I tried a Rowformer Pilates class for the first time — here's my honest thoughts

a photo of a woman working out on a Rowformer machine
(Image credit: STRONG)

I really enjoy standard Pilates for two reasons. Firstly, it is a welcome change from my usual fitness routine dominated by running and gym workouts. Secondly, I love the constant challenge that comes with being a novice in the Pilates world, always learning new techniques and refining my movements.

Eager to leave my best yoga mat at home for a day and try something a little different I leapt at the chance to try an in person class at STRONG Pilates Islington, a new Pilates studio offering classes with the innovative Rowformer machine.

A Rowformer machine is half reformer and half a rowing machine, bringing you a dynamic combination of rowing and Pilates. It delivers a total body workout that engages multiple muscle groups. This combination not only enhances cardiovascular fitness but also builds strength. It provides a particularly appealing option for those who might find traditional Pilates somewhat slow-paced or monotonous, injecting variety into the workout to keep you feeling engaged and motivated.

Before trying a Rowformer class I had never even experienced reformer Pilates before. So, I was a total novice to using any form of machine in my Pilates practice but I was ready for a challenge. Plus, I'd be lying if I didn't add that I was dazzled by the fact that the class takes place in a chic, underground, dimly lit studio. The kind you see on your favorite celebrity's Instagram story on a random Monday morning.

I opted for the Loaded Lower class that STRONG offers as I thought the lower body element would help strengthen up my legs for my current marathon training. This session consists of 45 minutes of cardio-infused training using the Rowformer, heavy springs, dumbbells and time under tension. At STRONG you also have the option to complete the cardio sections on a bike instead of the Rowformer but I stuck to the latter. Here's what happened.

What is Rowformer Pilates?

Rowformer Pilates is a fitness approach that combines elements of traditional Pilates exercises with the use of a specialized piece of equipment known as a Rowformer. This style of Pilates integrates a rowing machine with a reformer machine, creating a hybrid workout experience.

During Rowformer Pilates classes, you get the chance to engage in a variety of exercises that target different muscle groups, emphasizing core strength, flexibility and controlled movements. The inclusion of rowing adds a cardiovascular component to the workout, enhancing overall fitness. 

The benefits of Rowformer Pilates 

Pilates contributes to enhanced core strength, flexibility and improved posture and when you turn delve into Rowformer Pilates you add a cardiovascular element.

According to Diana Coffey, STRONG’s UK Head of Academy and Movement and a Master Instructor, “The cardiovascular aspects of rowing not only improve heart health but also boost overall endurance. By incorporating Pilates with cardio training you are guaranteed a full-body workout, fostering joint health through the low-impact nature of the exercises.”

She also notes that you can improve your balance and coordination with Rowformer Pilates and combined with the dynamic movements of rowing enhance your overall body awareness and motor skills. 

If you enjoy low impact but like high-intensity workouts and don't want to be forking out on a gym and Pilates studio membership then getting into a hybrid Rowformer Pilates studio could be just right for some. 

I tried a Rowformer Pilates class for the first time — here's my honest thoughts

It was intense

a photo of a Rowformer Pilates class at the STRONG studio in London Islington

(Image credit: STRONG)

Being entirely new to this style of fitness class, I opted not to tinker with the springs on the Rowformer machine, leaving this to whatever the last person had set them to. I also just picked up a size of dumbbell that I am so used to working out with during my normal lower body days in the gym. 

But it hadn't occurred to me that I'd be working at a significantly higher intensity for certain parts of the class. I am much more accustomed to structured sets and reps, but the Rowformer class at STRONG focused more on giving it your absolute all for set intervals of time. It felt reminiscent of my days pushing through HIIT workouts in my living room during the various lockdowns of 2020, albeit this time with a far more technical piece of equipment beneath me.

It didn't take long at all for me to work up a sweat and for my cheeks to get rosy. I was conveniently facing a mirror so I had a friendly reminder of this throughout the 45-minute session. I was impressed at how quick I started to feel the workout in my glutes and quads and could already feel the DOM's coming my way the following day.

My glutes were on fire

Pilates seems to carry with it's followers a distinct aesthetic, especially online. It's almost like there is a uniform of slicked-back hair, a matching workout crop top with leggings and a green juice in hand. While undeniably a very luscious look, it can be a bit intimidating and does sometimes make me question whether the more flashy studios attract a certain type of person — the kind that does Pilates for show and is less bothered by the actual workout. Yet, a good Pilates class will gracefully demonstrate the latter, and my experience at STRONG made it clear Rowformer Pilates is not for the faint-hearted.

Transitioning from rowing to challenging lateral lunges against the formidable resistance of the machine, and then moving into split squats, proved to be a killer workout for me. Midway through the class, I couldn't help but laugh at myself as I powered — or should I say, shook — through the split squats, anticipating what levels of pain the instructor had in store for us next. The next day, my glutes and quads were definitely feeling the burn. Taking the escalator or elevator instead of stairs was a non-negotiable.

It didn’t have the usual feel of Pilates

While I knew I wasn't signing up for a standard Pilates class, the atmosphere was notably different from any other experience I have had with Pilates. Those familiar with conventional Pilates classes, whether in person or through one of the best workout apps, will understand the challenging yet often calm nature of Pilates. 

However, in the Rowformer class I attended, I found myself a bit overwhelmed—trying to manage the rower settings, listen and absorb all of the instructor's guidance through the microphone, and perform all of the various movements correctly to target the right muscles while avoiding injury.

I will admit that I didn't realize there was a chance to arrive early and receive an induction to the Rowformer machine and the class. For those interested in exploring new forms of Pilates, whether reformer or Rowformer Pilates, I would strongly recommend taking advantage of an induction or don't hesitate to request one. After all, the instructors are there to help and make you feel comfortable.

 I tried a rowformer Pilates class — verdict 

I went into my first experience of a Rowformer based Pilates class totally blind and although it felt very new, it was physically demanding and required my full attention, I was glad I tried something different and out of my comfort zone. It’s definitely something I could see becoming addictive with the more familiar with the workout format you become and the better you get at it.

And for anyone who thinks they are a machine in the gym, I challenge you to give the Loaded lower body session a go if you have a STRONG studio nearby. It’ll be sure to humble your glutes and overall muscle stamina, never mind trying to keep a hold of your rowing handle with sweaty palms. As I said before, if you are a newbie to Pilates don’t be afraid to ask for help and take advantage of any induction or beginner sessions.

Jessica Downey
Fitness Writer

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her love for keeping fit and fueling her body with healthy and enjoyable food quite naturally led her to write about all things fitness and health-related. If she isn’t out testing the latest fitness products such as the latest running shoe or yoga mat for reviewing then she can be found writing news and features on the best ways to build strength, active aging, female health, and anything in between. Before then she had a small stint writing in local news, has also written for Runners World UK (print and digital), and gained experience with global content marketing agency, Cedar Communications.

Born and raised in Scotland, Jessica is a massive fan of exercising and keeping active outdoors. When at home she can be found running by the sea, swimming in it, or up a mountain. This continued as she studied and trained to become a PPA-accredited magazine journalist in Wales. And since working and living in London, she splits her time between weight training in the gym, trying new fitness classes, and finding scenic running routes. Jessica enjoys documenting this on her fitness-inspired Instagram page @jessrunshere where she loves engaging with like-minded fitness junkies.

She is a big fan of healthy cooking and loves learning more about this area with expert nutritionists she has met over the years. Jessica is a big advocate for building healthy relationships with food rather than building restrictive attitudes towards it. When she isn’t eating or running she also enjoys practicing yoga in her free time as it helps her to unwind and benefits her performance in other sports.