I approached RowFit with trepidation, knowing the gym is an affiliate of CrossFit, a fitness company that incorporates hard-core moves like climbing ropes and flipping tires. The gym, located on an industrial stretch of Hubbard Street, isn’t well marked; that, teamed with the Metallica blasting from the speakers pre-7am, made me even more intimidated. The ten or so other students, mostly women, were already warming up on rowing machines (or “ergs”) when I arrived. I told Spyro, the muscled instructor, that I’d never rowed before but wanted to gain upper-body strength. He offered an overview on proper form, and then, faster than a Lars Ulrich double bass drum fill, we were off and rowing.
Each hour-long session features a different workout, offering speed and distance challenges. My first class moved through a sequence of various strokes per minute: 22, then 24, then 26…. Throughout, Spyro corrected my form. I learned there are four steps to rowing: catch, drive, finish and recovery. It was all I could do to focus on these elements, never mind my speed, but the vibe was unexpectedly upbeat and motivating. Rowers cheer each other on, giving plenty of high-fives.
In subsequent classes, I continued to work on my form with help from attentive instructors. They act as personal trainers, encouraging each class member to push beyond his or her perceived limits. Contrary to popular belief, rowing isn’t just an upper-body exercise—glad I learned this sooner rather than a lower-back injury later—but targets the whole body. Much of the drive is reliant upon your legs, and when you activate those muscles and really blast off the flywheel, it’s an intense calorie-burning workout. Surprised by how much I enjoyed it, I realized that if I can dig up the steep monthly fee, I’ll be back in a heartbeat. Pricey, but worth it. 1455 W Hubbard St (773-351-9834, rowfitchicago.com). $120–$199 per month.
RowFit’s cult status
Breaking down the characteristics of a RowFit follower.
Followers’ identifying characteristics
Prone to talking about Ironmans, the CrossFit Games and splits (not the banana variety); the only people wearing Spandex in this industrial part of Chicago
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable”
Sweating to a heavy metal or hard rock soundtrack; encouraging one another through those last few murderous meters or reps
Free introductory class (basic orientation plus a workout); monthly discounts for families, teachers, firefighters, police and military
Why RowFit is fun
A charity rower says it’s the best gym she’s ever belonged to.
RowFit is the best gym I’ve ever belonged to. It feels weird to even call it a gym; it’s a community of people who all want to support each other in their fitness goals. There are varying levels of fitness represented, and I think that’s a huge strength of the community RowFit has created. Some people want to lose weight and introduce exercise into their lives, while others are completing an Ironman. We all cheer each other on no matter where we are on our fitness journey. I’d never go back to a regular gym, and if you add up the amount of attention given to participants, it’s far less expensive (and more fun) than having a personal trainer.—Jenn Gibbons, head of a rowing team for breast cancer survivors called Recovery on Water, as told to Laura Pearson