How do Energy Systems Work?

The body has multiple metabolic pathways or energy systems that it uses to create a molecule called ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate). This is a molecule that allows muscles to contract and do work. Depending on the level of power output and duration of work, your body will be deriving the majority of energy from one primary metabolic engine.

Although there may be many more, generally speaking exercise physiologists refer to three major energy systems: The phosphogen system (short durations of maximal power), the glycolytic or lactate system (moderate duration at medium power), and the oxidative (long duration at low power).

Systems can be divide into two categories: 1) Aerobic (requiring oxygen) and 2) Anaerobic (not requiring oxygen). Aerobic work is great for enhancing cardio respiratory endurance, reducing body fat, and becoming more efficient at utilizing oxygen. Anaerobic work is great for increased strength, stamina, power, and muscle mass. A rounded athlete has good capacity in all of these pathways.

Why The Rower?

The rower is the ultimate piece of fitness equipment for metabolic conditioning. It is a gross full body movement pattern that is most often seen in sport and life. The rowing stoke uses the biggest most powerful muscles of the legs, backside and hips to hand off to the upper body in a pull. The same sequence is seen in many other high power movements like the Olympic lifts and kettlebell swings, reinforcing a transferable skill. The large range of motion of this pull jacks up the power making it a potent and taxing movement. In addition to that, athletes are able to maximize training volume on the rower because there is an unloaded eccentric (negative) portion of the movement. The muscles encounter resistance as they contract, not as they lengthen, limiting muscular breakdown and soreness.

A controlled environment like a rowing machine is a great apparatus to target specific energy systems with accuracy. Using data like a 500 meter split time, calories, watts or strokes per minute, one can calculate power with precision. Marking these factors against time, you can also control duration of effort. It is not surprising to hear that CrossFit Games Champions like Rich Froning, Miko Salo, Sam Briggs and Camille Leblanc Bazinet are rumored to do dedicated rowing workouts daily. Here are some workouts on the rower to target specific capacities:

1) Anaerobic Power

  • 5 pulls on the rower for max wattage x 20 rounds rest 90 seconds between efforts
  • 10 x 20 seconds for lowest 500-meter split time

2) Anaerobic Endurance

  • 45 seconds on 45 seconds rest for max distance x 10 rounds
  • 10 x 250 meter row, rest 1 minute for fastest total time
  • 4x 500-meter row rest 3 minutes holding fastest sustainable split

3) Lactate Threshold Training

  • 3×1000 meter row rest 3 minutes for fastest sustainable time
  • 2000 meter trial

4) Aerobic Endurance

  • 7x 1000 meter at 90% of 2k PR, rest 1 minute between sets
  • 5k row trial
  • 10k row trial

Alternate these workouts 2-3 times per week as a compliment to your training to enhance your body’s metabolic capacity and efficiency. All it takes is a rower and a target time and pace.