Fitness

How to get the most out of the rowing machine

The rowing machine is the most maligned piece of equipment in the gym. Rowbots is the latest boutique fitness gym that wants to show that, done properly, it can play a crucial role in a healthy workout

If you’ve ventured into the world of boutique fitness in the last few years, you have probably come across classes where you’re half on equipment and half on the floor. This could be the treadmills at Barry’s or the boxing bags at Flykick and, luckily, cleated shoes mean nobody in the world of spin has tried to make us do pilates after a high-resistance standing climb. But now we’re seeing a rise in classes that combine the rowing machine with a floor-and-weights HIIT session. The Engine Room, which opened in Fitzrovia at the turn of the year, also combines weights and a rowing machine into a full-body workout. Now there’s also Rowbots on London's Great Titchfield Street, the latest institution to argue they’ve found the perfect balance of everything you need in a workout.

Perhaps rowing-related classes seem so peculiar because rowing machines are such vast things to work around (they are, actually, very easy to work into a class like this.) Perhaps it’s because, as CEO Sam Green said, rowing machines are “the most unpopular machine in a traditional gym”. Maybe it’s because rowing, by its very nature, feels like it’s not something we all learned how to do: in a way it feels like people who row are the sort of people who had the option to row from birth and all of us who didn’t go to schools with rowing teams and regattas are destined to see it as a mark of class division forever more. All of these things could be the case, but Rowbots – like those who came before – have an important message for you to consider: the rowing machine might be the most vital piece of gym equipment you’ve never used.

“It's the most effective machine for a full-body workout,” said Green. “Eighty-five per cent of muscles are worked – equally, it's the least impactful on the body.” Hendrick Famutimi, Rowbots’ head trainer, agrees.

“If you row for three minutes you'll feel it more than running for three months,” he explained. But the classes prove, as soon as you move to the floor after the rowing machine, that rowing – when done properly – is draining. “People like to avoid what is hard and do what is easy,” explained Famutimi.

At the start of every Rowbots class – as is common when you’re doing a class based around a piece of equipment – first-timers are given a few minutes to get acquainted with proper form and how to fit the machine into the workout. The thing I realised most going in was how, even as a person who doesn’t mind a rowing machine, my form was absolutely garbage.

“The first thing I notice is the flow of the rowing is lacking coordination. You have to push through your legs and then pull the upper body using the momentum from the leg drive,” explained Hendrick. “You then reach forward, not bending the knees yet, reach forward towards the rowing machine and then bend the knees. So it's legs-arms, arms-legs.”

Throughout the class you’ll still get checks on your form – it’s easy to let it slip when you start racing against your fellow classmates – and much of this is designed to be useful outside of class as well. Thanks to the attention you get due to small class sizes, “You're really sharpening up people's technique,” explained Famutimi. “So when they go to the outside gym or training outside, they have that confidence.”

If you're also interested in getting in touch with your gym's dusty old rowing machine, or, perhaps, getting onto one of Rowbots' fancy water rowers, we asked Rowbots to give us a few tips on how to get the most out of the machine when working out.

How to get the best use out of your gym’s rowing machine

Tip one: Use the machine for what it’s been designed for. Don’t try to be “inventive” and use the rowing machine to do biceps curls – you’ve got dumbbells for that! Use it for what’s it been designed for: rowing.

Tip two: Slow it down. Focus on long, smooth strokes and on power per stroke rather than simply taking as many strokes as possible. This not only allows you to get more strength benefit for the rowing machine (as well as cardio), but also gives you time to think about your technique. Aim for 2:1 or even 3:1 ratio between the recovery phase and the drive phase.

Tip three: Don’t neglect the hip movement. Most people know that the power in rowing is generated with the legs rather than the arms but miss that up to 40 per cent of the power is generated by a dynamic swing of the hips (think ten to two on a clock) towards the end of the leg drive. Swing those hips!

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