Indoor rowing is the new fitness trend that promises high cardio, low impact and a full body burn. Is it as effective as promised?
When I decided to go for a class at Row Revolution, Singapore’s first studio dedicated solely to rowing, I was more than a little apprehensive. A quick Google told me that indoor rowing was the up and coming fitness trend overseas, with similarities to spinning. This didn’t particularly inspire confidence in me, given that I’m not a big spin fan. Would this be an hour of pain?
When it comes to workouts that involve machines, I confess to be a bit of a newbie (I prefer exercises such as aerial, barre, swimming and running). The rowing machine is so foreign to me that honestly, if you asked me to identify it at a gym, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But clearly, Singapore is catching on. Other than Row Revolution, CrossFit Mobilus offers rowing classes (MobRow), while other gyms such as Orangetheory Fitness, Virgin Active and Fitness First incorporates rowing in some of their group classes.
Before the class began, I chatted with founder David Han, who shared that he started Row Revolution because it was a highly efficient and effective workout that was still largely underrated in Singapore. He quickly reassured me that the machines aren’t as intimidating as they look – which I would soon see for myself.
So what’s the deal, really?
To break down the class: you start off with a crash course on technique. Unsurprisingly, you can’t just sit in the machine, move your arms back and forth and expect results. David gave specific instructions on form, from how to hold the handles (no death grips – curl your fingers loosely around the handles) to the incline of your torso (sit up straight, and engage those abs). After a few practice rows and warm-ups, we were good to go.
We attended the signature Dynamic class, which was broken down to several components: a warm-up, a 20-minute rowing session, a 10-minute core workout which consisted of flutter kicks and plank variations, another 10-minute rowing session and a cool-down.
As a newcomer to the rowing game, I found the 20-minute session the most strenuous, with David setting the speed according to the tempo of the songs (ours was a rock-themed playlist). David’s comment about rowing being meditative? There is some truth to it. The repetition of moves is oddly comforting – once you get in the rhythm, your body starts to learn what to do. That said, 20 minutes of this was hard work.
(Also read: Hold These 6 Static Moves For Full-Body Strength)
The last 10 minutes was the most fun – the screen in front of the studio that held our individual stats was wiped to depict a cute illustration of the Singapore river, with a little boat (i.e. us). The task: we had to row together to collectively hit 6,000m (this figure depends on how many people are in the class). No slacking off, because you’ll only be prolonging the pain. And no one wants that.
Is it just my upper body that’s feeling the burn?
I expected my arms to ache the most – but it turns out that’s a common misconception. Rowing is a full-body workout that engages mainly the legs (quads and hamstrings), back, and abs as a stabiliser. The muscle engagement may differ depending on your goals. For high intensity and speed, you’ll activate more of your arms, but if you’re looking for an endurance session, the most efficient technique is to minimise the use of your arms and let your legs do the bulk of the work.
And why the 10-minute focus on core? Because that’s where your power gets transmitted. “The power is generated from the legs, but if your torso is soft and not engaged, that power does not get transmitted to the arms,” David says. Rowing technique aside, he adds that it’s also important to strengthen the core as it is a crucial muscle group for performing daily activities. “If you don’t use your core, you run the risk of backaches – because your back is working instead of the core.”
(Also read: 8 Full-Body Exercises You Can Do in High Plank Pose)
Rowing versus spinning
I get the comparisons to spin: both workouts take place in a dark room lined with machines, with pulsating music. They’re both low-impact and high-cardio, and you move in sync with your classmates and the beat.
In true commitment to the cause, I did a spin class the same week as my rowing class, to suss out the difference for myself. Given that I’m a relative beginner to both, I honestly felt that my core and back worked a little harder in rowing. That said, there’s more variation in spin. Whether you find the act of rowing monotonous or otherwise depends on personal preference: some find it meditative (I did), while others may want permutations to what they can do on the machine.
(Also read: The Best Cross-Training Exercises For Runners)
Is rowing worth the hype?
So I can totally see why indoor rowing is growing in the fitness scene. It’s practically zero-impact, given that you’re always seated, but at the same time it’s intense on the cardio. My heart rate and adrenaline was up, and my body was humming with endorphins post-class. And if you want to build strength, rowing is great for that as well.
David points out that the cardio aspect was a big reason why he set up Row Revolution. “Many people see cardio as a chore, or something to do to lose weight. They aim to do 30 minutes, and that’s it. Not everyone measures details like power output,” he explains. At Row Revolution, you’re sent an email after class on your performance data such as distance, average pace, average power, and total calories burned. This way, you can track your stats after each session and chart your improvement. It’s one way, David believes, to make cardio less boring.
There’s something to be said about feeling competitive, even if it’s just between you and the machine. What I liked: the satisfying wobble of my legs after I stumbled off the machine, the sweat pouring down my back, and the adrenaline high from the knowledge that I worked out, and I worked out good. So much for feeling intimidated.
Row Revolution is located at 9A Trengganu Street. Visit https://rowrevolution.sg/.
(Also read: Top Fitness Trends of 2019)