At the gym, a rowing revival

The dusty old rowing machine finds a new class of devotees

Courtney Rubin / New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 12, 2013 at 05:00AM

Like many group fitness workouts, at first this one sounds like a ridiculous idea: Take what is by far the least popular cardio machine in the gym — one that involves sitting down, endlessly sliding back and forth — and devote an entire class to it.

Yes, the dusty old rowing machine has been plucked from the far corner, emerging in group workouts and boutique studios across the nation, and drawing a crowd of fierce loyalists, many of whom never have and never will pick up an oar.

Ericka Sullivan, a fan of barre-method toning classes, resisted her advertising-executive husband’s pitch for a year that they try a class at the 18-month-old GoRow Training Studio in Hoboken, N.J.

“There’s just nothing enticing about being bored, and rowing sounded kind of boring,” said Sullivan, 35, who gave in as bathing-suit season neared. “But the intervals go by so fast.” Her fears of “huge rower shoulders” also haven’t materialized: “I’m longer and leaner,” she said.

At the fast-growing Greenville Indoor Rowing in Greenville, S.C., run by Lowell Caylor, 72, a former Cleveland Browns defensive back, a membership of mostly women older than 45 has embraced rowing. They have logged 137 million meters (that’s around the globe about 31⁄2 times), topping the rankings among health clubs for the rowing-machine maker Concept 2 for the fourth year in a row, Caylor said. “All these people come in who don’t think they have an athletic, competitive bone in their body really do,” said Caylor, who makes mimosas for each million-meter milestone.

His “crew,” as he calls his clients, includes former runners who’ve destroyed ankles and knees and like that rowing is hard-core but non-weight-bearing. Because it uses nearly every muscle group, rowing at 5 mph offers the same calorie burn as running at 6.7 mph, said Michele Olson, 52, an Auburn University professor of exercise science. Yes, she said, it burns more calories than spinning.

Still, rowing on the erg, as the machine is called, can be a hard sell. Music doesn’t help or distract much, because it’s impossible to row to the beat. And, unlike with other cardio machines, the rower isn’t intuitive. Proper technique has to be taught, but many trainers don’t know it.

Charles Anderson, 30, a former Georgia Tech rower who opened Rowbot Fitness in suburban Atlanta in 2012, plays Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” to jokingly remind clients of form.

“Most people think of rowing as an arms exercise, and they think of it as pulling,” he said. “But it’s primarily a pushing workout. You’re pushing with your legs.”

Why the surge in popularity? Thank CrossFit — and nearly everybody selling indoor rowing does. That craze’s high-intensity strength and conditioning workouts sometimes require ergs, and CrossFit offers rowing certification for instructors. Some CrossFit boxes, as the gyms are called, offer temporary homes for group indoor rowing startups as they already have the machines and the space. Indoorance, a tiny row-centric studio, holds a weekly class at Reebok CrossFit in Midtown Manhattan.

Indoor rowers also appear on “The Biggest Loser,” though the competitors’ form makes some crew coaches cringe.

Terry Smythe, 56, a longtime rower who travels the country certifying group indoor rowing instructors, said her business has more than doubled in the past three years.

Shockwave and Indo-Row, workouts created in part by the former world champion rower Josh Crosby, 39, have spread to some 200 fitness centers, including at the Mayo Clinic, Harvard and the Equinox chain. And on a steamy recent Tuesday at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan, Michael Ives, 55, a former Yale rower (toting the gold medal he and his team had recently won at the Henley Masters Regatta in England) had to turn away some 10 hopefuls from one of his evening classes.

“I don’t think it’s a case of misery loves company,” Ives said. “It feels good, and it sounds good,” he added, referring to the rhythmic, almost meditative, whooshing of all of the ergs moving in unison. His class — pioneered by his younger brother Chris, widely credited with being the first to offer indoor group rowing, in 1995 — is a polished version of what crew teams might do off-season. There is no music, only the sound of Ives’ preternaturally calm voice offering pacing instructions.

There’s also a wave of new rowing workouts hitting New York. Brooklyn Crew, the city’s first dedicated indoor-rowing studio, had its debut in Williamsburg in April, with 45-minute classes taught by former crew coaches. The Upper East Side fitness playground Exceed began a 50-minute Just Row class this summer in its East Hampton, N.Y., outpost and will add two rowing classes to its Manhattan roster this month.

And in June, using a temporary space in Chelsea, two finance guys (and CrossFitters) who call themselves Throwback Fitness, began offering competitive, nostalgia-inspired classes to a younger-than-35 crowd. One row-centric workout was modeled on the flip-cup drinking game, but instead of chugging beer, slowpokes did extra 100-meter sprints. (Fun, eh?) Brian Gallagher, 33, one of Throwback’s founders, said: “A lot of people can get intimidated by CrossFit. It can be tough to master. So we’re trying to go back to basics.”

More competitors in New York’s indoor regatta are on their way. CityRow, whose three workouts will alternate rowing intervals with body sculpturing, yoga or Pilates, will open near Union Square in October. And GoRow’s owner, Garrett Roberts, 38, a former college crew coach who’s on instant-nickname terms with clients, said that he is looking to open a branch of that studio on the West Side of Manhattan.

Juliana Garofalo, 28, an English teacher, is hooked on Brooklyn Crew after losing 10 pounds in a month of four-times-a-week classes.

“For years, I couldn’t find the right thing that I could do consistently that was going to give me the results I wanted,” said Garofalo, who had tried spinning, yoga and Jillian Michaels DVDs.

Her recent (lack of) exercise history includes joining a gym two blocks from her home that she went to once in eight months, so she feared the six blocks to Brooklyn Crew “would be pushing it.”

On a Sunday in July, she left a wedding weekend in North Carolina at 6 a.m. to drive back to Williamsburg for a 5:30 p.m. class she was determined to make.