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Interval rowing is exercise that goes beyond treadmills and bikes

In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.

If a workout on a rowing machine lulls you to sleep, try an interval rowing class. Rather than rowing endlessly, you sprint during time or distance intervals, compete (in a friendly way) against classmates and use different stroke speeds. With a good instructor, the workout is anything but boring. Try it at fitness studios across the country such as Functional Athletics in Vancouver or Studio Adonnics in Montreal. I went to Ultimate Athletics in Toronto (1216 Yonge St.).

The promise

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The Ultimate Athletics website describes Iron Row as a high-intensity, low-impact class that will "stroke your metabolism beyond the treadmills and the bikes."

What to expect

An hour of strength training sandwiched between bouts on the rowing machine (typically lasting eight to 10 minutes). The "toys" used during the strength section vary from class to class – from medicine balls to free weights to the ViPR (a long, colourful, weighted tube with handles). Single classes start at $25; packages and memberships are also available.

If 10 minutes on the rower sounds tedious, don't worry. At the class I attended, one chunk of rowing went like this: two minutes of four hard alternated with two recovery strokes, recovery, two minutes of two hard alternated with one recovery stroke, recovery, two minutes of six hard alternated with three recovery strokes, recovery and two minutes of three hard alternated with one recovery stroke. Then we jumped off the rower for squats with medicine ball tosses and variations on side lunges and core work.

My verdict

My first interval rowing class was a few years ago at CityRow in New York. I won't lie, the fact that I had nabbed a spot in an "it" fitness class in New York was part of the appeal, but the vibe was also electric, the workout challenging and the fact that I had never tried that class format before made it a novel experience.

Similarly, I enjoyed my experience at Ultimate Athletics. Chad, the instructor, seamlessly walked that fine line between "friendly" and "drill sergeant." He danced a bit to the music but also strongly encouraged everyone to "go bananas" when sprinting. (Although we did waste a good five minutes adjusting our rowers from the previous class, which was frustrating.)

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As for the workout, rowing is a great way to get a low-impact, full-body experience. This class is perfect if you want an athletic experience (similar to running) without the pounding.

Time-crunched individuals will also appreciate getting both a strength and a cardio workout in one hour – one-stop shopping.

This dovetails perfectly into a few of the negatives. First, one-stop shopping is great for some, but more experienced exercisers will probably find that 30 minutes of strength training isn't enough. Most veteran lifters prefer to spend 45 minutes to an hour in the weight room.

Second, there was no warm-up; we started with three minutes of hard rowing. (Unfortunately this is not unique to my Ultimate experience – I typically find rowing classes don't prioritize warm-up.) A proper warm-up is important for everyone, but especially if you have heart concerns or high blood pressure. I always fix the problem by ignoring the teacher and taking it easy for five minutes. If you don't feel comfortable with this defiance, do five minutes of easy cardio before the class so you arrive warmed up.

Last, the class lacked detailed technique and form cues. Again, this is unfortunately not unusual. In most rowing classes I have participated in, the teacher throws around the phrases such as "legs/core/arms" (as in push with your legs first, then move through your torso and finish by pulling with your arms), but they don't explain what they mean. I rowed in high school and am familiar with strength exercises, so I am okay with the lack of direction, but if you have never rowed or done weights before, talk to the instructor before class. Request a preclass demo and ask that he or she watch your form throughout the class.

If you live in Toronto and love this class format but feel rowing might get boring, check out Ferris360 (1910 Yonge St.). You still alternate between weights and cardio, but you can choose to use the treadmill, rower, VersaClimber or SkiErg (sort of like rowing, but standing).

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Kathleen Trotter has been a fitness writer, personal trainer and Pilates equipment specialist for more than 12 years. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.

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