Long relegated to the dust-collecting corners of gyms across America, the rowing machine is making a comeback. After a much-needed upgrade in technology and style (affixed water tanks simulate true crewing conditions, while machines carved from wood and oil-finished are best sellers), this unsung hero of the fitness world has become the weapon du jour among the hard bodies of Hollywood—Jason Statham, Zac Efron, and Josh Hutcherson are devotees. It's also finding its way to your health club's most prized piece of real estate: the fitness-class studio. Those in the know say it's set to become the hip, new king of cardio.
"We're seeing a huge migration from spin to rowing," says Jay Blahnik, a Southern California trainer and group-fitness adviser for Equinox, which recently added a slew of new row-based classes in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and New York, among other cities. "Spinning isn't dead, but it has been put on notice."
The similarities between the two disciplines are many—both involve stationary machines that ape outdoor exercises, pump-you-up instructors, thumping music, peer pressure to keep pace, and a workout that leaves you sweat-soaked and serenely sore-muscled. But when it comes to achieving body-sculpting benefits, indoor rowing is in a class of its own. A 50-minute rowing class can burn up to 1,200 calories, twice as many as spinning. Every stroke requires you to work your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, abs, obliques, pecs, biceps, triceps, deltoids, upper back, and lats. "Each rep is essentially a leg press, a dead lift, and a row. And because you're working every muscle group in your body, your heart rate is elevated," says Garrett Roberts, an exercise physiologist and the founder of GoRow Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey. "Plus, you need to establish a more complex rhythm than pedaling. It's part of the challenge, but once you find that groove it becomes this kind of high." In short, with one low-maintenance workout, in a group setting or on your own, you'll get the statuesque body of an authentic crew rower (think Winklevoss twin minus the whining). Just prepare to get hooked—many class aficionados are working their way up toward rowing outdoors.
Add up all the benefits and it's no wonder more and more guys are stepping off the stationary bike and strapping into a rower. "People are catching on that they could be getting so much more out of their workout in the same amount of time," Roberts says. "I opened my rowing studio to prove that it's more fun and more effective than spinning. It's only a matter of time."
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[__Where to Find Outdoor Rowing
Classes and Races >>__
The Technique: Get Perfect Form
A quick, three-step rowing primer from Garrett Roberts, founder of GoRow Studios.
1. The Catch
Place your feet in the stirrups and slide all the way forward to the flywheel, with your knees bent and pressed against your chest. Grasp the handle with an overhand grip. Lean forward slightly from the hips, but keep your chin up, shoulders back, and spine straight. Tip: Throughout the movement, be sure your feet remain flat and that you don't tuck your chin or hunch your shoulders.
2. The Drive
The trick to starting your drive back is moving your hands and butt at the same time. A rower's power comes from the lower body—as you drive back with your legs, think about pushing your feet through the footboard, like you're using the seated leg press. As you slide back, don't start to pull yet—your arms will naturally straighten.
3. The Finish
Once your legs are extended, knees straight, maintain a straight spine and lean back slightly from the hips, bracing your core. Now pull. Bring the handle to your chest, driving your elbows over the plane of your hips and behind you. On the pull, think about leading with your elbows. The trick to getting back to start position is bracing your abs, driving your hips forward, and pulling your knees into your chest.
The Best New Classes
iRow Fitness Studio
Los Angeles, California
In addition to its daily in-gym sessions, iRow boasts a classroom-to-water program on the wide-open channels at Marina Del Rey.
Hoboken, New Jersey
You'll clock plenty of time on the rower, but rotate among free weights and body-weight regimens, core exercises, and moves meant to bolster balance, body alignment, and posture.
This boutique gym marries rowing with CrossFit. Row challenges are often races against the clock and bookended by fun distractions such as rope climbs.
Boston, Miami, New York City, West Hollywood, and more
Josh Crosby, a former U.S. rowing champion and trainer, helped design the two main rowing programs: Indo-Row, a straightforward group-rowing class, and the new rowing-circuit workout ShockWave.
Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Corpus Christi, Texas
One day you may race for time; other days may include sideways rowing, standing dumbbell rows, and Pilates.
Convinced spinning and rowing can live in harmony, Flywheel Fitness offers the cardio-minded both classes under the same roof.
How to Row It Alone
When you can't get to class, try these solo workouts from Bill Manning, associate head coach of men's rowing at Harvard University.
Warm-Up Drill: Single-Hand Stroke
Most people pull too soon. To help break the habit, try this quick warm-up drill: Hold the center of the handle with one hand and row. You'll soon see how important the legs and a firm torso are to your drive. Try for 10 strokes with each hand. Also do this drill before a group class, to get loose.
Beginner: Tempo Row
Every rowing machine displays speed, distance, and your average time to complete 500 meters (your 500-meter split time). Go as hard as you can for one minute and note your average 500-meter split time. Add 20 seconds to that time—this will be your pace. Try to hold that pace for 10 minutes. That's one. Rest three minutes and repeat.
Intermediate: Stroke-Count Pyramid
Row 10 strokes easy, then 10 strokes hard. Repeat this pattern, increasing in 10-stroke intervals until you are rowing 50 strokes easy, 50 strokes hard. Go down the "pyramid" until you are back to the starting set.
Advanced: Intense Intervals
Try four 500-meter intervals without rest. Row the first 500 meters at 50 percent of your maximum effort. On your second 500, increase to 75 percent of your max. On the third, ramp up to 95 percent—you should be nearly out of juice by the end of this leg. Row your final 500 meters as hard as you can—but maintain good form.
Where to Find Outdoor Rowing Classes and Races
A six-class introduction on the Charles River is $129.
Chicago River Rowing & Paddling Center
Offers classes, racing leagues, and a $25 day pass.
Western Reserve Rowing Association
Take a $30 one-day class on the Cuyahoga River.
The Los Angeles Rowing Club
Row and race at Marina Del Rey; a three-month membership is $120.
New York City
Row New York
Try the $100 learn-to-row weekend (a Saturday and a Sunday class) on the Harlem River.
Vesper Boat Club
The $500 annual fee covers rentals and gym access.
Which Rowing Machine Is Best for You?
The Stamina 1215 Orbital Rower, With Free Motion Arms, $350; staminaproducts.com
If space is tight—like galley-kitchen tight—this two-handled job is for you. Compact and foldable, it can easily slide under the bed. Drawbacks are many, though. Because the handles dip forward by your ankles, you often start the drive backward hunched over, which can wrench your back and neck. And the fixed handles force you to begin your pull at the start of the drive, not at the end. While more work sounds like a better workout, premature pulling (i.e., butt behind the hands) attacks the lower back. Be careful.
Concept 2 Model E (PM4), $1,260; concept2.com
The best dry rower on the market. It's ergonomically sound (there are no handles to reach down for), and the pulley action is silky smooth—it moves when you do, with no catching or delayed pauses. The flywheel is a fan, so you're moving air, ultimately. The manufacturer claims the flywheel is engineered to be quiet, and it is—for a fan. Still, assuming your walls aren't paper-thin, the sound is a plus: the louder the whir, the harder you're working.
WaterRower A1 Home, $895; waterrower.com
Designed by U.S. National Team rower John Duke, this machine is made from blonde Appalachian hardwood and has a horizontal water tank for a flywheel (fill-up not included), providing pure on-the-water pulls that no fan can ever match. This water-pull system is making it the rower of choice in the fitness world. (Equinox is stocking its gyms with WaterRower's similar Indo-Row model.) Rightly proud of the craftsmanship, the company calls its rowers "fitness furniture." While we don't recommend keeping it in your living room, it is the sharpest scull machine on the market.