Row With It: The Incredible Benefits of Rowing

Rowing offers a killer full-body workout and incredible opportunities for engagement with Chicago’s dynamic, dedicated and supportive rowing community. So join a team, hop in a boat and take to the water to reap the incredible benefi ts the sport has to offer both mind and body.

Looking for a full-body workout that is easy to learn, builds cardiovascular and muscular strength, and has a low risk of injury? Try rowing! Unlike running, rowing is low impact and therefore kind to all ages and body types. Unlike swimming, rowing has one stroke, which you can pick up in just a couple instructional sessions. As the City of Chicago continues to embrace the river, rowing is booming. Two new Chicago Park District boathouses, designed by famed Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, are creating a splash. If you haven’t yet tried this sport, which continues to grow in popularity, now is the time.

“[Rowing] is a high-calorie-burning sport that works the entire body, with the biggest contribution of power coming from the legs, then core, then arms,” says Rose Marchuk, program director of New Trier High School Rowing, who coaches adult and high school rowers through NTX at New Trier High School and the Dammrich Rowing Center in Skokie.

You may have noticed more ergometers (ergs), or rowing machines, right in line with treadmills, ellipticals and bikes at your health club. “Anyone can start rowing at their own pace on an erg,” Marchuk says. “You can learn 90 percent of the stroke technique in a few sessions.”

The next step is to begin training with a team. “Not only will you learn proper technique, but the camaraderie will encourage you to work harder than you would on your own,” Marchuk says.

Rowing together in a boat requires teamwork like no other sport.

“Rowing on the water makes all the land training worth it,” Marchuk says. “There is nothing like the feel of a boat running out from under you in perfect balance and synchronized with others, on flat water, in the sunshine.”

Proper rowing form on the erg translates to correctly executing the stroke on the water. The biggest difference on the water is balance. The stroke should be thought of as a continuous motion without a beginning or end. The power unfolds from the biggest muscle groups to the smallest — legs to back to arms.

Ready to hit the water and start rowing with a team? Here are the basics:

1. The drive phase begins with the rower sitting at the catch with shins in a vertical position, with good posture and body angle where the shoulders are slightly in front of the hips. Arms are straight out in front and on the handle.

2. The handle moves the entire time as the legs begin to push off.

3. The back unfolds.

4. The arms complete the stroke by bending and exerting the last bit of power.

5. The recovery phase begins with the arms leading out, followed by the back. Arms should be just past the knees. The knees bend and the body compresses to take the next catch.

6. The hands follow an oval shape, in a ratio of one beat on the drive, two beats on the recovery.

7. The drive and recovery phases should blend together seamlessly to make a stroke.

Chicago is home to rowing groups that cater to every age, socioeconomic background and skill level. Here are three excellent rowing organizations bringing the sport to the people and changing lives in the process.


ROW, or Recovery on Water, is a women’s rowing club made up exclusively of breast cancer survivors. ROW provides members the opportunity to connect with others, take an active role in their recovery, gain support and learn a new sport. ROW’s members are diverse in age and ability — with some having never played a sport. ROW is an empowering, confidence-building group that offers a unique opportunity at a difficult time.

“I love the team and I love the training. It has made a profound impact on my life. Thanks to ROW, I incorporated a new sport and athletic goals into my life, just as I aged into being a senior citizen,” says Catherine Rocca, one of ROW’s first members.

ROW Co-Founder and Executive Director Jenn Junk previously worked with survivors while rowing in college at Michigan State University before founding ROW in 2008 along with survivor Sue Ann Glaser. The organization now has 85 members.

“We don’t sit around and talk about cancer. We focus on rowing,” Junk says. “The low-impact nature of rowing, and the fact that it uses 85% of the muscle groups, makes it a great way for members to be more active in their treatment.” She also points out that studies have shown a 30-50 percent decrease in cancer recurrence with exercise and good nutrition.

Dr. Samman Shahpar of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) further emphasizes the important role of exercise for breast cancer survivors. “Exercise is an integral component in the evaluation and management of breast cancer survivors,” he says. “There have been multiple studies that demonstrate that not only is exercise safe, but it is beneficial to the medical and functional recovery. Survivors often don’t know where to go or where to start. An organization like ROW creates an environment where survivors can engage in safe exercise and enjoy the camaraderie that comes along with this activity.” For those no longer in treatment, ROW becomes their new “team,” which was previously comprised of doctors and nurses.

ROW trains year round, seven days a week at three locations: the new Chicago Park District Eleanor Boathouse in Bridgeport, Bluprint Fitness in Chicago, and Alliance Rowing Club in Wilmette. During the outdoor season they are on the water five days a week. ROW races both eight- and four-person boats in several regattas each season and is always looking for coxswain volunteers.

Chicago Training Center

Rowing: CTC
CTC rowers. Photo by Mark Hauser.

The Chicago Training Center (CTC) has introduced the sport of rowing to traditionally underserved kids from Chicago’s south and west sides. Founded by Montana Butsch in 2007, CTC not only teaches kids to row, but encourages academic success, fosters teamwork, builds self esteem, provides health education, develops leaders and helps participants set goals for their future. While rowing has been a sport predominantly enjoyed by the wealthy, groups like CTC are introducing a broader range of kids to the water. US Rowing, the sport’s governing body, has prioritized expanding rowing to all, and has used CTC as a model for how to make it happen. CTC exemplifies how improving access to the river can have a profound impact on the citizens of Chicago. “We are moving into the new Eleanor Boathouse, which will allow for more growth as we expand in ways that we never imagined possible,” says Executive Director Ashley Mayer. Mayer, new to CTC in 2017, explains how the rowers become like a family and are a part of a very supportive community.

CTC boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate for participants and an average GPA of 3.2. “Because CTC introduced me to the sport of rowing, at age 13, I was able to find not only a passion for the sport, but also career opportunities,” says Daniel Izguerra, who has worked for VanDusen Racing Boats and currently works with Finish Line Shell Repair.

Other CTC rowers become first-generation college students, some on rowing scholarships. A grant from the Pocock Foundation is allowing “Erg Ed” to be taught in Chicago Public Schools middle schools, opening up a whole new world for young Chicagoans and ensuring a steady stream of ambitious youth to CTC’s program, which boasts volunteer coaches who are all former collegiate rowers.

Chicago Rowing Foundation

The Chicago Rowing Foundation (CRF) was founded in 1998 with a grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee and is Chicago’s premier rowing organization. In coordination with the Chicago Park District, CRF has created rowing opportunities for youth in Chicago from all walks of life. CRF offers programs at varying skill levels for middle and high school athletes and adults. CRF programs are focused on the whole person — physical, mental and social. “One-third of our junior athletes are on scholarship at CRF,” says Head Coach Mike Wallin. Wallin explains that CRF boats are comprised of kids from different socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, making it a unique experience for all rowers. Many of these high schoolers go on to row in college on athletic scholarships. Housed at the beautiful new WMS Boathouse in Clark Park, CRF continues to grow and expand. With 50 indoor ergs, state-of-the-art tanks and plenty of storage space for boats, rowers of all ages, abilities and income levels are finding their place. CRF boasts a broad array of programs, from learn to row to highly competitive programs. Adult rowers can choose the recreational team or challenge themselves on the competitive team.

Check out these rowing related resources:

  • Whether you are a competitive rower or just looking for a great workout, Concept2 ergs are the standard. The high quality, slim design, ease of assembly, and affordability make them perfect for commercial and home use.
  • Try a free Community Rowing Class Tuesday and Thursday nights at the new CPD’s Eleanor Boathouse in Bridgeport.
  • Check out Lake Effect Rowing for additional North Shore, indoor rowing classes at various locations.
  • Learn more about the history of rowing, better understand the sport, and enjoy a captivating story by reading Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown.
  • has information on “all things rowing”. Learn about the boats, the lingo and find a rowing program near you. Masters programs are growing nationwide, so chances are there is a nearby program to fit your schedule.

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