Back in the days of crowded gyms, it wasn’t uncommon to see the fleets of treadmills and ellipticals overrun by sweaty cardio vampires — all while the perfect workout machine sat idle in a quiet corner beyond the free weights. That machine, the ergometer (better known as the rowing machine), is an under-appreciated masterpiece of fitness, engineering and zen.
Indoor rowing is the only machine-assisted workout that builds muscle, burns fat, and strengthens cardio all in one low-impact sweep, while also improving joint health and flexibility. The best rowing machine — the Concept 2 — is also more affordable than most treadmills, requires no electricity (it generates its own), and is built to last forever. Its design has hardly changed in 40 years — in a dystopian future, when all the big networked exercise screens go dark, the Concept 2 will still be humming along in its stubbornly analog way, the Battlestar Galactica of at-home exercise.
The Concept 2 Rowing Machine
Concept 2 was founded in 1976, in an abandoned dairy barn in Vermont by two brothers — Peter and Dick Dreissigacker — who were obsessed with engineering the perfect oar. (I first became a fan of Concept 2 when I used their carbon-fiber oars to row the Lower Mississippi, after which I saw those rowing machines at the gym in a whole new light). While being on the water is always superior to being inside, rowers are effectively locked out of their sport during the winter months.
So in 1980, the brothers built their first indoor rowing machine using old bicycle parts. Though a few tweaks have been made over the decades — including the addition of an onboard Performance Monitor that looks reassuringly like a travel alarm clock — the Concept 2 is fundamentally the same machine now as it was then, using air resistance and bicycle tech to simulate rowing on the water. And they’re still made in the same small town in Vermont.
Concept 2 sells three models — the Model D, the Model E, and the Dynamic — but the Model D is the classic and ubiquitous machine that most of us have seen at the gym. Because demand surged in 2020, there is a waiting list, but it’s worth the wait.
Rowing Machine Benefits
Rowing engages 86 percent of the body’s muscles with each stroke — from the upper back and pecs, to the abs, glutes and calves — building strength and burning fat simultaneously. From a distance, rowing can look like it’s all about the arms and back, but the legs actually do most of the work, with about two-thirds of the effort coming from the glutes, quads, and calves, and the rest drawing on the strength of the arms, upper body and core. It’s also low-impact so it won’t pound your joints or put stress on knees, hips or ankles, making it ideal for people of all fitness levels and abilities.
Not only do rowing machines do a surprisingly good job of conjuring the physicality of rowing on water, but the repetitive movements and soothing hush of the flywheel can induce a meditative state, a kind of rower’s zen to the runner’s high. Rowing has also been shown to bathe your brain in endorphins that lower stress and conjure feelings of happiness and contentment.
How to Use a Rowing Machine
Each rowing stroke has four basic components — the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery — that come together into one fluid motion. The drive is the power move, pushing off with the full strength of the legs while keeping hands relaxed and arms straight. Only when the legs are extended do the arms come into play, pulling through to the finish: upper body leaning back slightly and core engaged. The arms then lead the return — or recovery — toward the flywheel and back into the crouched launch position, with shoulders relaxed and shins vertical, for the catch.
In outdoor rowing, the “catch” is the point at which the oar blades slide gently back into the water to “catch” its resistance with minimal disruption and to use that leverage to pull the boat through the water. On a rowing machine, the catch is a quick fluid movement that captures the momentum of the flywheel as you go into the next drive. You can find helpful videos at U.S. Rowing and on the Concept 2 site, covering everything from breathing technique to proper form.
Indoor Rowing: Forty Years of Virtual Challenges
Because rowing machines were originally designed for off-season training, there’s long been a culture of friendly virtual competition around indoor rowing — making ergometers uniquely well-suited to a pandemic or any at-home workout program. The longest-running indoor rowing competition is the C.R.A.S.H-B/Indoor National Championships, founded in 1981 (using the first generation of Concept 2 machines). For a small fee, you can join from home and hold your own in the 2000-meter sprint.
British Rowing hosts ongoing virtual challenges that let you row everything from the Thames to the Atlantic, using interactive maps that show your progress — and the competition.
Concept 2 hosts free team and individual challenges throughout the year — including the World Erg Championships, held each spring and open to all, the Military Challenge, for able-bodied and adaptive veterans, and the Juneteenth Challenge, which raises funds for the Equal Justice Initiative, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Project Reach. You can use Concept 2’s free app to join challenges, find training partners, log your workouts, or checkout out your global ranking. (They’ll also send you motivational prizes, such as a free T-shirt and certificate when you hit a million meters.)
And all of that is just a preamble to the real prize — being ready to get out on the water in summer and glide.