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I tried the 'Rock the Boat' fitness challenge — and it's harder than it looks

The "Rock the Boat" fitness challenge is essentially a circuit training HIIT workout that targets the entire body.

If you frequently scroll TikTok or Instagram you’ve likely seen the “Rock the Boat" challenge that has gone viral over the last couple of weeks. In my feed I’ve seen celebrities, trainers, friends from high school and “swolemate” couples all giving the workout a try.

The #rocktheboatchallenge has garnered more than 130 million views on TikTok and celebrities like Carrie Underwood, Jenna Dewan and Shawn Johnson have all jumped on board, posting videos of themselves trying the workout.

Mostly out of curiosity, I dropped down and gave it a try myself. And while the chiseled celebrities and fitness influencers make it look effortless, this workout is no joke. To be honest, the shoulder taps and mountain climbers are doable (as someone who works out five days a week), but the plank jack pushups are brutal.

Tempted to give the challenge a try? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is the #rocktheboatchallenge?

The challenge is performed to a snippet of the song “Grab Da Wall and Rock Da Boat” by 504 Boyz. While playing a portion of the song, participants use cues in the lyrics to complete the following movements:

  • Four shoulder taps.
  • Six mountain climbers.
  • Plank jacks while performing pushups.

When you look beyond the gimmicky name and viral videos, what you have is essentially a circuit training HIIT workout that targets the entire body.

“It’s an advanced workout that requires aerobic fitness, strength and coordination. It engages the core, lower extremities and upper extremities,” Dr. Dennis Cardone, osteopathic sports medicine specialist and chief of primary care sports medicine at NYU Langone Health, told TODAY. “It’s an all-encompassing workout that captures a lot of muscle groups and it’s done at a high intensity.”

No muscle group is spared in the "Rock the Boat" challenge.
No muscle group is spared in the "Rock the Boat" challenge.

A quick Google search delivers hundreds of chiseled workout enthusiasts making the challenge look incredibly easy, but I can personally attest to that fact that is anything but.

“This is very difficult. There is a lot of body control, muscle power, muscle strength and a lot of coordination that needs to be used,” said Cardone. “In these videos everyone is totally jacked, totally in shape, they make it look easy. But rest assured that leading up to this, they practiced this workout significantly, in addition to doing other workouts.”

Is the "Rock the Boat" challenge safe?

If your body is conditioned to execute this type of exercise then, yes, it is a good workout. But the high intensity nature of the circuit opens the door for injury regardless of how fit you are.

“It is capturing a significant amount of muscle groups, but without a proper warm up on that day and more importantly, proper conditioning leading up to this over a period of months, there is a high risk of injury,” said Cardone.

Those under 40 risk an overuse injury, tendonitis or a partial muscle tear or strain, while those over 40 risk a complete tear of certain muscle groups, warned Cardone.

The wrists and shoulders take a beating during the exercise. “I’m really not a fan of pushups with palms on the floor, it’s a big stressor. The wrist is not made to weight bear like that so it’s really tough on the wrists,” said Cardone. “You’re putting a lot of stress on the shoulder in those positions; it’s a big stressor for the rotator cuff. If someone has an unstable shoulder they risk an episode of instability of the shoulder during those shoulder taps.”

And the risk of injury doesn’t stop with the upper body: “Without proper training they risk strain to the hip flexors and quadriceps, then when they’re doing the pushup jacks, they risk injury to the hamstring,” said Cardone. “This shouldn’t be done barefoot. Then there is risk of injury to toes. It should be done with sneakers.”

You may be thinking: I am super fit. So, I can handle it, right? Not exactly.

“No matter how fit a person is, if you start to introduce new exercises and new stressors on certain muscle groups, even though they may be using muscle groups in other workouts, there’s a different strain,” said Cardone. “It’s like a soccer player going on to the tennis court ... Even though they are very fit and doing high-intensity work, they are using their body in a different way. So even for the most fit person … in order to minimize that risk of new exercise — especially something like this that is high intensity and strength — it needs to be introduced slowly.”

Up for the challenge? How to join "Rock the Boat" safely

If you want to work toward completing the challenge, how can you do it safely?

“To lead up to be able to do this, it’s not just about practicing this (workout). They need to incorporate other things into their routine,” advised Cardone.

Follow these expert tips to properly train for the “Rock the Boat” challenge:

  • Start with HIIT workouts. “They should be doing some high-intensity interval training to build some power and aerobic/anaerobic conditioning,” said Cardone. Start with something as simple as sprints, he said.
  • Work on your core. “Core strength is a major factor in being able to perform this routine safely,” said Stephanie Mansour, certified personal trainer and weight-loss coach.
  • Strengthen the upper and lower body. “Leading up to this they need to strengthen their upper body — all the major muscle groups, including the pectoralis, biceps, triceps, the upper back, the rotator cuff," said Cardone. "That all needs to be strengthened, not by doing this particular exercise, but with free weights or bodyweight strength. And then they need to do the same with their quadriceps and hamstrings.”
  • Do some mobility work. “They need to make sure that they’re flexible enough in all these regions as well, the shoulders and hips especially to be sure they can tolerate this type of movement,” said Cardone.
  • Break up the circuit into individual movements. "Start with doing pushups and then in that pushup position gradually adding mountain climbers at a slow pace. Then without the pushup, do just the leg movement in the plank jack,” said Cardone “Perform each movement as a separate entity, not combining it, and first get comfortable with that and then start to combine the movements."
  • Ditch the music. Perform the movements slowly, at half speed, said Mansour. Performing the shoulder taps and mountain climbers slowly will allow you to master form and build strength.
  • Support your wrists. The stability challenge and jumping movements done in a plank position put added pressure on the wrists. “When I talk to patients about pushups, (I tell them) they should be using pushup handles or using a dumbbell.”
  • Modify each position. "Beginners should modify this by only doing the upper body or the lower body," said Mansour. "If you're going to do the pushup, then lower down onto your knees in a modified pushup position. If you're going to do the legs, then lower down onto your forearms!" To modify the mountain climbers, you can also place your hands on a counter, bench or chair to do a modified plank and then perform the mountain climbers, suggested Mansour.

More ways to train for the "Rock the Boat" challenge: