There's a workout trend that's been gaining steam lately, and it's the kind of trend that makes me pay attention because the promised pay-off sounds so good — even though it involves a piece of equipment I've studiously avoided at my gym: the rowing machine.
That's right: crew has spread beyond the Ivy League and gone mainstream. So, in the name of fitness, I braved New York's CityRow class to see why rowing is having such a moment. Now that I've picked myself up off the floor, here's what I learned:
The machine isn't scary. I've never rowed before, mostly because the rowing — or erg — machine looked complicated and intimidating sitting in the corner at my gym. "I think the erg is intimidating to people because they are unfamiliar with it," says Helaine Knapp, founder of CityRow. "People grow up riding bikes, so doing a cardio on a stationary bike doesn't seem like a foreign or complicated routine. But the erg is actually simple to use once you understand the basic flow. Once you practice the movements (starting in the catch, driving the legs long, pulling the arms in, then coming back into the catch position), it will become much more fluid and natural."
You think it's all about your arms. Not by a long shot. CityRow's class works 84 percent of your body's muscle mass, meaning it's a one-and-done workout: cardio, toning, strengthening and lengthening, all without bulking you up. Total win. By the end of 50 minutes, your whole body will be wobbly — in the best, just-had-a-killer-workout way.
You'll want a burger afterwards. According to CityRow, rowing is one of the top five calorie-burning workouts — each 50-minute class promises to burn between 400 and 600 calories. Because CityRow classes include rowing and mat work, it's the perfect high-intensity interval combination, which guarantees that you'll burn enough that refueling immediately after class is a necessity.
"Because you are utilizing almost your entire body to perform the action on the row machine, your body will have to exert more effort (i.e. burn more calories) in order to complete the movement," says Knapp. "The largest muscles in the body burn the most calories. Since your quadricep muscles as well as glute muscles are forced to do the majority of the work (60 percent of the power of the stroke comes from the legs), the row machine provides you with an exercise that will scorch major calories in less time than other cardio machines." Sweet.
It's not all rowing. Fifty minutes of rowing can sound daunting or boring, depending on your athletic prowess. Luckily, CityRow's class is punctuated by intervals of yoga, sculpting, and Pilates, so as soon as you reach the exhaustion point on the machine, you get a break on the ground. Full disclosure: the groundwork is not much of a break (so. many. planks.).
You can do it on your own. Rowing may be the latest "it" workout, but if you don't have a studio near you, you can still reap the benefits. The key, whether you're in class or riding solo, is to focus on your form — watch a YouTube tutorial for the basics. CityRow's mantra is "legs, core, arms," which helped me pick up the flow.
"Legs drive long first, incline the core back to a 45 degree angle, and then the arms draw the handlebar into the chest," explains Knapp. "To come back to the catch (starting) position, the arms reach forward first, then the core inclines forward towards the legs, hinging at the hips, and then finally the knees bend. Easy!" Knapp suggests sprinting for 30 seconds then recovering at a moderate pace for one minute for a total of fifteen minutes.
Image: Braden Istas