Ever since I first heard that indoor rowing classes were a thing I’ve been wanting to try one out. My options have been limited by the fact that they tend to be confined to big cities and, to be honest, I’ve felt they were a bit of an extravagance since I get all the joy and pain of a squad erg session as part of my club subscription.
Anyway, on a recent trip to Toronto I started having rowing withdrawal symptoms, so when a shipmate told me about a rowing studio called Scullhouse, where they hold indoor rowing classes, I jumped at the chance. Founded by a Canadian national team rower, Kristin Jeffery, Scullhouse offers a selection of classes that range from the Classic (55 minutes combining interval training on the rowing machine and on the mat) to Row and Flow (25 minutes of rowing followed by a half hour yoga session).
My other half and I opted for the Classic (though I’m sure he’d have preferred the Box Row class which incorporates shadow boxing into the routine) and headed across town on the tram with high hopes. I was excited to discover that Kristin herself would be leading the class so I was sure it would be good.
The first signs were encouraging. The studio itself is in central Toronto and is a pretty sleek set-up. Each person is allocated a Concept2 and a mat, and we each had a set of resistance bands for our mat work.
Kristin led the class from her own machine at the front, somehow managing to give seamless instructions whilst working admirably hard herself.
We started with a warm up (resistance set at 4 – tick!) in which Kristin went through the basics of the rowing stroke, with a strong emphasis on technique. This was followed by some mat work, focusing on glute activation (boy, did I feel that for the next few days), before moving into a longer session increasing the pressure and rate. After more mat work there was a pyramid where we alternated pressure pieces with lighter sets. Then there was more mat work (really starting to hurt by this point) and we finished with two fast and furious two minute sets rating about 30.
The cool down focused once again on technique and the rowers among you will be delighted to know we all had to wipe down our machines and return the handles to their proper position.
By the end of the class my lungs were burning and my muscles were screaming – all in all, highly satisfying. My other half (a non-rower) was equally pleased with the class and said he’d go again.
Kristin told me that she had plans to use more sophisticated tech to incorporate individual data into the classes. She hopes, for example, to issue every participant with a heart rate monitor that will connect with a display at the front, which sounds great and very much in line with the trend seen in other types of group class such as spin.
I came away full of ideas about how to translate the class to our club – could we, I wondered, put on something similar? As I mulled it over I decided I really needed to try another class in a different studio to see how it’s done elsewhere. I’d been following the Engine Room in London on social media for a while so during a visit last week, I signed up for a class there.
Although the coaches at Engine Room aren’t rowers, head coach Chris Heron was trained by World Champ Mat Tarrant, so I felt fairly confident I’d get something that was rower-friendly. I chose the full body class (in for a penny, in for a pound, right?)
The vibe at Engine Room is rather different from Scullhouse. Housed in a converted grade II listed church near Regent’s Park, it’s at the far end of cool. All stained glass and old school chic in the entrance, the atmosphere changes when you get into the studio itself, which has a proper night club feel – neon lights, pounding music and the latest in tech. There’s even a shake bar where you can pre-order your post-workout shake (virtually obligatory after classes in London, I’m told…)
The ergs are Technogym SKILLROW rowers, which I’d tried at my gym and not loved, if I’m honest, but I was willing to give them a second chance. Each participant was allocated a numbered machine with a mat, a set of weights and towel. We were clearly expected to sweat.
And sweat we did. The class used technology to keep us working hard. A screen at the front displayed our stats (variously, watts, split and stroke rate) so we could track our performance and pit ourselves against each other, which obviously appealed to someone as competitive as me. I soon discovered I couldn’t keep up with the super-fit (and much taller) woman on machine number 8, but I was determined to beat the other women (and some of the men).
The format of the class was fairly similar to Scullhouse – increasingly strenuous bursts on the rowing machine interspersed with mat work (using dumb bells instead of resistance bands plus lots of burpees, planks, press ups and so on).
The grand finale was a two minute race in pairs, with each team depicted on the screen with brilliant 3D graphics portraying us as boats in lanes as though we were in the Olympics. The deal was the person in front had to set the stroke rate, and my partner went for a blistering 41, eventually “settling” at 38, so I struggled to achieve anything more than half a stroke, but we managed to come second out of four, so perhaps there was method in her madness.
If I’m being picky, I did find it hard at times to hear the instructions over the music and wasn’t so keen on increasing the resistance, as we were told to do during one section of the class, but our instructor, Danni, was brilliant. She was full of energy and enthusiasm and had a real ability to push us to our limits. Instead of leading the class on a rowing machine herself, she roamed the floor, keeping an eye on our technique (she quickly identified my tendency to lean too far back) and urging us on if we faltered.
I came out with a smile on my face, sweat EV-ery-where and feeling distinctly lightheaded, a state soon remedied by the Overboard shake (delish).
The fabulously-equipped changing room and showers also deserve special mention. They’d thought of everything, providing towels and all the toiletries you could wish for and the showers were far nicer than the one I have at home.
So… would I recommend an indoor rowing class? If it’s fitness you’re after then absolutely, yes. You get a lung-searing, full-body workout that gives you plenty of sweat for your buck. I spoke to one of the people in my Engine Room class who told me that attending regularly had done wonders for her all round fitness, significantly improving her running performance, weight lifting and endurance. They are fantastic for motivation, and if you find the erg a chore you might love the way they mix rowing with circuits-style exercises (I did).
If you’re already a member of a rowing club that lays on squad sessions, though, you’d probably find them an expense too far. They’re not cheap, especially if you only go occasionally, and you’ll almost certainly be getting some form of interval training on the ergo at your club.
Scullhouse charges $26 (about £15 at current exchange rates) for a single class (with an introductory offer of three classes for $50 (£29). The more you go, the less you pay per class and you can buy an unlimited monthly membership of $240 (£138).
Engine Room charges £21 for a one-off class (with a special deal for your first time), going down to £11 per class if you go 12 times per month as part of a membership package (with lots of options in between). A large shake costs £5.50 (with an introductory offer of £5).
To put this into context, a one-off spin class at SoulCycle costs £24 (your first class is £16), going down to £20 if you book 20 classes. Barry’s Bootcamp classes are £23 for one class, going down to £17 if you book 50, and their famous shakes are £5. In other words, the cost of indoor rowing classes is fairly standard for London, but still a bit eye-watering if you’ve already got access to an erg.
Although I can’t say I’ll make it a regular event, I’ll definitely be inclined to splash out on a class whenever I’m in a big city and can’t row.
I’d love to hear about other indoor rowing classes you’ve tried – I’m aware there are rowing studios popping up all over the place, so let me know your experiences and recommendations.