Analysis of Rowing versus Box Step-ups on Cardiovascular Endurance

Bottom Line Up Front: I did a cardiovascular conditioning session this morning that I found particularly interesting after analyzing the results of my heart rate monitor. The main idea is that I found box step-ups to be as effective at holding a high heart rate as rowing. The image below has the data and analysis. You can click on it to see a larger version.

163 BPM (the red area) is 90% of maximum using a simple 220-age calculation, which isn’t the best way but close enough and very easy to determine. 145-162 represents 80-90%, 127 is 70%, etc. 


The objective of this cardiovascular conditioning session was to strengthen my body’s ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles. I wanted to ensure I was staying in the right heart rate zones, so I wore my Polar H7 heart rate monitor and Chromecasted it to the monitor in my gym so I could see it in real time. I was going to just do row sprints for about 15 minutes but as I got going, I got motivated to keep it up. I decided as I was resting on my interval sprints that I wanted to see where my heart rate was on steady state rowing, so I rested a little, then did a few minutes at a moderate pace of around 2 minutes per 500m. As I rested afterwards I wanted to then see how box step-ups would compare to rowing. Then I started thinking of how 20″ step-ups would compare to 24″ and then how unweighted would compare to loaded with a sandbag. You can see all the data above in the photo. Click to enlarge it. Here are the observations and take-aways.


  • I acknowledge this isn’t a great pure experiment because I am comparing my heart rate on box step-ups after 20 minutes of rowing, so it is a little skewed. Better would be to compare each in a similar state. I get it. I don’t think it is significant enough to warrant negating the observations.
  • I was surprised how high I got my heart rate on steady state rowing as compared to intervals. It seemed that the longer I held the row, the higher my HR would climb. I would have guessed that holding a steady pace for 3 minutes would force me to a lower intensity (it did) and that would keep my HR steady but lower. I got to around 158 beats per minute (BPM) on my last interval which was held at a 1:30 per 500m pace. I then got to 160 BPM holding a 2:00 per 500m pace.
  • The fatigue level of rowing is deceptive. I never feel like I am working as hard as when I am running but my heart rate data showed I was. The rowing causes more localized fatigue in the lower back, glutes, and hamstring for sure. I feel like I was at 75 or 80% when I was really at 90%. Without the HR monitor on, I would have guessed I was working at a lower intensity.
  • I was able to get my HR as high and higher using box step-ups. This is significant because of these two modalities, one costs basically $1000 and one costs basically $0. You can build yourself a box like I used with basic materials from a lumber store for under $20. You could find a stool of some kind of a small ledge for free.
  • There wasn’t much difference between a 20″ and 24″ box for heart rate effects. I usually do step-ups on 20″ because for my height, the 4 inches feels like a lot less knee strain when doing these loaded. I feel like I have to launch myself up to the 24″ whereas I can really step up with a 20″ box with a 135lb barbell on my back.
  • Adding a sandbag made a difference but not a huge one. I had to step less quickly with the added weight.
  • When I was fully fatigued after 34 minutes, I dropped the sandbag and moved my step pace up with just my bodyweight and was able to achieve and hold the highest heart rate of the day. I was not moving very fast with the 60lb SB up to a 24″ box, so when I dropped the sandbag and reduced box height, I started to move probably 1.5x the step rate. This moved my HR well above 90% and I was able to hold it pretty easily. The pace increase turned out to be better for heart rate increases than the added load.


  • You can get a lot of work done in a small space. You can get your heart rate to well above the necessary levels for health and even for performance without going outside and running. About 90% of the general population thinks you have to run to be fit, and 99% thinks you have to run to be cardiovascularly healthy.
  • Simple methods done with intensity are very effective. Do you want to do indoor cardio (convenience, weather, etc.) but don’t have the money for a treadmill or rower? Try box step-ups. Know what else works well? Burpees. And burpee box step-ups. And burpee box step-overs (move across the top to the other side). And push-up to step-ups. You can do a lot with just this box or your bodyweight.
  • Get a heart rate monitor. Investing in a basic heart rate monitor will let you know what is really going on to ensure you aren’t over- or underdoing it. I recommend the Polar H7.


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