Pulling power: Why rowing is the new spinning

·5-min read
 (Hydrow)
(Hydrow)

It’s week three of the great September fitness reset but instead of sweating through a spin class, my lunchbreak workout takes me to the calm, tree-lined waters of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. After more than a year without leaving the country, 15 minutes on Hydrow’s smart rowing machine feels like a fitness class and escapism in one (admittedly, my tanned, 6ft-something instructor, Nick Karwoski, improves the view a little). It’s all surprisingly effective for a sweat session that sees me showered and back at my desk within half an hour.

I’m lucky enough to be one of the first to try the latest addition to the new wave of at-home fitness status symbols: Hydrow’s £2,300 hi-tech indoor rowing machine, offering more than 2,000 live and on-demand “outdoor reality” workouts for £38 a month. The connected rowing startup launched in the US in 2017 and washed up on British shores this summer, with members of the US national rowing team among the crew of elite instructors and a sleek, futuristic-looking machine that’s much quieter than the traditional Concept2 rowing machines you’ll find in most gyms.

Think of it as Peloton for rowing, with an equally starry set of disciples: Emmy-nominated actor Kevin Hart is the company’s creative director; Lizzo and Justin Timberlake are recent investors; and Ellie Goulding and her husband Caspar Jopling (who rowed at Harvard) are among those to join Hydrow’s cross-pond UK crew so far.

Hydrow might be lengths ahead of its competitors in terms of A-list pulling power, but the capital’s top fitterati are quickly getting on board. As Londoners swoop back into neighbourhood gyms and subterranean fitness studios for an autumn reboot, the rower is quickly becoming the hottest piece of fit-kit. ONE LDN’s popular Strength and Sweat class combines five minutes on the rower with five minutes of drills; Metabolic London mixes cardio sessions on the rowing machine with strength and conditioning exercises as part of its new outdoor timetable; and Gareth Bale’s mindful rowing gym Rowbots has just opened its shiny new City outpost near Liverpool Street. The boutique studio features state-of-the-art rowing machines alongside floor space for drill exercises, and former Team GB Olympians are among the coaching squad.

Gareth Bale’s mindful rowing gym Rowbots has just opened its shiny new City outpost near Liverpool Street (Rowbots)
Gareth Bale’s mindful rowing gym Rowbots has just opened its shiny new City outpost near Liverpool Street (Rowbots)

So why the sudden decks appeal? It’s an exercise that hits every muscle group, says Angelo Ramsbott, managing director for global development at Echelon, another next-generation rower bringing the on water experience to the at-home fitness market. Like Hydrow, Echelon tracks your performance against other users to make you feel like you’re in the Boat Race, while Apple’s new at-home workout platform Fitness+ features rowing classes and tutorials coached by world experts. Each comes with a short, Netflix-style trailer and you can string workouts together without a warm-down if you’ve got energy left in the tank for a final sprint.

Not that you need long in the hot-seat to earn your lunch. A quarter of an hour might not sound like long for a sweat session, but if you’ve ever attempted the rower in the gym, you’ll know that’s plenty. The rowing machine is one of the hardest pieces of fitness kit, promising to work 86 per cent of your muscles (legs, back, arms, core) - nearly double that for cycling and running. If you don’t believe the experts, believe the stats on the screen in front of you: you can burn up more than 600 calories in a 30-minute session and up to three times more calories than spinning.

Oarsome: Hydrow’s £2,300 indoor rowing machine offers “outdoor reality” workouts and help from expert instructors (Hydrow)
Oarsome: Hydrow’s £2,300 indoor rowing machine offers “outdoor reality” workouts and help from expert instructors (Hydrow)

It’s also low-impact, so better on your body than pounding the pavements, and a strength workout as well as cardio. If don’t fancy quite such an endorphin-rush, Hydrow also offers everything from meditative, restorative rows to workouts that get you off the machine and onto a mat for stretching and strength training.

There’s also an escapist element. The company might be based in the US (founder Bruce Smith is a former USA Rowing national team coach) but the machine can take you to waterways across the world. Thanks to a patented algorithm-based, electromagnetic and computer-controlled drag mechanism, Hydrow recreates the feeling of rowing directly on the water - and thanks to a 22” HD screen it’ll look like it too. Select your location from the 2,000+ workout library and you can row past flocks of geese in Boston, dolphins in Miami and cargo tankers in San Francisco Bay.

There’s an escapism element, too - row past flocks of geese in Boston or dolphins in Miami (Hydrow)
There’s an escapism element, too - row past flocks of geese in Boston or dolphins in Miami (Hydrow)

If you fancy something closer to home, try one of dozens of workouts filmed around the UK, from a sunrise paddle past the London Eye to sprints down the rowing straight in Henley-on-Thames - the ultimate way to combat your SAD as the mornings and evenings draw in.

Of course, there’s the competitive element of being on the water too. Thanks to Hydrow’s leaderboard, you can compete in real-time with other users across the world, from Lenny558 in Colorado to other Londoners new to the Hydrow family. If you need an extra dose of motivation, every row counts towards a donation to Water.org, and you join Hydrow’s classes on a normal rower in the gym if you don’t have your own. An oar-some excuse to get back in the studio - join the boat club.

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