Row Out of Your Comfort Zone

A glimpse into the RowZone experience.
By Noel Bartocci • Photos by Melissa Kelly Photography (

Instantly noticeable upon entering RowZone, located at the corner of Main and Levering, are two rows of ergometers (rowing machines), strategically placed equidistant from one another. Directly across from the entrance are racks of free weights, potentially previewing the type of hour you’re about to have. Despite every inch of the space being used, it’s intimately laid out to where the instructor and front desk are within speaking distance, primed to greet you immediately.

This kind of hands-on, “hello” approach is the kind of welcome needed for someone like myself who suffers from the “gym willies:”

a cocktail of preconceived notions, misunderstandings, a dash of social anxiety, and good old-fashioned lack of self-confidence.

Shamefully, my “gym willies” have won too many battles when faced with trying something new.

Tuned in to my apprehension, co-owner and that morning’s instructor, Eric Shoyer, introduced himself and immediately sought out clarification on my name, which was a quick way of easing me out of an uncomfortable mindset. His energy was aspirational, but realistic. There’s a real earnestness and excitement coming from him that you can’t fake — so much so that you want to contribute to it, which is the best way to empower another person in a gym — you dare them to match it.

It took me a good three seconds before I realized that there is no back row in this class. I can’t hide — you lose again, gym willies. Displayed on the monitor above is the day’s workout. It’s a series of lines with numbers, which I later learned are strokes per minute goals, separated by timed sets of two, three, and four minutes each. Between the sets are a series of exercises to be performed off the machines. The class laid bare like this seemed surprisingly achievable. All I have to do is push and survive for two to four minutes at a time? I can do that.

There are multiple classes at RowZone, including Row & Flow, Bootcamp, RZExtreme, and more. I participated in RZ Core, which is a half on/half off the machine, full body workout for 45 minutes. We focused on lower body, but Eric explained there is a rotating focus throughout the week; upper body, lower body, and core. This kind of flexibility ensures that whether you have a set day you visit, or if you pick up classes whenever you can, it’s always a variety of efforts.

Eric has been instructing at RowZone since 2013 and co-owning with his partner Anthony Fittipaldi since 2014. Since then, they’ve actively worked at creating an environment of safety and motivation, both here in Manayunk and their sister location in Rittenhouse. This is a mentality that extends to their staff and the members they attract. They’ve curated an atmosphere that works incredibly well as a fitness regimen – one that’s simultaneously challenging but devoid of intimidation.

“Ninety-nine percent of our members never rowed. No experience is necessary and it really is for everyone,” Eric explained.

“Anyone can do it. We don’t judge here — we will never make any of our members feel left behind. We’re all moving together at the same time no matter what your level.”

Any unbalanced physical display of exertion isn’t noticeable during the class, especially while on the machines. There’s no turning over to the person beside or in front of you and feeling inadequate, because you’re all going through the same motions.

I really started to feel the fatigue throughout my body midway through. The rowing and exercises were getting harder, even though they weren’t changing. I could feel the precise consistency activating muscles I rarely use — ones I had no idea were even associated with rowing. It was exhilarating! Eric explained why I was feeling this way.
“The class is designed to get quicker and stronger as it goes, and that’s how you’re going to get that workout,” he said. “Don’t kill it in the beginning [with speed] because I promise you at the end [with the right pace], you’ll get stronger and feel it.”
In some form or another, RowZone has been a constant on Main Street for nearly a decade, but Eric and Anthony are continuing to evolve and grow within the community.

“At the Rittenhouse location, we have a lot of people come by after work who live in the city,” Eric said. “They get in, work out, and go home, which is great. But the really cool thing about Manayunk is a lot of people live here. It’s a community. Some of our best friends, we met here at the gym.”

Eric even met his wife at RowZone, playfully admitting that she was a member for nearly a year before he gathered the courage to ask her out.

“We have a rule here: you’re not allowed to date clients unless you marry them,” he declared with a laugh.

RowZone’s investment in Manayunk and the surrounding community doesn’t end at group meet-ups and friendships. For example, every year they participate in Meters for May, in which they record all the meters cumulatively rowed by their members during the month of May. For every million on the ergs, they will donate to two local charities — both of which are decided upon by the gym members. This kind of interactive and positive competition brings out the best of their clients. RowZone fosters that kind of energy every opportunity they get.

They also conduct Rower Development Programs, designed to help train students towards potential scholarship opportunities. According to a study conducted by College Finder in 2011, male rowing athletes are nearly 18 percent more likely to receive athletic financial aid than any other sport and female athletes are a whopping 55 percent more likely to earn a scholarship with rowing.

Those are some serious motivators for developing young athletes on ergometers. Eric, Anthony, and their team are dedicated to providing those kinds of opportunities. You can clearly hear it in his voice as he spouts off some of the colleges their students have been accepted to – including UCLA, George Washington, Drexel, Princeton, and Cornell.

RowZone has earned the right to call itself more than just a specialty gym. It can be more accurately described as a welcoming community of instructors, athletes, and members just as concerned with propping one another up as much as they are with reaching their individual goals.

So next time you find yourself walking by RowZone and thinking, “What’s it like in there?”

Stop wondering, just walk in.