Hydrow review in a nutshell: it’s a bit like Peloton but on an indoor rowing machine.
With gyms and fitness centres still facing a bunch of restrictions, now is the time to invest in something like this Hydrow indoor rowing machine, which fuses live online masterclasses from real athletes, a realistic rowing experience and off-machine workouts that see it climb to the upper echelons of our best rowing machine guide.
Just like Peloton and its running sibling Peloton Tread, Hydrow features a mix of live rowing classes, hosted by athletes and decorated rowers of yore, as well as an extensive library of on-demand sessions. These also include bodyweight strength workouts, pilates, stretching and lots more.
Even the menu screens, live headboard and massive 22-inch touchscreen display (with front-facing sound bar) feel eerily similar to the New York-based home fitness phenomenon but hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
But Hydrow differs in so much as these classes are filmed out in the real world, typically on beautiful lakes, riverbanks, sunny bays or on the jetties of very expensive-looking properties. The idea is to transport the home rower to somewhere exotic so they can forget they are actually sweating all over their living room floor.
The Hydrow feels expensive compared to a lot of other rowers we’ve tried, but then very few offer as an immersive rowing experience.
Granted, you can save almost £800 with the NordicTrack RW900 and get close, thanks to the bundled membership with studio-based iFit, but Hydrow feels like a system that has been built from ground-up with rowing fans in mind.
Hydrow review: build quality and features
It is fair to say that Hydrow is a tasty looking piece of fitness kit, as it eschews the often bulky fan unit seen on things like the Concept2 RowErg and even the aforementioned NordicTrack RW900, and replaces it with a sleek exterior shell that houses a unique magnetic resistance system inside.
The lines are clean, the surfaces covered in stylish contrast greys and metallic flourishes, while the large touchscreen looks premium. The execution isn’t quite as slick as what you’ll find on Peloton Tread, for example, which goes one step further with its little touches, like a fabric cover for the sound bar and tactile mottled finish to the exterior housing.
That said, Hydrow’s ergonomics are great, with an extremely comfortable padded seat, reinforced foot straps and a well-placed rowing handle making it easy to adjust most settings without having to unstrap.
The touchscreen is essentially a big Android tablet running Hydrow’s own software and, as a result, can suffer from the odd technical gremlin. Switch it off at the plug (rather than let it fall into sleep mode) and the start up procedure takes a long time. It wouldn’t remember my Wi-Fi password either, so I had to input that every time I turned it on, and the Bluetooth connection to a set of Sony headphones was patchy, often refusing to adjusting volume mid-workout. But this could be my headphones being stupid.
Above all, it feels like a quality item, but you’ll need a fair amount of room at home to house one. It measures 219cm long, 64cm wide and 120cm, plus it doesn’t split or fold like rivals. Instead, you’ll have to make do with investing in an optional upright storage kit, bolting an anchor to your wall, tipping the 66kg unit on its end and leaning it against a wall.
Hydrow review: online workouts and app
Without wanting to sound like a broken record, Hydrow’s menu system and interface feels awfully similar to Peloton’s. There’s a home screen with upcoming live classes and suggested workouts, a page for tracking stats and badges earned and a library of workouts that can be filtered by instructor, length and workout type. It’s a tried and tested approach, but it feels like everything in this arena now feels the same.
Cleverly, the Hydrow will suggest beginner and introductory workouts when you very first get on the machine, with various instructors giving a rundown of rowing form and breaking down the numerous numbers that appear on-screen. It’s nice, because rowing is, in fact, quite tricky.
The numbers you’ll focus on are stroke rate, a rowing standard metres per 500m ‘speed’ readout, an average pace, calories and total metres rowed. All of this data feeds into a leaderboard that is either live during those live classes or acts as an arcade-style ‘all-time score’ for you to try and beat.
Alongside some motivational words from your instructor, this is the main source of motivation (fro me, anyway), as beating some blank avatar from Wisconsin rapidly becomes an obsession that spurs you on to push probably a lot harder than you’d like.
Away from the machine, there’s a smartphone app (iOS and Android, naturally) that allows you to access that massive library of workouts wherever you may be. In fact, it’s sometimes nice to indulge in little pilates on a tablet or smartphone, because although the Hydrow's screen does swivel outwards (with some encouragement), it requires you have plenty of room around the machine, which we're not all blessed with.
It’s also a stylish and neat hub for which to follow there members, check out a scrolling news feed, keep an eye on your activity and make any tweaks to your profile. There’s also a support function and instructional videos on how to use the Hydrow.
Hydrow review: the rowing experience
As rowing machines go, the Hydrow is an interesting proposition, because it avoids the often noisy but ubiquitous fan resistance model for a purely electromagnetic system. Adjusting ‘the drag’, as Hydrow puts it, requires a tap of the screen mid-workout. This essentially piles on the resistance and makes it harder to row.
Admittedly, I’m not a decorated Olympic rower or a professional athlete, but the stroke feel isn’t as fluid as some of the more professional machines I’ve sampled recently. The classic Concept2 RowErg and the technologically advanced Technogym Skillrow both pack a more natural and powerful rowing stroke, for example, while the WaterRower Performance Ergometer even sounds nice.
This is a minor niggle, because working out on the Hydrow is super quiet and still as enjoyable and comfortable as a punishing HIIT session can be. Talking of sessions, the main rowing workouts are broken down into three categories: Drive, Sweat and Breath. The former is about as hard as things get, while the latter is a more chilled out, mindful affair.
Max workout time is 45 minutes, where a professional instructor will talk you through the entire session while trying to avoid other boats and bits of dangerous flotsam, but anything over 25 or 30 from the Drive section feels really long and will likely have you gasping on the floor like a fish out of water. Essentially, and as with any piece of home cardio equipment, these sessions are largely based around interval training techniques: you row easily for a while, up the ante for a bit and then recover.
Of course, there’s a bit more science to it than that, with some sessions designed to build endurance, others crafted to improve strength and some to help cool down and relax muscles, but it’s still just rowing at a different pace, innit?
Also, rowing is quite tough and there’s a lot of technique involved if you want to actually get anywhere fast and not put your back out. For me, this feels like more of a barrier to entry. The best exercise bike or best treadmill you can get hold of are both easier to master than any rowing machine, and that includes Hydrow.
Similarly, it’s difficult to take a sip of water when rowing or adjust the volume on screen, or fiddle with the drag resistance settings, because you kind of need two hands and it’s really easy to fall out of rhythm and slip down that leaderboard.
I still found it mightily enjoyable though, and experts say that 86 per cent of your muscles are used in every (correct) rowing stroke, including those big groups in the legs, upper body and abs. Just 30 hard minutes on the Hydrow and it feels like you’ve smashed an intense full-body workout, muscles screaming at the end. But it still has you coming back for more.
The instructors are all very knowledgable humans and experts in their field, although you’ll find some are more irritating than others. There’s a lot of chat and, unlike Peloton or iFit studio classes, very few feel properly synched up to the soundtrack. Even with the audio settings changed so there’s more emphasis on tunes and less instructor waffle, there’s not that adrenaline boost of a big bass drop in a spin class or a thumping dance track to get you through a HIIT session. Peloton seems to make better use of the soundtrack.
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Hydrow review: verdict
Hydrow is a slick indoor rowing experience that uses a similar live online class framework as Peloton but mixes it up with instructors that row in real locations, many of which are stunning to behold. It’s a neat trick and one that manages to transport the mind away from a sweaty room to somewhere more exotic.
Like Peloton and iFit, the live leaderboards and motivational instructors really help push users to their limits and the simple art of rowing is arguably one of the best, low impact ways of improving cardio and generally toning up without leaving the home. There's also longevity in the off-machine classes, the regular challenges and ability to track performance over time.
Alas, there have been many mentions of Peloton in this review, but it is unavoidable, because it will feel very familiar to anyone who has tried one of the at-home fitness giant’s Bike or Tread classes. In Hydrow’s case, the experience doesn’t quite feel as glossy or polished as the stuff coming out of Peloton’s New York studios and the community spirit just isn’t there yet. But it’s still early days and this will likely come with time. The actual rowing machine is hugely impressive.