This is the third story in a four-part series on men's health. Other stories in the series are related to nutrition and low-intensity activities.
As a 44-year-old partner in a large Toronto advertising agency, Joseph Bonnici is no stranger to hard work.
With 70-hour work weeks the norm, he is in a constant search for balance in his life, and has tried swimming, weight lifting and yoga to find his release. He has also tried running, but as he suffers with pain in his joints and knees, in particular, "anything high impact really takes a toll," he says.
At the suggestion of his ad partner, a former rower on the Canadian national team, he decided to try Scullhouse, a dedicated indoor rowing studio in downtown Toronto.
Scullhouse opened last March, styling itself after a spinning class, only on Concept 2 ergonomic rowers instead of a bike.
After a rundown of technique at the beginning of each class, participants take their rhythm from an instructor's lead. Following a five-minute warmup, the rowers spend the next 50 or so minutes alternating between rowing "pieces," as timed spells on the rower are called, and mat work, consisting of body weight exercises such as lunges, squats and press-ups.
Bonnici was hooked from the first class.
"It's replaced all of my fitness," he says. "… You get to a point when you're pulling [rowing] really hard … but you're going so slow that what you're really doing is building power."
The Toronto native is now a Scullhouse regular, going pretty much every day of the week. Despite staying the same weight, he says he has lost 5 per cent of his body fat, replacing it with lean muscle. While he has tried all the classes, he says that row and flow, a class that comprises 20 minutes of rowing followed by half an hour of yoga, is his favourite.
"The days I don't go are the days I feel sluggish," he says. "It's really been a full transformation for me in terms of how I feel day to day, my energy levels."
Similar studios have started to spring up around the country, including Calgary's Row17, which opened last year.
Scullhouse founder Kristin Jeffery, a former national team rower, says the all-round nature of her classes has proved very attractive to many weekend warriors and even some runners looking for some cross-training. However, the benefits of rowing extend far beyond what many outside the sport would think.
"Many people think that rowing is all upper body, arms and shoulders," she says. "It's actually 60 per cent legs, 20 per cent core and back and 20 per cent arms and shoulders."
While the individual effort required varies greatly by individual, Jeffery says, the average rower would burn anything from 600 to 1,000 calories in a single class.
One of the attractions to her rowing classes is their ability to blend differing rowers of differing sizes, skills and fitness levels.
"We've had a class with an ex-Olympic gold medalist and a complete beginner and they've both left sweating," she says. "The reason we're able to do that is because the Olympic gold medalist will be producing more power per stroke than the beginner, but they're able to row in time together."
The aspect of power is one that Jeffery thinks may prove attractive to men. She says a good proportion of her clients are male, and she says the average class is probably split in a 60:40 ratio between male and female rowers.
The learning curve for newcomers is fairly gentle, too, with Scullhouse's founder suggesting that it generally takes three or four classes to learn the stroke and get comfortable with the sport.
"Most of our clients are people that have never rowed before and they're interested because they know it's high intensity while being low impact," she says. "They know that they're using over 86 per cent of the muscles in their body."
For office workers, rowing can also help counteract some of the negative affects of sitting all day, particularly for people hunched over a keyboard, a position that is also generally the standard one for those partaking in cycling spin classes.
Rowing opens the back, squeezing the shoulder blades together and engaging the core, building strength to improve posture when sitting at a desk.
The sport isn't without its risks, though. Like many other activities, correct technique is of paramount importance, which is why Dan Bechard, head men's rowing coach at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., recommends rowers seek out instruction early.
"What we find is that once people sit down on an ergometer or start to row, they will perform a movement that's most comfortable to them," he says. "The longer they do it the harder it is to coach some imperfection out of them."
While rowing isn't a contact sport, meaning participants aren't plagued by concussions or broken bones, more finicky injuries, such as blisters, can hamper a rower's ability to get the most out of his or her endeavours.
While those can be minimized by learning the correct way to grip the handle, the occasional blister or two is all part of the territory when it comes to fitting in to the rowing fraternity, a community that attracts a certain type of athlete.
"We deal with a lot of A-type personalities … very motivated," Bechard says. "It doesn't stop with just physiology. You get surrounded by people who are really goal-oriented, real performers I would say."
Pick up the pace: Four more high-intensity exercises
According to Vania Hau, a personal trainer and director of the Free Form Academy in Ottawa, here are four high-intensity exercises for men who are already active and are looking to take their fitness to another level.
People with greater fitness levels can try metabolic conditioning-style strength training. This style of training can be as simple as adding a time component to a regular strength training routine – choose a circuit of four or five exercises and aim to complete the circuit as many times as possible within a set period of time.
Try learning Olympic lifts such as cleans and snatches to work on generating full-body power. The ability to generate power quickly diminishes as we age, so it's an important component of physical fitness to continue to work on.
Playing hockey or soccer, or whatever it is that interests you, is good for social engagement as well as physically.
It's perfect. Having someone there to push you in the stationary bike class to higher intensity levels is great.
With a report from Adam Stanley in Ottawa. His interview with Hau has been edited and condensed.