I looked at the rowing machine before me. I looked at the 14 other people sitting down to their rowers. I looked up front at the instructor who promised to take us on a strenuous 50-minute rowing workout that he said would "change the way we think about fitness."
And I suddenly became very afraid.
I wasn't afraid I couldn't hack it. I was afraid my back couldn't hack it.
Ten years earlier, having heard about the great all-body workout and monster calorie burn of rowing, I sat down and attacked a rowing machine at my gym for about 20 minutes. About two weeks later, I was finally able to walk without wrenching pain screaming up and down my spine.
No wonder there's only one or two rowing machines at the gym, I thought -- and why no one is ever using them. It seemed obvious why participation in indoor fitness rowing plunged from 14 million to 6 million from 1987 to 2001, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn. -- and why sales of rowing machines fell from 17% of fitness machines in 1987 to the point where the association no longer kept track.
Who would want to risk rowing when more popular -- and more back-friendly -- alternatives such as steppers, ellipticals and Spinning classes are now on the scene?
But some say that rowing's relentless decline is set for a U-turn. "It's only down because people don't know how to use the machine," says my instructor, Josh Crosby. "Rowing is a technical skill, like golf. Teach people proper form, crank up the music, get enthusiastic, knowledgeable instructors, and they'll love it. Rowing could be the next Spinning."
Now, comparing a back-busting relic like rowing to a worldwide phenomenon like Spinning might seem a little daffy, but the former Brown University rower, 32, is turning naysayers into believers.
Two years ago, Crosby brought 12 ergometers (rowing machines' official name) and the idea for a group rowing program to the Revolution Fitness studio in Santa Monica and soon was selling out seven classes a week. Building on that success, in March he launched the concept at industry bellwether Sports Club L.A., which purchased 25 ergs for its West L.A. club and watched its newborn "Indo-Row" classes max out almost overnight.
In May, Crosby successfully rolled out Indo-Row at Sports Club's Beverly Hills branch and has begun gearing up for September launches in the Irvine and New York clubs, with Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., down the road.
As the fitness world tries to determine if Indo-Row is trend or fad, Crosby meticulously puts instructor trainees through three-month apprenticeships. And he's not alone. Over the last two years, former collegiate rowing coach Angela Hart has taught fully booked rowing classes at two D.C.-area Gold's Gyms and trained dozens of instructors. As the program director for the Indoor Rowing Training and Certification Institute, she has certified 84 instructors around the country, 30 in the last six months.
"We're on the cusp of this thing [rowing] exploding," Hart says. She recently conducted a workshop for CrossFit, a hot new workout program that makes frequent use of rowing, and trained instructors on the reality TV weight-loss show, "The Biggest Loser."
"They will be using rowing machines on shows airing in the fall," she says. "When that hits, the benefits will be too obvious to ignore."
The machines work all the major muscle groups -- legs, butt, back, arms, you name it -- and can burn 500 to 800 calories in a 50-minute class. Not only is it great cross-training for such activities as cycling and running, it's uniquely democratic. The rowing machine, alone of all machines, is horizontal, so overweight people don't have to support their own weight.
And its appeal crosses age lines. At Revolution, 47-year-old Anna McDowell rows with her teenage son Quinn Harper, and heavy-set Ricardo Navarro proudly keeps pace with the sleeker set.
"Unlike any other classroom workout, it's accessible for everyone -- old and young, fit and fat," Hart says. "Low to the ground, low impact, no pounding. The motion is so fluid that I even taught a rowing class the day before I gave birth to my son.
"We just need to get instructors trained so that people can do this right," she added. "It's not like aerobics class, where anything goes. Form is key to rowing."
How to do it right
"What happened to you is typical," Hart told me. "People tend to get on an erg and pull like mad with their arms -- and hurt their back and shoulders and never try it again. But rowing isn't mainly about arms. You don't need a strong upper body. On the contrary, rowing is 70% legs."
The classic rowing stroke travels from the strongest muscle group to the weakest. It is initiated by the legs, then the torso and finally is finished by the arms.
"It's like lifting a heavy box overhead," says Crosby. "You initially use legs, and then call upon the back, shoulders and arms in the latter part of the movement."