System
NOTE: That you may have noticed that I used the term “Muscular System” just now, but yet earlier I mentioned that we are not going to cover that ‘system’ due to time constraints. Allow me to clarify any confusion. The ‘Muscular System’ we are referencing here is not the same one from earlier. This ‘Muscular System’ is merely a simple way of describing how the muscles work together with the rest of your body’s overall Oxygen Transportation Network. Basically, I’m talking about how your muscles get and receive oxygen and what they do with it during aerobic exercise. I am not talking about how your actual muscle tissue and cells work by themselves…there is a gigantic difference here.

Respiratory Overview

Respiratory OverviewIf you don’t know what the Respiratory System is, it’s basically your Lungs and the associated structures such as your Trachea and Bronchial Tubes.

How the Respiratory system works is actually a simple enough process.

From start to the end the procedure looks something like this:

  • Inhalation ‘grabs’ Oxygen from the atmosphere into our physical bodies.
  • Said Oxygen and air makes its way to the Lungs eventually.
  • Upon reaching the Alveoli of the Lungs (otherwise known as the “air sacs”) Oxygen molecules themselves will diffuse through the tissue of the sacs while the sacs essentially ‘block’ the rest of the air from passing through to your bloodstream.
  • Oxygen has now reached the point where it ‘crossed-over’ from the atmosphere, through a ‘filter’ of sorts, and is now firmly in your blood.
And that is the Respiratory process in a nutshell.

Circulatory Overview

Circulatory OverviewThe Circulatory System is essentially just your Heart and the associated blood vessels (Arteries, Veins, and Capillaries). And it’s the ‘second part’ of the overall process of how Aerobic exercise works.

The Circulatory process begins immediately where we left off with the end of the Respiratory system and continues until Oxygen reaches the muscle tissue.

It looks something like this:

  • Oxygen is now dissolved into your bloodstream and is being ‘carried’ by the Red Blood Cells, specifically, the actual protein that does that is called the Hemoglobin which sort of ‘binds’ with the Oxygen molecules.
  • The blood that literally just passed by the Lungs and picked up all this new Oxygen will continue to travel along its ‘route’ (through your blood vessels) until it reaches the Heart.
  • The Heart then pumps and gives it an extra ‘push’ of sorts so that it can continue to its intended destination.
  • The intended destination, in this case, is going to be your muscles, and after some ‘traveling’ your Oxygen-rich blood will get to your muscles whom will now use the Oxygen as ‘fuel’.
And that is the end of the Circulatory process.

And the beginning of the Muscle ‘system’ now.

Muscular System Overview

muscular system overviewThe Muscular System can, in short, be summed up as the end of our ‘journey’ here. Although, let me just state for the record that this entire thing is actually circular so there’s not really any ‘end’ per se. It’d be like saying that a circle has a beginning and an end…when it kind of doesn’t.

Now then, let’s go over the Muscular process really quickly:

  • Our Oxygen molecules whom have traveled all this long way will diffuse through the walls of the Capillaries that surround the muscles and into your actual muscle cells themselves.
  • Once Oxygen crosses the boundary between blood vessel and muscle tissue it is directed to the Mitochondria of your muscle cells…otherwise known as the ‘power plants’ of cells.
  • And finally, the mitochondria use oxygen as fuel to convert into energy. Energy that is used to contract muscles which, in turn, is what does ‘work’.
So there you have it!

A nice, quick rundown of how the aerobic process works.

Now to relate this back to rowing let’s go over some numbers.

What Does This Have to do With Rowing?


It’s a simple matter of math you see.

Under normal circumstances and for ‘normal’ people the lungs should be able to take in between 120 – 180 liters of air per minute.

But you don’t want to be normal, you want to be extraordinary. So in order to do that you need to shoot for a quantity of 200 liters of air per minute. That’s what top rowing athletes have been frequently recorded as being able to achieve.

Now let’s account for the fact that oxygen is only 21% of the atmosphere and that means that we are looking at a goal of 42 liters of oxygen per minute.

42 liters sounds like a lot, and it really is…but it’ll hardly be useful if it can’t get to its intended destination now can it?

Which is why we now need to take a look at the volume of blood pumped per heartbeat.

The average/normal person can expect about 100 milliliters of blood getting pumped per heartbeat. If we extrapolate this to a heart rate of 200 beats per minute then that means we get 20 liters of blood getting pumped per minute. That’s less than the amount of oxygen that is supposedly getting injected into our blood…not good, because it means that our body is very inefficient with its ability to direct oxygen where it needs to be. There’s a lot of excess waste basically.

So, instead, what we need to shoot for is a stroke volume of…200 milliliters per beat!

This is something that has been recorded, quite regularly, in those same top rowing athletes I mentioned just earlier. If you are looking for a perfect rowing machine out there, we have this roundup of the best rowing machines here.

If we do the math here, once again, we end up with a total volume of 40 liters of blood being pumped per minute!

That’s much better than before! And although it’s still not technically utilizing all 42 liters of our oxygen completely it’s still a good efficiency rate, and it’s certainly enough for you to outcompete the other guys at the gym next to you…or just to look cool.

And that is how the relationship between oxygen, lungs, heart, blood, muscles, and others work in tandem with each other.

Now that you have some solid numbers to shoot for…let’s get rowing!