After the pandemic closed down my gym, I had every intention of maintaining my fitness routine—a socially-distant run, followed by a mini-circuit workout with weights. But soon enough, I had downgraded to a leisurely walk, and stashed the kettlebells and resistance bands, rationalizing that they cluttered up my apartment. My “exercise” dwindled to errands, and my body began to atrophy at an alarming rate.
Wary of returning to the gym even when, in New York City, they reopened, I decided that some sort of at-home fitness equipment was called for. (I’m not alone—this past March, compared to the same month the previous year, sales grew 170 percent.) But my prerequisites narrowed the field: It could not take up too much space in my small apartment, nor could it be noisy enough to annoy my neighbors. I wanted a full-body, one-and-done workout. And I’d rather it not look horrendous. Fortunately, exercise-equipment companies are waking up to all this. Design-forward models such as the Keiser M3i indoor cycling bike, Technogym’s sleek, display-worthy MyRun treadmill, and the chic SlimBeam cable machine from German company NOHrD are challenging the notion that home gear has to be bulky, dark, and cumbersome. And then there is a genre of equipment I’d never before touched: the rowing machine, otherwise known as an ergometer, or erg. In this locked-down era, what is more evocative of untethered liberty than gliding alone on water—even if in simulation?
And rowing is currently having a moment. High-end startups such as Hydrow, launched in 2017, and, more recently, Ergatta, have rolled out gleaming new machines. (Peloton is reportedly developing one, too.) Rowing, contrary to what you might suspect, isn’t all about your arms. An ergometer uses an estimated 75 to 90 percent of your body’s muscles, and a vigorous one-hour session can burn over 500 calories—more than cycling. “It’s low-impact, unlike running, which can be tough on the joints,” says Pablo Castañeda, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone. “Rowing is an exceptional exercise to specifically strengthen the core and provide a whole-body workout.” With proper technique, Castañeda continues, “rowing can improve posture and reduce back pain.” And the exercise may prove a pandemic palliative in nonphysical ways as well: “It’s so meditative,” says Arshay Cooper, who, in the 1990s, joined the country’s first African American high school rowing team, in West Chicago (a story told in the new documentary A Most Beautiful Thing). “You can collect your thoughts and there’s this magical rhythm,” says Cooper.
After investigating the options, I decided to try the Brooklyn-based Ergatta—a pricey $2,200, but the machine can be stored vertically, the fly-wheel contains real water for an authentic resistance, and with its rich cherrywood, it looks more like an elegant piece of furniture than something usually found on the cardio floor. As Ergatta founder Tom Aulet tells me, “Many of our customers are people who don’t want their fitness equipment to be hideous.”
Rowing, I learn from Ergatta’s short tutorial, essentially has four parts: The catch—knees bent, arms extended, spine straight; then the drive, with extended legs; the core-engaging finish—handle to breastbone; and lastly, the recovery, a relaxed return to the front of the machine. I feel that I’m settling into a rhythm but phone a friend to confirm. Paul Daniels, a former World Rowing champion, squints concernedly through the Zoom screen as I frenetically row. “Don’t dive forward with your shoulders, don’t hunch your back,” he says. “It’s like that quote from Dirty Dancing, ‘You gotta hold the frame,’” he says.
By the end of my first session, my legs are so tired I have to lift them out of the machine with my hands. But I have prevailed; every day for an hour, I row my problems away. Within three weeks, muscle definition has returned to my arms and legs, and my stomach is more taut. I have calluses on my palms, but the back pain that has plagued me for years has vanished. Most important, the sound of the rushing water has been a balm to my frazzled nerves. “I love that sound, don’t you?” says Cooper. “It’s like you’re downloading serenity.” At this moment, that’s something we can all use.
Hydrow Rower package
NOHrD SlimBeam cable machine
The Egratta Rower