This is Going to Be 2016's Biggest Fitness Trend—And We Tried It
My first thought: Someone must be looking around a gym, pointing at fitness equipment one piece at a time, saying, "Make a class with that." (We already have stationary-bike, treadmill and climbing-machine classes).
So rowing it is: When I get to New York's CityRow on a Monday morning for my 50-minute class, I have no idea what to expect. Do I need special shoes? Am I going to be surrounded by women who might as well be models? Is this another fitness trend that feels kind of, well, cult-y?
The machines are neatly lined up in the studio, with yoga mats next to each. There's just enough space to do a pushup on the mat without your elbows hitting the machines on either side. Every machine faces the instructor's rower; these probably aren't the kind of rowers you've seen before—they're sleek, with big, clear drums of water at the front. A Google search after class suggests that the water, which is creating the resistance you pull against, is supposed to provide a smoother feel than non-water rowers. Plus, there should be some water involved in a rowing class, right?
Top 40 music plays as people file in. Everyone's in pretty good shape, there are more men than you usually find in a boutique class, and the age range is wide—I'm on the younger end (I'm 28), and the oldest is a man in his 70s who seems like an experienced rower. About half of the crowd looks like they've been here before, walking right to their go-to machine, but the rest seem to be like me—people who want to try the hot new workout and aren't exactly sure what's about to happen. But we're all wearing sneakers, so at least I didn't miss the memo on special shoes.
As instructor and CityRow program director Annie Mulgrew leads us through the class (intervals on the rowers, plus exercises like planks, lunges, wall sits and so many pushups), I get my answer to that cult question: And it's a no. The vibe is fun and motivational, but there are no calls to connect with your inner goddess or row in unison. Annie doles out encouragement and form tips (plus jokes) throughout the class, but nothing that veers toward preachy or overwrought. It's my kind of class.
By the end, I'm exhausted, and with good reason. Rowing works around 85 percent of the muscles in your body, says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University, in Montgomery, Alabama, making it a more effective full-body workout than cardio or Spinning alone. "You're using everything between your shoulders and your feet—legs, glutes, arms and your whole torso," she explains. If you'd assumed (as I did) that most of the work had to be done by your arms, back and shoulders to pull the handles toward you during the rowing motion, the soreness in your abs and butt the next day will let you know you were very wrong.
Another tip: The thing most likely to trip you up is getting off the machine. Mulgrew once had a man in class who forgot to unstrap his feet before moving down onto the mat to stretch. "When he rolled off, the machine rolled with him and turned on top of him. His body was fine; his ego was bruised," she says. Getting my shoes out was the trickiest part for me too, and I saw a few other people in my class struggling to free themselves. But the actual rowing movement was simple. Just don't lean back farther than 10 o'clock as you're pulling the handlebar toward your chest, or further forward than 1 o'clock when you're in the starting position, says Olson, both of which could strain your lower back.
Because there's no pounding on knees or ankles, rowing is perfect for people who need a low-impact workout but are sick to death of Spin class and the same old neighborhood walking loops, says Olson, or those with injuries. The combination of hard work without wear and tear was energizing—I left the class wondering when I could fit another one into my schedule.
Luckily, most gyms have rowing machines, so if the trend hasn't spread to your city yet (or the classes, which range from about $25 to $32 per session across the country, are out of your budget), you can still take part. Mulgrew's advice for using rowers on your own: Do short, high-intensity intervals instead of one longer, moderately paced session. "Most people can't stay on the machine for more than 5 to 10 minutes at a stretch because their form starts to break down," says Mulgrew, who recommends starting with 30-second intervals. Between each interval, get off the machine and do 10 reps of a body-weight move like squats or pushups or 30 seconds of wall sits or planks. Then hop back on the machine and repeat 9 more times. Work toward building the intervals to 1 minute each.