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Fitness Q&A: On the benefits of rowing; toning flabby arms

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

By Joe Luxbacher

Q: I am planning to purchase either a stationary bike or a rowing machine. The one that makes the most sense to me is a rowing machine, but they do not seem to be very popular. Am I missing something?

A: Your perception is very accurate. For whatever reason, you don't see as many rowing machines in gyms and health clubs as was the case a few years ago. Bikes are still quite popular, and newer machines like stair climbers and elliptical trainers seem to have replaced the traditional rowers. This is a shame because rowing is such a great exercise.

Joe Luxbacher

Vigorous rowing will improve aerobic capacity, develop muscular strength and endurance, improve flexibility and expend lots of calories, which aids in weight loss. The rowing action provides a thorough workout for muscles in your arms, chest, shoulders and upper back. Most machines have a sliding seat which also enables you to work your legs (quads and hamstrings) and lower back. Also important, rowing is low impact and non-weight bearing and is easier on the joints than jogging, running and rope jumping.

Stationary cycling has advantages as well. It also is low impact and doesn't require the balance and coordination of outdoor biking. Indoor cycling has a very low risk of injury, is convenient and also burns calories, although not to the same degree as vigorous rowing. On the down side, stationary bikes do not provide much of an upper body workout. Some bikes require a pumping action of the arms while pedaling but the overall strengthening effect on chest, back and arms is still minimal.

Picking a rower or stationary bike requires careful thought and valuation. Select the machine that you will use on a regular basis. The last thing you want to do is purchase a piece of equipment that ends up as an expensive coat rack. Visit a gym or health club, try both machines and then choose the one that suits your fancy. If I had to pick one over the other, my choice would be the rower.

Q: What kind of exercise can I do to take care of my upper underarm area where there is flab (the wings!). I would like to firm this area without spending megabucks to join a gym.

A: Men and women alike may experience a gradual sagging of the upper arm as they get older. This occurs due to a combination of muscle atrophy, loss of muscle tone, and in some cases excess fat due to weight gain. You can tighten and tone your upper arm area, specifically the triceps (underarm) and biceps, through specific strength exercises using light hand-held dumbbells.

Kim King, head strength and conditioning coach for Olympic Sports at the University of Pittsburgh and a pioneer in women's bodybuilding, suggests the following exercises to get you started:

Dumbbell triceps curl

  • Stand erect with back straight and feet shoulder width apart.
  • Hold dumbbell in right hand and raise overhead with arm extended.
  • Keep upper arm close to head and perpendicular to the floor.
  • Slowly lower dumbbell behind head until forearm touches (nears) bicep.
  • Raise dumbbell to starting position and repeat movement.
  • Inhale when lowering dumbbell, exhale when raising (extending) arm upward.
  • Repeat with opposite arm. This exercise can also be done while seated.

Dumbbell triceps extension

  • Stand holding dumbbell in your right hand with palm facing in.
  • Bend forward until your back is nearly parallel to the floor.
  • Position left hand on left knee.
  • Position upper right arm against side (parallel to ground) with lower arm vertical to ground.
  • Press dumbbell back until arm parallel to floor.
  • Pause for a moment, then lower dumbbell slowly to starting position, then repeat.
  • Inhale when raising dumbbell, exhale when lowering. Repeat with opposite arm.

Hammer bicep curl

  • Stand erect with feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold a light dumbbell in each hand with arms extended down and palms facing inward.
  • Keep upper arms tight against ribs and perpendicular to the floor.
  • Raise one dumbbell at a time by flexing the arm at the elbow.
  • Curl movement should bring dumbbell in line with the shoulder.
  • Lower dumbbell slowly until elbow is fully extended.
  • Repeat with opposite arm.
  • Exhale during upward movement; inhale during downward phase.

As a rule of thumb work your arms every other day, or possibly every third day if you have never weight-trained before. Choose a weight that allows you to perform 15 to 20 repetitions of the exercise. The last two or three reps should be fairly difficult to execute. Perform two or three sets of each exercise with a limited rest period (60 seconds or so) between each set. A set is a fixed number of repetitions of an exercise.

As you become stronger you can increase the weight in small increments. Don't expect to see changes overnight because you won't. It takes time and effort to reshape you body, so you must be willing to commit to the long term. If you do you will be pleased with the results.


Joe Luxbacher, University of Pittsburgh men's soccer coach, writes a monthly Q&A on fitness. You can e-mail questions to him at jlux@pitt.edu or mail them to Your Health, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA. 15222

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