What do you do when you want to train but need a break from cycling? Indoor rowing is an excellent alternative. If you”™re into power training, this is for you.

Most of my teaching of indoor cycling was done in Performance Max, a program that included both cycling and indoor rowing. I took the program as a participant for 14 years and taught it in a different location for 12. This post covers the basics of starting to row.

Truly, the only indoor rowing machine worth using is the Concept 2 Rowing Ergometer (“erg” for short). Yes, other rowing machines exist, but no one who rows takes them seriously. The Concept 2 is the gold standard. The current models are the D and the E (slightly higher off the floor). The longest-standing model is the C, which was the one-and-only for many, many years. (I have one, love it, and wouldn”™t trade it for a D for anything!)

If you have access to a Concept 2 erg and are new to rowing, learn correct technique from the start. It”™s easier to learn it the right way than to unlearn the mistakes that people commonly make when trying to row on their own. If you teach at a gym with an instructor who really knows rowing, that”™s ideal because you”™ll get good instruction and correction. Years of teaching rowing have shown me that correction is essential.

If you don”™t have either an erg or personal instruction, visit the superb Concept 2 website ( This 5-minute video teaches rowing technique step by step and repeats the steps clearly and slowly.

There”™s also an “erg finder”. Enter your location, the type of facility you want (e.g., health & fitness club), and the distance you”™re willing to travel. You”™ll get a list of clubs with addresses and the number of available ergs there. You might want to call to verify the info. (When I looked for ergs in San Francisco, the club I taught at for years was listed as having only 1 erg; that was wrong. Farther down the list, though, the same club was listed again, accurately, with 17.)

Once you”™ve learned to row, you can take advantage of Concept 2”™s Workout of the Day. You can choose short (30 minutes), medium (40-45 minutes), or long (60+ minutes). It”™s available on the website daily — or can even be delivered to your inbox.

A few points to keep in mind:
- Rowing is not an upper-body activity. It”™s a full-body activity that centers on leg power. Sliding seats were added to rowing shells in the 1870s to optimize the superior power of the lower body. The best training I”™ve heard on this came from a Performance Max instructor who rowed on the U.S. National team: “The arms are an afterthought.”

- Rowing has a definite learning curve. In the beginning, it may feel frustrating not to have sufficient power in your stroke to reach a high heart rate. That will change with practice. Believe me, rowing heart rates can go very high, typically higher than in cycling.

- Because of the learning curve, novices often use a higher damper setting than necessary. The damper opens the drum to let in more air, increasing the resistance. Skilled rowers, however, use a moderate setting and create effort by accelerating quickly at the start of the stroke (the catch).

- The most common mistake is bending the knees too soon after you finish the stroke. (This will make sense once you”™ve watched the video or gotten some instruction.) It”™s almost instinctive and can be difficult to correct. One effective correction is to stop rowing and hold for 2 seconds after you”™ve extended the arms before letting your knees bend. Repeat with each stroke for a few minutes.

- Rowing should NOT be done with a straight back. Curving the shoulders slightly forward will engage your core and protect your back. A straight back is more likely to be injured.

Holding an even and consistent pace can be difficult to learn. Jim Karanas, who created the PMax program, always said rowing builds character: With every stroke, the computer tells you you”™re a failure [i.e., your pace is off], but you have to keep going.

Working on pace feels like moving meditation. Skilled rowers doing sustained efforts even look relaxed and meditative.

So here”™s to a character-building, meditative yet exciting alternative to cycling. I think you”™ll like it. You might even find yourself adding it to your training on a regular basis.

Originally posted 2014-07-07 08:42:14.

Joan Kent

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