A Basic Guide to Indoor Rowing and the Concept 2 Ergometer
Video – The catch, drive and recovery in sequence.
*** Update 17/1/17
How far back you should lean when you row.
*** Update 17/1/17
Strokes rates explained
This article is aimed at giving someone the basic knowledge to operate and use the Concept 2 ergometer safely. It is not all-encompassing, this is aimed at someone who is a beginner. It is information I think I would have found extremely useful starting out. I am not an expert, but I do love rowing, and I have put in my fair share of metres both in training and on the gym floor coaching.
Where Did I Start?
I started really focusing on rowing last year (2015) due to a shoulder injury. It restricted me from getting a lot of training done, but I could row pain free. If you combine this with the fact I REALLY HATE RUNNING, the rower suited me for all things conditioning for several months until I recovered.
I didn’t really have any in depth knowledge on what a great rowing stroke looked like but I knew what was bad – and I wanted to make sure that wasn’t me if I was going to be putting in serious hours on the machine. At the time we had 5 or 6 rowers in the gym so learning as much as I could about it made sense to me, and so my love affair commenced.
In my opinion rowing on the Concept 2, if done correctly, is a very ‘low risk/high reward’ form of training, the lack of impact on the joints is probably the biggest plus point. This is how I assess every single movement I prescribe – what can I offer that provides great reward for very little risk of injury/anything going wrong. It’s also something I apply to myself, longevity is something I’ve had to learn about the hard way.
A lot of what I’m providing here is information I have taken on board from various sources, (which I will give a shout out to at the end of the post) and have applied to both clients and myself. But a lot of it is also the result of me troubleshooting dozens of clients’ EVERY DAY over a long period of time. I’ve spent a lot of time standing staring at differently proportioned people rowing, and I’ve had to try and come up with different ways of solving problems in front of me.
I wasn’t always a coach, there were plenty of days when I was on a rower in a globo gym somewhere doing everything sideways. Something like this article is what I needed starting out, I hope the combination of consolidated information and my own experience comes across coherently.
Everybody is different. Due to differences in lever length and mobility not all rowing strokes will be the same. But there are some general rules of thumb which will help you row efficiently and safely.
Again, I haven’t been to the Olympics, I don’t have any rowing medals – there are people who are far more qualified than me to look to for advice. But this is my article, I’ve successfully coached a lot of people on the gym floor on how to row to a good level of technique. I believe my instructions here are at the very least safe.
Keep in mind – when writing most of my stuff my thought process is ‘What could have helped me when I started out?’. I hope this helps you.
Be Patient, Try To Improve Daily.
Rowing with great technique isn’t easy, and the journey to the perfect rowing stroke is futile because… it doesn’t exist. Do the very best you can – this should be both safe and with everything firing in sequence the way I lay out. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else, especially if you’re starting out.
Be patient, find a good coach, record a clip of yourself rowing (people are usually surprised by what they see) and look over it. Evaluate it compared to my instructions and make the necessary changes……
How Do You Get Started?
Well, first of all, and most obvious is you need a rower. All my rowing has been done on a Concept 2. Zero meters on water, zero meters on any other brand of ergometer. Any decent gym will have a Concept 2, and luckily for you if you’re interested in getting started they are usually unmanned in the corner because people don’t know how to use them properly.
What Do I Wear?
This might seem obvious, but it is important to wear comfortable gym clothing. What might seem loose and comfortable in the gym can suddenly change once you sit on that seat and try to get moving. It shouldn’t be too much hassle starting out, but if you gradually start upping the duration then it’s something that you’ll definitely have to consider.
Key Terms Before We Move On
Concept 2 Ergometer – An ‘ergometer’ is an instrument for measuring the work performed by exercising. Simple.
The Flywheel and Damper Setting
The flywheel is an air based resistance wheel inside the rower that starts spinning via the chain using the momentum you generate from rowing . Air based resistance means the wheel is always trying to slow down as air gets sucked in to the fan cage. The wheel is your enemy! – it takes energy to get it moving, and it’s always trying to slow down as well.
The damper setting (1-10) adjusts how much air is let in. The difference between 1 and 10 is huge. At 10, the wheel is FAR harder to get moving and it aggressively tries to slow because of the higher amount of air being let in. On setting 1 the wheel is easier to get moving, and it doesn’t slow down as aggressively. I’ll cover why you shouldn’t have your damper on 10 later. For quick reference, go for 6 if you’re a guy, 5 if you’re a girl.
Below you can see both settings; 1 on the left, 10 on the right.
Strokes Per Minute (s/m) – The amount of rowing strokes done per minute.
Strokes per minute (s/m) is an important metric shown on the screen of the rower.
It’s also important that your stroke rate matches your intention.
Think of it like going for a run, if I asked you to run a 10k you wouldn’t go sprinting down the road. If I asked for your quickest 100 metre sprint time you wouldn’t amble down the track.
Both approaches would end in failure.
There is nothing set in stone about odd or even numbers, generally you see most rowers/programmes do work off even rates (18/20/22/24 etc.).
18 strokes per minute is probably the lowest rate you can go without negatively affecting the sequence. It will feel quite slow, but it’s a great pace for people starting to hone technique or for long rows, as it is very purposeful in it’s application.
Mid level rates, for example 24, are comfortable for more mid distance rows. They also look fluid and smooth once someone has put the pieces together and rows well.
High level rates (30+) are used for shorter distances and sprints. You still try and hold technique and apply the proper sequencing, but it’s where you need to be if you want to put metres away quickly.
One big error for people starting out is using a high rate. If you add this with poor technique and not actually using your legs, the workout becomes a waste of time. Rowing at a high rate starting out just won’t let you ingrain any good patterns.
You can see in the image below depending on what display option you have chosen, the SPM or ‘s/m’ is shown in the bottom left or top right hand side.
Remember my sprinting analogy? Think of rate 18 as a slow jog, and 30 a strong 3/4 pace.Have a look at the video below here I show the difference between 18,24 and 30 strokes per minute with technique held throughout.
If you are new and hitting 30/30+ you’re going way too fast. 18-22 for technique, once it looks good try and replicate your form at progressively higher rates.
500 Meter Split Time
This is another metric which shows how long it will take you to row 500 metres. It is useful to measure how consistent your stroke is among other things. For people who row regularly this and ‘strokes per minute’ are generally the two indicators used to regulate their session.
The 500 metre split or ‘/500’ time is fairly prominent on both screens.
The Catch, Drive and Recovery – The 3 phases of the rowing stroke.
The Drive (and Finish)
The recovery phase is basically the drive in reverse. It may sound simple, but it’s easy to get wrong.
I will cover any other terms as I go throughout the article, and further on I’ll show you how to put the 3 phases into motion.
Breathing is something that most people struggle with in various forms of exercise, rowing is no different and provides it’s own difficulties. Keep this in mind before you even jump on.
The reason it can be quite difficult is you are compressing your chest with each stroke. Your stroke rate will affect things, if you are going at a lower rate it is possible to regulate your breathing quite easily, but once you start moving to higher rates it becomes more difficult. My best advice is try to inhale in the recovery phase, DON’T try this in the catch as this is where your chest is compressed.
The Foot Plates
It is important that you fully strap your feet in to the plates before you start. The height of the foot plate is important too, you can see from the picture below that they are adjustable using the holes as shown. Aim to the have the strap at the base of your toes, however it can be quite an individual thing depending on the length of your shins and your ankle mobility. Have your coach assess where yours should be, or if you’d like me to do it get in touch.
Tighten the straps so your feet are secure, this is another thing most people don’t do properly. If the straps aren’t tight enough when you get to the finish of the ‘drive’ phase your feet will look to come away from the foot plate…not good for several reasons.
Drag Factor and Damper Setting
Drag factor is a setting on the machine which measures the rate of deceleration of the flywheel. The higher the drag factor the more resistance – that means the flywheel is harder to get moving and slows quickly.
A common mistake is someone setting the damper setting to 10 thinking they will get a better workout because it ‘must be harder on 10’.
If you have the damper setting on the 10 the drag factor will be high, if you have it on a low setting the flywheel will be easier to move. You need to find a middle ground, too low a setting is lots of wasted energy, too high and form will suffer and/or your muscles will fatigue quickly. There might be some situation where having it at 10 is ideal, but I haven’t found it yet.
Look to row at a drag factor of between 120-130. This is generally found in the middle ground with most of my male clients and myself working at damper setting 6. The majority of my female clients work at 5.
I’ve covered some terms and mentioned breathing, the foot plates and drag factor/the damper settings. Now to move on to actually rowing and what’s required.
How to Row – Some Important Basics.
Upright posture – When you row you will look to do so with upright posture, the movement forward and back should be a lean from the hips. Certain people will struggle to keep a completely upright posture with no spinal flexion, do the best you can.
Relax Your Shoulders – Stay relaxed from your shoulders. This will help you stay upright, promote leg drive and make sure you don’t end up incredibly tight in this area the next day.
Hold the handle wide – Hold the handle close to the end on either side, this will help you with the next part – keeping your elbows down. Don’t grip it tightly, this will help keep your shoulders relaxed.
Elbows Down – Keep your elbows in and down, this will help engage your lats properly.
Neutral Head Position – Make sure you have neutral head posture throughout. Position the screen so it facilitates this.
Make Sure You Are Comfortable On The Seat Before You Start
This is often overlooked and can result in a lot of wiggling to fix.
Putting It Together – The Catch, Drive And Recovery In Motion
The torso should be upright* but in a forward leaning position where your shoulders are in front of your hips. The arms are extended fully with a flat wrist. Shin position is vertical, or as close as you can get to vertical but not beyond perpendicular. The head is in a neutral position, the monitor should be set at a height which best facilitates this. Your knees should end up under your armpits or close. You’ll notice the heels will be off the footplate to some degree, it can vary from person to person.
*how upright you are will be determined by your mobility, some people naturally have a hunch from their t-spine and will be unable to to fully extend upright. This happens and isn’t the end of the world as long as the person is aware they are trying to stay in as best a position possible for them.
Moving on into the drive…
The Drive (and Finish)
***The initial first pull is important, try to keep your form as best as possible as you do it. This means staying upright and driving with your legs. It doesn’t help that it’s called the first pull when I want you to push with your legs…but make sure you use the following points on EVERY stroke, including that very first one***
It’s really important you initiate the action from your legs. Get your heels down on to the footplate and drive. Keep your arms straight as long as possible and resist the urge to use them to pull the handle before your legs have done their work. Your torso needs to remain as upright as possible, the movement backward is a lean/hinge from the hips -that’s important. The drive is finished with a slight backward lean with the handle finishing at the sternum with your wrists flat.
The recovery is initiated by an almost simultaneous straightening of the arms/forward lean of the torso. Generally the arms go first, but in a smooth and subtle way. It can all depend on the individual person’s lever lengths.
DO NOT let your knees break first, this is THE most common mistake I see from people. If there is one error I spend endless time trying to fix, this is it.
Once your hands have cleared your knees (this can vary slightly person to person) allow your legs to break and smoothly return to the catch position. This should be done with upright posture, keep a neutral head position and slide forward smoothly in the seat. The chain should always stay as level as possible – there should be no major up or downward motion.
The 3 phases put together equals a rowing stroke. Simple (in theory)!
Rhythm, Timing and Staying Connected
It is very important that your rowing stroke has rhythm and is smooth and efficient. There are a few concepts here that I might add in at a later date, they are definitely something I try to cover in person with clients but it’s a bit tricky detailing it all in text. It takes practice to attain a smooth rowing style (some people just have it naturally) where one stroke blends seamlessly into the next.
Have a look at the video below of me rowing at 30 strokes per minute. Each stroke is fluid, it all blends together in the right sequence, each stroke even SOUNDS the same.
Common Faults and How to Fix Them
Again, it’s important to note here I’m outlining common faults. Anything like this needs to be addressed in person (everyone is different), but I hope some of the main flaws I see can help you understand ‘what not to do’ as well as what is good.
Rowing Out Of Sync
Make sure the sequence is done properly, here’s a video of me out of sync for a few seconds… I couldn’t do it for too long as it’s quite hard to go against habit.
Erratic Chain Height
Try and keep the chain as level as possible, it’ll promote good technique and help move the flywheel more efficiently. Straight lines=efficiency.
Not ‘Loading Up’ Properly – This is a pretty big error from most people. You are looking to arrive in the catch position with your shoulders in front of your hips and with a vertical shin angle. This means you are properly ‘loaded’ and ready to get the most drive possible from your legs. All the other obvious things must be in place – upright torso, neutral chin etc. If you don’t load up for the drive, and have instant knee rebend when you transition from the finish to the recovery you aren’t using your legs properly.
I think of it as very similar to a kettlebell swing as below, if you don’t load up your hips properly you won’t generate as much power. I use this comparison in the gym as kettlebell swings are something we use quite regularly, and the analogy has worked well getting people to understand.
Too Much Backward Lean, No Lean – If you lean back too far not only is it potentially bad for your back, it also doesn’t make sense to do it from an efficiency standpoint. The extra length you get in your stroke (check out the blue in the second picture) doesn’t stack up against a slight lean, getting forward again and using your legs more. You do want some kind of lean, but just something subtle. Your back and core are involved in the rowing stroke, but you want it to be predominantly a ‘leg push’ movement.
Too Little Leg Extension – make sure you drive with your legs and extend them properly. Leg drive from the catch needs to be fully completed. If you don’t extend your legs properly you are selling yourself short and not using their full potential.
If you see below, the blue line would represent where your legs are if you don’t full extend.
Fragmented Movement – this goes back to rhythm. The flywheel is constantly trying to slow, you need to be efficient and smooth in your stroke to keep things going. If the movement of the chain is not fluid you are wasting energy. Once you put all the pieces together – good posture and the right sequencing – fluid movement is A MUST. I see lots of people pass through the stroke with decent sequencing, but the fluidity is just not there. There are a small percentage of people I have seen who are pure naturals and a fluid stroke is performed with barely any coaching.
A lot of things need to come together to attain fluidity. The best way to it is proper sequencing at a set /500m time and stroke rate e.g 2:10/500m @ 2o spm. If you can hold a steady pace and stroke rate there is inevitably a fluid nature to your stroke. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE.
Rowing Too Quickly With No Power – It’s easy to go through the movement not using your legs and generating no power. To me it’s the equivalent of having a bike in first gear cycling on an even surface – you’re pedaling fast but going nowhere. If you row properly using your legs, it gets VERY hard very quickly to row at a high stroke rate/low split time.
Picture someone not loading up properly, barely driving with the legs and not extending their legs fully. This is usually done at a high stroke rate, it may seem you are moving fast yet it isn’t that exerting. Revert back to a slow rate and proper leg drive/technique/sequencing.
Concentration and Momentum
If you are just looking to move and get active then concentration isn’t necessarily a big deal. Jump on, row, and be happy you’re moving. If you are chasing split times or certain targets you’ll need to focus, one thing I have experienced is that as soon as you start thinking about your dinner or what you’re doing later tonight things start to slow down and the /500m time starts to drift away.
Focus on the screen, it’s a mental game as much as a physical game.
Momentum is something that’s very important as well if you are doing some kind of time trial or long row. Any few lost seconds, i.e if you stop for water or need to fix your foot straps will rob you of a ton of time. I’ve been on long rows chasing targets and had to adjust certain things, once you stop the wheel spinning for any amount of time you get left behind.
What I have laid out isn’t THE perfect way of rowing. I get plenty of questions like ‘I only feel comfortable doing x, is that okay?’. There are always going to be nuances with exercise, and rowing is no different. People will have slightly different strokes, but the basics should pretty much all be the same.
Like most other things, once there’s a ‘3,2,1 GO -do something as fast as you can’ attached to anything form breaks down, so if you’re starting out try and avoid doing any crazy workouts. Spend time locking in your technique.
Something else to keep in mind – my last 2k time was 7:02 (unspectacular). I trained pretty hard and quite frequently to get it down from 7:15. I know a few people in the gym who wouldn’t have done much rowing specific training lately yet could probably hop on tomorrow with a hangover and hit sub 7. This is life, some people will just be better than you at stuff.
Focus on your own goals, and make sure you celebrate your victories accordingly.
Another thing I come across every so often is someone who rows ‘top heavy’. Usually it is someone who has a strong upper body and big pulling strength. They use their arms more than their legs, but it works for them. I compare it to something like golf, someone might have an unorthodox swing but if it works, it works.
It will probably completely contradict what I’ve laid out here, but again some people can defy conventional wisdom.
The monitor and settings can be tricky to navigate, here’s some basics to help.
Settings and Options
Just Row -The easiest way to get started, strap yourself in and choose ‘Just Row’.
You can set the screen to show various performance metrics (calories, watts, /500m time) as shown below. Watts is a power output measurement, /500m is the amount of time it will take you to row 500m at your current pace, and calories is a measure of the approximate amount of calories you are burning in the session. It’s incredibly important to NOT take the ‘calorie’ measurement as wholely accurate, it’s just an estimation.
Anyone who rows regularly will be familiar with using the information to measure their workouts. If you’re just starting out a good thing to do is record your workouts so you can monitor your progress (this applies across the board and not just to rowing).
Setting A Customised Workout
Have a look at the pictures below. Choose ‘Select Workout’, then either ‘Standard List’ or ‘New Workout’. The options under ‘New Workout’ are customisable, you can see ‘Single Distance/Single Time’ etc. and would be more suitable for a beginner. All the workouts on the ‘Standard List’ are pretty tricky. Get used to these options to set up your workouts.
Memory – The Concept 2 will store any workouts you have done in its memory. There are sites and USB keys you can use to log data, but if you’re like me and just write everything down on paper then this is where to look. (Please note on older models the ‘memory’ option isn’t on the main screen).
My best advice for someone starting out is to spend anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes at a time rowing at a low stroke rate (18-22) and easy but CONSISTENT pace to work on technique. You’ll build a good base and create good habits this way. Once you start moving along the options are numerous, but make sure you keep track of your sessions from the very start so you can monitor your progress.
If you would like some workouts beyond simply rowing at low rates for 5-10 minutes get in touch.
Keeping Your Concept 2 Up To Date
Visit http://www.concept2.com and search for any updates. You need to download the firmware available on the site to complete the update, and the Concept 2 must be connected using a USB or printer cable to your laptop. Once you click install it looks after itself.
If there is enough interest I can put a rowing class on in the Academy for people to work on technique, I’ll cover everything mentioned here and set you up the best way possible for you. Nothing beats the eye of a good coach. If you’re interested get in touch, it will be limited to 8 people.
I hope this has helped you if you are a beginner to rowing and using the indoor rower. If you have any further questions get in touch, I’ll be glad to try and help.
I do generally look back over my posts and adjust them, whether it be because I don’t think it sounds right or I add/remove info. I’ll analyse the whole article fairly soon and possibly edit some things if I think it needs fixing. Each section I’ve done can be covered in more detail, I want to keep it to a beginners guide but I may delve further in the future.
References – Olympian Cameron Nichol (RowingWOD), Sam Blythe (Fitness Matters), a British indoor champion, the pages they host and their community members. The Concept 2 main site is also an amazing source of information. There’s a plethora of really great content online, and generally if you’re interested in something you will seek out what you need.
If there is something I haven’t covered, or if you’re a coach and feel at odds with something I’ve presented then feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I always enjoying discussing these subjects.