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PhwOAR! How rowing got sexy

PhwOAR! How rowing got sexy

It seems so boring and joyless. How did rowing become the latest fitness phenomenon?

It seems so boring and joyless. How did rowing become the latest fitness phenomenon?

Rachel Lloyd | April 4th 2019

At my university, many sports teams trained at 7am to accommodate athletes whose lectures began at 9. As a member of the netball squad, I had to turn up at that ungodly hour on Fridays for fitness sessions. I would trudge through the facilities – sleepily cursing as I went – on my way to the track. Every week I would sneak a look inside the rowing outhouse at the 30 or so sweaty men moving wordlessly, and in perfect, robotic synchrony, on ergs. I wasn’t checking them out (honest) – I was looking for answers. Rowing seemed so boring, mindless and joyless; so Oxbridge, so Winklevoss: why would anyone voluntarily sign up for such miseries? 

But this dull sport has, somehow, emerged as the latest fitness phenomenon. CITYROW is opening 20 gyms across America this year and has plans for another 40. Boutique studios such as Current in New York, Btone in Boston, Iron and Oar in Chicago and LIT Method in Los Angeles, have opened in recent years. Rowing is catching on in Britain, too. The Engine Room, dedicated to group rowing classes, set up shop in 2018. Last year Frame, a franchise based in London, introduced a number of rowing options to their timetable; fitness fanatics can also get their fix at Core Collective, Gym Box and Metabolic. 

To woo sceptics like me, for whom rowing is synonymous with sheer tedium, these companies are rebranding the sport. Advertising campaigns depict toned millennials in luxe athleisure clothes staring intently into the distance or laughing while working out on the machines. Some classes, borrowing from SoulCycle, “row to the rhythm” of Top 40 songs; other gyms try to foster a sense of fraternity (at Iron and Oar, you “row as one”). Many emphasise rowing’s adrenaline-pumping, high-intensity properties: it’s a “heart racing, sweat dripping, full body workout”, Frame says. Others go further: rowing “will make you sexy as hell”, CITYROW insists. 

Still unconvinced – how sexy can rowing really be? – but nonetheless intrigued, I signed up for classes at CITYROW and Current while on a trip to New York. I was looking for something to switch up my usual routine of netball, boxing, barre, weights and circuits. Rowing is a highly effective way to train – it uses 85% of the body’s muscles across nine muscle groups – but it is also low-impact, which is easier on my dodgy knees than pounding a treadmill. The idea of an endorphin high that comes without creaky joints the next morning is an appealing one.

The classes encourage participants to row in sync, and there is a strange sense of kinship at both venues (at each one I am singled out by the instructor as a newbie and mortifiyingly applauded by the congregation). At Current – where the studio is strangely illuminated only by the flicker of candlelight – the class completes a series of moves in time with the instructor. We use modified “boats”, rather than normal rowing machines; I am tasked with keeping my legs straight, leaning backwards and forwards and moving my arms all at the same time – and quickly. At CITYROW, in a well-lit room with more familiar gadgetry, the instructor also dictates the stroke-per-minute (spm) rate. In four-minute blocks we accelerate from a “walk” (18 - 24 spm) to a “run” (24 - 28) to a “sprint” (28 - 32), before hitting the mats to do a weights circuit.

Both classes are oddly absorbing, even hypnotic, as everyone moves in time. People whoop and cheer often, egged on by the instructors, who say things like “we’ll get through this next track together” and “we must remember why we all came here today”. It feels like a more cheerful version of the “Rowing of the Galley Slaves” scene in “Ben-Hur” (above) – soundtracked by the sassy tunes of Cardi B – and I can see why someone craving a sense of community, or a shared experience, in a lonely city might find this pleasurable. 

The vibe is galvanising but I don’t leave the class feeling as if I have sweated for my supper. Back in London, I head to a class at Frame for its high-intensity offering. The rower is only one of three “stations” – along with barbells and body-weight exercises – designed to work muscles as much as possible; when I am not swinging heavy kettlebells around, I’m doing squats or rowing 150 metres as fast as possible. To finish, the instructor challenges us to row 800 metres in under three minutes. By the end of the class I am close to vomiting. For the next few days there is a dull ache in my shoulders and hamstrings.

Yet I end up going again and again. I enjoy the opportunity to measure my improvement; after a few classes, I’ve shaved nearly a minute off my 1km time while my strokes-per-minute rate, at a sprint, increases from 35 to 50+ (the calluses on my hand harden accordingly). And I discover that rowing stokes my competitiveness in a way that running – which is all about the personal best – doesn’t. All it took to turn this rowing sceptic into an acolyte, it seems, was a little neon lighting, some thumping music and the realisation that rowing was the perfect outlet for my competitive streak.  

For this article Current and CITYROW provided classes free of charge