Why Rowing is the Latest, Greatest Trend in Studio Fitness—And What Beginners Need to Know About This Total-Body Workout

Be honest with yourself: the last time you walked into your local big-box gym, did you waltz right past the rower without even clocking its location?

Hey, no judgment here—for years, we’ve been trained to believe that the elliptical, the treadmill, and the stationary bike are the kings of the cardio wing, with the stair-master making a recent push as well. But spend just a couple of minutes learning about the benefits of rowing, and it’s easy to see why rowing-based studios like Row House are popping up all over the country.

rowing best workout
courtesy of Row House

Why rowing might just be the best total-body workout you can do

Caley Crawford, Director of Education and Programming at Row House, tells me that rowing works 85 percent of your muscles “so more is done in less time,” making it one of the most efficient workouts out there.

Like the stationary bike, rowing is low-impact, meaning there’s less stress on your body so you’re able to recover faster and get right to the next day’s workout without skipping a beat. Unlike biking, however, rowing lets you achieve triple extension, explains Crawford.

Your ankles, knees, and hips are fully extended, so it’s more of a full range of motion movement than a bike,” since your hips never go into full extension. Plus, she points out, while you can ramp up the resistance on a bike, it’s not exactly equivalent to a Concept 2 rower, which lets you create wind resistance to each stroke (similar to an assault bike) so that the more effort you give, the higher resistance you encounter from the machine. In a nutshell,  rowing is totally effort-based: it’s as hard as you want to make it.

Compared to the treadmill, rowing is non-weight bearing, and, argues Crawford, “I would go out on a limb to say that rowing can actually end up being a better conditioning workout for your body, because it works about 85 percent of your muscles—so the way your body has to oxygenate to maintain that is very different than for running or cycling,” which are more lower-body focused. (Rowing, in comparison, is about 60 percent leg effort, 30 percent core, and 10 percent upper body.)

Why rowing is taking off around the country right now

When asked why rowing is consistently getting named one of the trendiest workouts, Crawford points towards the history of group fitness and workout trends that have naturally led to rowing growing in popularity. Cycling and spinning had their big coming-out party in the early 2000s; CrossFit demystified the barbell for athletes of all abilities; and now, studios are centering around bootcamp and high intensity interval training that combine cardio and strength movements into one ass-kicking workout.

But now, Crawford explains, “you’re finding a lot of those people whose bodies cannot handle the impact any more. Your central nervous system takes too long to recover from that heavy lifting mixed with box jumps, burpees, and running every day.”

At the advice of their doctors and physical therapists, then, people are graduating to rowing.

“You can get the same feeling of entering that ‘pain cave,’ but recovery time is faster and your joints and body still feel better,” Crawford shares.

“At the end of the day, we do fitness to feel better, look better, live longer, have more time playing with our kids, being able to just enjoy life a little bit more—if you’re constantly getting injured because of the workouts you’re doing, eventually it comes to a point like ‘why am i doing this?'”

Crawford also attributes Row House’s popularity to their focus on inclusivity for athletes of all ages, sizes, and abilities. In fact, inclusivity is one of Row House’s core values.

We really do work as a team. Yes, it’s still very metrics heavy, but people feel at home and successful in the workout. That’s a big focus in our experience: giving a home to people who don’t feel comfortable going to any other gym or even moving their body in front of 25 other people.”

How Row House emphasizes the team mentality in their classes

At its core, Row House is loyal to the sport of rowing, and the studio owners and trainers are dedicated to making sure their clients get an authentic rowing experience with every class, pulling all of the best aspects of the sport and making it accessible to people who aren’t actually going to get out on the water with their crew.

“Rowing isn’t a sport that has an All-Star player,” explains Crawford. “You have to have eight people who work entirely in sync with each other and who balance each other. Different seats in the boat have different purposes, and when a team races, there’s no way to tell who’s the driving factor of winning that race.”

The unique we’re-all-in-this-together mentality is a priority at Row House. To that end, classes involve a team element and intervals where the class rows in sync as they work towards a common goal (either a certain pace or a cumulative distance). Individual metrics are set to the side as the team rows towards the group metrics, fueling off the energy of the people on either side of them.

“We can coach to the individual to drop their split time, but we can also coach to the team,” says Crawford. “There’s a lot of cool programming things we can do where everyone has to pull together to make it happen.”

Ready to row hard? Here’s what you need to know about your first rowing workout.

Unlike running and cycling, which are intuitive movements most of us have been practicing all our lives, rowing is a little bit trickier to master right off the bat—hence, the importance of having a trained rowing coach teach you proper form and technique when you’re just starting out.

“It is a little bit of a funky movement!” laughs Crawford. “A lot of people have rowed before, but they’ve rowed incorrectly—even people who come to us from the fitness industry.”

To that end, Row House offers a Launch class, which spends the first 15 minutes of class on stroke work and the last 30 minutes on a typical Row House class experience with drills, intervals, and the works.

We value form so, so, so much,” stressed Crawford. “It’s something we’re very proud of, making sure our members really learn how to row well. It keeps them safe, and it gives them more benefits so they get more out of the workout.”

Before you walk in the studio, Crawford wants you to know three things about your first rowing workout:

Rowing is 60 percent legs, 30 percent core, and 10 percent arms

A lot of people come into rowing thinking it’s upper body only—don’t make that mistake, advises Crawford.

Rowing is effort-based

If you walk out of a rowing class feeling like it was way too easy, that’s on you—not the workout.

“The harder you drive with your legs, the more intense the workout is going to be—the machine gives you what you put into it,” explains Crawford. If the workout felt too easy, you might not have figured out how to generate enough intensity and drive with your legs. Ask your coach for specific technique pointers before your next class.

The four rowing terms you’ll hear in every class

Knowing these four common rowing terms will have you at the head of the boat (er, class) when you walk in the door.

1. Catch: This is the front part of the stroke with your knees in to your chest, all the way up towards the wheel. You’re bracing your core to drive quickly back in the next motion.

2. Drive: AKA the most explosive part of the stroke. “The drive directly affects the intensity and the resistance that you feel,” says Crawford.

3. Finish: The back part of the stroke. “We’re making sure that our core is super active, reaching out body back and that handlebar is coming all the way to our body, with legs engaged and straight.”

4. Recovery: Surprisingly, this is one of the most important parts of the stroke—and the part that’s most often done wrong. Crawford coaches one count for the drive back and two to three counts for the recovery forward. “Believe it or not, that will make your boat go farther and faster.”

Inspired to get on that machine? There are a few spots left for our 6am workout at the brand new Row House Old Town on March 6—grab your tickets here! Or, take on this rowing workout from Jeana Anderson Cohen in your own gym (and make sure you read this step-by-step breakdown of rowing stroke first).

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About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.