By Adam Drake
There’s a chance your gym has a rowing machine — an ergometer — and there’s a better chance that most gym-goers who use the “erg” have no idea what they’re doing. With the rise of rowing-based workouts across the country (case in point: CityRow), and innovations to the ergs themselves, these machines are becoming easier to use. In order to give you a leg up, we wanted to give you a brief overview of how to use the erg properly, so next time you’re at a rowing studio, you’ll be the envy of your fellow classmates.
The two main manufacturers of ergs are Concept 2 and WaterRower. Concept 2s, are fan-based machines primarily used by colleges, rowing clubs, and Row House (in Manhattan and Montauk) to help measure a rower’s power output, as well as provide an indoor workout during the off-season. WaterRowers feature… well… water that’s pushed by a flywheel. WaterRowers are used in studios like CityRow, and by Frank Underwood on House of Cards. Both offer equally fantastic workouts and are used in primarily the same way.
I see people destroying their backs on ergs all the time. Hunched over, rapidly pulling with their arms, doing more harm to their bodies than good. The proper rowing movement appears as one fluid motion, but it’s actually several small parts that fit together to create one stroke.
When sitting on the erg, grab the handle with both hands and bring it back to just below your ribcage while your legs are extended and your back is straight. This is called “the finish.” Slowly, extend your arms, followed by a bend at the waist while keeping your back straight, and finally bend your legs to bring the seat up to the front of “the slide.” This is called “the catch.” To take a proper stroke, you’re essentially doing that same process but in reverse. Push off the footplate with your legs, then move your back until it’s a little past 90 degrees, and finally bring your arms and the handle back to just under your ribcage. Do this several thousand times and you’ll have a successful row.
The rowing stroke is a lot easier said than done. There are a few finer points that you should be aware of. First, when you’re at the catch ready to pull back on the handle, it should almost feel like you’re hanging off a cliff with your arms and feet. Suspending all your weight on the handle, you’ll almost feel as if your butt comes off the seat. What you’re doing is using your body weight as a tool for a faster stroke, rather than simply relying on your muscles. The other critical step is to make sure that as you come up the slide to the catch that you go slowly. The process should take at least half of the time, if not more than your stroke. This gives you a chance to catch your breath and is imperative for longer workouts. Beginners should aim for 12-18 strokes per minute. Experts and those doing sprint workouts will have a stroke rating of anywhere between 28 and 40.
Ergometers are fairly straight forward, especially as it pertains to getting a simple workout. But those in the know can adjust certain things to shape their workouts. On the side of fan, you’ll notice a lever with the number 1-10 printed on it. This is a dampener, and the higher the number, the higher the resistance. I usually keep mine at 5 or 6 to give me enough resistance that I’m able to feel a good pull, but not too heavy that I’m exhausted ten strokes in. The digital screen tracks measurements like your strokes per minute, your pace for 500 meters, the amount of calories you’re expending, or how much energy you’re producing (watts). I usually keep my erg set to my 500 meter splits, and aim to keep that number well below 2:00.
Ergs have come a long way from when I started rowing. What used to be a fan attached to a rope, and a seat with wheels on it, has become an intense and frighteningly efficient exercise machine. Every few years, the manufacturers unleash new models with enhanced features. For instance, the Dynamic from Concept 2 is an incredibly accurate simulation to real rowing, with the footplate and the seat moving as opposed to the static footplate on regular ergs. Oartec has developed an erg with a slider as well as a simulator with modified oars that resemble the actual hand movements of sculling or sweeping.
The ergometer is an amazing machine, one that’s come a long way from being a random object in the dark corner of your gym, to a staple of many modern workouts. With proper use and technique, you’ll find it’s one of the best exercises out there.
Adam Drake is Creative Director for the Sweat Life, a former four-year varsity rower for the University of Miami, and currently rows for the Maritime Rowing Club. He is the co-founder of Kayak for a Cause, a charity event based in Connecticut. As a writer, Adam has developed television shows for Comedy Central, Bad Boy Worldwide, and Sky, written ad campaigns for clients such as Bacardi, Starbucks, Dove Men+Care, and HBO, and was a contributor to the pop culture site YesButNoButYes. In his spare time, he enjoys skiing, boating, and working on his tremendous collection of unfinished novels.