I’m 15 minutes into my first rowing class when things start to get weird. Without any prompting, all ten of us slowly begin pulling in unison. The whir from our air-charged Concept2 rowers seems to merge into a little melody as our bodies sync with one another. And somehow, the rowing gets easier.
“You’re in the swing,” says Adam Smith, the skinny instructor with baby blue glasses who owns the studio. “When you’re in the boat and everyone’s movements line up, it feels effortless, like you can sustain a high output forever.” (This probably isn’t the first time Smith has recited that explanation. I later catch a glimpse of a tattoo on his forearm that reads: In the swing.)
I’m sweating through a class at Rebel Strength and Row House, a gym in Asheville, North Carolina, that alternates kettlebell work with pulling on a rowing machine—the kind you probably routinely ignore on your way to the treadmill. A surge of boutiques like Rebel are revitalizing the oft overlooked piece of fitness equipment by offering high-intensity workouts that pair rowing with full-body strength and mobility movements.
For example, at LIT Method in Los Angeles, resistance bands get thrown into the mix. Chicago’s Iron and Oar classes blend rowing sprints with strength exercises. Elsewhere you’ll find rowing combined with Pilates or plyometrics. Some studios have even brought in state-of-the-art hardware, employing machines equipped with water tanks to provide resistance and a satisfying swoosh with every stroke. All this in an attempt to make pulling endlessly on a cable while seated enjoyable. It seems to be working: according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, the number of people rowing indoors has grown by almost 20 percent since 2014.
And yet, before I showed up at Rebel, I had no familiarity with rowing technique or how to approach the machine as a fitness tool. My previous experience was limited to the occasional desperate session after I’d logged too many mind-numbing miles on a treadmill and needed a change. (That and watching Oxford Blues, a Rob Lowe vehicle from the eighties in which the star cons his way onto his college crew team.) I always felt awkward doing it, and the workouts left me more bored than tired.
But the new fitness studios aren’t just porting the standard spin-class experience to a rower. Instead of strapping you in for long sessions, they mix short bursts of pulling with familiar strength exercises. A typical circuit in an hourlong session might consist of four minutes of fast-paced rowing followed by 15 medicine-ball slams and 20 push-ups, then another four minutes of sprints on the machine. It’s a dynamic workout that keeps your heart rate high without the punishing impact of other cardio options.
“I’ll never run again,” says Dan Whisnant, a muscular middle-aged Marine who’s been hitting Rebel three times a week for the past year. “Rowing is a way more efficient workout, and it doesn’t hurt my knees.”
He’s right. Multiple studies have suggested that rowing builds overall muscle strength, whereas cycling and running mostly target the lower body. And unlike most cardio equipment, a rowing machine allows you to build power and endurance simultaneously.
Of course, the fitness benefits aren’t new. What’s novel is the resurgence of interest. Why now?
Shane Farmer, founder of the online training platform Dark Horse Rowing and a former collegiate oarsman, largely credits CrossFit. The workout giant has made rowing a key element of its programs since its inception. “CrossFit exposed a lot of people to the rowing machine,” Farmer says. “You can do a large amount of work in a short time without risk of injury.”
Over the course of a month, I became a regular at Rebel, growing mildly addicted to the fluid, forceful motion and becoming obsessed with my 500-meter split times. After I mastered the technique (see “Row For It,” below), I started to genuinely enjoy my rowing workouts, and I geeked out on how small tweaks to my form delivered more power. Each session left me drenched and exhausted—similar to how I feel after climbing or cross-country skiing. I wouldn’t say I’m pulling like Rob Lowe yet, but I’ll get there.
Row for It
According to Josh Crosby, a world-champion puller who develops workout programs for rowing studios, it’s not hard to make the most of the machine, even if you’re a novice. “Small adjustments to technique can lead to huge gains,” he says. Here, Crosby breaks down the motion.
- Begin in the catch position—knees against your chest and upper body slightly forward, like you’re trying to hold a piece of paper between the two. Your arms should be straight in front of you.
- Using your legs, push back with as much force as you can, keeping your shoulders in front of your hips and your arms straight.
- When your knees are almost fully extended, lean backward, hinging at the waist. Your arms should still be straight.
- At the end of your lean, pull the handle to your chest. Reverse the steps, starting with arms, then hips, then legs. The motion should be executed so that 60 percent of the work is done by your legs, 20 percent by your core, and 20 percent by your shoulders and arms.