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The Ergometer – How To Beat the Machine we Love to Hate

When Spartan Race announced that they were bringing Concept II erg’s to Fenway, I knew we needed to find out more about them. While I use them at my Crossfit box on a fairly regular basis, they will be new to a lot of folks.

Fortunately, among our membership is Michele. She spent years in college living and breathing this stuff, and I asked if she would be able to write up something to help folks get the best technique when they hit this often misunderstood machine …

So, in her own words, here’s how to KILL the erg at Fenway. Thank you Michele!



SO – word on the street is that there will be Concept II Ergometers at the Fenway Spartan Race….so what? Well, this could be the one variable on the course that could ruin a well-planned race, so a quick education and session on your nearest ‘erg’ could be the difference between your PR and a DNF.
As a former collegiate rower, I still shudder when I think about winter training sessions on the ergometer – and it’s been almost 14 years!! There’s a good reason – this machine is the ultimate equalizer in a sport where you have to be both cardiovascularly superior as well as strong, and it does not let you cheat in getting there. Because of the nature of rowing itself, where your form is so crucial to your success, there is no better place to perfect your form than an ergometer.

It may seem ridiculously obvious, but when you first get on the ergometer, make sure your feet are secured properly. You may think that by hoping on and just letting ‘er rip so to speak you’re shaving time, but if your feet slip while you’re rowing hard you’ll pay later. The bigger your feet, the lower you need to slide the footbed, making sure the plastic pegs are are the way in the hole. The foot strap should be tightened and fall across the base or just lower than your toes.

Next, check out the display. This might not seem important, but I am guessing the ergometer will be used to get to a pre-determined distance, so don’t mess with power or time on the display: the info used by every coach and rower is your 500 meter split. Your total distance will still be shown, but the lower you get this split, the better you’re doing. Plus, knowing your split will give you some legit boat cred.

The tamper (resistance lever located on the side of the flywheel) will more than likely been at a set number for men, and one for women to keep it fair. Make sure you’re where the Spartan Race wants it to be. Now grab the handle…

There are two places in the stroke you can begin at, and it’s really up to you which you choose. I like to start at the ‘Finish’ because I feel it is more conducive to a fluid stroke. At the Finish legs should be straight, your torso should be long and straight with a lean back of 20-25 degrees, coming from your hip. There should be NO slouch in your body, core is tight and your shoulders should be drawn back. The handle should begin at your xiphoid process ( the very bottom tip of your sternum), with a very loose grip of your hands. In fact, at no point in the entire stroke should your hands be tight around the oar/handle, but especially at the Finish, with your thumb hanging loose. Elbows are pointed out, wrists are flat – you should have a straight line from knuckles to elbow. Here we go…

From the finish the stroke goes in order like this – arms, back legs – until you arrive at the ‘Catch’ – and you just reverse that order back to the finish. If you remember ONE thing when you get to the erg at Fenway, it should be “arms, back, legs…legs, back arms”. What this means is that the first move you make from the Finish is to straighten the arms – that is it. Only after the arms come out, you swing your torso forward ( from the hip joint, DO NOT round your shoulders) to about 30 degrees toward your feet. Resist the urge to lunge too far toward your feet – if your ass lifts up or your back rounds you will loose tons of power. From here, you have the most crucial part of the stroke that is the most screwed up. Keeping your body angle, slowly slide up toward the flywheel, without your butt coming up under your body. This slide forward has to be twice as slow as your drive, or you will make the chain go slack, and loose all the momentum on the flywheel.

Once you’re as far up as comfortable while keeping your body angle, you’re at the ‘Catch’. If you were really on the water this is the instance you would lift your hands to drop your oar in the water. Since you’re NOT on the water, don’t worry about lifting and lowering your hands through your stroke – it will just make the chain go up and down, and will make your wheel slow. At the Catch you want to find the instant that you are as far up as you can go without lunging your bogy forward or coming to a complete stop, and you begin your Drive. This is the power portion of your stroke, and it needs to be twice as fast as your slide forward. If you don’t have a ratio of at least 2:1 (time in the slide forward to time driving the legs) you will not be as effective. Trust me – watch an inexperienced person on an erg sliding back and forth and you will see why. They get tired faster, their meters go up slower, and you risk injury to yourself and the machine.

So here’s the second half of your ergometer mantra “arms, back, legs….legs, back,arms”. On your Drive you first straighten your legs ( like squatting while sitting ) without moving the rest of your body. This takes a little practice. Once your legs are almost completely down, swing your back to that first angle you had at the finish, once again making the movement come from your hip joint. Then, and only then, do you pull the arms back into your sternum, keeping your wrists flat, elbows out, and core tight and supported. And , VOILA! You’re back at the Finish.


Now that you know the basic components of the stroke you will need to connect them smoothly, finding a rhythm to putting them together with just an instance of pause at the Catch and the Finish, inhaling on the slide up and exhaling on your drive.

Good Luck Spahtens! I cannot wait to hear about Fenway, and how the NE Spahtens were the only team to crush the dreaded ERGOMETER!!!!

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