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  • Writer's pictureCoach Knickerbocker

Rethink this. Please.

I want to take a moment to get something off my chest about erging, ergs, rowers, and the approach that every (ok almost every) rower takes when faced with an erg piece. Whether that is an erg test or simply an erg training piece, there is an attitude that ergs are either feared or hated tools of torture.

We complain about it, ruminate on it, we avoid the erg, we fear the erg, we argue for getting on the water in some of the worst conditions instead of accepting that today will be an erg day. In all kinds of ways most rowers have a hate-hate relationship with the erg.

Some rowers will walk away from a practice when they find out that it will be erging instead of rowing. Some rowers get so amped up, anxious, and insecure when it comes to erging that they are unable to physically perform well on an erg test or they get so mentally out of sorts that they can’t take away from the erg what they need to during a workout.


Here’s the deal.


That’s all.

Its use is meant to help train a rower physiologically and psychologically, while in addition offering the opportunity on land to measure the rower on their level of strength, power, anaerobic endurance, aerobic endurance, etc.

That’s it.

Google “erg workouts” and you will see numerous online posts from rowers who laud the physical pain that some erg workouts will put you in. They revere the possibility of throwing up during a piece, because that’s supposed to be some kind of measurement of how hardcore a rower can be.

Does this approach actually offer value to the experience of being a rower?

Granted this is not the case for everyone. Some rowers have no problem with the erg and are able to perform well on it, glean training information from it, and recognize that the erg is simply a tool.

I do think the majority of masters rowers find something inherently off putting about the erg and most likely that has something to do with their experience on it and/or their exposure to it.

What’s your experience with the erg and how do you feel when faced with an erg piece or an erg test? Do you get cold sweats thinking about getting on an erg? Does your heart rate elevate as you watch someone erging knowing that you will be doing the same workout soon enough? Do you avoid the erg or maybe not use it at all because “ergs don’t float”?

Do you want to feel better about your erg experience? Do you want to feel more capable when it comes to testing or working through those challenging pieces? Do you want some strategies to assist you in feeling more confident when the coach announces an erg test is coming in a week?

If you answered yes then here are some steps to combating the “monstrous” erg and all the baggage that goes along with it.


First, flip your script about the erg. No weight lifter walks up to a weight bar and dreads lifting the weight. No cyclist dreads getting their bike on the trainer if they can’t cycle outside.


Because it's a TOOL that helps them to become stronger and reach their goals. It's the thing they use to become a better weight lifter or cyclist.

The erg is the thing YOU use to become a better rower.

It is simply a tool, nothing more, nothing less. It is not a torture device. It is not an entity that has any control over you.

You work the erg, the erg doesn’t work you.

Repeat after me:

The erg is my partner in training. The erg is one element among many that I can access to assist me in reaching my goals.

Second, get on the erg on a regular basis even in the racing season. As cyclists say, spend some time in the seat. Knowing the erg, how it works, what it feels like when you are rowing at a high rate or at a low rate, knowing what it feels like to row a low and slow aerobic piece in comparison to a HIIT piece, knowing how the erg responds when you change your level of power application, or where in the stroke you place your power, all of these examples raise your performance confidence when you use the erg.

Avoiding the erg only worsens your physical and mental internal response when it’s time to get on it. The fact is you can’t completely avoid the erg and you shouldn’t. It is an integral part of our sport and it is a powerful tool.

Third, know yourself and what limitations you might have physically or mentally when it comes to erging.

Does your back start to bother you about 40’ into an hour of power (A type of erg workout that as a coach I don’t believe in, but that’s another story)? Then limit yourself to two 30’ pieces with 5’ off between pieces to stretch the back. Or a 3x 20 minutes with 5’ off in between. You will glean the same benefit from these as you will from a steady hour on the erg with no stretch break. Does your mind wander during longer pieces? Work on going through a full body scan, checking your technique over the course of a long piece.

On the other side do you resist doing shorter harder pieces because of the physical discomfort you know you will experience? Then consciously work those pieces in a way that progressively helps you to acclimate to those types of pieces. Don’t go out and do a 30” on 30” off 12x thru without having had practiced doing the 30” on in order to add an understanding of your own physical and mental reaction to those kinds of pieces.

There are so many ways to creatively approach doing erg pieces and preparing the body and mind to be successful, that there really isn’t any reason to be in a position where you are faced with doing an erg piece you feel unprepared for.

Unless of course you’ve avoided the erg or have not worked with a coach to develop a healthy erg training plan to overcome whatever your limitations are.


One other piece that can cause serious issues with the erg is coming back from an erg related injury. Many rowers, both new to the sport and not so new, have suffered injuries while using the erg. These can range in their severity physically from quick recovery to months of no erging. Any level of injury can do major damage psychologically.

Physically once one has gone through the process of recovering and understanding how they injured themselves, they can make changes to their technique or workout plan in order to avoid repeating that injury.

Psychologically there can be more work that needs to be done in order to get the rower feeling confident in using their bodies again under the same circumstance in which the injury occurred. The fear of repeating the injury ends up being more of a psychological barrier than a physical one.

Approaches that can help with the psychological piece are:

1. Develop a positive self-talk dialogue with yourself around using the erg. That dialogue has to start nowhere near the erg but way before you are going to get into the seat. Consider one sentence that frames the erg in a positive light. An example might be, I feel comfortable and confident on the erg. A sentence that short and succinct can be repeated with the intention of retraining your brain. Again, this technique needs to be used way before there is any intention of getting on the erg.

2. The first time on the erg after injury don’t row with more than 30% pressure if that. In other words maybe slightly more pressure than a paddle. Go slow and stay relaxed. Consider doing the erging with others in a relaxed atmosphere where there might be conversation happening or music playing. It needs to be an atmosphere that is not under any pressure in terms of competition or evaluation or measuring. Just an easy swing for maybe 15’ in order to start the process of coming back.

3. Engage the help of a good rowing buddy to erg with you on a regular basis in order to keep you accountable, to keep you relaxed, to remind you to breathe, to watch your technique, to offer support.

Finally, remind yourself that this recovery from injury is temporary and that you will and are taking the steps necessary to come back stronger physically and better trained mentally for erging.

Take the long view when it comes to working your way back into the erging mix and once you are there you work the erg, don’t let the erg work you.

It’s a tool people!

Row hard, row well, compete, have fun!

Coach Knickerbocker

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