Rowing for Fitness: The Concept2 rowing machine, or “erg” as it is commonly called in rowing circles, is a nearly ubiquitous piece of equipment in functional training gyms. Since we’ve all used it at some point in a workout, I’d like to introduce basic rowing technique and offer a few keys for getting efficient with rowing.

The Basics

There are four basic components of the rowing stroke: Catch, drive, finish, and recovery.

catch_resized_corThe catch is the point where the body is compressed, shins are roughly perpendicular to the ground, and the arms are extended towards the flywheel. You want to have good posture with your back, with a somewhat relaxed upper body. Try to capture the load in your lats and shoulders to reduce strain on the lower back.

The drive is when you’re pulling, and during the drive you want to leverage your legs and hips as much as possible. Nearly 70% of your power should come from the lower body. A common mistake CrossFitters make is to use the arms and back too much and discount their legs on the drive. Suspend on the handle while driving the legs and you’ll see better scores.

finish_resized_corThe finish is the point where your shoulders have swung behind your hips and the handle is brushed against your body. I recommend bringing the handle slightly up towards the chest and grazing your shirt and not slamming it into body. The hands should grip the handle on the outer edges with an overhand grip, never mixed or underhand. There’s no need to “hook grip” the handle like we do with a barbell.

recovery_resized_corThe recovery is the moment when you’re sliding back towards the flywheel, compressing the legs, and extending the arms into the catch. This is the rest time on the rowing stroke and you want to relax and breathe. Avoid rushing up the slide in order to keep strain off your hamstrings. Think about sliding smoothly into the catch position.

Three Keys

In CrossFit we use the erg primarily for short sprints (e.g. 20 calories) and some middle distance work, like 500 or 1000 meters. Very rarely do we go beyond the 1000-meter threshold.

With short rowing workouts being the order of the day, there are three keys for using the erg to your advantage in a WOD.

The first key is efficiency of technique. It’s possible to get good scores on the erg and utilize it almost as a rest period, similar to how someone with efficient double-unders can rest. Clean up your technique using the tips above and you’ll notice you’ll be less fatigued after a fast 500-meter row, with more energy leftover for the other movements. If you’re pounding on the erg with terrible technique expect some sore forearms, back, and hamstrings!

fan_setting_resized_corThe second key is to pick how heavy you want to load up the fan, which is adjusted with the lever on the outside of the flywheel. It goes from 0 – 10, with 0 being the lightest and 10 being the heaviest. I recommend going with a light or moderate fan setting, because at high loads you’re risking an injury especially when combined with poor technique. I’ve seen many a pulled back muscle due to too-heavy rowing loads. I personally row with the lever set between 5 and 6.

The third key is to pick how quickly you’re taking strokes, otherwise known as the stroke rate. Stroke rate is measured in strokes-per-minute and the rate number is displayed prominently on the erg monitor. Since we’re usually sprinting in WODs, I try to keep my rate between a 28 – 36, with shorter workouts having higher stroke rates. When you combine high stroke rate with a low load, the erg becomes an aerobic workout and less of a weight lifting movement.

Other Takeaways

The erg can be a great full body workout with a strong aerobic component. It’s also a good substitute for running since it’s lower impact on the joints. If you have foot or knee issues, try some light rowing as a substitute. Work on your technique and pay attention to the three keys above and you’ll see your scores improve in WODs.


By Ben O’Grady

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