How To Stop Hating the Erg

Fact: Bring up indoor rowing to a bunch of Crossfitters and without fail someone will start looking sheepish and confess, “You know, I just don’t like rowing.”

One girl is very small, like me. She feels like her splits aren’t good enough, and that her build puts her at a disadvantage.

Others say it’s too boring.

Some admit that their “form is really bad” so their happy place is anywhere that the erg isn’t.

I hear them. I can’t pretend it’s fun all the time. Because let’s be real, if you’re doing it right, rowing is always challenging and occasionally brutal.

I fear little more than a 2k race.

Longer rowing pieces (over 4 min, or anything north of 1000m) are an endurance grind. And take it from someone who’s rowed a half marathon on an erg: shit gets real boring. The biggest battle is mental as you fight to stay focused and connected drive after drive after drive.

But what makes rowing different than any other dreaded Crossfit move? Nobody in the history of ever thinks burpees are fun. Wall balls can kiss my ass. Do a Hero WOD and try not to hurl. But ergo-phobia is real and it keeps people from some of the best conditioning time spent out there. (We’re talking about an exercise that works every large muscle group in your body. Fitness jackpot!)

Getting Past Your Rowing Hang Ups

Let’s diagnose the common indoor rowing ills and a few mental and physical shifts that can have you loving — or at least grudgingly appreciating — your time on the erg.

You Suffer From: General Discomfort/Bad Form

You never feel comfortable with your body position and are never quite sure you’re as powerful as you could be. You begin to ache in your arms or lower back after longer rows.

Tips: Poor form can make rowing miserable even for the fittest athletes. Not only does it diminish your power potential, over time it could lead to injury. Good thing that getting good form isn’t that hard. Once you know a) what a proper rowing stroke looks like and b) what it feels like, you’re golden. Here esteemed rowing coach Shane Farmer reviews the elements of the stroke — what you need to start feeling more at ease on the erg.

Note the body angle of the athletes in the video (forward), their chest position (up) and their consistent handle height (nowhere near their collarbone).

Additionally, make sure the erg is set up comfortably for you each time you hop on. That means adjusting the foot stretchers so that the grooves meet the ball of your feet and checking to make sure the last guy wasn’t trying to prove something by setting the damper to 10 (holy heavy!). For Crossfit workouts the damper is set between 4 and 5. Aim closer to 4 if you’re pint-sized.

You Suffer From: How Do I RX This?

There is no RX for the erg. But you are a Crossfitter and you like to RX VERY MUCH. When rowing shows up in the WOD, you wonder why some evil programmer is wasting your time.

Tips: You’ve got to know your own game here. The best rowers know precisely what splits and SPM they should be hitting for whatever rowing piece is thrown at them. You know your 1RM for your lifts, don’t you? Same thing with the erg. Find your baseline pace (split/500m) for at least your 2k, 1k, 500m and 250m — just don’t do this on the same day! My legs hurt thinking about it. Note your average strokes per minute and anything else you observed during those rows.

Now when rowing shows up in a WOD, you have your own personal optimal pace/RX to keep you motivated. One caveat: not every Crossfit WOD is designed to attack at your race pace. In general, if there is a lot of heavy leg work involved, like Jackie, you’ll want to conserve some energy on the erg so you don’t die when you get 10 thrusters deep into the rest of the workout.

Our friends at Concept 2 share some advice on how to find your proper baseline or prep for a race in general.

You Suffer From: Boredom

You are every man. Your condition is as rampant as there are rowing machines. All you can think about is the upper lefthand corner of your monitor that is ticking off the meters…so…damn…slowly…

Tips: Do not — I repeat — do not focus on the total meters here. It will only drive you mad or trigger the dramatic teenager within (I still haven’t cracked triple digits? But I’ve been rowing this piece for my whole LIFE!) Stay focused on micro goals within your piece. Example: Rowing 1000m? Focus on a different part of your stroke or form for the first 9 segments then go HAM on the last 100 or so. Take 10 strokes to lengthen out. Take 10 for forward body angle and reach. Take 10 to really drive with the legs. Take 10 to focus on your breathing. You get the idea. Just row for a reason. You’ll be surprised just how faster each piece seems to go. Your form will thank you, too.

You Suffer From: Always Finishes Last

It’s hard to hop on an erg for distance pieces when, as you so well know, there’s no way to scale. Nobody likes finishing last, least of all you, my fellow fierce shortie.

Tips: Your battle is mainly mental. Yes, there’s a physical limiting factor because you don’t have long legs. But that needs to be accepted and set aside in order for you to progress and start enjoying your erg time, no matter when you finish. You will also benefit from understanding your baseline so you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment when you can’t catch up to the 6 foot tall girl next to you. Your splits are your splits, and not only are you rowing just as hard (relatively) as everyone else, you have to keep that pace up longer than they do! You are a hero in your own time.

Or try this quintessential nerd strategy: while the vertically gifted people around you are relying on their sheer size to get them through a piece, you can work smarter and more efficiently. Be a student of good form. Make every stroke as technically solid, efficient and powerful as you can. You may surprise yourself at how your splits start to naturally come down and how you’re keeping pace with the tall girls.

Got any more tips for our rowing adverse friends? Share them in the comments!