The ergometer is a machine
that simulates the rowing stroke. Few non-rowers know the benefits of rowing on the erg, and all too many people use the erg incorrectly. Used properly, the erg is absolutely the best total body workout
one can do. When people ask me what type of exercise they can do to get in shape, I always recommend that they hop on the erg. It breaks my heart to go into a regular gym
and see people using the erg like it was some sort of machine for bicep curls.
The standard modern ergometer is the Concept 2 Model C. Other rowing machines exist, but the Model C is accepted worldwide as the standard. Most gyms have at least one, and since nobody knows how to use them, they are usually empty. If you don't know what they look like, they have a sliding seat on a rail, a handle, a fan that provides the resistance, and a digital display that can give you all sorts of cool numbers. When you pull on the handle, the fan turns and the erg spits out air. There is a damper that you can set on the side of the erg that will cover more or less of the air coming out. The higher the damper setting, the larger the resistance will be.
The erg will have foot stretchers on it where you can tie your feet in. They're adjustable, so you can play around with it until you find a foot stretcher setting that seems comfortable. Once that's done, grab the handle and start with the simplest part: rowing with just your arms. Fully extend your legs and sit up tall. Grip the handle with your palms down, firmly but not tightly. Gripping the handle too tightly will wear out your forearms, which is not a pleasant experience. Draw the handle into your chest, and when it's all the way in, drop it a little and throw your arms out again. Repeat this for a while until you get the hang of it. Make sure you pull it in high, all the way up to your chest. Keeping it high throughout the drive and the recovery allows you to pick up the momentum better, and it's good to practice it when you're using just your arms.
Once you've got that down, add in your back. Make absolutely sure you keep your back straight at all times. When you finish a stroke, throw your arms out first and then follow with your back. Pivot over your hips so you can keep your back straight. Now would be a good time to adjust the erg's damper setting. Rowing at a 10 is a good way to injure your back, especially if you're just beginning, but rowing at a 1 will not let you feel the resistance. Each rower has their own favorite setting, but for most it's about 3 or 4 for middle-distance pieces. Once you've taken a few strokes with arms and back, it's time to add in your legs.
The biggest misconception about rowing is that it's an upper body sport. Nothing could be further from the truth -- rowing is all legs. I can't emphasize that enough. Using your legs in a powerful manner will come easily with practice. Try rowing at half slide; don't go all the way up just yet. Once your arms and body are set, begin to let the seat come up. Do not let your legs break before your arms and body are set. Hold down your knees until you've swung out, then let the momentum carry you up gently. Don't force it, let it take you up. If you try to force your way up the slide, and try to row for an extended period of time that way, you will quickly learn what a bad idea that is. Rushing the slide is a complete waste of energy. After your body comes over, your recovery should be very relaxed as you get ready for the next stroke. When you come up for the next stroke, kick down your legs before you open your body up with your back and draw through with your arms. The recovery is the total opposite of the drive: you push your arms out, then swing over, then you bring up your legs slowly.
Now you've got the basics of the rowing stroke. With that, you can start using the erg effectively. You can start your first piece, and see what you're capable of. Make sure to keep good technique in mind. Don't let your stroke rating go too high. Beginning rowers seem to spend themselves too quickly and end up dying more often than beginners in any other sport. This is probably because the erg tells you immediately on the screen what you're pulling, and lower splits make you excited. Instead of giving in to this tendency, try to control your speed and shoot a little lower than what you think you can pull. You have to constantly evaluate your condition during an erg piece. If you feel out of breath but your legs feel relatively fresh, try taking down the stroke rating but applying more power per stroke. This is known as a ratio shift because you will take more time on the recovery, while your more powerful drive will be quicker. Thus the ratio of time spent on the drive versus time spent on the recovery will change. More time on that relaxed recovery means you'll be able to get some more air to your lungs before the next exertion. Proper ratio is not very hard to attain with practice. The drive sequence takes a certain amount of time, which varies with your fitness and the damper setting on the erg. Try to spend twice this amount of time on the recovery. It will feel strange at first, but it will allow you to last longer and go faster. For a typical steady-state workout, a good rating would be anywhere from 18 to 22 strokes per minute. Everyone is different, so it's hard to gauge a good average split for a beginner. For a young man in his twenties who has never rowed before, around 2:20 is a pretty good split.
The ergometer display can be very confusing at first. When you turn it on and start pulling, you'll see a big number in the form of minutes:seconds. This is known as your split. Your split is how fast you would row 500 meters if you kept up the same pace as the stroke you had just rowed. The erg doesn't have to show splits; you can change it to show your power output in watts, or even how many calories you're burning, if you like. In the top left, there is a part of the screen that will count down time or meters depending on what you set it to do. In the top right, there is a stroke per minute counter that gives you your stroke rating. The number at the bottom can display different things but most rowers choose to have it display their average split for the piece, which is a very useful number.
Erging is not for everyone. In a good workout, lactic acid will build up in your legs and your breathing will become extremely labored. It will become harder and harder to practice good technique when you begin to fatigue. Regardless, many people find enjoyment in a good workout on the ergometer.