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Introductory ergonometry

By Topher Bordeau

Countless studies have shown that rowing, Nordic skiing, and swimming are three of the best total body workouts around, with intense benefits for both cardiovascular health and overall muscle strength. Unlike the other two activities, rowing doesn't require frigid weather or chlorination, and there's no better way to squeeze a full workout into a short amount of time.

Don't live near a boathouse? Don't sweat it. Your health club probably owns at least one rowing ergometer ("erg" for short), a training tool used extensively by rowers around the world. Non-rowers have caught on to the erg's utility, too: eighty-one percent of ergometer sales go to people who never row on the water.

Look for the rarely occupied grey or white machine with a flywheel, handle, computer screen, and sliding seat on a steel rail. That sliding seat has a tendency to trap loose shorts in its rollers, leaving nasty grease stains, so make sure you're dressed for the part before you begin. Running shorts are adequate for rowing the erg (although the seams can chafe your backside); spandex is ideal.

Rowing is all about positioning and sequence or, more specifically, positioning your body to perform a sequence of events. First, the positioning:

  1. Sit on the seat and put your feet in the shoe holders, called stretchers. You'll notice that they're adjustableā€”move them up or down until the strap that holds your feet in place runs across the lace closest to the toe of your shoe.
  2. Now roll forward, grab the handle, and pull it back to you. Feel the resistance as the handle spins the wheel inside the cage? That resistance is what will get you fit. See the screen in front of you coming to life? That screen measures just how fit you'll get, expressed in three different units.
  3. Sit with your arms extended so that the handle is over your shins and the chain is parallel to the floor. For the time being, we'll call this the pivot position.
Given the proper starting point, the rowing stroke itself is simple. It involves three parts and the connection of those three parts in a proper sequence:
  1. Roll forward from the pivot position, keeping your arms extended and your body reaching forward.
  2. When you can roll no farther, the handle should be very close to the wheel, your arms should remain fully extended, and your butt should close to your heels. This is the catch position.
  3. Press your legs and engage your core muscles so that as your seat moves, your arms and shoulders stay relaxed but the handle moves with it. This is called the leg drive.
  4. As your knees approach the steel rail, lean back until your shoulders are just behind your hips. This is called the swing. It's a small motion; keep it small lest you risk back injury.
  5. After your body has swung to one o'clock, use your lat muscles to pull your elbows past your body so that the handle comes to your chest. This is the finish position.
  6. From the finish, extend your arms and reach forward with your upper body. You should be back to the pivot position.
That's the rowing stroke Practice each component individually and then in sequence. When you can blend them together, take one stroke at a time, pausing at the pivot. When taking one good stroke is easy, take two and pause at the pivot. Work your way up from there until you can row continuously.

Keep in mind that good rowing is relaxed rowing: you should be using your legs, lats, core muscles, and little else. When you feel you've mastered your form, check out for suggested workouts from the manufacturers of the machine.

Topher Bordeau is a correspondent for the Rowing News and has written for Men's Edge, N'East, and other magazines. He also makes his living as a collegiate rowing coach and currently works at Dartmouth College.