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Ergometer 101: What in the World is an Erg Rower?

rowing machine

An ergometer is nothing else but a fancy term for the indoor rower.

If you’ve heard people at the gym talking about getting on the erg for their workouts, they’re doing nothing more than getting on the rowing machine. And unless you’ve been living under the Uluru Rock, you know rowers – or ergs, as other people like to call them – are turning out to be a valuable piece of equipment in any commercial or home gym.

Generally, an ergometer is any exercise equipment that has a tracking device that monitors how much power you expend when you use it. This means basically pretty much every exercise machine you find is an ergometer.

However, only rowing machines are lovingly called ergs by their users. The story of how the rowing machine came to be, from its early beginnings in ancient Greece to the days of the modern Concept2 PM5, shows how the indoor rower has come to be called the erg rower.

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The History of Ergometer Rowing

4th Century BC

Wouldn’t you know it? The ultra-sleek, ultra-modern erg rower actually dates back to 400 BC. The first rowing “machine” of sorts was a wooden contraption placed in shallow waters for young Greek soldiers to practice the rowing technique on.

Chabrias, an admiral of the Athens army, wanted to teach the inexperienced trainees how to row properly before they were sent off as oarsmen to their massive war ships.

1800 to 1900

Outdoor rowers began using ergs to train during the colder months. In 1972, William Buckingham Curtis was awarded a US patent for the design of a rowing machine that had a hydraulic-based damper.

1900 to 1950

In the early 20th century, machines with linear pneumatic resistance became very common. The most prominent of this was the Narragansett hydraulic rower, which was built in Rhode Island, the same home state of the WaterRower.

Although the wooden ergometer grew very popular with the rowing population, it didn’t have the means to actually measure user output. You also might be interested to know that two of the Narragansett rowers were onboard the Titanic when it sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.

Today, the Narragansett hydraulic rower is sold in antique stores and on eBay as an extremely expensive rare collectible item.

rowing machine used in titanic

1950 to 1970

The first rowing machine that actually began tracking user output was one designed by John Harrison of the Leichhardt Rowing Club in Australia. Harrison, who later became a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of New South Wales, developed a rower with a large, heavy, solid iron flywheel with a mechanical friction brake.

After factoring out ambient factors such as temperature and humidity, Harrison was able to build a machine that could measure the user’s output up to a stunning 99% accuracy. And so, the first ergometer came to be.

1970 to 1980

In the 1970s, the Gjessing-Nilson erg became the gold standard in indoor rowing before the Concept2 arrived to take away its crown in the next decade. The Norwegian ergometer came with friction braking and an industrial strap system that many modern rowers use up to this day.

1980s to the Present

The first air resistance indoor rower was finally introduced – not by Concept2 – by Repco, an automotive company more known for manufacturing the engines for the Brabham Formula One racing cars than manufacturing ergs. Repco’s stabs at the ergometer market didn’t make much of a dent.

That’s because it was finally time for Concept2 to shine. In 1981, brothers Peter and Dick Dreissigacker built the future of modern erging in an abandoned dairy farm in Vermont. Peter nailed his old bicycle upside down to the floor of the barn, pulled out the chain, and the modern rower, the Concept2 Model A, was born.

This was followed by Models B and C, and the present Models D and E. And as every indoor rowing enthusiast knows, Concept2 brought with it major innovations such as the sliding seat and the game-changing Performance Monitor.

concept2 model a

The Four Types of Rowing Ergs

The ergometers beginnings saw hydraulic and air-based forms of resistance. Today, new technologies have allowed erg makers to introduce new kinds of resistance. There are currently four types of rowers based on what kind of resistance they use.

1. Air Resistance Rowers

Air resistance rowers have a flywheel that creates wind to provide resistance. When you pull on the rower’s handle, you make the flywheel turn. This, in turn, increases the machine’s resistance.

Air rowing machines are self-paced machines. This means you set how much resistance you want to feel by working harder or slower. Self-regulated rowers are a great choice for anyone of any fitness level, as there are no limits to how fast or how slow you can work out on them.

The downside is that air rowers can make quite a lot of noise. It’s not really an awful sound, for the most part. It’s a swooshing sound that comes from the wind generated from the flywheel, much like an electric fan in the highest setting. However, some people are sensitive to this, which gave rise to other marketable options.

2. Water Resistance Rowers

Although water resistance rowing machines have been around since Concept2, they didn’t really make a splash until the last few years thanks to a certain TV politician. The WaterRower is the most popular water-based ergometer because of its lovely wooden construction, which sets it apart from other modern rowers, and its good quality.

Like air rowers, water rowers produce resistance when you pull the handle. This causes the paddled inside the water tank to spin, creating resistance. Because water rowers are also self-regulated, they’re also a great choice for pretty much anybody. Advanced exercisers prefer self-paced resistance because it lets them do interval training, while beginners like them because it accommodates their fitness levels as well.

However, unlike air resistance rowers, water-based machines do not make the (relatively) unpleasant sound of air rowers. They do make a sound, but it’s the soothing, meditative sound of water splashing inside the tank – much like the sound of water splattering against the hull of a real boat.

3. Magnetic Resistance Rowers

Magnetic rowing machines have a loyal fan base because they have one quality that neither the air or water rowers have. They are practically silent thanks to the use of magnets to provide resistance.

Most magnetic rowers have a flywheel that can be adjusted to increase or decrease resistance. Often, you only need to press a button somewhere to move up or down a resistance level, which is appealing to many people.

Although these rowers have a smooth pulling action, they often have limited resistance levels. This is suitable for newbies, but intermediate to advanced exercisers will find they will easily outgrow the resistance on these machines.

4. Piston Rowers

As you might have deduced from their name, piston rowers use a pair of hydraulic pistons to provide resistance. These ergs are different from the other rowers in many ways.

For one thing, they’re often the cheapest rowers you can get, so they’re a good option for people who have a small budget. They also have a smaller footprint because of their outrigger design, as opposed to the single-handle design of other rowing machines.

Piston rowers are not as popular as other rowers because of issues with inconsistencies in resistance. Lower-quality brands may also have problems with oil leaking from the pistons. However, if you do your research well, you will definitely find high-quality hydraulic rowing machines that do not have these problems.

Health Benefits of Erging

Image: Paul Rollings

Indoor rowing is a powerful exercise that provides a ton of benefits. It packs a powerful cardio punch, while the use of resistance gives you a good strength training workout as well. Below are the biggest benefits you get from exercising on an erg rower.

1. Full-Body Exercise

Did you know that rowing exercises a whopping 84% of your muscles? This exercise requires all the major muscle groups to work, starting from hamstrings, calves, and glutes during the start of the stroke. And then you transition to the upper body to make your core and lower back do the work. Finally, you exercise your shoulders, upper back, biceps, and triceps when you pull the handles at the last part of the stroke.

2. Zero-Impact and Injury-Free

Anybody can work out on an ergometer because it practically has no impact on the joints. Unlike jumping and plyometric exercises, you have your feet firmly resting on the machine and your hands on its handles. This makes it extremely safe for your ankles, knees, hips, elbows, and shoulders and minimizes the risk of injury.

3. Fat-Burning Monster

Did we mention that rowing burns a ton of calories? It does. You can burn anywhere from 200 to 800 calories in an hour, and you can burn even more if you do high-intensity interval training workouts.

4. Health-Friendly Workout

Don’t be fooled by how easy the rowing exercise looks. Going back and forth on the ergometer will easily get your heart rate up and make your cardiovascular system working like a horse. Most high-quality erg brands also include the option to track your heart rate via a chest strap system that can be connected to the rower’s computer.

5. Good Strength Training

Strength training involves making your muscles work against a resistance that is beyond what they’re normally used to. The resistance provided by rowing machines will force you to work against it, allowing you to strengthen your muscles. While you’re not going to bulk up on a rowing machine, you will certainly get stronger from exercising on it.

How to Row Properly during Your Erg Workout

Rowing is all about keeping the proper form. You can go for a high-end expensive air resistance machine or you can save up on a cheaper piston rower, but you will always have to check your form. Being able to row properly is the key to getting the most out of your workouts and staying injury-free.

Check out our quick guide below to see how to perform a rowing stroke properly.

Catch

The catch is the starting position. Here, the seat is placed closed to your heels on the footboard. Your back is straight and your core strong, while your arms are extended straight out as they hold the handle.

To make sure you’re sitting upright, keep your chin up and continue to look forward. Relax your neck and keep your shoulders away from your ears. From the side, your shins should be at a 90-degree angle to the floor.

Drive

The drive is the backward motion of the stroke and is where you do most of the work. The movement starts off with the legs, where you push off from the footboard using all of the power coming from your leg muscles. Keep your arms and spine straight, but you may bend backwards from the hips slightly to help you push back easier.

Next, bend your body from the pelvis so that you are leaning far back. This time, the power should come from your core as you open into the one o’clock position. Finish the drive by pulling the handle with your arms, bringing it just right under the chest. At this stage, the power comes from your upper back and arms – not the forearms. You should feel your shoulder blades coming together at the end of the drive.

Recovery

The recovery is the second part of the stroke, where you go back to the catch position. This is also the part where you hold back to regain power for the next stroke. The recovery is simply the drive in reverse.

First, you extend your arms forward, bend from your core to the 11 o’clock position, and then bend your knees so that seat is once again close to your heels and your shins vertical to the floor once again. Keep in mind to keep your back straight all the time, though it’s okay to lean back or forward a little bit to facilitate your backward and forward movements.

References

Buckhorn, Göran R. (2014). A Jolly Way to Keep Sane! Hear the Boat Sing. Retrieved from https://heartheboatsing.com/2014/08/28/a-jolly-way-to-keep-sane/

Hale, John R. (2009). Lords of the Sea: The Epic of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. Penguin Books.

Miller, Bill. The Development of Rowing Equipment. Rowing History. Retrieved from http://www.rowinghistory.net/Equipment.htm

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