The most significant weight loss of my life was thanks in part to a rowing machine. Back in 2001, dismayed by the pounds I’d piled on since moving to San Francisco — city of amazing food — I splurged on a $1,200 cherry wood WaterRower. This was long before its starring role in House of Cards, but it was said to be Steven Spielberg’s favorite workout machine, so I thought sure, why not.
Every day, next to a view of the Golden Gate, I’d pull that handle and make those soothing, sloshing water noises. It settled into a routine where I’d row for 3 miles in 25 minutes or less. That didn’t seem a huge effort, just enough to get sweaty and breathless, but by doing it every day and tweaking my diet, I lost 25 pounds in the space of a few months. And it stuck. Though my weight has yo-yo’d below that line with various diets and exercise in the years since, it never once went above what I still think of as my WaterRower threshold.
High intensity • low impact • Extremely motivational • Helpful instruction in beautiful locations • Beautifully designed
Very pricey • Some social media features not well thought out
Forget everything you think you know about Peloton-style fitness at home: Hydrow has reinvented it.
But when it came to the Hydrow, a $2,200 machine with a screen full of subscription fitness classes that has been described as the Peloton of rowing since its 2019 launch, I did not feel like the target audience. Sure, I liked rowing, but not with instructors. I’m on record calling Peloton unnecessary and expensive. In the Hydrow price range, I would have opted for the Ergatta, a video game-like engine built atop a WaterRower. Reports that Hydrow is chasing a $1 billion IPO only increased my skepticism.
It came as a surprise, then, that in testing the Hydrow I fell head-over-heels in love.
It came as a surprise, then, that in testing the Hydrow I fell head-over-heels in love. Its many motivational tricks worked. Merely by watching its Olympic-level athletes, I improved my form. In short bursts throughout the day, I found myself going almost twice as far as I did in my WaterRower days — and was occasionally energized enough to go for a run, my pandemic-era workout of choice, afterward.
And because here in 2021 we know that weight isn’t as important as where you store it, I’m happy to report that my gut measurement dropped a third of an inch after one week of Hydrow-ing.
It came as even more of a surprise when my rowing-skeptical wife gave the Hydrow a try and was equally motivated, finding that it made her sore in core muscles she never knew she had. You can form a two-person rowing team that translates total time spend, and distance in one weekly race, into positions on leaderboards.
So that’s what we did. Our team name reflected not only the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’re currently rewatching but also our surrender to this strange new beast in our living room: Hail Hydrow.
Ride the steel dinosaur, save lives
It’s a good thing you can get multiple family members on one Hydrow account because there’s no denying it will hit you hard in the wallet — $2,200 is enough of a chunk of change without the $38 a month subscription. Hydrow offers free at-home trials for 30 days, setup and breakdown included, so at least you can try out its “Just Row” mode for non-subscribers. (There is, alas, no free trial of the subscription.) Just Row features a few starter videos, heart rate monitor connectivity, and the ability to change the resistance or “drag” (although Hydrow doesn’t recommend doing that; its magnetic innards are set by default to the resistance of water.)
While few are likely to buy this thing for Just Row mode, there’s plenty to be said for the Hydrow machine on its own. For one thing, it feels better to sit in than the WaterRower, giving you more width to work with in the foot straps, the seat, and the handlebar. For another, it’s a bold design, like some kind of modern art dinosaur made of steel (which in turn makes it weigh 145 pounds; thank goodness for those front wheels).
The WaterRower will store neatly against a wall just by standing on its end; the Hydrow requires a wall-mounting kit, and even with that it will look rather precarious. Still, the machine looks cool and curious enough from all angles that you can justify having it out as an objet d’art when guests come over.
According to decibel tests, there’s not much difference in sound level between the WaterRower’s tank and the Hydrow’s inner magnetic wheel. The Hydrow’s sound is certainly stranger to the ear, however; instead of sloshing water, you get something like the rising and falling noise of a ghost going “oooooo.” Stranger still is the fact that you hear the ghost noiseless when you’re sitting on the thing, and that the Hydrow wheel gives off fewer decibels when you’re rowing faster.
This counts as one of many ways in which the Hydrow motivates you to up your game. A couple of other unusual reasons to come back to the dinosaur every day: Milestone gifts (I’m a third of the way to the water bottle you get sent at 100k; I don’t need more water bottles, but I need this one), and Hydrow’s donation to Water.org that will give one family in the developing world clean water for every 25 days you row.
Now there’s a motivation. What, you’re not going to exercise today? Oh, you’re too tired? There are little kids in Africa waiting for drinking water that won’t kill them, you absolute monster.
Rowing, rowing, rowing on the river
And so we come to the content. The Hydrow library consists of a couple thousand workouts where you’re watching and listening to one of thirteen athletes while they row on one of 21 river and lake locations around the world, from the Oakland Estuary to Loch Ness. Through the screen’s very decent speakers or Bluetooth headphones, you have the option to add in the music your trainer selected at a couple of different mix levels; you also have the option of subtitles for the instructor, a must-have if you want to pump the music way up.
(I tend to find the instructors’ song choices a little basic; then again I’m a nerd who literally spent years curating perfectly-paced running playlists, so your musical mileage may vary.)
The size of the screen (22 inches) is the same as the Peloton, but on it you’re going to see the advantage of Hydrow straight away. Instead of gazing at sweaty bodies in some studio, you’re out in nature, in bright sunshine or early mist; or you’re sculling through a city you may have always wanted to visit (hello, Charleston and Miami Beach!). Instead of vaguely matching the pace at which your instructor is pedaling, you get a clear, close-up view of exactly how a top athlete rows.
Your only job is to follow them, stroke for stroke, pushing off with your heels, keeping your back straight. You can get pleasantly hypnotized just watching their hands.
And let’s get down to brass tacks here: Rowers’ bodies are aesthetically pleasing to look at, perhaps more so than with any other form of cardio. I mean no slight against my fellow runners when I say that we tend to build muscles in our thighs and nowhere else (“running is not about vanity,” Matthew Inman, a.k.a. The Oatmeal, says in a hilarious comic on this topic). Rowers tend to build nice broad shoulders, gun-show biceps, and thighs for days.
So while you’re copying their form, you’re also getting a glimpse of your potential future figure — which is especially motivational once you notice your outline trending in that direction.
Hydrow’s marketing often uses a line you’ll find repeated across the internet, that rowing uses 86 percent of your body’s muscles with each stroke. That stat can’t be found in its supposed source, a complex paper from 2008 that compares VO2 max readings in two different types of rowing. Still, if you’re doing it right you definitely feel it all over: A full-body workout in a simple, relatively short, low-impact motion.
A full-body workout in a simple, relatively short, low-impact motion.
It’s like doing weights and cardio at once, but way less of a hassle. On the private Facebook group for Hydrow members, I saw plenty of posts from former OrangeTheory members who bought this device because they found the rowing machines at their gyms the most effective part of their high-intensity workouts.
Instructors make it feel like a Peloton rowing class
So yes, the instructors will tell you about proper form and help model it. They’ll give you the usual “great job!” patter. They’ll also just chat. About what? Whatever’s on their minds. Slow, strong, purposeful rowing seems much more conducive to shooting the breeze than a hectic spin class. You row with them enough, you’ll get to know their personalities. Aquil Abdullah, for example, is a self-effacing guy who loves to talk about how great his wife and kids are; it wasn’t until after our first session that I learned he was on the 2004 Olympic rowing team.
The happy talk passes the time and masks the transition between slow and fast intervals. If exercise is all about tricking the body into doing something stressful until you feel the benefit, Hydrow may have the best tricksters around.
In another example of marketing department excess, Hydrow calls its workouts “Live Outdoor Reality.” In fact, there’s nothing live about them —other than your performance in the on-screen leaderboard. (I recommend filtering it by your age group and gender because knowing you’re in the top 1,000 rowers of all kinds means a lot less than breaking into your top 100 peers). But there is a sense of anything can happen, such as the instructor having to avoid a bridge at the last minute. Or, in this example from a workout in Oklahoma, someone on a Zipline randomly going across the river.
Not all of Hydrow’s elements work perfectly. As a Brit, I cringed at the athletes’ half-informed attempts to play tour guide to London while rowing down the Thames. There’s a series of workouts called Rowing With Hart, featuring Kevin Hart, who was recently named Hydrow’s creative director. But they disappear like Snapchats, and the only one I could view (with Hart talking to Abdullah in a split-screen) was actually de-motivational because the pair were rowing at different paces. If this celeb isn’t following along, your brain complains, why should I?
Oh, and there’s a “Feed” tab where the workouts of random strangers (that is, all users who haven’t unchecked the box that shares theirs by default) are simply listed in reverse chronological order, each one bearing the saddest two phrases in social media: “Be the first person to like this!” and “0 comments.”
It’s a slapdash approach to social that feels shoehorned in to please potential investors, and I hope Hydrow is either working on a replacement or planning on dropping that tab altogether because the more I look at it the less likely I am to row.
Luckily, your profile loads with the Home tab, which does a good job of recommending the next workout rather than making you scroll through the library. The recommended rowing ramps up slowly over weeks, from 10 minutes to 15 to 20, up to a maximum of 45. Each one is followed by the option of a 5-minute cooldown row. And if you tire of the instructors’ happy chatter and you think you have the form down cold, you can simply go for a quiet, relaxing virtual row in a dozen locations by yourself.
Add to cart?
Is this all worth $2,000 plus $38 a month of your hard-earned cash? If all of the above sounds like it would motivate you as it motivated me, then absolutely; the results should speak for themselves. But if that’s too much scratch, you also have the option of just subscribing, via the Hydrow iOS/Android app. Fire it up on a tablet, mount that tablet to a cheaper rowing machine (like a WaterRower), and get most of the benefits. Most of the Hydrow experience, no Hydrow required.