A few years back I was invited to try out a prototype and new concept (no, not that one) in rowing machines. It's called the Floatrower and it's no exaggeration to say it brings a whole new dimension, literally, to the activity of indoor rowing.
I can't say anything more about this particular machine at this point, except to say this exciting new model is nearing the market.
But this post is about the position of the rowing machine in relation to other gym machines. When you're next at the gym, take a look around at the cardio machines and see who is using what. I've done this for my last three visits and here's what I've observed.
On average during my hour and half visit, the cardio machine usage was roughly this:-
1) Treadmill - 80% in use (16 machines)
2) Elliptical - 75% in use (8 machines)
3) Exercise bike -70% in use (8 machines)
4) Stairmaster -65% in use (4 machines)
5) Rowers - 50% in use (4 machines)
Bear in mind this was all done in my head while on the treadmill for much of that time, but I'd say it's a fairly accurate representation of the popularity of each type of machine. The treadmill makes up the bulk of the cardio machines in the gym I use and is immensely popular. I prefer to run outside, but in the winter it's great to be able to run indoors and avoid the muddy fields - and I'm obviously not the only one! Likewise, during a heatwave in the summer, the treadmill offers a great workout in an air-conditioned environment.
And here's another interesting thing, most of the people using the rowing machines are using it as their 5 minute warm-up, and most will tell you they just want to get it out of the way and can't wait to get off. Some go as far to say it's boring, dull, same old up and down etc. Now of course you can say this about the treadmill... 'it's just putting one foot in front of the other', but why are they still far more popular than the rowing machine?
Do people think they're getting more benefit from running or cycling over rowing? Do they feel less engaged by the humble rowing machine?
At home, the rowing machine has the advantage of taking up less room than a treadmill, and in most cases the bigger elliptical/ cross-trainers. But if people don't use the rowers at the gym, are they likely to buy one for the home?
So what is the future for the rower? In my view, they have to become more immersive, engaging and challenging to get people back on them. The Floatrower does exactly this by adding a tilt and a dip instead of just sliding up and down the beam. This not only works more muscles, but it makes the whole experience much more interesting. A number of brands are now utilizing new technologies such as apps and visual training programs, but perhaps they have to go further, such as the platform developed by Peloton.
It would be a great shame if the rowing machine falls out of fashion and gathers dust in the corner of the gym. But gym operators are not going to take up space and pay maintenance fees for machines that are rarely used. Concept2 perhaps have to take a leaf from Floatrower and move forward in new technologies. With the cost of tech much lower than ever before, why not utilize motion capture, Smartphone apps and performance metrics like heart rate, blood pressure etc to take the rower to the next level and ensure their future. And of course, in the process, keep us all hungry to getting back on the seat!
Update Nov 2020: You can find out the latest about the FloatRower here...
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.