How to Rock Your First Rowing Class

Let's be honest: The rowing machine can look pretty intimidating, and arriving to any group fitness class as a newbie can cause anxiety, since you don't know what to expect. However, the rowing machine is an awesome piece of equipment that torches calories, builds strength and endurance and can help you burn fat and lose weight. So, why not sign up for a class near you?

You don't have to live anywhere near water to take a rowing class. (Image: PeopleImages/E+/GettyImages)

To help ease any pre-class jitters, here's a handy guide for how best to prepare before your first rowing class, as well as tips for perfecting your form and maximizing calorie burn.

What Is a Rowing Class?

Rowing is a low-impact form of cardio where you use a machine with a sliding seat, a handle (the "oar") and some sort resistance (usually either water in a tank or wind resistance) to simulate the action of rowing a boat, as you would on a crew team.

"It is a phenomenal workout if you are looking for a heart-pumping cardio blast without the impact of, say, running," says Kat Wiersum, a rowing and interval training instructor at Studio Three in Chicago, where they have a "Torch" class that involves rowing in intervals.

Plus, it's a full-body workout. "The rowing machine is great for working the entire body, but especially the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, lower back, upper back, lats, biceps and forearms," says Lee Wratislaw, certified personal trainer and manager of digital programming at Gold's Gym.

Who Should Try a Rowing Class?

Honestly? Anyone! Rowing is accessible to all fitness levels and can provide challenges for both beginners and experienced rowers alike, since you can always keep creating new goals for yourself. "You can always try and improve on your pace and timing," Wiersum says.

Rowing is a fantastic cross-training workout you can incorporate into your fitness regimen. "It is a go-to machine for improving muscular strength and endurance in addition to cardiovascular conditioning," Wratislaw says, as you're working on building stamina and getting that aerobic effort in to spike your heart rate fast.

Or if your goals are more strength-oriented, look for hybrid rowing classes. "Classes that incorporate weight training in addition to rowing (like Orangetheory and Studio Three) can place great metabolic demand on the body, boosting the amount of calories burned during and after a session and adding more of a strength focus to the workout," says Wratislaw.

The one thing to note: If you have tightness in your hips, you'll need to be careful to maintain proper form and regularly stretching out. "The action of rowing involves quickly bending and straightening your legs, so if you have very tight hip flexors, rowing can potentially bother you if you aren't actively engaging in your glutes and hamstrings to assist," says Wiersum.

Rowing Class Format, Size and Duration

Class size ranges dramatically, as there are classes where you only row and some that involve rowing as part of a larger program (like at Studio Three, for instance). "Typical class size can range from a few people up to 20 or more," says Wratislaw. Same goes for class length, which can range from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the focus, he says.

In a rowing-only class, "focus is usually on alternating between higher and lower intensity intervals of rowing," Wiersum says. "Rowing is always broken down into intervals and those intervals can be measured in several ways." Typically, you'll play around with time and meters, but some rowers also use calories as a metric, though that's less common in class format.

Rowing for time involves rowing for a certain time period (90 seconds, for example) and seeing how many far you can go (in meters) in that given time. A major benchmark is the 500-meter pace. Typically, your goal is for your pace to be at or below two minutes per 500 meters.

For example, your instructor may have you row for 30 seconds, progressively doubling the time but keeping the same pace, Wiersum says. "You can also address this in 'meet-or-beat' style which involves rowing the same amount of time multiple times, trying to achieve farther meters every time," she says.

"Often an instructor will give increasing meters in the same time frame to make it more challenging on the pace to get more recovery time," Wiersum says. "For example, you can row for 90 seconds and increase your meter goal every time and make it more challenging to finish within the 90 seconds."

Another common feature of class is doing a ladder. So you'd row 100 meters, perform an active recovery exercises, then repeat with 200 meters, 300 meters, 200 meters and 100 meters, Wiersum says.

Some of the active recovery exercises might include knee tucks or pikes with your feet on the seat, biceps curls with the oar, low rows with the oar, sit-ups in the seat, plank work sliding the seat foward/back, and even lunges with one foot on the seat, she says.

What to Wear and Bring to a Rowing Class

"I prefer to wear tighter bottoms (leggings, bike shorts, shorts under something else) because as you bend your knees to row, short/loose shorts can accidentally show more than needed," says Wiersum. So don't show up in baggy sweats, which can get in the way of the motion and weigh you down.

Any cross-training shoe works; there's no need for running shoes or shoes for impact unless the specific hybrid class you're going to involves this, says Wiersum. And be sure to have water and a towel because you'll likely get pretty sweaty.

You may also want a way to protect your hands. "Rowing for an extended period of time can cause little calluses on the hands, so if you have extremely sensitive hands you may want to bring a set of lifting gloves to wear," she says. That also means leaving your jewelry at home. "Rings can get uncomfortable when rowing since you are gripping the handle tightly the entire time you are rowing," she says.

Tips For Your First Rowing Class

First, focus on form. "The foot cradle should be aligned so the widest part of your foot is secured under the strap," says Wiersum. You want to make sure your strap is tight around your foot throughout the entire class.

"In between every interval, I always give my foot strap a pull to tighten it again," she says. "This makes sure my foot isn't wiggling around and I can really press my heels into the rower to use my hamstrings and glutes properly."

You want a slight lean back at the back end of your stroke, so the oar touches your body right in the middle of your ribs. You also want to have a slight reach forward as you come back in. That reach and that lean, and that distance between is where your meters really climb.

"Think about the oar like it's a pencil and try and snap the pencil in half. You want your shoulders down, chest proud and open and that snap will help you engage to make that happen," Wiersum says. Hands should be as wide as they can go to keep your arms in line with your shoulders.

If you're not sure how to set up, you forget or you have questions, ask for help! Your instructor is there to make you feel comfortable and ready.

Once you're in the proper position, it's go time! It's important to take a controlled approach. "Focus on power and getting the most out of your stroke/pull on on the rower, rather than frantically pulling as many times as you can," says Wiersum. It's better to keep a good powerful and slower pace than to go super fast.

Usually your rower also has a number for "strokes per minute," where you want it to land right around 30 and not higher than 35. "You increase your pace by moving consistently and efficiently, and emphasizing form over just yanking the oar. Think legs, core, arms on the way out and arms, core, legs on the way in," says Wiersum.

Find a Rowing Class Near You

Like many group fitness classes, rowing classes range from around $20 to 35 per class. Almost every studio offers a first-time client deal and class packages with discounts on classes when you buy in bulk. Here are a few great options so you can look up which ones might be close to you:

  • Studio Three: The "Torch" class involves the rowing machine, treadmill and weights on the floor for a full-body workout. Classes are either 45 or 60 minutes long, depending on your preference and schedule. Your first class is free and then you can look for promotions or buy a class pack or membership.
  • Row House: Row House has six class options, and classes are 45 minutes long. You can focus on weight work with the row machine or take "Power" to really push yourself hard. Or you can go with "Restore" if you're feeling tight to work on recovery and stretching in between intervals. Your first class is free and then you can buy class packs.
  • OrangeTheory Fitness: Similar to Studio Three but with more locations, OrangeTheory has the same set up for class with a rowing machine, treadmill and weights. Basically, you monitor your heart rate and effort and work to stay in the "fat-burning (orange) zone" for maximum calorie burn. Classes are 60 minutes and the first class is free.
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