Can live classes on some of the world’s prettiest waterways really make a session on the rowing machine something to look forward to?
There’s a reason you never see a queue for a rowing machine in the gym. It’s a brutal workout, spiking your heart rate in seconds, punishing your lungs and leaving your arms and legs like jelly. It’s the exact opposite of 5km on the treadmill watching Neflix.
And it’s that short, sharp workout that makes a rowing machine ideal for home use, but interestingly, while sales of exercise bikes in the UK – also known as the Peloton effect - grew by over 2,000 per cent during the first lockdown, sales of rowing machines increased by a measly 300 per cent.
It’s an imbalance Hydrow is hoping to redress with their premium Peloton-style connected rowing machine, complete with HD screen and live coaching sessions filmed on location on some of the world’s most picturesque lakes and rivers.
They’re also quick to point out that rowing engages 86 per cent of the body’s muscles, compared to 44 per cent for cycling, and that ‘a Hydrow workout burns more calories than any other home workout’.
At 218cm long and weighing 65kg, the Hydrow is enormous. The sweeping lines of the anthracite polymer body look good, but it needs to, because unless you’ve got a dedicated home gym or large spare room, you’ll not be able to avoid looking at it. To reiterate, in the context of a four-bed London terrace, this thing is huge. You can at least store it upright, which is a weights workout in itself and there’s a wall-mounted safety strap available for £69.
Size implications aside, Hydrow is exceptionally well built. The seat and rail have 10 rollers to ensure the very smoothest ride, while the footrests are well spaced and can accommodate any sized foot. It sits a decent height off the ground, too, so you don’t feel like you’re sat on the floor, which also makes it easy to stagger up from it after a gruelling session.
The 22in HD screen sits on a hinged bracket and can be tilted up/down to make viewing comfortable when rowing, and also left/right 25 degrees for when doing supplementary yoga, strength and Pilates workouts.
Based around an Android platform, the Full HD touchscreen is crisp and responsive, and logging in and activating your profile takes a matter of minutes. The £38-per-month subscription gives you access to over 1,000 pre-recorded river and studio classes and allows for unlimited profiles. Invite the support bubble over and spread the costs?
On screen, your workout metrics are clearly displayed – just like Peloton – with a leader board on the right, duration, speed, stroke-per-minute (S/M), 500m split time, averages, total distance, calories, and heart rate (with a compatible chest strap) all clearly visible.
In stark contrast to the typical set-sweat-and-forget rowing machine experience, Hydrow is keen to teach you how to row properly, and there’s an excellent beginners guide with short, easy workouts to get you started. It’s clear that this machine is designed to be at the centre of your fitness routine, rather than something you tag on at the end to burn a few more calories.
The drag – or resistance - of the rowing machine is set to 104 (goes from 1-300), which best simulates the experience of rowing on water for most people. You can adjust how hard it is to pull, but Hydrow is keen to stress that drag is not intended as a difficulty setting.
Anyone can get on this rowing machine and workout, but unlike traditional fitness equipment, getting fitter and burning more calories means improving your technique. It turns out rowing is a whole lot more complicated than running or cycling, and getting good takes practice, not just grunt.
But with 1,000+ classes, and live sessions each week, there’s plenty of scope for practice. The majority are 20 minutes long, with a smattering of shorter cool downs and warm up rows, plus longer endurance events.
Split into Breath (easy), Drive (endurance) and Sweat (maximum effort) each is well produced, and the majority are filmed in third person on the water with the instructor putting in the effort, and also battling the elements. There’s no studio lighting, no dancing and few gimmicks, although they do offer curated soundtracks to help mask the sound of your heart thumping.
As someone sold on the endorphin rush of a Peloton workout, this reviewer is used to motivational tropes and razzmatazz, and the calming combination of beautiful scenery and engaging instructors was a complete departure, but impressively no less motivating. If Peloton feels like a cult, Hydrow comes across more like a traditional sports club.
The company has 11 instructors, all professional rowers, ex-Olympians and athletes – you can tell from the shoulders if nothing else – and by following them stroke-for-stroke you will get a great, full-body workout.
Rowing across Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, or along the canals in Miami Beach is both voyeuristic and oddly effective escapism, and whether it’s the novelty of doing something new during Lockdown, classes flew by. This is the exact opposite of any previous interactions with a rowing machine.
As an aside, Hydrow donates money to the non-profit clean water organisation Water.org for every 60 days you're active. It’s not a reason to buy, but an incentive to keep rowing. Be warned though, Hydrow is not a silent rowing machine. Thanks to its computer-controlled electromagnetic resistance it is considerably quieter, and smoother, than most, but the whirring of the flywheel can still be heard through walls.
It’s a comforting, almost hypnotic sound when you’re the one rowing, but early-morning sessions can (did) wake up the house. The flywheel whir also means we recommend using headphones to hear the instructor and music to avoid cranking up the speaker volume to max.
But is it any good? After 15 sessions I have sweated considerably less than I would on the Peloton bike, but have burned a similar number of calories. My core, shoulders and arms are wondering why they’re being punished, and my legs feel stronger. But importantly, I look forward to the sessions.
I have yet to sign up for any virtual races – of which there are plenty, you can even join a team - and I generally ignore the leader board, but it’s early days. Hitting the faster strokes per minute (s/m) challenges your entire body, and once you calculate your fitness level, every workout feels satisfyingly complete.
As with any good connected fitness ecosystem, Hydrow also offers mat-based Pilates, yoga, strength and fitness classes, available through the display or app. The library isn’t that extensive, but the classes we took were well paced and challenging. They’re also relaxed, with more focus on realism that being ripped.
At £2,295 plus £456 a year in subscription, it’s hard to look past cost. It’s a premium service and the same price as the excellent Peloton Bike+. It’s considerably more expensive than other connected rowing machines, too, with Nordictrack’s RW900 offering in-studio spin style rowing classes for £1,499, including subscription costs of £349 for the first year.
In truth, it’s an entirely different proposition, with Hydrow treating their rowing sessions as much as a sporting event as a fitness fix. Invest your time well in the 30-day trial and you may just end up enjoying yourself on a virtual river, while also smashing a workout. If it works for you, and you have the space to spare, it could be the holy grail of home fitness.
The Peloton ecosystem does a better job rewarding effort and flooding your system with endorphins, but in a head-to-head fitness race between bike and boat, if you’re willing to learn a new skill, Hydrow wins by an oar’s length.