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Here's why rowing is about to take over your workout routine

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Lauren Clark
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Stylist contributor, Lauren Clark, on how the not-so-humble rowing machine is about to shake up your workout routine…

As I filed alongside the lycra-clad regulars in an artfully dimmed studio, clutching litres of water and fashioning hair into messy buns, I felt like I was in line for any other trendy spin class. Yet, instead of mounting bikes, we strapped our feet into rowing machines.

That’s because what was once an unloved piece of gym equipment has been given a reboot, and rowing has fast become the coolest way to workout. Core Collective - where we are about to push our bodies on the machine before squatting weights on the floor - was the first to introduce the concept to the UK. Fellow London studios Metabolic, Frame and Grow Fitness soon cottoned on and now Virgin Active, Gymbox and F45 are set to take it mainstream.

And for good reason. “Rowing is one of the best exercises you can do,” says trainer Carl van Heerden, who created Core Collective’s Lift + Row class. Around 85% of the muscles in your body contract with each stroke on the machine, including the quads, hamstrings and triceps. 

But it is the magic it performs on your core and glutes (AKA abs and bum) that’ll have you sold. “You crunch and relax your core as you glide, meaning you’re effectively doing a constant mini sit-up - with extra resistance thanks to the handlebar,” Carl explains. “Plus, the motion as you shoot the seat back blitzes your lower body.” 

It also boosts aerobic fitness and steadily raises your heart rate so that your metabolism is elevated for hours after cool down. “You would really need to dial up the resistance in spinning to experience the same fat-burning benefits,” Carl adds. Indeed, he’s seen the popularity of rowing soar to rival their spin sessions, with 30-person classes booked up two weeks in advance. Surveying the lean, toned bodies around me, it’s obvious why.

The unstoppable ascent of rowing began in New York just over four years ago. “I wanted to make it chic, sexy and cool,” reveals Helaine Knapp, whose studio City Row is set to expand across the US and to London. After suffering a herniated disc aged 26, she realised the demand for a low-impact workout that makes you sweat but doesn’t risk injury. “The rower leaves you looking incredible today but is still kind to your body so that you can exercise well into your 80s,” she explains.

Not that there’s any slacking off. “You have nowhere to hide - the numbers on the screen don’t lie,” warns Vicky Thornley, a budding model turned pro GB rower who uses the rowing machine to prepare for the water. “Plus, putting in the miles builds serious mental toughness.”

I have to agree, as I exit class drenched in sweat but with an unexpected sense of achievement for the virtual distances I’ve gone. However, it’s when I wake the next day with a satisfying ache in muscles I didn’t know existed that I truly believe I may hang up my spin shoes for good… 

Dos and don’ts on the rowing machine

Do keep your back straight. “Allowing it to curve as you slide forwards could risk injury,” warns Carl.

Don’t ramp up the resistance to ten. “It’s too much pressure on your back,” explains Vicky. “Each stroke should feel like you’ve got resistance, but not as though you’re lifting a heavy weight.” Most women find a level four, five or six about right.

Do keep your core engaged at all times. “You’ll sculpt abs most effectively,” advises Carl.

Don’t slide up and down as quickly as possible. Vicky explains: “The aim is to drive as powerfully as possible through your legs to the back of machine, and then allow yourself time to briefly recover as you glide forwards.”

Sculpt your body with every stroke in these five classes around the UK

Go Row Indoor at British Rowing

If you’re after a sociable workout, try these fun, all-ability classes which combine row time with tough circuits.

Locations nationwide, britishrowing.org

RO at Virgin Active 

This 30-minute workout intersperses super-fast rowing intervals with weight training and can be slotted into your lunch break.

Currently available in Moorgate and Chiswick locations, virginactive.co.uk

RowingWOD at Gymbox

The hip chain has created a 45-minute class that slows things down and teaches you how to pace yourself - promising both mental and physical benefits.

Various locations around London, gymbox.com

Lift + Row at Core Collective

Depending on the day, you’ll either do a long, steady stint or short, sharp sprints on the rower, before hitting the floor for weight training, during this pioneering 55-minute workout.

West London, core-collective.co.uk

F45

The Aussie fitness studio franchise incorporates the rowing machine into many of its 45-minute HIIT sessions. Perfect for easing in to the trend.

Locations nationwide, f45training.com

Images: Getty / Instagram