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First things first, you should know that I haven't properly exercised in months. I'm not ashamed of it. It'll just make sense when I explain how taking a rowing gym class led me to almost vom and pass out. But more on that later.
I had basically grown tired of my old spinning routine, and with no one to go with, I'd eliminated running too. So I was on the lookout for the thing that was going to get me back on the exercise bandwagon again, a buzzy new fitness class that would be equal parts fun and effective. And that's when I heard about the burgeoning boutique rowing scene bubbling up in London. With nothing to lose, I booked a Full Body Workout class at London's Fitness Lab. [Editor's note: Due to COVID-19, Fitness Lab now offers only private, personal training sessions rather than group fitness classes.]
What Is a Rowing Gym Class?
Often also referred to as crew, rowing is a low-impact, total-body workout that simulates the action of watercraft rowing. Of course, indoor rowing classes forgo the actual vessel in favor of a water-powered rowing machine. The result is a low-impact-but-still-strenuous workout.
"Nothing beats rowing if you want an effective full-body workout to build your cardio fitness, burn fat, and build muscle," Ben Scarles, head of strength at Fitness Lab, tells me. "It recruits 86 percent of muscle mass, which is more than you'll get with other CV machines, and, what's more, it's low-impact without compromising on intensity, meaning you get an incredible workout without putting unnecessary strain on your joints (like you can get with running). Win-win."
Rowing is often incorrectly categorized as an upper-body-strength workout, but don't be fooled. It actually targets muscles from your shoulders down and is both a strength and cardiovascular exercise. I'll take a two-in-one workout any day of the week if it means getting an extra 30 minutes back into my day.
Benefits of a Rowing Gym Class
• Cardiovascular exercise
• Upper-body strengthening
• Low-impact workout
Unlike most HIIT classes, which require a lot of jumping around, rowing doesn't put a lot of stress on the joints. Still—because of the repetitive movement and strength required to power yourself back from the machine—it offers an excellent upper-body workout and will definitely get your heart rate up. That means less of a chance of injury but plenty of opportunities to burn calories.
What to Expect in a Rowing Gym Class
Not knowing what to expect, I entered the studio and sheepishly picked out the same equipment it seemed the more experienced participants had gathered: a mat and two sets of weights. Obvs I went for the lightest weights possible—my upper-body strength is ridiculous.
Like other HIIT sessions, the class is split into two groups, and you rotate between the rowing machines and the floor. We started off with some nice, simple warm-up exercises. Not being of particularly fitness-y stock, I had no idea what any of the names meant, but thankfully, the instructor acts them out for you. I started the first round on the mats, and yes, my measly arms struggled to hold up the weights for the allotted time and, yes, my burpee technique leaves much to be desired, but I actually didn't mind it. I felt like I was activating my body once more, and that's a pretty empowering feeling.
But it was on the rowing machine that I really came into my own. Desperate to not let the women on either side of me overtake my efforts, I rowed as fast as my tiny arms would take me and the instructor was on hand to give plenty of form advice: never fully straighten the knees, pull from the core, etc., etc. It was actually pretty fun, just like I used to find spinning.
The class continues swapping on and off the rowing machines and climaxes at this ridiculous session of final exercises, and that's when my body said "no more." I'll save you the details but basically I got very dizzy, and felt like I was going to be sick so I had to excuse myself and sit the rest of the class out. In all honesty, this wasn't really a reflection of the class, but more my lack of pre-workout fuel and my feeble constitution. Yes, the class is intense, but in a good, it's-actually-doing-something kind of way.
The Final Takeaway
For days after, my entire upper body ached—especially across my chest—but it was nothing that a few stretches couldn't ease. I just loved how rowing activated muscles I rarely use and ones I have always wished were stronger. It might take me a little longer to finally get over the embarrassment of not quite making it through the entire class, but I'll certainly be back for more. If you're looking for a fresh new addition to your workout plan, rowing might just be the one.