Your Brief(ish) Guide to the Concept 2 Rowing Machine
Your coach just put “Row 2,ooo meters” up on the board, set the timer, shouted “3..2..1..GO!” and you’re off pulling that rip chain like your life depends on it. The faster you go, the better right? Get right up on that chain and move as far as you can along the seat rail? Pull that sucker over your head, savvy?
Not really. Much like the Olympic lifts and your body weight movements, rowing is a skill which can be learned, practiced, and honed until you’re accomplishing the same – or greater – work with what seems lesser effort. Many times, we’ll see that the lifts get all the love when it comes to technique work, and skills that are supposedly “just do it, you’ll get it” are left out of skill work rotations. How many trainers know what the tension adjuster really does or what it’s used for? Why does the rower measure out Meters, Calories, and Watts; and how do you use them to get better?
Today we’re going to give you a primer on Rowing as a skill, go over the basic parts and functions of the Concept 2 rowing machine (since these are, by far, the most common model available) and try to answer some of the more common questions we get at the gym. So without further ado…
A typical rower is made up of 6 component parts:
The Track provides a smooth, low friction plane for the seat to travel on. It includes channels which insert into the wheels of the seat to provide the full range pulling motion that lets the core of the body move.
The Seat moves along the track with each extension of the legs.
The Foot Holds include adjustable heel cups and straps so that each user can place their feet in the most secure, advantageous position for their row.
The Handle/Rip Chain provide the link between the resistance from the Damper and the rower.
The Damper does the work of increasing or decreasing rowing resistance (more on that soon), based on setting and stroke length/speed.
The Performance Monitor (PM) comes in multiple versions, so you may see things like PM3, PM4, etc. The focus is to measure the work output of the rower, provide those measurements visually, and store/run programming like rowing for specific times or distances. Newer version PM’s tend to have more built in functions.
Some parts of the rower that we didn’t call out, but still form functional pieces are the elevation legs and the hinge between the Track and the Foot Hold/Damper pieces. These allow the rower to sit comfortably high from the floor and break down for movement/storage, respectively.
Like in many exercises, your hands are your connection to the resistance, so they can take a beating if you row too hard or too long without building up to it. You should grasp the handle approximately shoulder width apart based on your body size, so you may find yourself gripping closer to the center than a taller rower.
Sometimes you may choose to go wider or narrower on the handle as well, which will stimulate the muscles differently, and emphasize different levels of work. A wider grip will use more scapular movement, while a narrower grip will accentuate the biceps. Generally, a neutral grip will be best to enhance overall performance.
Most athletes who row regularly will develop blisters, which will then harden and form into calluses over a few days or weeks. The bad news is these can be pretty uncomfortable, so you want to slowly increase your rowing sessions over time; don’t just jump into a 10 km row on your first day! The good news is that after the calluses form, your hands have built in protection from the gripping and will be stronger as a result.
A word of caution: don’t let your calluses get too thick, else they may rip off and leave exposed layers of skin. These can be sensitive and delay training for a few days as you heal. You can clip or sand calluses every few weeks to prevent overly building them up using pumice stones or similar.
The feet have it easy compared to the hands, as they just need to strap in and remain stable. That being said, you can maximize your rowing comfort by taking a few things into account.
First, you can go with shoes or no shoes, depending on your preference. What you will find is that shoes with a wide base at the heel or toe may make fitting into the holders awkward, so stick with shoes that are more athletically inclined like trainers or lifting shoes. The good ol’ sneaker is always a fine choice, too. Avoid shoes that have a lot of heel lift, because they can irritate your Achilles Tendon on the back pull.
If you go without shoes, thick socks that provide padding/grip may help, but you can certainly go completely barefoot if that’s your preference (please clean the foot holds if you do). Without shoes you may find that your heel needs some extra support at different portions of the stroke, so consider adding a small bit of foam or bubble wrap to the heel portion of the foot holds to give a little cushion/lift.
The foot holds themselves can be adjusted for a larger or smaller foot, which will place the foot strap at different heights on your instep. Typically, the strap should cross over the top of the foot just below the toes. If you are barefoot, you may consider raising the heel position slightly so the strap crosses closer to the ankle, or if you have mobility issues adjust the heel lower so the strap is closer to the toes.
In whatever position you select, check to make sure that your hamstrings (back of the thighs) do not rest uncomfortably hard on the seat at the back of the pulling position. This can cause discomfort and prevent proper blood flow to the glutes.
Surprisingly (or maybe not) your glutes are very active participants in the rowing motion. They support your body weight, act as a pivot point for your upper body, tighten and release tension during the rowing pull, and of course get sat on. A very common complaint we hear, above the blistered hands and tired feet is, “why does my butt hurt so much?!”
Now, you’re probably not going to have a whole lot of choice in the actual seat you use while rowing, since not many gyms have spare rower seats in the closet. You can, however experiment with different things to make the seat you have available more comfortable for your particular rump.
If you find you need extra padding, folding a hand towel or using a piece of foam/bubble wrap can help add a little cushion for you. Make sure you don’t go overboard though, else you could create a lumpy, unstable sitting position for yourself.
Along the same vein, if you’ve been using padding and your butt is going numb, try less padding. Too much can cause cramping and numbness because of the way the muscle, nerves, and blood vessels impact once another in different positions.
Lastly, if your tailbone starts to hurt, have your trainer make sure the seat is on the right way! The depression in the seat should be in the back to accomodate the tailbone comfortably.
The damper is the lever on the side of the round part (also called the flywheel housing/fan cage). Adjusting the damper setting up allows more air into the flywheel housing, while adjusting the damper setting down allow less air in. The more air that’s present, the more resistance is applied to each pull, and the faster the flywheel slows down when you stop pulling.
We tend to equate how hard something feels to how much resistance is being applied, and in many cases that’s true. If you have a 100 lbs Deadlift versus a 300 lbs Deadlift, for example, the heavier weight equates to more resistance for your body. In general, the perceived resistance and the actual resistance are the same.
In contrast, the damper setting changes the amount of perceived resistance, but not the actual resistance. It’s kind of a confusing concept because we tend to think of resistance in terms of how it affects us, but we need to think of the damper setting differently. The damper changes how your stroke would affect the rower *if it were in the water*.
A lower damper setting is like being in a waxed racing boat, while a higher damper setting is like being in an old row boat. Your force is easier to apply to the racing boat because the friction from the water is lessesned, but you have to row faster to get the intensity higher. Comparatively, the row boat is harder to move through the water (more friction, harder pull) so you pull slower even though you may travel the same distance.
That was a lot; here’s the summary: higher damper equals harder, slower pull while lower damper equals easier, faster pull. Intensity only increases when you go faster, but they feel different.
We’ll talk more about what setting to use below.
So now that you know what all those parts are for, lets talk about how to use them. There are two portions to a good rowing workout: how your body moves, and what damper setting you choose.
We’re going to assume that you are on the rower with your feet, hands, and glutes in the right position for you, per the guidelines we’ve already talked about. From there…
- The arms begin straight, parallel to the floor; head is neutral.
- Your upper body should be leaned slightly forward at the hips, with your shoulders slightly forward
- DO NOT round your back; think of this like a Deadlift with straight back and strong shoulders.
- Your shins should be as close to vertical as you can, and your heels may lift as needed.
- Begin with your legs, pushing against the foot holds and extending your legs
- As the legs come straight, lean the body back using the hips as your pivot point **
- Pull with the arms so that the handle travels in a straight line from the flywheel to your lower ribs
- Keep the shoulders low and relaxed; no shrugging
** Note that when leaning the body back, don’t overdo it. You should have about as much lean backward as you did forward, with perhaps a slightly greater backward lean to increase range of motion. DO NOT try to lay down on the track!
- Allow your arms to extend out straight and begin to lean your torso back towards the flywheel
- Once your hands are past your knees on the way back, start bending your knees to slide the seat forward towards the start
- Return fully to the Start position above
Choosing Your Damper Settings
Finally, the bit about making rowing easier and harder! If you skipped down to this section, please note that there are hidden messages in the previous sections that help you decode what I really mean by some phrases. It’s like a secret language that you must read the previous bit to understand. Go ahead, we’ll wait for you here.
For those of you who didn’t skip ahead, there’s totally no secret code. Read on. 🙂
The best way to choose your damper setting is to determine if your body functions better as a “Hard, Slow Puller” or a “Lighter, Fast Puller”. Damper settings in the 7+ range are best suited for the first type, while settings in the 2-4 range are best for the second type. Typically, a damper setting of 5-6 will be good for anyone at any pace/distance/time. It’s the average between the two.
If you’re not sure which you are, lets test it. In order, set the damper to 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, then row for 500 meters at a pace you can maintain the whole time. Your pace will change depending on the damper setting, but one of the paces will feel more “right” than the others. Record the time it takes you to row 500m at each setting, and then compare. As long as you are working at your hardest sustainable pace for each setting, you should now have a nice comparison to look at. Most people will likely find their best setting is around 5, but some may find that they can row faster at a higher or lower damper.
For best results on this test, allow yourself 20 minutes of rest (or until you feel “fresh”) between 500 meter rows. Going straight into the next test right after the last will give you skewed results due to fatigue more than anything else.
The down side to this test is that different rowers may behave differently at the same damper setting. Rowing at a 5 on your brand new home rower will likely feel different from rowing on the old rower at the gym. So let’s talk about Drag Factor…
Determining Your Drag Factor
Drag factor measures how quickly the flywheel fan will slow down when you stop rowing, The PM calibrates itself by calculating the drag factor every pull in order to accurately measure the effort you’re putting in. The useful part here is that drag factor is a measure of effort regardless of damper setting and environmental conditions.
So how do we use this? Remember that damper setting 5 can be different between rowers, but each rower will also calculate drag factor the same way. This means you can figure out which damper settings are about equal between two different rowers in two different places by comparing your drag factor on each. Here’s how:
- Do the 500m tests as above, and find the damper setting that works best for you on your “home” rower (wherever it’s located)
- Set the damper to your preferred setting, turn on the PM
- From the Main Menu select “More Options”, followed by “Display Drag Factor”
- Begin rowing at the pace that got you through the 500m test at this damper setting
- After a few seconds of maintaining your pace, the PM will show you the drag factor
- Record the drag factor
Now that you have the drag factor from your “home” rower, you can find your preferred damper setting on another rower by reversing the process.
- Set the damper to a 5 on the new rower and turn on the PM
- From the Main Menu select “More Options”, followed by “Display Drag Factor”
- Row at your preferred pace and check the drag factor
- Adjust the damper up and down, rowing at your preferred pace for 5-10 seconds at each setting
- Once you find the damper that leads to your drag factor at your preferred pace, record the damper setting for the new rower
Okay, now you know the parts of the rower, the technique, and how to figure out what settings work best for you. Lets take a quick (seriously) look at what the Performance Monitor measures – other than drag factor – so that you know what metrics you can use to measure and improve your performance.
The total distance traveled in meters. Many workouts will have a goal of rowing a particular distance and the “score” will be the time it takes to complete. You can also set a certain amount of time, and then row for both distance and pace (the average speed rowed). Using this as a measure allows you to train for increasing pace, thus increasing the amount of work done within a certain amount of time.
Some good time domains to row in are 5/15/30/60 minutes. You will notice a huge difference in your pace, distance, and endurance with these jumps, disproportionate to the standard increase in time (i.e. you probably won’t go twice the distance in 30 minutes that you go in 15 minutes).
The PM takes the amount of work being completed and calculates the number of calories being burned by your body to perform that work. By default, the calorie calculation uses a 175 lbs individual as the baseline. Smaller rowers will burn fewer calories while larger rowers will burn more. The PM doesn’t allow you to input your actual weight to adjust the displayed calories burned, but you can calculate your personal calories using the following formulas:
- Actual Calories per Hour (ACpH) = (PM Calories) – (300) + (1.714 * weight)
- Calorie burn for your workout = [ (ACpH) x duration in seconds ] / 3600
This value is useful for translating the work you completed into a measurement that can be compared to your intake (i.e. calories from food). It’s a great tool when you are rowing primarily as a source of weight loss activity.
Your literal Power output, displayed as the SI unit of power (watt), equivalent to one joule per second, corresponding to the power in an electric circuit flowing at 1 Volt/1 Amp. An easy way to understand this is to think of a light bulb: if the bulb wattage is 60W, then you would need to pull at a consistent 60 watts every second to light the bulb continuously.
Pace per 500 meters
Simply put, how long it will take you to row 500m at the stroke rate you’re currently pulling. The lower this number, the faster your “boat” is moving. The PM can show you your average 500m pace as well as the pace on each individual pull of the handle. This is useful for training to maintain a faster pull rate, thus doing more work in the same time.
Thanks for sticking around for over 3,000 words of rower goodness!
Taking the time to practice and improve your rower technique, finding the right damper setting/drag factor, and training in different modes for different purposes can take your rowing workouts from mundane (or confusing) to a highly useful tool for building cardiovascular endurance, burning fat, and building muscle.
Without further redo, allons-y!