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Hydrow review: An immersive rowing machine experience that builds muscle fast

My mind was blown by the transformation in my level of strength and the ease with which I can crank out an effective, engaging workout.
matt-miller-headshot.jpg
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributor on

In my teens, I ran track as a short distance sprinter and played football. When I decided to go to a US service academy for college, I added long-distance running. I then played college football, and rugby until I was 41. Throughout all of those years, running was the primary fitness activity that also offered me the chance to free my mind and formulate ideas.

After I turned 50, my wife started getting worried about the long term viability of my knees. Despite the fact that I don't share her concerns, I started looking around at other options. We have an elliptical machine, but I have to use that for hours to burn the calories of short runs, and I don't like the experience. I have a bike and enjoy riding it, but not as a form of regular exercise since I would need to spend a couple of hours on it to achieve my desired burn rate. I then started looking at rowing machines with their advertised 86% engagement of the muscles in your body. 

At CES 2022, I saw a huge Hydrow booth and went to check it out. A woman came over to answer my questions regarding the Hydrow and had me sit down on one to walk through a few features and row a few strokes. It turns out that I was talking with Dani Hansen, who was a collegiate rower at the University of Washington, just down the road from where I live. She is an Paralympic medalist and a fantastic person. She definitely piqued my interest in the Hydrow, and then following CES, the PR rep reached out to me about testing one out for ZDNet.  

Pros
  • High-quality build and elegant design
  • Quiet rowing with Bluetooth headset support
  • Amazing coaches who keep you engaged all workout long
  • Outstanding selection of rowing and other workouts
  • Large touchscreen display with good speaker performance
  • Useful mobile application
Cons
  • Expensive hardware cost

Note: Hydrow is offering a Memorial Day sale bundle for $1995. 

Specifications

Display 22-inch 1920x1080 pixel resolution touchscreen
Speakers Two 3W front-facing at the bottom of the display
Materials Aluminum and steel frame with flat anthracite polymer body
Connectivity Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi
Weight limit Up to 375 pounds
Height limit Up to 36-inch inseam
Dimensions 86 inches long x 25 inches wide x 47 inches high.
Weight 145 lbs

After testing the Hydrow for a couple of weeks, I almost gave up on it since it didn't seem to challenge me enough, and the calorie burn was much less than running for the same period of time. However, I committed to giving it a full evaluation, and after just three more consistent weeks, my mind was blown by the transformation in my level of strength, muscle size, the overall feel of my body, and the ease with which I can pop out into the garage and crank out a workout in less time than warming up, running, cooling down, and cleaning up. 

We'll dive into all of the details below, but the key is to give it some time (Hydrow does offer a 30-day trial) and have faith your diligence will pay off.

Hardware

  • Easy setup
  • Rotating display
  • Comfortable rolling seat

The Hydrow arrived in a very long cardboard box, about eight feet in length, that weighs just about 200 lbs. Two people should work together to unbox everything and set up the Hydrow. All components are well packaged and protected in the box with internal boxes for the touchscreen monitor and assembly kit that contains the rear legs, tools, and securing hardware. Thick cardboard slotted pieces support the entire Hydrow with foam and plastic, keeping things free from damage or scratches.

Setup is straightforward with excellent instructions and all tools and hardware provided by Hydrow. Simply attach the legs to the underside of the tension area, mount the display with the four heavy bolts, and plug in the power cord.

Hydrow sells a mat that is designed to fit under the Hydrow, but I had some foam exercise pads available, so I set up a surface to position the Hydrow in my garage workout area. The display is mounted above the area where the rowing handgrip feeds into the tension setup. It adjusts up and down 15 degrees to match your height for a good viewing angle while also rotating 25 degrees left and right so that you can use the display for exercises off the rowing machine. There is also a button at the base of the monitor arm so that you can fold down the monitor in case you want to store the Hydrow in a flat position.

The ergonomic handle has a comfortable grip with a polyester webbing strap that feeds into the machine. There are multiple holes in the foot mounts to fit various foot sizes, so once you follow the athletes on the setup of the Hydrow, you can remember your particular setting for every workout.

The cushioned seat has a 10-roller system for super smooth and quiet operation. After three months of rowing, it flows as smoothly as day one and is still as quiet as that first day.

The touchscreen display looks great, and interaction with all elements of the Hydrow system is performed by touching the buttons on the display. It does a good job of minimizing smudges and fingerprints, too.

The Hydrow rowing machine is quite a long piece of hardware but fairly narrow, and working out on it is contained within the width of the Hydrow so that you can fit it into some fairly tight locations. It's very well built and looks awesome, so it serves as a very stylish piece in your home.

Hydrow software

  • Follow the tutorial rows to learn how to row
  • Familiarize yourself with the display functions
  • Split and rhythm are key stats

After setting up the Hydrow and connecting the power cord to the unit, press the power button on the lower back. Hydrow then walks you through the setup of your machine, starting with connecting to your preferred Wi-Fi network. You are then prompted to set up at least one user profile, and the great thing about the Hydrow is that you can set up profiles for all of the people who will be using it in your house. You can customize your profile picture using the smartphone app, which we discuss below.

If you have never rowed before, like me, then I highly recommend you go through the introductory workouts that will teach you the three phases of a row; legs, core, and arms. I am a very disciplined person; I spent many years in the military and like to make sure my form is perfect, so I was a bit worried that following along on a video would still have me rowing with poor form. However, the rowing phases are not difficult, and after many days of rowing, it becomes a fluid and natural motion every time I jump on the Hydrow.

hydrow-rowing-machine-1.jpg
Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Looking at the Hydrow display, you can find your profile and weekly status indicator in the top left corner, with a recommended workout at the center of the launch screen. You can swipe up on the display from the bottom to view other workouts, athletes, and much more on this home screen.

Along the bottom, we find buttons for Home, Library, Progress, Profile, Help, and then Settings off to the far right lower corner. The Library contains thousands of workouts, with the last count I saw of 3,999 workouts (more than 4,000 at the time of publishing this review). These include Hydrow rowing workouts, as well as yoga, strength, stretching, and more. 

There are filters along the top for types of workouts, length of workouts (from 1 to 45 minutes), athletes, and even location. Tap on a workout to view more about that workout. On this display, you can also choose to connect to a Bluetooth headset and external heart rate monitor. There is a button for sound and drag settings where you can choose if you want more music or speaking and what level of drag you want to be applied to the rower.

The Progress tab shows you how you are doing with a calendar view of your completed workouts, streaks, progress toward various achievements, and more. Workout summaries are shown for last week, last month, and lifetime. Scroll up to view all of your past workouts. 

I find this display fairly motivational, especially when getting close to one of the achievements when Hydrow sends out gear for your accomplishment. I quickly earned my 100,000-meter metal water bottle and used it extensively on a recent vacation. There are awards, mostly socks, for 250k, 500k, and 750k levels, and then you hit various million-meter marks. I am motivated to earn some of that gear this year.

Also: The best smartwatches for Android users

On the Profile tab, you can change your screen name, body measurements, or switch profiles. The Help tab contains a host of videos and information that should answer any questions you may have about using the Hydrow.

In the Settings area, you can manage your wireless connections, change the display brightness and sound settings, or factory reset the Hydrow. Once you set up the Hydrow how you like it, you should not have to visit the Settings area unless something changes.

After finding a workout to complete, tap the Row button and then the Hydrow interface switches into a rowing interface with the athlete(s) appearing on the display to walk you through what is showing on the display quickly. Info on the active display includes remaining time, average split (time to row 500 meters), rhythm number (strokes per minute), the average speed during the workout, total meters rowed, total estimated calories, and heart rate (if you have a connected heart rate strap). Workout settings are also available in the top right corner so that you can adjust your resistance and other settings while working out.

One other motivational aspect of the workout interface is the leaderboard that appears off to the right side of the display. You can toggle this on or off and also filter the leaderboard to challenge people by age or gender. It was helpful to apply a filter because I kept getting smoked by 20- and 30-year-old people.

After you complete a rowing session, Hydrow will automatically show you a 5-minute cooldown option. Tap Row to participate in this cool-down that is important for your muscles and slowing down your heart after an intense workout. There is no leaderboard or competitive nature during these cool-down rows so enjoy the peacefulness of slowly rowing across the water.

Hydrow supports live rowing sessions so that you can join your favorite athletes as they row a particular course for the first time. This is a great way to see new locations and get yourself on that initial leaderboard. You may even earn a shoutout from the athletes if you achieve a significant milestone in Hydrow.  

Smartphone app

  • Strength, yoga, pilates and more from your smartphone
  • Use the smartphone app to enter a profile picture
  • Setup your own Hydrow crew

I travel frequently for work, so when I found out there is a Hydrow smartphone and tablet app available that would support workouts on the road, I was excited to try it out. The smartphone app is available for both iOS and Android with a similar interface to the software found on the Hydrow. The primary screens of the Hydrow smartphone app include Home, Feed, Activity, Profile, and More. Your week workout completion status appears at the top, along with a handy Live Schedule button.

The Home screen shows you several different suggested workouts, including many that are off of the Hydrow. If you complete a Hydrow workout from your phone that is not on the Hydrow machine, then you will not have any of your rowing stats appear as a result. I think the real power of the smartphone app is the other workouts that you can complete while traveling for business or while on vacation. These include strength workouts, yoga, pilates, and more. A filter to quickly find your workout is found in the top right corner of the app.

The Feed tab shows you the friends you follow and those who follow you, so there is a full social aspect where you can comment and lift up others in the Hydrow ecosystem. The Activity tab shows your progress, history, and racing results in a similar fashion to the Hydrow software. The Profile tab is also similar to the Hydrow software and is the one place where you can provide a profile photo that will then appear across the Hydrow ecosystem.

The More tab shows you #wintheday updates, Hydrow 101 help, and access to the help center.

Also: The 13 best home gym equipment and machines

Daily usage experiences and conclusions

  • Amazing group of athletes
  • Keep going the full 30 days to see results
  • Low impact exercise that engages 86% of your muscles

While at the US Coast Guard Academy, I saw the crew teams get up at five in the morning to head out for running and rowing on the Thames River. These were finely tuned athletes and very successful teams at the Academy. I enjoyed watching some of the regattas up and down the East Coast. Thanks to the Hydrow, I can now join some athletes on these same waters from the comfort of my own home.

The first athlete I rowed with was Aquil Abdullah, and I think he is fantastic. He is very positive, has an infectious smile, and pushes me on my rowing sessions. I can relate to James Dietz since he is a man of about my size and shows me how to get it done on the water. I have a blast with Nick and the other male athletes on Hydrow, too. I mentioned that I met Dani Hansen at CES and regularly work out with her because of her high energy and encouragement. Mac, Laine, and Sera also push me to succeed, as do the other female athletes leading the workouts. 

Amazingly, these athletes can have conversations with users and with each other (two-person rowing sessions are awesome) while actively rowing on the water. I love their stories, jokes, and real talk as they keep Hydrow users focused on success. Even though they cannot see all of the Hydrow users following along, it feels like they care about each and every person on a Hydrow, and they become your personal coach over time.

hydrow-rowing-machine-3.jpg
Matthew Miller/ZDNet

I wasn't sure how I would like watching people row on the screen in front of me, but it's much more than that. The athletes set the rhythm, and the way the videos are produced makes you feel like you are in the boat with them. It is extremely helpful to match the athlete's rhythm during a workout, and if you want to go off on your own, there are even workout options for that.

The first week of rowing seemed way too easy for me, and I was burning about half the calories that I was running for the same period of time. I was focused on getting the technique down and then started to explore the options. I increased the drag on the Hydrow and focused on 30 and 45-minute workout sessions over the next couple of weeks, trying to match an estimated calorie burn rate. However, the comparison I was making between running and rowing wasn't really valid since running primarily engages your core and lower body while rowing also engages much of your upper body.

I committed to only using the Hydrow for a month, with no running, and after that 30 days, I clearly felt increased muscle size in my left arm so that it was more balanced with my right arm. I also saw increased muscle definition in my upper body, with my core also tightening up. I lost five pounds in that first month and have been able to keep it off with very little focus on adjusting my diet. I'm actually on a trend of continued weight loss, with my goal of 13 more pounds clearly in sight.

The return of muscle size and definition feels fantastic, and it all came about through regular use of the Hydrow. Prior to the Hydrow, I ran and performed some upper body workouts (primarily pushups) but never saw results like I am seeing now. I am now a believer in rowing and trust the statement that 86% of your muscles are engaged. 

It is also a low-impact exercise, so there is no pounding on my joints while achieving my rowing goals. My wife is clearly happy with the results and feels much better about me rowing than running. I'm not completely giving up running, though, since I've been at it now for 40 years, but my focus is clearly on rowing regularly on the Hydrow.

There is a high cost of entry to start with a Hydrow, but there are special package offers and financing too. (Note: Hydrow is currently offering a Memorial Day sale bundle for $1995.) If you look at what you could be spending at a local gym, the Hydrow is a good long term investment. The benefits for your health and wellness may also be much higher than the cost of entry and the $38 per month service fee. I've enjoyed using the Hydrow and hope to try rowing in a shell out on the water someday actually.

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