At Rō Fitness, get a rowing workout without the water

Ergometers let athletes combine strength training and cardio workouts.

I’m pulling as fast and hard as I can, eyes glued to the digital display dangling like an electronic carrot in front of my stationary rowing machine.

I’m generating about 160 watts on the machine, so I crank harder. My feet stay in place as my seat zooms back and forth on its track. The number on the screen inches higher — 174, 198, 217 and, for a flickering instant, 237 watts.

I feel like the proverbial duck out of water here at Rō Fitness in the Waller Creek Boathouse, where former University of Texas swimmer Chris Kemp is leading an hourlong indoor rowing class while sheets of rain slide from the sky outside. Kemp coaches the U.S. Masters Swimming team I train with at Western Hills Athletic Club, and most of the 10 rowers taking the class today swim with that group, too. We’re trying something new.

“Think about your legs,” Kemp tells us. “Keep your back straight. Think about the handle and seat staying connected.”

That’s a lot to think about, but I’m doing my best. Iggy Pop blasts from the speakers while we work our way through a series of high-intensity intervals broken by rest.

Kemp, like a lot of the people who train here, doesn’t actually row on water. Ever. His strength and fitness outweigh his rowing prowess, meaning he’d likely tip over if he rowed hard enough to get the workout he wanted on the water. Trust him. He’s tried.

That’s OK. As Rō Fitness proves, you don’t need a lake or river to get a good workout, and 70 percent of the students who come here have never rowed on water, either.

Former University of Oklahoma rower Chelsea Moore teamed with former University of Texas rower Zach Richardson to open the studio in February 2014. They’ve since opened a second location in Tarrytown.

“It’s quick, efficient and a great workout,” Moore says. And while it may look like rowing’s all about arm strength, it’s not. “It’s 75 percent legs, like a deadlift.”

It’s also low-impact and easy on the joints. That’s why runners with impact injuries like it for cross training or rehabilitation.

Kemp, a 6-foot, 8-inch All-American who swam at the University of Texas from 1999 to 2003, started working out on an ergometer, the fancy name for a rowing machine, a year and a half ago to supplement his swimming regimen. Running hurt his knees, and he couldn’t play basketball anymore because of an old injury.

“I thought this would be a good, low-stress workout,” he says. “Then I realized my height and aerobic capacity from swimming translated well.”

He liked it so much he entered the Erg Rodeo held at Gregory Gym on the UT campus in February, winning the men’s open competition. He’s now ranked 52nd in the world in his category. His height, he says, gives him an advantage. Now he’s coaching several times a week, too.

Progress is measured by watts, and Kemp can hold 460 watts over a 6-minute period. He once generated 1,060 watts — and Moore had to stand on the front of the ergometer to keep it from rising off the floor.

“With swimming and basketball, I’m never going to be as fast or as good as I was,” he says. “To find a sport and see myself make improvements is fun.”

I like it, too.

The upswing? You can do it in all kinds of weather. You don’t have to master perfect rowing technique to get a good workout. It combines strength training and cardio training. If the weather’s good, the ergs are moved onto the deck, and you get to look out over Lady Bird Lake while you huff and puff. And super strong people can work out alongside newbies — no one gets left behind.

Downsides? That rock hard seat. It makes for a sore butt. And I’ve raised a small blister on my hand before the class ends. It takes a minute to figure out how to program the machine. And it takes a while to figure out how to use your body to generate power. The day after the workout, I’m a little sore between the shoulder blades, but that would be true with any new exercise routine.

The workout got good reviews from my fellow swimmers.

“Cardiowise it’s just as taxing (as swimming), but it’s different muscle groups,” says Travis Robertson, 31.

“We can breathe,” says Jeremy Smitheal, 43.

“In swimming, your head is kind of buried in the water. Here, there’s music,” Kemp says.

Our group includes a few regulars, including Erin Hood, 37, who likes the interval training and strength component of rowing. “It’s kind of replaced running for me for a little bit,” Hood says. “You feel it from head to toe. I feel strong, but nothing hurts.”

Amy Gritton, 37, a photographer, student and mother of three, says it’s a fast way to get in some quality exercise.

“I’d been spending all this time doing legs one day, arms one day and cardio the next, and this is all that together,” she says. “I don’t have time for three separate workouts, but this works for me. My legs have never been stronger and cardiovascularly I’m way more fit than ever, which is amazing for something you do while sitting down.”

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