How This Entrepreneur Shook Up A Crowded Fitness Scene — And Created A New Workout In The Process

Most entrepreneurs are familiar with the motto, ‘If you build it, they will come’ — a phrase often used to instill a sense of faith in a future business plan. But when Helaine Knapp opened the first CityRow location in January 2014, stationed in a humble space on the 15th floor of a Union Square office building, she took a slightly different approach by using her own personal mantra: “I thought, ‘If people like [the workout], they’ll come back,’” the boutique fitness studio CEO and founder said.

Despite the fact that the workout in question was unconventional and incorporated a rowing machine — a contraption most people associate only with Frank Underwood — and that the gym space lacked the conveniences of modern gyms, like locker rooms and showers, the workout was a hit. And thanks to Knapp’s ingenious fitness regime combining a WaterRower — a chic, sleek rowing machine that’s a far cry from the dusty metal apparatus you may have seen in the corner of your gym — with traditional bodyweight exercises executed off the machine, they kept coming back.

Two years later, CityRow has expanded to a second location on the Upper East Side, and Knapp is scouting out a locale for a third. Yet introducing a newfangled concept in an already-crowded fitness scene wasn’t easy. To learn more about how Knapp shook up the New York City workout scene, we partnered with smartwater to talk about how finding a solution to her own fitness problems sparked the idea for an innovative new workout.

"I learned how fantastic rowing was for you, and thought, ‘If this thing is really as great as everyone says it is, why is there nowhere to actually do it?’ That thought is what kick started CityRow.”

Behind The Idea For CityRow

“The journey here was interesting, I started as a consumer who just fell in love with a healthy lifestyle. I was working in tech in the city, and became a big fan of boutique fitness. I was working out a lot. I was doing everything — spinning, boot camps, yoga, running — and I just wasn’t feeling great. My body was hurting, and I thought there had to be a smarter way to get the results I wanted that kept my body safe.

An injury pushed me to look for a workout that was going to be low impact on my joints, and someone suggested to try rowing. At first I completely wrote it off. I thought rowing was just for guys, I thought it was only going to work my arms — but then I found the WaterRower. I thought it was a beautiful piece of equipment. I learned how fantastic rowing was for you, and thought, ‘If this thing is really as great as everyone says it is, why is there nowhere to actually do it?’ That thought is what kick started CityRow.”

Why The Workout Works

"CityRow is a high intensity, low impact, total body workout that combines intervals on a WaterRower with total body movements on a mat. It’s a really empowering 50-minute workout, and we’ve built CityRow to make the classes really scalable. You can be in a workout and push yourself to your own limits among other people of various fitness levels, shapes and sizes. It’s about what you want to put into your workout that day.”

"The WaterRower is sexy. It’s a stunning piece of equipment.”

The Ingenuity Of The WaterRower

“When people think about rowing, they might think of a guy rowing for two minutes at the gym and then lifting the heaviest object there. They don’t think about something sexy and sleek. They don’t think about boutique fitness in New York City. But we wanted to change that. And that’s where the WaterRower came in: We took a traditionally metal piece of equipment that collects dust in the corner, upgraded it, and combined it with strength training moves off the machine. The WaterRower is sexy. It’s a stunning piece of equipment.”

On Debunking Stereotypes

“You don’t see a lot of women on the rowing machine at the gym. I think that there are some connotations that it’s going to make you bulky, or that it’s only going to work your arms. The reality is, the WaterRower works — it’s 60 percent legs, 20 percent core and 20 percent arms… Rowing works 84 percent of your muscles with every stroke. We had to educate people on the benefits [of the rower], and that it’s a total body workout.

"We wanted to bring an innovative workout to market, so we had to do something that was different, and we had to make it accessible."

Standing Out In A Crowded Fitness Landscape

“I think there is a lot of clutter in the marketplace, and everyone is running around like crazy trying to get a six pack, or run a marathon. I think there is a healthy, smart balance between getting a fantastic workout and feeling really good about yourself … We wanted to bring an innovative workout to market, so we had to do something that was different and we had to make it accessible — especially since it was something that people were not familiar with doing…That’s [the mentality behind] how we got where we are today.”

Her Biggest Challenge

“People in the city don’t know how to row. They grow up running, they grow up riding bikes, but most people have never been on a rowing machine before. So our challenge is, how are we going to get people on this foreign piece of equipment? I think about it everyday. We thought, ‘How can we create something new and change the game a little bit?’ We are breaking through that barrier.”

How She Handled The Skeptics

“[When I first came up with the idea for CityRow], there were skeptics everywhere. I think no matter what field of business you’re in, people are going to challenge you, they’re going to push you. They’re going to say, ‘Is that really a good idea?’ There were obstacles at every turn. But I had this passionate feeling that this was something that could be a game changer. And people responded to it.”

“What moves me is the opportunity to change people’s lives."

On Staying Motivated

“What moves me is the opportunity to change people’s lives. When I started CityRow, I wanted something that was going to be high intensity but low impact, and that [workout] didn’t exist. My hope with what we’re doing is that other people also want this workout, and that there’s a void in their lives that we can help fill. That’s what gets me up in the morning every day — is the opportunity to spread this workout even further … It’s exciting when clients come to us and say, ‘I lifted a slightly heavier weight’ or ‘I rowed a little bit further in a 30-second push.’ We want to empower them.”

Why Fitness Is A Part Of Her Everyday Lifestyle

“Three elements to creating a healthy lifestyle are working out, staying hydrated, and creating balance in your life. Working out is important for me — it's a stress relief, it’s a way for me to actually spend an hour on myself.”

“Strength is more than just a physical appearance or being able to lift something heavy. I think it really does come from within."

On Strength

“Strength is more than just a physical appearance or being able to lift something heavy. I think it really does come from within. What we get excited about at CityRow is not only people are feeling great about themselves, but being able to push themselves within a really awesome environment that is encouraging and empowering.”

Her Future Business Plans

“CityRow is about rowing, but it’s also about being the smartest workout ... I want to spread the love, and show other cities for sure that there’s a better way to get the results that you want while keeping your body safe for life. We have big plans for CityRow, and that includes expanding to more locations, and even other cities.”

For more about Helaine Knapp, check out the video below:

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Featured above: Helaine Knapp of CityRow.

Photos: Jeff Holman; CityRow