An Olympian Tells You How To Erg Faster On The Rowing Machine

If your goal on the erg is to maximize your score, then don’t think of the erg as a ‘rowing machine.’ There are technical approaches you can implement on the erg that will improve your score. Many of these same approaches will slow a boat down. This is why ‘hammers’ exist, rowers with good erg scores who can’t make it out of the 3V. This phenomenon even exists at the Olympic level. Last I checked, Henrik Stephansen held the lightweight erg world record (5:56 or something, which is a 1:29 split, and which he pulled below 72.5 kg), but he rowed the same funky way he erged, and his team boats went nowhere. The fastest erg in the world didn’t make the 2016 Olympics in the light double…

Stephansen really knew how to crank the erg, though. His physiology was obviously great, but his technique also maximized his numbers. He was also part of a long Danish tradition of fast lightweight ergs, and also really weird looking erg technique, which I will henceforth refer to as ‘Danish Technique.’ I like looking to the Danes as erg examples partly because most people and rowers are closer in size to Danish lightweights than Olympic heavyweights. The Danes also rowed really well and won a lot of medals. If they’re doing something that looks weird, they’re doing it for a reason. Their erging looks weird.

Check out this video from 2011, something akin to Danish CRASH-B’s.

At the time of this writing, the video has about 1100 views, but it is the most valuable visual guide to erging faster on the internet. This should be your bible to erging faster. Studying this video is largely what brought my 6k from 20:03 to 19:42, an improvement I saw in 6 months after discovering this footage. So who are these guys? Mads Rasmussen is the guy being interviewed at the beginning of the video and second from left in the first sequence of guys erging. He’s an Olympic gold and bronze medalist, and has a ton of World Championship and World Cup medals. To his right, in the first sequence of guys erging, is Henrik Stephansen, who I mentioned earlier. On Mads’ left is Eskild Ebbesen, a multi-Olympic champ and one the best rowers of all time. To Eskild’s left is Steffen Bonde, who never rowed in particularly fast boats, but who pulled very fast ergs, right around 6:00. All these guys are lightweights. It’s worth noting, a valuable heuristic in deciding whether to be influenced by someone is, ‘is this person better than me and do they know more than me about the thing I’m trying to improve at?’

Let’s focus on Mads and Eskild, because they’re a good example of Danish Technique on the erg, but then rowing differently on the water and winning medals. Their erging, it looks weird. Your likely-mediocre coach would probably mock you for erging like these two Olympic gold medalists. They’re erging this way because it’s efficient. Specifically, the weirdness you’re seeing largely optimizes efficiency on the recovery, particularly at the ends of the stroke. You’ll notice their recovery is almost backwards. In the boat, the recover basically goes arms –> body –> legs. These guys erg more like legs –> body/arms.

Look at this orientation that Mads achieves on the recovery

His knees have broken even though his shoulders are still behind his hips, and his arms are still very bent. For another source, here’s a screenshot of Jeremie Azou (closest to camera), French lightweight, 2016 Olympic champion, and sub-6:00 2k pulling a 6:06. This image is also taken on the recovery. Similar sequence out of the back end as Mads. Knees have broken, but shoulders are still behind hips, and elbows are still totally bent. Why bother to rush straightening your arms on the erg during the recovery? There’s no oar, so just take your time.

Here he is a moment later in the recovery…

Bad video resolution, but his handle is past his knees and his elbows are still very bent. His body is only upright at this point, even though he’s at about 3/4 compression. Most coaches would say this is ‘bad technique’, but that’s silly. Where does the erg monitor score your technique? Azou won gold in 2016. Does your coach have an Olympic gold medal? Here’s the video in full…

These guys erg this way to give themselves as much time around the front end as possible. Most people waste a lot of energy on the erg trying to change directions as quickly as possible around the front end, in order to maintain a high rating. These tired people have to change directions quickly at the front end because they spent too much time at the back end worrying about sequence out of the bow. But there is no ‘bow’ on the erg. Notice in the video that these guys’ knees pop up almost immediately upon finishing the stroke. Steffen Bonde does this in the most exaggerated way, I think. Initiating the recovery by breaking the knees means that, for a given rating, your seat can spend more time traveling from the finish to the catch, in contrast to extending your handle away with arms and body to initiate the recovery, and only then breaking your knees. The more time your seat can spend traveling to the catch, for a given rating, the slower your seat is moving. The slower your seat is moving into the front end, the less energy you will expend stopping your momentum and changing directions around the front end. Arriving lightly at the front end is particularly important if you’re trying to hit higher ratings. If you’re a heavyweight who rows their 2k at a 30, this isn’t as important. But if you

In the video, notice, with the exception of Stephansen, these guys’ arms straightening is pretty much the last phase of the recovery. Even though they’re rowing at a high rating, there’s a brief moment when their seats are stationary at the front end, and they’re just sitting up there waiting for their elbows to straighten out. You don’t see their seats crashing into the front end.

Implementing this technique change initially felt to me like I was flying out of the back end and spending an exaggerated amount of time stationary at the front end, before initiating the drive. Play around with this in private, away from judgemental eyes. Remember, the people would tell you not to erg like this probably aren‘t gold medalists, but the people in the video are gold medalists.

We’ve looked at the importance of not spending unnecessary time at the front end. What else can we glean from this footage? None of these guys over-compress at the front end. You can tell by all the space between their seat and feet at full compression, and the distance between their handle and the cage at full compression. Eskild is like 6’3 and his handle doesn’t get close to the cage. Why is this important? Like giving yourself time around the front end, not over compressing makes it easier to change directions around the front end. There are a few things you can do to enable this. One is to move your foot stretchers higher. Having your knees higher prevents your body from collapsing forward as you move into the front end. People with poor hip mobility might find this difficult and feel like they can’t engage off the front end. This change will also keep your heels from coming up too far at the catch. Notice Stephansen and Bonde’s feet at the catch in this next video:

Their heels barely come up. It’s a lot easier to change directions quickly with more of your foot in contact with the footboard. Stephansen in particular has his feet pretty high. Most people put the foot strap around the balls of their feet, making it easier for their heels to come up. Don’t do this. Depending on how you row, there are reasons to do this in the boat, but not the erg. Front end compression is not your friend on the erg.

For an example of how most people erg, and what not to do, see this random video I found:

Sorry ERAU. This video is from 2012, so their rowing days are likely behind them. No hope for them, but we can learn from their mistakes. What are they doing that the Danes and Azou do differently? First, they spend time at the back end with flat legs, as they move their handle down and away. Moving the handle down like that at the back end causes most of them to collapse at the finish, which is both exhausting and makes it hard to return to the catch. This is off-topic, but if you find you collapse at the finish on the erg, raise your handle up at the finish, not down, like you would do in a boat. Your body will follow the path of your hands and arms. Anyway, eventually these guys get to the catch, but it’s not a controlled approach. Look at the following screenshot…

This guy looks like he’s going to fall forward. Seat is practically at his feet, heels are way up, foot stretchers are too high. As a result of his seat being too far forward, his shoulders are basically on top of his knees. Having all of your weight that far forward, and your seat that close to your heels, makes it hard to change directions, and also to engage the hips, which is where the majority of your speed should come from. Instead, look at Stephansen and Bonde at the catch…

Or, if you prefer heavyweights, Hamish Bond at the catch…

They’re in a really strong position to drive off of the front end, heels have barely come up, and seat is far away from feat relative to our ERAU amigos.

This covers the essentials of erging faster. The drive of the Danish guys and Azou is largely conventional, strong hip drive with a really powerful opening of the body, though there are varying degrees of initiating with the body, grabbing with the arms and such. What they share in common on the recovery is more important.

Making these changes, you’ll probably feel ridiculous. That’s fine. Study how these guys move, mimic them, and you’ll go faster.