How I Rowed My Way to Happiness
Rowing has become my refuge: My trainer. My writing prompt. It has made me happier.
I’m at the poorest excuse for a fitness centre I’ve seen.
The treadmills are occupied, one by a man blathering away on his phone and one by a lady who looks set for a treadmill marathon. I reluctantly head to the rowing machine, knowing this will be a short workout. Two minutes on a boring rowing machine is enough.
I put on my headphones and put on a playlist, thinking that one song will cover it — but let’s be positive and aim for a whole playlist. I strap myself in, hit play, and row.
Before I know it, I’m onto the third song. This is world-record territory for me. I row for 20 minutes, smashing my previous personal best, and leave the gym with that high you get after doing good exercise.
I returned to the rowing machine every day I stayed at the hotel.
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
The Physical Benefits of Rowing
Rowing, as a sport, involves very early, often cold, mornings cramped in a boat with a crew on a river. While the team aspect of this appeals to me, the very early cold mornings do not.
Obviously this is all removed when using an indoor rowing machine at a gym. The physique of a male rower is usually well over six feet tall and muscular. Being neither of these, I was concerned I may not have been suited to rowing but then realized, at a gym, it doesn’t matter. Take that, small-statured genetics!
Comparing the use of the rower to what I deem to be its gym competitors — the treadmill and the bike — it gives a more well-rounded exercise. I leave out the elliptical trainer, as I find it silly to look at and frustrating to use.
Let’s take a look at these three machines and what they offer.
- Cardio, cardio, cardio
- Works the lower body
- High impact on your knees
- No benefit for upper body muscles
- Works the lower body
- Low impact
- No benefit for upper body muscles
- A good muscle workout for the entire body
- Due to the resistance, you’ll continue to burn fat after you’ve finished your workout
- Low impact
- If you have a poor technique, you won’t receive many benefits
For what I was looking for, rowing provided the most comprehensive benefits— a bit of cardio along with a full-body muscle workout. Since I’m targeting my dad-bod problem area, aka my beer gut, it provides an ab workout, unlike the other two. Your core crunches and relaxes as you row back and forth. This could be a way to get my six-pack!
The American Fitness Professionals Association (AFPA), says the rowing stroke is comprised of 65-75% leg work and 25-35% upper bodywork. So in addition to my six-pack, I’d get biceps to rival Popeye and legs like a Tour de France cyclist.
Rowing burns approximately 600 calories per hour, which is more than a bike. To burn the equivalent amount would take 78 minutes of cycling.
Because the machine engages your legs, core, and back, it can also help improve posture, at the same time building your glutes.
For me, the thing that truly won me over is that rowing allows you to build muscle while burning fat. Exactly what I needed.
Learning to Row
Rowing is simple, right? You just get on the machine and move. You don’t need to be taught how to ride an indoor bike or a treadmill. Surely an indoor rowing machine is the same. There’s no steering or wind to affect you. Jump on and row.
That was my theory. Until I learned how to row.
It was Christmastime 2017, and I was heading to San Antonio, Texas, where my wife is from, to spend the holiday season with her family. This involves a lot of food — often heavy Mexican food and an inordinate amount of margaritas. What time is it? Margarita time!
On previous Christmas trips, my partner and her mother would rise early and do Pilates. I was invited, but Pilates and I go together as well as kale and I do. That is, not at all. So I’d stay in bed until they returned.
This time I thought I should check out some fitness centres to see what classes I could do for the two weeks we were there. I found a rowing studio that combined rowing with a variety of exercises. They offered a free class, so I decided to enroll.
I loved it immediately.
There were 16 rowing machines in the studio, and the instructor took us through an IndoRow class. This was a 45-minute, pure-rowing session working on technique and style. Within the class were sessions based on strength, cardio, and recovery.
As I strapped in, I was pretty confident. The instructor asked if I had done much rowing, and I thought back to my time in the hotel fitness centre and told her I was very experienced. Sixty seconds into her class, she could see this wasn’t true.
Rowing is based on four movements:
To me, that meant nothing. It sounded more like fishing than rowing. My instructor broke it down into even simpler terms for me.
Pushing back, I was to use legs, core, arms.
Returning to the handlebar was the reverse — arms, core, legs.
At the start of the stroke, I was told to extend my legs, hinge my core, and then use my arms to row the handle toward my chest. On the way back, I reversed it: extend my arms, let my core hinge forwards, then bend my legs.
She told me to repeat this mantra — legs, core, arms, arms, core legs. I was advised to slow down. Going faster isn’t necessary; it’s about power and technique.
Slow down, and get it right.
Legs, core, arms, arms, core legs.
I focused on that simple instruction and my technique, rather than trying to go as fast as possible. I found my input decreased, but my output increased. I was rowing further with less effort. My back wasn’t hurting. And I was enjoying it more.
I now had the technique of a rower.
The Mental Benefits of Rowing
Many rowing machines, and indeed the ones I was using, are water rowers. They use water as a means of resistance. So every stroke is accompanied by the soothing sound of moving water. It becomes a form of mindfulness meditation as you stroke to the sounds of the water. It can be a form of distraction and a pleasant sound. Much better than the thud-thud of a treadmill!
The legs, core, arms mantra allows you to form into a natural rhythm, and it almost has a calming effect. It may sound strange to say that a physical activity can calm you, but the mantra certainly focused and relaxed me.
I also used rowing to alleviate stress. If there was an issue at work or an email that bothered me, I’d focus on that and lift my stroke rate to work hard. In my mind, I was willing the negative thoughts out and replacing them with my mantra. It became a thought mental journal as I rowed — I’d work out the negative and replace the thoughts.
And, of course, the positive endorphins that were released after a good rowing session enhanced my mood and well-being.
After my free class, I couldn’t sign up quickly enough. I bought a two-week membership and did a class every day. There was such a variety, and all were challenging. Some classes were half rowing and half TRX. Some involved weights. Others were cardio, involving all sorts of exercises.
I loved them all and became addicted to these classes. I’d leap out of bed at 7 a.m. on holidays to get to a class. After each class, I’d meet my partner and her mother at a cafe and get coffee. I was always on a high. Rowing was energizing me more than I had felt before. Postexercise always gives you a rush, but this felt different. It was a natural high.
The two weeks flew by in a blur of strokes.
Legs, core, arms, arms, core legs.
When I returned home, I searched for anything similar. Sadly, despite living in a big city (5 million people), there were no rowing studios. Of course, the big gyms all had rowing machines, lonely and barely used — sad, distant cousins to the spin cycles and the cross-trainers.
I looked into opening my own rowing studio. I wanted to spread the word. Get more people into rowing. I talked about rowing with my friends. It was like I was in a cult, and the water rower was my leader. Not having the funds or knowledge required to open my own rowing studio and with few options, I took out a membership at the local gym.
It was the first time since college I had been a gym member. It was a huge gym, part of a chain. Spread over three levels, it had equipment and classes to suit all people — even the rowing addicts. Moving past the gym junkies, who were alternating between lifting weights and admiring themselves in the mirrors, and the Lululemon brigade, ready for Pilates and healthy smoothies, I went to the rowers.
And for the rest of the year, I rowed, occasionally cheating on the rower and attending a spin or a HIIT class. Once I accidentally entered the weights section but swiftly moved on. My true love was rowing. I always returned to it.
I got my day off to a great start by rowing most mornings. It energized me for the workday. My dad bod was also slowly changing. I had gone from the body of a 45-year-old dad to the body of a 35-year-old dad. Dad bod — but at least a younger dad.
All year, though, I was waiting to head back to San Antonio and the rowing studio — no doubt, annoying the owners with my constant emails and updates on when their Aussie rowing addict would return to the ranks.
Saved in a Pandemic
After two more Christmases in my beloved rowing studio and many solitary sessions at my gym, in March 2020, we went into lockdown.
I was distraught for many reasons. My business ended. My wedding was canceled. Social life would stop. And, of course, no gym.
I knew what I had to do: take the rowing relationship to the next step. It was time to buy my own rowing machine to use at home. Unfortunately, many others had the same idea, and every equipment supply store I tried was sold out. (I guess there was an underground network of indoor rowers — maybe I should have opened that studio?) After two weeks without success, I found one on Amazon and ordered it. Three days later, I was the proud owner of a water rower.
The water rower has become my best friend over the lockdown. It created a physical outlet, but, so much more important than that, it became my mental outlet. It has got me through a tough time.
And I soon found a workout buddy. My San Antonio rowing studio had live classes, but the time zones worked against me attending. I searched on YouTube and found a plethora of rowing videos produced by an instructor in San Diego — Shane.
Together I’d work out with Shane. He’d talk to me, play music, challenge me to races, and set workouts. Each week he created new workouts, so there was variety. I felt like he was making them for me. Of course, it was just a YouTube video uploaded for anyone and everyone. But I felt they were made for me.
Having a routine and awaiting the weekly uploads from Shane ensured I didn’t fall into a pandemic fitness abyss.
The Row Sessions
Each rowing session, I want to achieve something different, depending on my mood and how my day is going. I’ve named them — for a writer, likes to name things — and this frames my mindset for each of them.
Row and flow
This is my favourite — for when I want to be creative. I put on music, row, and let my mind wander. I think of ideas for articles; I think of satire pieces for my Second City classes. I do a lot of my writing in these sessions, as the ideas seem to flow.
My mind is distracted, so I don’t notice the workout I’m doing. Often I get lost in time and am shocked to see how many kilometres I’ve done. It is perhaps the closest I get to meditation. My mind is in a creative frame, and my body is just working without knowing it.
Row and show
Some people Netflix and chill. I Netflix and row. I set up my iPad next to my machine, put on a show, and row away. Again, my mind is relaxed and distracted, and the time on the machine passes quickly.
I can watch a 30-minute show, and at the end of it, I’ll have completed a workout. Beats chillin’.
Row and go
The first two are more for my mental health, whereas these next two are for physical benefits.
Row and go involves putting on some pump-up music — Spotify has an endless amount of playlists for this purpose and for rowing a certain distance in a particular time. It varies from day to day, but it’s usually a 5-km sprint. It’s a great cardio workout and something to keep this dad bod somewhat in check. Somewhat.
Row and grow
For the grow session, I turn to my faithful YouTube coach, Shane, and go through one of his weekly routines. These are focused on strength, improving technique, or matching him. They’re about growing my rowing skills. Shane has a wide variety of sessions that work on different things. And it feels like I’m in class or with a buddy — it’s definitely more engaging, and in COVID-19 days, it felt like I had a friend.
Row, Row, Row to Happiness
It’d seem rather pat to say rowing changed my life. It hasn’t. But it has improved my life. It was a welcome relief when I traveled for work to go into a hotel gym at the end of a long day and row.
It gave me a connection to my wife’s hometown and friends outside of her circle. And it’s helped me through the last six months, which have been challenging for anyone.
We’ve been confined to our homes — by the COVID-19 restrictions but also by the cold and wet conditions we’ve had this winter where I live. But rain, hail, or shine, I can go to my garage and row. Weather isn’t an excuse.
In addition to the cardio and muscular benefits, the cardiovascular benefits have been enormous for me. I’ve suffered from asthma since a child, and my lungs have significantly improved. When I was 18, I was told I had the lung capacity of an 80-year-old, and now I’m sure I could match it with the septuagenarians out there.
Rowing has become my refuge. My trainer. My writing prompt.
It has made me happier.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a rowing machine. It worked for me. For you, it might be a treadmill. Or a Peloton bike. Or a Pilates mat. Or even just a pair of shoes that you can run/jog/walk in. As long as it’s not an elliptical trainer.
But there’s one piece of equipment for everyone.
I’m glad I entered a long-term relationship with rowing. It’s perfect. We have our ups and downs and occasionally need some breaks, but it’s changed me.
And it all started in a downtrodden hotel fitness centre.
Legs, core, arms, arms, core, legs.