My go-to forms of exercise are HIIT training and boxing, both of which are high intensity and often high impact. So I was interested in trying something that would still get me a full-body workout, but give my joints a break from all the punching and jumping.
Rowing was exactly what I had in mind. The exercise works over 80% of your body, but is low-impact. So I took it as an opportunity to try out one of the latest machines to hit the market: the Hydrow.
I’m not a huge fan of rowing and my experience is limited to Orangetheory and a few boutique fitness classes I have taken over the years. But this machine purports to be different. It has a patented drag mechanism designed to imitate the feel of being on water and the classes you watch are taught on lakes and rivers, not in a gym, and the instructors are all competitive athletes in the sport (including Olympians). I was intrigued.
While it took me a few classes to get my groove, I ended up really enjoying it. My favorite part? Every aspect of the workout — from the machine itself to the on-location classes — is designed to make you feel like you’re actually on the water.
Cost and equipment
The Hydrow machine costs $2,245. You need a membership to access the platform, which costs an additional $38/month or $456/year. The membership gives you access to both live and on-demand classes and allows you to create an unlimited number of accounts. Some of the strength and mobility classes use resistance bands and a foam roller, so to get the most out of the offerings, you'll need those too. For $69.99 you can buy an upright storage kit, which allows you to tuck the rower into a corner.
What the program entails
When you create your account and sign in, you will first be greeted by a recommended intro class. You can swipe through the home feed to see other recommended classes, programmatic content and the live class schedule for the next few days. The library tab is where you can access all of the on-demand workouts (there are thousands), which you can filter by instructor, duration, workout type, workout style and location. I was really impressed with the amount of class offerings. There are super high-intensity rows, meditative rows and everything in between. In addition to rowing workouts, the Hydrow also offers yoga, Pilates, mobility/stretch and strength classes. (The screen swivels so that you can easily see it when taking classes off the rower.)
During each class you will see the same metrics displayed across the bottom of the screen. This allows you to not only see your progress, but also to follow cues given by the instructor. There are two main metrics: your “rhythm,” measured in strokes per minute (a number the instructors will reference to adjust your pace through the workout) and your speed, which is measured by the time it takes to row 500 meters. You’ll also see calories burned, total meters rowed and a leader board that you can filter by age and gender and use to gauge your performance against others.
The home screen also has a "feed" tab that feels like a social feed and displays recently completed rows from other members where you can comment or give a thumbs up. You can also create teams with other members and compete in weekly challenges together.
Upon pushing play on the 15-minute intro class, I immediately sensed a difference from other rowing workouts I have tried. Instead of a trainer in a dark room with neon lights, teaching class on a rowing machine of their own, the instructor was rowing an actual boat on a real body of water.
The first intro class covered the basics: How to set yourself up on the rower, achieve proper form and understand what all the stats on the screen mean. I liked that the instructor was a professional athlete and an expert on the sport while remaining down-to-earth and relatable.
I have always found it difficult to master the rowing form — even as I consciously replay the “legs, core, arms; arms, core, legs” pattern over in my mind — and was feeling it a lot in my lower back.
That aside, it’s did feel like a good low-impact way to get my heart rate up. It was subtle, but I could feel the “drag” that imitated the resistance of rowing through actual water.
I tried two more intro classes. The second 15-minute intro class focused on core engagement, which I clearly needed since my back was bothering me; I felt like the machine heard me grumbling about the pain. We did core drills where you held at the back position to check your form and ensure you were engaging your whole core. This was helpful and I did feel like I started to correct some form issues that were causing my back to hurt.
I then explored the library a bit. I filtered by time (10 minutes), workout type (sweat) and level (beginner) and then chose a 10-minute Smash Mouth conditioning row in the Tennessee River in Chattanooga.
The workout was interval based and it was really easy to follow since the instructor called out the number of strokes per minute we should be aiming for during each interval and rest period. It raised my heart rate similar to a HIIT workout, but was way easier on my knees (although my back still bothered me a bit). It was a quick way to break a sweat and burn 80 calories. After every workout, a suggested 5-minute cool down pops up, which is a nice reminder and made it more likely I would take the time to cool down than if I had to go searching in the library for one.
The next day I decided to push myself and tried a 20-minute boot camp HIIT row — aka a “drive” class, which is the most difficult of the three class types. And yes, it earned its place in the category. The class took place on the Apache Lake in Arizona, which offered interesting scenery (picture: mountains in the distance and cacti on shore) and I welcomed the distraction when the class got tough. It consisted of a bunch of intervals (45 seconds on/15 seconds off) at different speeds. The splits were definitely tough to reach and maintaining them was even harder for me. I found it helpful to ignore the numbers and just match my stroke to the instructors. She mentioned doing this boot camp once a week and working on maintaining a faster speed each time, which I think would be a solid goal to keep the rowing interesting.
The 20 minutes flew by and I was dripping with sweat by the end. Even though I felt like I was still using my arms and back a bit too much, my glutes and hamstrings were on fire, so I must’ve been doing something right! I felt like my form was slowly improving.
I finished up with a 10-minute, post-row mobility class, which was a great cool down and felt amazing. The instructor mentioned overusing your back and how we may feel really closed in after all that rowing and I felt so seen. We did some really complex stretches that I had never done before and they really targeted opening the hips and stretching the back and the hamstrings. It was exactly what I needed and if I had had more time I would done it again a second time. Seriously, that’s how good it felt.
I felt like I got the most well-rounded workout when I got my heart rate up with a rowing class and then worked on something off the machine — whether that be mobility or strength. I did this by choosing multiple classes, but there are also combo classes that do this for you.
I wanted to make sure I tried one of the live classes, so I logged on at 8 a.m. for a quick 20-minute row one day before work. It was a really cool experience to work out in real time with the instructors who were on the Charles River in Boston. Like all live classes, I definitely felt motivated to push myself knowing we were all doing it together (there were 69 of us in the class), especially seeing my place on the live leader board. It also transported me out of my house and made me feel like I had actually gotten outdoors and stepped away from all of my responsibilities, even though I never left home.
What I liked
There are so many workouts to choose from, plus new classes added weekly in addition to the live workouts, that it would be hard to get bored with any one routine. And I really appreciated how many mobility and restorative workouts they have and how thoughtful and targeted they are. It felt like the trainer had tailored the stretches to what my body needed.
The scenery is what made this workout for me. I think another rower would lose its appeal and end up collecting dust, but these workouts are so much more visually interesting than programs that take place in a gym setting. Seeing beautiful scenery had a stress-reducing effect, too. I found myself getting lost in the settings — other boats driving by, the movement of the water and the spray from the instructors oars, birds flying overhead and landing on the water — which made the workouts go by faster.
I am also a big fan of the “journey” classes, which put you in the front seat of a boat with no instructor and allow you to row at your own pace and explore the surroundings. These were a great way to get moving on recovery days.
The interface is also really user-friendly. I love how easy it is to see a list of all the past workouts you have completed and that you can click in for specific stats for each one. Out of all of the home workout programs I have tested, none have had such a comprehensive, easily digestible feature that shows your history. It makes it easier to see your progress and set goals for yourself over time.
The company also put a lot of thought into keeping you motivated to stick with it and come back daily. For every 25 days you work out with Hydrow, they donate to water.org. There are also prizes at certain benchmarks (like earning a water bottle after you hit 100,000 meters rowed) and weekly team challenges.
What I didn’t like
The rowing movement is repetitive, which is nice because it’s uncomplicated, removing a barrier to exercise. But there are days when I crave a more mentally challenging workout, like mastering complex boxing combos. The off-rower options do provide more variety, but to make it worth the price tag you really need to enjoy rowing as your primary form of cardio.
You have to be careful to use correct form when rowing, and it can be difficult to get it right, especially when you are at home without an instructor there to correct you. It seems simple, but it's easy to do wrong and could possibly result in pain or injury. The instruction is there to help you, but it is up to you to be very aware of your own body and committed to making the necessary adjustments.
There are only two live classes a day and you can only see the plans for the next two days from the home screen, which does make it a bit hard to plan classes in advance. A few more live class offerings (especially later afternoon and evening classes) would be great, as would being able to see the live classes a week in advance to make it easier to schedule your workouts.
With the expensive price tag, it would be nice if membership to the platform was included — at least for the first year. The machine also takes up a substantial piece of real estate, so unless you have a dedicated gym space in your home, you'll need to purchase the storage kit to get it out of the way when not in use.
I would recommend this workout to:
- Anyone who enjoys exercising outdoors in nature, but needs an at-home option
- Those with joint pain or mobility issues
- People who want a cardio alternative to running (and hate the treadmill)
- Those who need help staying motivated to exercise
- Anyone who wants to invest in a piece of fitness equipment that works the entire body