Poor Ergo Technique – the argument rages on…


English: Ergo logo

We wrote a contentious post about British Rowing authorising the use of a photo of ‘less than ideal’ erg technique.  The comments have been busy with lots of great points from our readers.

Graham Middleton, who runs the Ball Cup rowing website, wrote a longer response detailing helpful information about ergo use for junior rowers.  The original article is here, but we reproduce it below for you.

February 2012 Forum

A quick perusal of the rowing websites tells us that ergo machines are in the news. Siemens, the British Rowing sponsor, has put out a photograph of a female athlete ( no prizes for guessing who ) on a Concept ergo.

This has been flayed regarding posture and application by Rebecca Caroe, who hosts her own Rowperfect site. Mailed responses have been entertaining and varied !

It is thus incumbent of this site to make comment which is helpful to juniors who have probably not had a great deal of technical expertise and coaching applied in the ergo field.

Ergo is a colloquially shortened version of ergometer. Avid students of these columns will know from previous pages that the source of the title came from the pre-MKS system of units known as SI ( Systeme Internationale ) . The erg was a very small unit of energy, or work. Its value was defined by lifting about a thousandth of a gramme through a distance of one centimetre – a ridiculously small amount. Hence, all practical measurements involved huge powers of ten, well into millions upwards.

Anyway, the name stuck , so let us initially examine the machine, of which the Concept version is the most common. We must say initially that the Concept machine in its basic form does not mimic the rowing stroke well, and to that end, contact Rebecca Caroe and RowPerfect !

The user moves up and down a conventional slide, with feet anchored in shoe plates not dissimilar to a boat. The oar / scull is a single handle mounted on a chain which passes over a gear wheel in a housing. The gear is on a free-wheel and attached to a wheel which has the property of Inertia. This means that there is resistance to starting to revolve or further, angular acceleration, and an ‘unwillingness’ to stop revolving.

As the wheel revolves, air is driven out from the housing from louvres, or spaces, whose size can be adjusted on a common scale of 1-10. When the louvres are closed, air flow is restricted, and a greater resistance to rotation is experienced. The wheel, if left, will slow under friction and eventually stop.

Regarding technique, we must initially state that many users of ergos are not rowers and use the machine for general exercise, recreation, or at a higher level for competition. At the latter level, high scores at national level can be obtained without recourse to technique associated with sculling or rowing – Straight up and down the slide, no thoughts of boat run or the space limitations imposed by blades / sculls in the confines of a boat.

Good luck to the latter, but we are coaching for boat work, and this has to be a major criterion in ergo use. So, let us get down to technique. Most clubs will have posters from British Rowing on the walls of their gyms. These are valuable, but if we refer back to a previous forum article, correct back / slide coordination is a natural sequence of familiarity with the feel of a resistance load. I know of nothing better than the isometric ( no movement ) anchoring of a body in the sculling boat on land.

( Take the trouble to research this – it could be the answer to the bum-shovers’ prayer ! ) .

The handle shape is worthy of discussion. The original handles were simple straight wooden cylinders, attached to the chain. Disadvantage here is that they do not mimic the angles of a scull / blade handle at beginning or finish. Concept ‘evolved’ a handle that is bent in the middle, each end angled towards the athlete. Fine at the beginning, but useless at the finish, where a powerful finish causes the hands to slip off the handle. I throw the latter away, and return to the original wooden handle.

( An assumption here is that we juniors cannot afford or are allowed access to the evolution of the sculling ergo, complete with handles – the lot ! For many years to come most athletes will still use the original Concept machines )

Grip ! This is a really onomatopoeic word ( Sounds like it is ! ) Try to forget it !

Draw the handle with four fingers on top and thumb underneath. Many athletes put their thumbs over the top with the fingers, or place them flat along the handle. NO ! As a test try to do a pull-up on a bar with thumbs under or over. The ‘unders’ have it by a mile!

Regard the fingers as hooks. You will never dislocate the joints in a month of Sundays. Neither will you cramp your forearms. You do not have to feather or square, so all is very simple. Let’s take a few gentle strokes…..

The end of the stroke is as in a correctly adjusted boat. The handle draws to a point in the region of the lowest rib. It travels in a straight line to that point from a start about half way up the slit from which the chain emerges. Mark this point with white tape ! Many hapless users run the handle through a maze ranging from the ceiling to their legs, ending at chin, eye level or groin ! ( see the Siemens pic ) Think about the above as you gently try a few strokes.

At the end of the draw, imagine that you are in a sculling boat. You have to remove the sculls from the water, so on the ergo, handle down to just hover over the thighs. Come forward by aiming the handle in a straight line again at the white tape.

Why are you running the handle down your shins to the ankles, and thence vertically to the beginning position !!! ? Straight lines rule all !

As we are not gripping the handle, the anomalies of the beginning and finish per the straight handle do not cause problems. The hand simply swivels at the base of the middle finger to accommodate for the straight handle problem.

Elbow position at the finish causes heated discussion. No argument. Physics again to the rescue ! In a sculling boat, the finish is such that the forearms are at ninety degrees to the handle ( think again about opening a door – previous ), and the forearms are in the same plane as the line of draw. ( A plane is an imaginary surface, like a table top ). So, in the ergo, the former is impossible, but the latter, with elbows at handle height, is correct. Many very experienced athletes lower their elbows below the efficiency plane at the finish ( Again, sorry, Siemens )

Now we can ‘row’ the ergo, what can we do with it ? There will be an electronic display, whose complexity is often to the detriment of the user. Basically, it can be adjusted for distance and time; ie how long it takes to row a given distance, or how far you row in a given time. It gives ratings, ie how many strokes per minute ( ~20 – 40 ). It gives ‘splits’, how you are doing at intermediate points. And more !

I split ergo use into three categories.

  • 1) General fitness – low level work at extended distance and time, eg 5-10 k metres
  • 2) Medium to high intensity work aiming at a distance / time relevant to competition. Eg 2000 m for lightweight women in approx 8 min. This is where ‘interval work’ comes in. Divide your target distance and time into, say eight. For the above, this will be 250m / 1 min. Can you achieve this ? Probably. Do it, or set a lower target. Wait for your pulse to reduce to about 120 and do it again… and again… Stop when discomfort becomes distress, and an observing coach instructs you.
  • 3) Power work – strength. This is a personal option to weights work. Set the display on ‘Watts’ ( Power ) How high a reading can you obtain in a single stroke ? 300-350 W ? Take a breath and do it again and again, only stopping when the reading reduces to 80% of your maximum. Failure to row within this range aborts the attempt. Start again ! You will probably do about 6-7 strokes. Rest to 120 pulse and repeat twice more.

Different clubs and coaches will have various and more complex versions of the above, and I place readers in their hands. The above will iron out many of the misuses practised on the ergo, and will surely not be other than approved of in the general debate.

Remember, ‘Simple is Best !’


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Alastair Moir

    Amen to that! I have always coached to reproduce the rowing stroke on an ergo, It is one of the few times when a coach can stand beside a oarsperson and attempt to grind a stroke pattern into the rower’s memory (think of it as learning to drive). It is also one of the few places where the mistiming of the leg drive and pick up of the oar handle can be demonstrated and corrected.
    The Rowperfect is in a class of its own but most of coaches will have to stick with the normal ergo. If we all try hard, perhaps the next generation will be more aware of technique!

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