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The Other Star in “House of Cards” is a Rowing Machine

Anyone who has watched the Netflix television show “House of Cards”, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, has noticed a piece of exercise equipment which has assumed a prominent position in the program’s plot. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the WaterRower, a rowing machine which has a tire-shaped tank of water at its front, has gained fame and sales through repeat appearances.

Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, a “power-hungry politician and his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, retreat to the machine to burn off frustrations from their conniving exploits. The machine even surfaces in Mr. Underwood’s dreams.”

Here is a brief scene of Frank Underwood rowing and conniving!

Because of its exposure on this show, the WaterRower has enjoyed a burst of popularity. The WaterRower factory has tripled its production capacity in five years to more than 1,000 machines a week. The machines are “one of the hottest products out there right now,” noted Tonja Hadley, regional sales director for HealthStyles Exercise Equipment, in the Journal article. “We can’t seem to keep them in stock.”

A Spine Surgeon Looks at Rowing


While he has little time to watch much television and has never seen “House of Cards,” Dr. Isador Lieberman, a spine surgeon at Texas Back Institute and dedicated physical fitness participant has a great deal of experience with all types of rowing machines, including the WaterRower.

“I’ve been rowing for more than 20 years,” he said. “And I am well-aware of this particular type of rowing machine,”

Besides its prominent “role” on the show, what makes this WaterRower so appealing?

“I believe it’s the act of rowing and not the rowing machine itself,” he said. “Rowing is a very high-intensity exercise program, which when done properly, exercises just about every muscle in your body. You can burn off a lot of calories in a very short span of time. Plus, you get a full-body workout with minimal impact. So, you are not overwhelming the joints.”

“Rowing as an exercise has tremendous appeal,” he said. “It is much more engaging than running, swimming, riding a stationary bike or road bike.”

More Than 10 Million People are Rowing

The exposure this machine has received from this show has increased the popularity of the entire category of equipment. It is estimated that more than 10 million people used a rowing machine last year. This does not surprise Dr. Lieberman.

“I recommend rowing to a lot of my patients,” he said. “Plus, I have a number of friends who know that I am an avid rower and they ask me if rowing helps me burn off weight and if it helps me to get through the frustrations of the day. After I tell them, they go and buy their own rowing machine, and they become as addicted to it as I have.”

Potential Injuries 


Who better than a spine surgeon would realize the potential for injuries from using a rowing machine?

“First and foremost, when you’re rowing, you are pulling on the bar which is attached to the chain and a flywheel, or in the case of the WaterRower, the flywheel in the water. That provides the resistance. There are other rowing machines where the flywheel uses air resistance, whereby the rower is pulling on a big fan.”

“Regardless of the type of machine, what is really critical is to maintain the proper form,” he said. “All too often I see people in the gym getting on these machines and then flailing their arms, back and legs. They are going to be prone to a low back injury.  It’s important to keep the stability of the pelvis, the abdominal and back muscles are kept tight and you want to be pushing with your legs. You don’t want to be pulling with your lower back. Form is critically important.”

“The second important consideration concerns the stirrups on the machine. You need proper shoes and you need to have your feet strapped in to these stirrups or footplates. Your feet need to be secure because as you are pulling back and moving forward, you don’t want your feet moving erratically. This could cause a twisted ankle or injury to the tendons around the feet.”

How Long is Too Long on a Rowing Machine?

“If you’ve got the stamina, and you’re using proper form, you can stay on the rowing machine until you exhaust your stamina,” Dr. Lieberman noted. “If you have poor form, you will be hurting your back within 30-seconds. It all depends on what kind of condition the participant is in.”

“I know people who can be on a rowing machine for 45 minutes to an hour without even breaking a sweat.  A lot also depends on how much resistance someone is rowing against and how much force you are putting into it. It’s similar to pedaling a bike. You can coast part of the way, or you can push the pedals for more speed and cover more territory.”

Stress Arrest

Kevin Spacey’s character uses his rowing machine to work off frustration. What is it about this repetitive motion that helps an individual reduce stress? Dr. Lieberman explains.

“It has to do with the rhythmic motion of the rowing,” he said. “The push with your legs and the pull with your arms also contribute to this stress release. In my case it’s the tunes I have blaring in the background while I am rowing away! I have a playlist of songs and I change their order up from time to time in order to complement the times when I want to be sprinting or coasting on the machine.”

“This process just clears the mind and burns off that frustration. It’s a really good exercise.”

To hear the complete interview with Dr. Lieberman, click on SpineTalk below.

If you’re experiencing back pain from overdoing your exercise program, contact us to set an appointment with Dr. Lieberman or our other spine specialists at Texas Back Institute.

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