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Is Rowing the Next Big Fitness Craze?

Comparing and contrasting New York City's biggest rowing studios as they prepare to open new locations.

Remember a time when spinning was a newfangled workout only your boss could afford? It’s happening again, but the seat has moved down to the ground and those handlebars, well, they keep moving. Welcome to the fast resurgence of rowing, a workout that delivers serious results while remaining surprisingly low-impact.

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With New York City's top two studios flinging open doors to second and third locations on the heels of their early successes, rowing's potential future is massive, making it much more than that machine on the outskirts of Crunch's cardio floor. What's garnering these studios such large crowds is their approach, goal-oriented workouts and calorie-burning results — but first-timers will be surprised to find out the two classes couldn't be more different.


Row House's machines sit in lines in a space on par with what you'd expect from a cool spinning class: dark room, underlit machines, the kind of lighting you don't have to feel self-conscious within. Here, the rowing class is just that — rowing. Fast, steady, and often to the beat of the music, the floor work clocks is minimal, making it a stroke-heavy practice (in my 45-minute class, nearly 35 minutes of it was straight rowing). They say doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, and that's what class felt like near the end. But if you've ever ran more than four miles without being emotionally drained, consider this your dream off-season workout.

The cult following is there — Row House first set up shop in Columbus Circle, and expanded to both Yorkville and Chelsea in the past ten months — so they're on to something, especially in a city where we're reaching peak studio. The focus in their dark, driven classes is less on cardio burn or toning or even individual performance, but more on pulling into the catch as a team, making it feel less boutique-y and more athletic in a good way. If your Classpass habits fall flat of the joy you felt while training for high school track or university crew, this is your sweet spot. But if you're a gym junkie who is looking to be distracted on your way towards a toned body, it's a hard pass.


Over on the other side of town, in what a realtor would describe as a sun-drenched loft perched over Union Square, CityRow utilizes a water-pushing rower and a full-body workout to make its mark on the scene. Here, the focus is as much on the rower as it is off, utilizing three sets of rowing sprints broken up by small, strength-focused breaks with squats, lunges, planks, and modified yoga. Their multi-disciplinary offerings allow for different styles of head-to-toe workouts, too, with some classes swapping in yoga, stretching, and even foam rolling between and after sprints.

The machinery is significantly different at CityRow: A WaterRower, made most famous by a perturbed Claire Underwood, replaces the popular and recognizable Concept2 rower you've likely tried before. It's sleeker, for sure, and the feeling of actually pushes through water makes you feel like you could (maybe, possibly) try rowing for real.

You are peer-pressured into grabbing heavy weights  — how strong are the other people in class?! — ensuring you'll get the workout you came for, but CityRow's emphasis on correct form is incredible, and something every other studio could learn from. Teachers encourage the legs-core-arms, arms-core-legs motion throughout class, pausing at times to isolate arm or leg work, and coaching everyone through with constant reminders of the correct way to pull into the catch.

There are downfalls, sure. There's nowhere to shower, the elevators are pokey, and then there are uncharacteristically dirty mats — problems that'll likely won't exist at the forthcoming Upper East Side location. But when it comes to working every muscle in your body in under an hour, CityRow has got it figured out.

One class isn't necessarily better than the other, but it depends on what you're after. You can jump and stretch and tone any way you want, but everyone needs that one class in their repertoire that fully shocks their system. The one that makes you hover in a squat position, debating if you can move another step, waking up the following morning wondering how you've never felt pain in your hamstrings until now. CityRow does just that. But, of course, you need a sustainable cardio class too — one that keeps your heart rate up with steady movement for an extended period of time, which Row House is perfect for.

It's tricky to maintain perfect rowing posture, especially when you're new at it, and I walked home with a back full of knots after Row House. CityRow, which was developed specifically to prevent injuries, feels safer and more like a full-body-workout that I'm inclined to adore. If the rowing boom is anything like spinning, though, we'll have plenty more places to check out in the near future — and until then, I'll be building up hand callouses in preparation.