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Rowing on the Concept2 Indoor Rowing Machine: The Erg Life

Ah cardio.  Nothing says “I work out” like long, slow, boring runs… Ok, ok, it’s hard to convey sarcasm in text.  So let’s get down to it.  The RefuGym is not a fan of long, slow distance (LSD).  While tempo runs and the occasional distance benchmark is ok for a general sense of overall fitness and progress, it shouldn’t be the cornerstone of any fitness program.  One of the most effective cardio workouts we’ve found is through rowing on the Concept2 indoor rowing machine.

A growing number of coaches and studies are indicating that the best way to improve your performance with LSD is to actually train the short game.  Sprinting on a track is great for this, as is HIIT, which we discussed briefly here.

What we really find as a shortcoming to the running profession is that it focuses largely on lower body and the slight integration of core musculature (for postural support).  It does get the heart pumping, and the metabolic juices flowing, but your cardio game can be so much more.

Enter the Concept 2 Rower, or “Ergometer” is it is often called.

Like all of our recommended products, we try to get the greatest return on our investments.  We don’t want equipment just because it’s expensive and looks nice.  We want it to be effective.  For this reason, we recommend the Concept 2 Model D instead of the Concept 2 Model E.  The Model E comes with a few improvements, and bells and whistles, but it does not appreciably improve upon the rowing experience.  It features a slightly improved Performance Monitor, a higher base, and things like head-to-head rowing capability.  But if you’re a “refugee” you don’t need that stuff.

Stick with the Model D.

Rowing on the Concept2 Indoor Rowing MachineThe short and sweet of it is that a good rowing machine (or, better yet, an actual speed canoe or row boat) offers an incredible total body cardiovascular/metabolic workout.  Distances and paces when rowing on the concept2 indoor rowing machine are roughly equivalent to running, which can make programming fairly straightforward if you come from a running background.

By this we mean that if you a run a fast 18:00 5K, you can expect to row approximately the same distance at approximately the same pace.  Of course there will be some flex room in one way or the other, depending on your experience level, but it’s a good place to start.

Rowing on the Concept2 Indoor Rowing Machine

Like we said, proper rowing on the Concept2 indoor rowing machine will tax your entire body.  There are 4 basic phases to a proper rowing stroke, outlined below:

  1. The Catch
  2. The Drive
  3. The Finish
  4. The Recovery

Each phase is unique and specific, but when worked properly will feel seamless, natural and efficient.

The Catch

The catch is your starting (and also your unlabeled Step #5) position.  In this position your torso is leaned slightly forward, arms stretched out in front of you, knees bent, ankles flex, and heels just about to leave the foot holds.  It is important that even though your torso is leaned forward, your core remains tight.

You should feel like you are reaching forward without completely rounding your back.  Keeping your back rigid, maintaining a slight lumbar curve if possible, will remove strain from your back and improve the next portion of the stroke.

The Catch is the foundation of your stroke.  The further you can reach while keeping good form, the better.  The longer you can force the handle to move with each stroke the better.  This is why taller athletes tend to have a somewhat natural advantage over shorter athletes when it comes to races/competition (but not necessarily fitness!).

The Drive

This is where you generate your power and drive your figurative row boat forward.  The drive consists of an explosive push from your legs.  The angle of your body should not change until your legs have finished straightening out.  Your body and core should remain tight.

For every inch your hips move back while straightening your legs, the handle of the rower should move back the same distance.

This means there should be no movement of your legs that does not transfer into movement of the handle.  If your hips move back but the handle stays in place, or lags behind, it means you are wasting a ton of energy.  If you fail to stay rigid while you drive with your legs, you will have to make up all of the lost momentum using solely upper-body strength, which you will find is not efficient when it comes to rowing on the Concept2 indoor rowing machine.

You should drive back with your legs as strongly as possible, and for as much distance as possible, before you start to open up your torso/hip angle.

The Finish

The Finish is the end of the drive, but not necessarily the end of the stroke.  In The Finish, your legs have finished their explosive straightening.  You should be sitting on the rower with your torso at the same angle as it was in the catch.  Your core and shoulders should be tight.

It is at this point that you will open up your torso/hip angle while pulling ferociously back with your arms and shoulders.

By the end of The Finish, your torso should be leaned slightly back, still rigid and tight, with your legs completely straight, and your arms pulling the rower handle straight back to your chest.

There should be as little vertical movement of the chain as possible.  Your goal from Catch to Finish is to pull the handle and chain straight back.

Vertical movement of the chain is wasted movement and it absorbs energy that would be better transferred into horizontal movement (and thus driving the rower forward faster and further).

If you are having trouble with vertical movement, it is likely you are pulling with your arms too soon before your legs straighten out and before the drive is completely finished.  Likely you are moving the handle vertically in order to avoid hitting your knees; this is a clear indication that your legs have not finished straightening out yet.

Once your torso angle is opened up and you have pulled the handle straight back to your chest, you have completed The Finish.


The Recovery is actually what it sounds like.  This is your brief moment of rest in between strokes.  We suggest taking a few fast rhythmic breaths during this portion as a means of helping you establish a pace.  With the explosive power of your drive, and your core tight, breathing will be minimal during the stroke’s first 3 stages.

The Recovery should be Steps 1-3 in reverse.  The last thing to get pulled back were your arms and the handle.  They should be the first ones to go forward.  Extend your arms and shoulders to place the handle back in front of you, following it up with your torso, returning back to the same torso/hip angle you started in.

At this point you will be essentially at the end of your drive stage again but going in reverse order.  From here bend your knees.

The handle should not have to move vertically to avoid your knees.  If it does, you are doing The Recovery in the wrong order!

As your knees bend, you will return to The Catch position.  Reach far forward with your arms and shoulders, knees bent, and torso/hip angle closed, ready for the next drive.

Tie It Together

Those are the basics of an efficient stroke.  Congratulations!  You’re now knowledgeable in rowing on the Concept2 indoor rowing machine.  Now let’s talk the rower itself.

The rower works with a flywheel, designed to provide increased resistance based on the effort exerted.  Certain stationary bikes work in the same way, and this actually closely mimics what happens when you place an real oar into water.

The Concept 2 Rower has a damper setting that can be adjusted from 1 to 10.  Often times this gets confused with a “difficulty setting,” with lots of globo-gym fools maxing it out to 10 thinking they are getting the best workout.  This is actually not true.

Think of the damper as the gears on a bike.  If set to 1, each stroke will require less effort.  However you will require more strokes per minute in order to move the same distance.  The net energy expended will be roughly equivalent to setting it to 10.  At a damper setting of 10, each stroke will be significantly harder, but the “boat” will travel much, much further per stroke.  Again, the net energy expenditure is approximately the same.

To simulate a real row boat, we recommend a setting in the middle, with 5 being our typical recommendation.  You may actually find, with practice, that you are a more efficient rower (meaning greater distance with less energy) at this damper setting, as most people do.  Do not misconstrue this and think you are not getting as good of a workout… trust us… you are.

Is That It?  Really?

Believe it or not, that’s all there is to the rower.  You can get out there, hop on a Concept 2, and even without a performance monitor, start rowing.  You won’t have the bells and whistles like distance, calorie and wattage calculations, but your body will know it’s working.

The Concept 2 features a terrific performance monitor though, and we strongly recommend you use it.  With it you can program and save an assortment of workouts, ranging from interval training to our dreaded LSD.

Just Go

Or you can just turn it on and start rowing on and it will keep track of your progress.

If you’re just getting started rowing on the Concept2 indoor rowing machine, one of the best ways to get a feel for it is to start at a slow, comfortable pace for short distances.

Make a conscientious attempt to keep your number of strokes per minute (SPM, or S/M) between 25-32 if possible.  Rowing too fast is often an indicator of an inefficient stroke.

We have witnessed many people going at 27 efficient s/m rowing faster and further than someone going at an inefficient 45 s/m.

It’s all about your form and the efficiency of your stroke and the power of your drive.  You can row 45 strokes per minute with no explosive drive, and it will feel like you are treading water.  Making an attempt to get as much distance out of each stroke, keeping between 25 and 32 strokes per minute, will yield the best possible workout.  Try it and see.

There is no solid pace for a beginner to shoot for.  Figure out what’s comfortable for you and work your weakness.  HIIT is easy when rowing on the Concept2 indoor rowing machine, and you can even program your own custom workouts.

A general guideline to shoot for is a sustained pace of 2:00 per 500m over various distances up to 10K.  For sprints, a very respectable pace is 1:30 per 500m.

There is a reason we love writing about rowing on the Concept2 indoor rowing machine.  It’s been a RefuGym centerpiece for years.  It is one of our essential gym tools and is built to last.

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