My problem with the gym has always been that I love cardio, but find it incredibly boring to do cardio in a room filled with other people doing cardio. Walking into a gym right after work alongside a rush of folks with the same idea isn’t very appealing in itself. Behold! A line of sweaty health drones best differentiated by the uniqueness of their B.O.! Group classes are fine, if you’re down with the unspoken team camaraderie that comes with spinning or Zumba or whatever. I used to play team sports, I get it. But if we’re not accomplishing a shared goal, I’d rather not feel the pressure of performing in front of a mirrored wall together. I’m an editor, I do that all day at work anyhow.
My ideal workout lets me go at my own pace, uninterrupted by anyone else, and focused solely and selfishly on myself without distraction. This limits my options in the winter. I partially tore my ACL years ago, and running is more trouble than it’s worth in cold weather. The treadmill is monotonous as hell. Walking is what I do to get around, not a motivating exercise. Stationary bikes are okay, but as someone who knows how to ride a real bike, I find it incredibly dull to spend a ton of time on something with wheels that isn’t going anywhere. Until recently, I had resigned myself to a long season on the elliptical. But then I saw a rowing machine in the corner of the room.
Rowing is intimidating, it really is. It requires advanced full-body coordination, while emulating a real sport enjoyed by real athletes. Which is why the rowing machine tends to stunt on its peers in a gym setting. It feels bougie, does it not? I mean, my first understanding that rowing or “crew” was a sport at all came from watching the movie Skulls, which is about an elite secret society of rich boys at an Ivy League prep school. Rowing is an activity mostly associated with the good ol’ boys back at Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, and thus feels aggressively white and classist as far as exercise equipment goes. (In the movie, the only person of color on the team is the guy who sits at the top of the boat and yells encouragement at the ones actually rowing.) Needless to say, I’ve held it against this hulk-y, sprawling machine ever since. If nothing else, it’s an easy way out of ever trying it.
Like the other cardio machines, the rower primarily measures distance and endurance. Given that it’s physically more challenging—you’re pushing off from your legs, and pulling on a bar that represents the paddles, and you repeat this motion forever—it can be scary to actually get on it for the first time. If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend the first minute wondering how you’ll make it through the next five. The first few times, I made it to 10 or 15 minutes, and stopped when I decided I was bored (but was actually just very tired). Though watching seconds tick by on the clock at a snail’s pace only made matters worse.
The guide chart on the wall next to the machine helpfully explains that a beginning rower should go for 10-20 minutes at a steady rate somewhere between 18 and 30 strokes per minute. To burn calories, they suggest you aim for intervals wherein you row hard for about one minute every three to four minutes. (That changes depending on how long you’ll stay on.) To keep your heart rate up! Do warmup and cooldown intervals, too; as your body gets accustomed to doing this a few times a week, more dedicated rowing workouts can last from 45 to 60 minutes. (Take breaks as needed, though! Don’t be a loon.)
How to keep track of a pattern without staring at a clock, though? I read somewhere that you should make a playlist that you love too much to turn off—no skippable songs—and then let each song act as an interval pattern to follow. Row steadily, at a comfortable pace through each verse of the song, and speed it up during the choruses. So, I made a playlist—Mr. Vegas’s “Bruk It Down,” Don Omar’s “Danza Kuduro,” Ludacris’s “Stand Up,” Tony Matterhorn’s “Dutty Wine,” Nicki Minaj’s “Trini Dem Girls,” Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” A$AP Ferg’s “Work,” Kanye’s “New Workout Plan” (heh), and other songs that motivate me and stoke my inner rage, or help me escape to a happy place while internally seething in public. With my playlist in hand, I went to the gym again, swearing that I would show stronger commitment. I hit 10 minutes a little easier, but at 15 was tempted to call it quits. God, this is a slog. How on earth was I going to get to 20?
And then Pitbull’s “Culo” came on in my headphones. You know the song. The one that goes, “Ahora que si, esa hevita esta enterita tiene tremendo CULO! Esta tan linda, esta tan rica, tiene tremendo CULO!” As I rowed, I thought about how funny it is that the Spanish slang word for booty (“Culo!”) is very, very similar to the Gujarati word for booty (“Kula!”), which reminded me that I still needed to reply to an emotionally draining text that my Gujarati mother had sent me earlier that day. It was from her new series of morning texts where she encourages me to seize the day and date “actively” because I’m “getting older,” without acknowledging that a) I already kinda am dating, b) time is a flat circle, or c) no matter what, she will still not have grandchildren in the next two years. It is incredibly difficult to be patient and calm with a loving, persistent worrywart. I mentally crafted the reply I desperately wanted to send (”LOL U R BEIN A PAIN IN THE CULO. CHILL, MY QUEEN. I’M GR8, BUD. EVERYTHING IS FINE. WE ARE ALL FINE HERE. I AM FINE.”), and then mentally composed what I’d actually send her. (“I know you mean well, but these texts are too much and you have to chill a little on this. Love you.”)
By the time my brain remembered to check the numbers on the clock, five minutes had passed. I had hit 20 minutes on the rower, and felt re-energized. My meter told me I’d been going at a steady 30 strokes a minute during that time, which means that arguing with my mother in my head both focused and fueled me. Damn, it turns out that time flies when you work out your frustrations on something that can’t fight back. Maybe I’m on to something!
I don’t fuck with youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu blasted through my headphones next. Big Sean’s nasally whining is cathartic on every front, but always reminds me of a particularly depressing memory, back when a startup publication I worked with folded six months after hiring its staff. “IDFWU” came out right as my friends watched shady investors burn their dream—and financial stability—to the ground, and it was just the song we needed. On the rower, however, it’s better used as the petty breakup anthem it’s intended to be. I thought about my two most serious exes as I row, row, rowed my non-existent boat to nowhere. There’s the one that I most certainly do not fuck with, that sociopathic Swiss scumbag, and the one that I sometimes fuck with, even though every sensible person I know has advised me against it. As penance for my poor willpower on this front, I assigned myself three more minutes of rowing. Besides, Nicki’s “Trini Dem Girls” was on now. Weh di hot gyal dem? Right here! It me.
Damn, 28 minutes down. I AM A GOD. A god who is thirsty and needs a drink of water. As I considered whether to stop or push to the 30-minute mark, I noticed a middle-aged man gesturing from the rower next to mine, and took out my headphones.
“Sorry, my music was on loud.”
You’re at a 7.
Your machine is set to a resistance of 7.
I’m just letting you know that it’s up that high.
“Yeah, I set it to that.”
Oh, I thought you didn’t know.
“[Forces a nervous laugh.]”
Goddammit, why did this guy make me pause my music to tell me something I already knew? Why do men consistently underestimate the competence of women? Especially older men? Why is it a recurring theme in my life that men assume so much about what I am and am not capable of, instead of just asking?
Oh, Jesus, here we go. My annoyance at this man and all the men he represents will easily fuel another five minutes of rowing. In the moment, I was thrilled to channel Claire Underwood (Robin Wright’s character from House of Cards), who might have been my subconscious rowing inspiration to begin with, now that I think about it. (She goes to her in-house rower whenever she’s especially infuriated with the way she’s been used to advance her husband’s—and “their”—political agenda.) In the show, she is a figure of grace, and plays the game as she must to advance her own goals, even when she’s also helping the men who need her. She’s a person of influence and a politician’s wife, and not the type to make a public spectacle. Instead, she rows, and so will I.
Sadly, I am not a fictional human, but a real one, and this gym-brah’s comment continued to nag at me. Was my form bad? Within seconds, I became extremely self-conscious about my shoulders and posture.
This is a thing about rowing—it involves your entire body. You push off with your legs, and slide back as you pull the paddle-bar towards your mid-upper stomach. If you’re doing it right, your shoulders will be pulled back, and you’ll feel your abs work with your back and arms to counteract the resistance of the machine. Being aware of your posture is key to actually getting exercise from the workout, and getting the right muscles to do the right things without spraining or the like. Pay attention to it. It hurts, but it’s kind of nice to imagine all your muscles working out together as pals.
The man next to me got up after awhile, which was great, because I really did need to stop and drink some more water. (You should stop every now and then and drink water and/or stretch, by the way. This is something I learned a week or so in.) Glancing at his clock, I saw that he’d made it to 10 minutes. I looked at my own clock, which was approaching 40. AW, HELL YA. Victory is mine.
Illustration by my rowing partner, Tara Jacoby.