Get Big Results With the Rowing Machine

This winter, hit the erg and gain outstanding fitness results.

By Tory Canfield

The rowing machine, also known as the “erg,” is one of the most effective cardio machines in the gym. Used correctly, it can offer a total-body workout with serious cardiovascular and calorie-burning benefits. But there’s a reason that the odd-looking contraption is usually available: It can be very physically and mentally challenging. But if you take time to learn proper technique and understand its mysterious ways, the erg could help you conquer your next athletic feat, whether competing in a 10k or an Ironman, or getting back in shape after an injury.


Adjust the foot pegs so the strap is over the balls of your feet. Next, set the damper lever somewhere between 3 and 5. Think of the damper as gears on a bike. Setting it higher or lower changes how hard your workout feels, but does not change your work output. A high damper setting will call on more muscle strength and less cardio and will feel like rowing a heavy boat. A low setting will feel like rowing a racing shell. The computer monitor (see #4 below) will give you the true story on how effectively you’re pushing yourself.



  • Start in slow motion, with little to no pressure, until your body can flow from the “catch” (where your stroke starts) to the “finish” (where your stroke ends and recovery begins) and back again without much thought. The key is to use your strongest muscle groups when the work load is heaviest: Think “legs, body, then arms” on the drive and “arms, body, legs” on the recovery.
  • On the catch, your body should be comfortably upright, arms extended and legs slightly and comfortably compressed. Use your legs to push off the foot boards, keeping your arms straight. Power comes first from your legs, then your core and back, and then your arms. That brings you to the “finish,” where the handle returns to the catch and the start of your next stroke.
  • Your recovery should be just that – a good ratio is 2:1 – with twice as much time spent on it as on your drive. During recovery, your body will move in opposite stages – first your arms come forward, then your back and finally your legs will bend after your arms pass your knees.
  • The handle height should stay consistent from the finish to the catch, without dipping down or rising up above bent knees; again, your hands should pass your knees before you bend your legs and move your legs forward.
  • Study the diagram of proper technique on the erg machine at the gym, and check out these helpful videos from Concept2.



Once you get the hang of the technique, start with a short workout (say, 5 to 10 minutes) with medium to light pressure, then work up to longer pieces. Set a goal before you start and program the monitor to help keep you to that goal. If your technique is correct and you’re fully committed, your workout should feel physically and mentally challenging but not painful. Setting the monitor and knowing your plan (and keeping to it) will help you reap the benefit from the erg.



There are three main settings on the erg computer: You can view your workout in terms of calories, watts, or meters. I recommend meters, which is shown as a split time: how long it takes you to row 500 meters. When starting out, take note of that number and work to decrease it. For example, if you’re rowing a 2:20/500 meter split, aim to stay below 2:15 for longer pieces and below 2:00 for short intervals.



I generally try to do at least one long endurance workout and two high-intensity interval workouts on the erg each week. I mix this with cross training (swimming, biking, Nordic skiing) and weight lifting. It’s important to do a 5-10 minute warm up and cool down (think light to medium pressure and relaxed on the stroke rate) before and after each workout.

Here are a few erg workout ideas – you can vary the length of the workout to fit your schedule:

  • 4 x 1,000 meters at race pace with 2-3 minutes of rest (or light pressure) in between1 minute on (full pressure)/1 minute off (light pressure) x 10; repeat 2-3 times with a few minutes rest in between sets. Full pressure should be all out, as in sprinting to the line in a tight race.
  • Set the computer for 40-60 minutes and row at a pace comfortable enough that you could carry on a conversation, a pace known as “steady state.” Maintain a lower stroke rate and keep the power lower in intensity. Dividing it up and varying your stroke rate will help keep it interesting. Focus on strength and technique:
    • 4 minutes at 18 strokes per minute (spm),
    • 3 minutes at 20 spm,
    • 2 minutes at 22 spm,
    • 1 minute at 24 spm
    • 2 minutes at 22 spm
    • 3 minutes at 20 spm
    • 4 minutes at 18 spm
    • Cycle through for the duration


  • Distance pyramid: 100 meters on, 100m off, 200m on/200m off; 300m on/300m off, etc., to 1000m and then back down;
  • Set the distance for 8,000-12,000 meters (based on your time and energy), row at lower stroke rates with 10 full pressure strokes every 500 meters.


The erg can teach you discipline and how to push yourself way beyond your comfort zone. There is no better piece of the equipment in the gym to get you in your best physical and mental athletic shape. See you on the erg!

A professional firefighter and avid Zenergy member, Tory Canfield rowed for the Cornell University varsity crew team, making the national podium each year. She continues to race with her Cornell teammates and became a National Masters Rowing Champion in 2015 and a World Masters Rowing Champion in 2017. She relies heavily on the erg to prepare for her races.