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 vomit 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.
Read on for my honest review of my first rowing class, the benefits of rowing for exercise, and expert tips for getting started with rowing.
Meet the Expert
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.
Rowing is often incorrectly categorized as an upper-body-strength workout, but don't be fooled. It is both a strength and cardiovascular exercise, and it actually targets most muscles from your shoulders on down. 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 Rowing
In addition to providing a great cardiovascular workout and strengthening the whole body, rowing is a safe, low-impact activity: “Rowing is a good option for those with bad knees that can't run or do a lot of high-impact exercises like running or plyometric movements. It's a great way to improve aerobic and cardiovascular fitness while keeping it low impact,” explains Tobin. That means there’s less of a risk of incurring a bone or joint injury, yet still the chance to sweat, burn calories, tone up, and get fitter.
What to Expect in a Rowing Gym Class
Not knowing what to expect, I entered the studio and sheepishly picked out the same equipment the more experienced participants had gathered: a mat and two sets of weights. I went for the lightest weights possible—my upper-body strength is laughable.
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 left 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.
“Rowing is a great cardiovascular exercise and is an awesome low-impact option for getting that heart rate up,” says Tobin. “One benefit of rowing is that it incorporates the entire body, and can be as challenging as you'd like by adjusting the resistance on your rowing machine.”
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 continued swapping on and off the rowing machines and climaxed with 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.
Tips to Get Started
Now, you don’t have to dive in head first the way I did. In fact, I strongly urge you to take a smarter, more calculated approach. Here are some tips for beginners from our experts.
Build up gradually.
“The best way to get into any aerobic activity that involves a lot of repetition of the same movement over and over again, such as rowing, is to build up the frequency and volume sensibly and sustainably,” advises Coxall. “How often have you heard someone take up an activity like running or rowing and dive straight in, but within a few weeks [they get] an annoying joint injury from doing too much too soon?” Don’t let that happen to you—build up slowly and sensibly.
Use proper technique.
Even if it means buying a session or two with a personal trainer, it pays to be taught correctly so that you can learn the proper technique and form right off the bat. “Not only will it improve your performance on the machine, but [it will] also save you from any unnecessary little niggles.”
Tobin explains the basics: “As you bend your knees, you want the handlebar to pass your feet, and as you extend your legs, you pull those handles back, aligning the bar to your chest, pulling those elbows straight back.” Tobin says your technique can also improve if you concentrate on the involvement of your muscles. “With rowing form, 60% of the power comes from those legs, 20% core, and 20% arms. So, you should concentrate on legs, core, and arms in that order as you push with your legs and begin to pull the handlebar,” she says.
Your posture is important.
Along those lines, your posture is critical to safety and efficiency. “There is actually a ‘proper’ way to row—chest proud, shoulders pulled back,” notes Tobin.
Wear comfortable shoes.
Coxall says you don’t need “rowing-specific shoes,” just ones that are comfortable and suitable for exercise. “A good running shoe or a cross-training style shoe will do just fine.”
Play around with the resistance.
“Resistance can vary depending on the style of workout you are doing on the machine, but a great place to start is number 5, which is the closest resistance to rowing in water,” notes Coxall.
Where to Go Row
Even though I’d encourage anyone to take one of the classes at Fitness Lab if you have the good fortune to do so, this probably isn’t feasible for many. Fortunately, there are other options. Your commercial gym may have rowing machines, and facilities like Orange Theory, F45 Training, Equinox, and YMCA branches often have rowers. Another option is to purchase a machine and row at home. “You can use any good at-home fitness app, or at-home workout and incorporate it into a rowing workout by using the work/rest intervals, but instead of copying their exercises, use the rowing machine instead,” suggests Coxall. There are also fully-immersive machines, such as Hydrow, that have workouts you can stream right from the machine, much like the Peloton bike experience. Other popular apps include Float, BoatCoach, and Ergdata.
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 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 thing.
Kang SR, Yu CH, Han KS, Kwon TK. Comparative analysis of basal physical fitness and muscle function in relation to muscle balance pattern using rowing machines. Biomed Mater Eng. 2014;24(6):2425-2435. doi:10.3233/BME-141056