Is erging really the new spinning? We strapped in to learn how a misery machine is gaining popularity across the Bay Area.
The erg. Ergometer. Rowing Machine. Erg, the sound your soul makes and your body screams while using it.
It’s so deceptively simple, the fixed footpads you strap your feet into, the sliding seat, the way you fold yourself up to return the handlebar to its catch before pulling with your whole body to bring the handlebar to your chest, legs straight, back slightly oblique, core engaged. Again and again. It’s the full experience (and agony) of rowing, neatly packaged indoors.
Nine years ago, I was a freshman college crew walk-on for the school’s rowing team (which took all comers). I enjoyed a months-long honeymoon phase falling in love with the sport, learning to row out on the river with new friends, surrounded by the famous New England autumn foliage.
Then the river froze, and with it, the honeymoon came to a crashing halt. Training switched indoors to rowing machines. The camaraderie and the glorious feeling of movement in the water were gone, replaced by timed erg tests that pitted teammates against each other for the best boat positions in the upcoming spring competition season. I hated it, performed poorly, and was soon approached by the coach, who gently suggested that maybe I try a different sport. I did — (trail running) — and haven’t looked back. Until now.
Today, group indoor rowing classes are on the rise throughout the country, and exploding in the Bay Area. They’re putting the fun back into rowing fundamentals and expanding access and exposure to a sport that’s historically struggled with a reputation for elitism and a lack of diversity.
In Belmont, the first Peninsula location of the rowing gym franchise Row House, opened in August. Franchisee Jennifer Wayman owns the gym and the territory for future expansion between Belmont and Palo Alto.
Row House started in New York City in 2014 and now has Bay Area locations in Belmont and Walnut Creek, with plans to open new locations in Campbell, Santa Clara, North San Jose, Mission Bay, Pleasanton, Rockridge and Pleasant Hill, according to its website. It now has 250 locations open or slated to open across the U.S. and Canada.
So what’s the reason for the trend?
Certainly, Wayman says, fitness concepts like CrossFit and Orangetheory Fitness have increased clients’ exposure to rowing machines, if not brought it into the mainstream yet.
As early as 2015, GQ called indoor rowing “the new spinning.”
“I think what’s really appealing about rowing is the fit for many fitness abilities,” Wayman said. “A lot of people don’t row (but) do know that it is a good, low-impact workout,” she added.
It’s also great for developing core and back strength — important muscles to develop for those of us who spend most of our waking hours in chairs, she explained.
“Here in Silicon Valley, so many of us are desk jockeys. We don’t get enough core work,” she said, adding that rowing is great for developing both core and back strength. “This compensates for that.”
The non weight-bearing aspect too allows people to do more repetition and have a more comfortable workout, she added.
During a free trial class, I strapped my feet into the Concept 2 rowing machine and joined in the class’s enthusiastic atmosphere.
The ergs in the room began to spin in sync, while at the front, numbers on screen ticked up showing the collective number of meters, average split pace and average stroke rate rowed by class participants. AC/DC and Queen songs blared joyfully and the instructor at the front of the class led participants like a coxswain leads a boat, setting the stroke rhythm and calling out when to speed or slow, when to pull harder or ease up.
I watched my own split pace — not what it was in college, but not as far off as I’d expected — and felt my breathing deepen and my heart rate quicken as I got back into the swing of rowing. It was hard, and it felt good.
The 45-minute class flew by one upbeat song at a time, albeit with one exception. Toward the end of the class, there was a five-minute period during which participants were expected to row as hard as they could for 5 minutes. Sounds easy, but this ex-rower was sweating bullets by the end.
Within minutes after the class ended, I received an email summarizing my personal achievements during the class, including meters rowed, average stroke rate and average splits.
Sharing these metrics with participants is one way to foster both camaraderie and competition at the gym, Wayman explained.
“You can see the total group effort affecting the metrics,” she said. “That really creates that inclusive feeling so that everyone feels like they can add impact.”
The personal stats, she adds, enable participants to see their own progress in the sport. Members are celebrated when they reach milestones of rowing 50, 250, 5,000 and 1,000 kilometers. Since the gym only opened in late August, nobody’s reached the second two milestones yet, she added.
While most of the gym’s new members are new to rowing — about 80% — she said, there are probably about 20 or 30 members who are former rowers.
Visitors get their first class free and should plan to show up 15 minutes early to get some pointers on how to row. Proper form takes time to master, she added, so the gym also offers classes focused just on stroke technique.
And while a Row House membership is probably more affordable than the water sport, and comparable to memberships with other types of boutique fitness studios, it’s still not cheap. Rates are set at $99 for four classes a month, $169 for eight classes a month and $209 for unlimited classes.
Long story short: If you’ve got the means and are looking to try a new fitness routine, this could be a great option to explore. Nobody’s likely to tell you to “maybe try a different sport” here.
Go to the Row House website for more information.
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