What to Expect at an Indoor Rowing Class

Row, Row, Row Your Fake Boat

Laura Williams

Indoor rowing classes have been popping up around the country as the latest alternative to group cycling. The concept is very similar - Jammin' tunes, an instructor-led routine, and a group of sweaty people all pushing themselves through a tough, but low-impact workout.

I'm no stranger to the rowing machine. I've been known to take my fake boat for a row at my local gym a time or two, but until recently, I never had the chance to try out an actual rowing class.

That is until Ro Fitness opened its doors in Austin, TX, and made their classes available to ClassPass members. Since I've been testing ClassPass this month, I figured it was the perfect time to take advantage of the opportunity and sign up for a class.

To be honest, I was worried about how hard it would be. Whenever I've used the rowing machine at the gym, just five to 10 minutes felt exhausting. To my surprise, the led 45-minute class was much more manageable than I expected.

Using the Machines

If you haven't used a rowing machine before, there is a definite learning curve. In fact, even if you're familiar with the machines, you might discover you've been using them wrong.

That was my experience.

The rowing motion can be separated into two parts: the drive and the recovery. The drive portion is the "harder" half of each rowing stroke. If you start with your knees bent, your arms extended as you grip the rower's handles, and the seat of the machine close to your feet, the drive takes place as you tighten your core, forcefully extend your knees as you lean your torso back slightly, and pull the handle in toward your body (all in that order).

My drive was correct.

What I was doing incorrectly was during the recovery phase. You're supposed to reverse the movement exactly, starting by extending your arms and allowing your torso to lean forward slightly before you re-bend your knees and allow the seat to slide back toward your feet. I was bending my knees before extending my arms - whoops!

The instructor quickly corrected my form, and I had to keep consciously thinking about the correct form throughout the class.

The Class Format

The class format was aligned closer to "old school" group cycling classes, with students paying attention to the computerized monitor to aim for specific wattage and strokes per minute, rather than rowing to the beat of the music with specific choreography.

For a newbie, it was nice to learn how to adjust strokes per minutes and wattage, and it also slowed me down some... which was a good thing. It required me to think more carefully about form and function, rather than going all-out and killing myself.

On the other hand, because I had to slow down to really think about things, I don't feel I got as good a workout as I during group cycling classes. I usually leave group cycling drenched in sweat and barely able to walk on wobbly, exhausted legs. With the rowing class, I never felt excessively tired or taxed. Depending on who you are, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

Steep Learning Curve

While I really liked the way the instructor set up the class - a good warm-up, a good cool down, and 8, 3 1/2-minute intervals making up the meat of the workout - it was a little tricky for a newbie to master the intervals. This is because the intervals were based on watts and speed. Watts basically refers to the power you bring to each stroke, while speed is based on how many strokes you perform in a minute.

Each interval was set up something like this:

  • 45 seconds, stroke at a speed of 22 strokes per minute, with watts at least 100
  • 15 seconds, stroke at a speed of 22 strokes per minute, with watts at least 130
  • 45 seconds, stroke at a speed of 24 strokes per minute, with watts at least 100
  • 15 seconds stroke at a speed of 24 strokes per minute, with watts at least 130
  • 30 seconds recovery (any speed, any watts)
  • 30 seconds, stroke at a speed of 26 strokes per minute, with watts at least 100
  • 30 seconds, stroke at a speed of 26 strokes per minute, with watts at least 130

Here's what's tricky for a newbie: The natural inclination when increasing the power of each stroke is to increase the speed of each stroke. That's exactly what we weren't supposed to do. So when stroking at 22 strokes per minute, the last 15 seconds we were supposed to increase the power of each stroke without speeding the stroke up.

I was terrible at this. In fact, I didn't even realize I was doing it wrong until the second half of class when the instructor walked around and monitored our computers. He corrected me, but fixing the issue was tough! It took a lot of mental engagement to maintain a specific speed while also increasing power. I'm sure with practice it would become easier, but there was a steep learning curve that I didn't expect.

Overall Impressions

While technically the class was an indoor rowing class, the location was at the boat docks in Austin, and the rowers were set up on the outside deck overlooking the river. It was beautiful! The scenery alone made the class worth it.

The workout was also enjoyable - the music was engaging, the instructor helpful and the class size small. And even though I never felt overly taxed during the class, I did end up getting sore.

Overall it was an excellent, low-impact, full-body cardiovascular workout that I would definitely do again.

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