I tried rowing on an erg, and lost.

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Growing beyond swimming
May 8, 2016
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I tried rowing on an erg, and lost.

eric rowing erg

A few weeks ago, I pulled my back out at the gym.

It was my first back injury since 2014. As an active 29 year old male addicted to weight training until I can barely move, incidents like this are irritating in more ways than one. I won’t try to explain it, but perhaps since I stopped training full-time for swimming in 2012, lifting weights keeps me sane and my days structured. As Ron Burgundy said, “it’s boring, but it’s a part of my life.” The joy, for me, is in the process and discipline, not the results. So when I get hurt and have to break that routine to heal, the structure crumbles and my time management skills evaporate faster than hot water.

I lift with my roommate, EJ, who just started lifting with me a few months ago, and we go after work. We follow this awesome lifting program from my former strength coach, Raphael Ruiz, and I’ve been showing EJ the fundamentals of each exercise. Technique is one of my strengths, due to excellent coaching when I was training with SwimMAC in Charlotte. Not to mention, Raph’s program is on the Train Heroic app, which includes videos of what to do. Suffice it to say, improper form is rare with us.

So how did I, an experienced athlete and weight lifter, pull my back out? Rowing on an erg machine.

Yes, you read that correctly. A rowing machine. Not weights, hang cleans, deep squats, or olympic power moves. No heavy free weights, twisting or rotational work. Just going as hard as I could for 800 meters on an ergometer. If you have no idea how long 800m is on an erg, neither did I.

Why was I rowing on an erg?

Because I’m more competitive than I am wise, that’s why. You see, I’ve got this good friend, Drew, who was a rower. Drew told me that at my size (6’7”), good rowers can go 2000m on an erg in under 6:30. Given no frame of reference, I still don’t know if that time is even feasible, or if he’s just messing with me. Regardless, challenge accepted.

Well let me tell you something, people. Before accepting said challenge, I should have read more about proper technique, because this was only my second time using an erg machine; the first being in college at the crew team’s house. Allow me to paint a picture for you: I started rowing as fast as possible, slipped off the seat, hit my tailbone on the rail, which caused the seat to shoot forward and bounce back, hitting me where no man wants to be hit. As if the physical pain weren’t enough, there was not a dry eye in the room from all their laughter.

So EJ and I were at the gym, warming up before our workout, when I saw the rowing machine next to the treadmills. This erg isn’t a typical one with a fan like the one in college… it has a tank of water on it, Frank Underwood style. Spoiler alert: there was no dramatic music playing for me, and Frank ergs at a leisurely pace. I intended to go HAM on this thing.

I figured, let’s see where we are before training up to this 2000m challenge, right? Let’s start with 800m today. Usually EJ looks to me for technique and guidance in the gym, but on this contraption, we have no idea what we’re doing. It looks so simple when you watch others do it, but as it turns out, balancing on the seat is about as hard as trying to fold a fitted bed sheet.

Incident report

After I figured out how to position myself on the sliding seat, I began rowing. I was taking the biggest strokes I could, which made a loud ‘whooosh’ sound for everyone in the gym to hear, affirming my manliness. All was good for the first 10 cycles or so. I wasn’t even out of breath…this 800 was gonna be a piece of cake.

Wow, already past 200m? Hell yea! 25% there and I’m not even breaking a sweat yet.

About half-a-moment later my body informed my brain that erging was not what it was designed to do. Within a span of the next 3 or so strokes, ‘crushing it’ became ‘getting crushed’. My heart rate climbed over 200bpm, sweat started pouring, and I was hyperventilating to stay alive. Tempo, tempo, tempo, I thought. I couldn’t quit now… I wasn’t even halfway there….and this 800 wasn’t even halfway to the 2000m challenge. This level of exhaustion was unacceptable, and had previously only been reached during interval lifting circuits, or trying to change the subject while listening to a Tinder date talk about how awesome her cat is for an hour; both of which were accompanied by copious amounts of water.

Rowing is hard. It’s actually very hard. Take it from me, a career swimmer who used to burn through thousands of calories on a daily basis by swimming thousands of yards in a single workout. High intensity aerobic and anaerobic exercise is something I am uniquely qualified to do (I thought). Evidently, I thought wrong.

At this point, most of my brain was focused on staying alive (like remembering to breathe), and the rest of it was trying to fathom why people would choose to do this activity for a sport. High school rowers, for instance, are recruited based on their 2k erg time…the same distance Drew challenged me to. But get this…they also get timed on a 5k and 6k distance too. What’s a good 5k time, you ask? Drew tells me it’s in the 17:30 range.

Over seventeen minutes of this?! Rowers must be masochists. “Forget them,” I tell myself. “Keep going.” This obvious myth of people erging for over 17 minutes and walking afterward was a welcome distraction for my brain. It helped me forget about the pain and muscle failure I was experiencing in my entire body. (I later learned it’s actually only about 86% of my muscles that were failing…so that’s positive).

When I passed the 600m mark I’m pretty sure my body shut down my internal organs to focus all bloodflow to my brain. I threw up a little in my throat, but I was able to hold it down. Wait, where’s EJ running to? Nevermind…breathe and focus, Eric… Almost there….

I recognized my strokes were becoming shorter and slower. For the last 100m, I decided to ramp up my effort and give it my all, despite the obvious risks to my life. It was during these initial large strokes that I pulled out my lower back. I tried leaning back to get more length on my pull, and that was that.

I powered through to the end of the 800, which proved to be one of the dumbest decisions I have made in recent memory. It was similar to “powering through” a second Chipotle burrito when A) the first one filled me up just fine, and B) nobody is even there to appreciate the feat. What was I trying to prove, and to whom? I was exhausted, and EJ wasn’t there to see it through to the end, because it turns out he ran to the bathroom to vomit. Thanks Drew.

Lessons learned

I have a new appreciation for the entire sport of rowing. I already understood the early, cold mornings, the long workouts and the monotony of repetitions in training. I was a swimmer, remember? I already empathized with all that. I never understood how exhausting sprinting on an erg machine really is. I hopped on the erg trying to warm up for a weight session, and gingerly slid off it at the end, unable to walk upright. I realize I did something wrong, but even if I hadn’t, that was one of the most intense two-and-a-half minutes of my life.

Think about that. All of this happened in the span of 2:17. It’s no wonder rowing has become a staple in the crossfit community. The erg treats users with a unique flavor of abuse; a flavor with a hint of fairness and justification, and the sweetness of instant results without a big time commitment. In just a couple of minutes, you’re thrashed.

Looking for a quick way to get in shape, burn calories and black out? The erg is the machine for you. I went straight from there to the foam roller, leaving a trail of sweat in my path. As weak and inferior as I felt, people at the gym didn’t seem to notice or care. I embraced this, because apparently people don’t bat an eye at a man sweating as much as I was, so it all worked out in the end. Besides, with the growing number of people using such machines, I’m sure I’m not alone. Rowing, as an exercise, is really taking off.

When my back heals, you can bet I’ll get back on the erg with better form. I’ve got a 2000-meter challenge to crush.


Update: Since the time of this article, I have rowed about 3 days a week for up to 1200m at a time, with much more concentration on form. It’s still just as exhausting, but I know how to pace myself. I have seen tremendous improvement in my cardio and endurance. I’m looking forward to the big 2000m challenge, as soon as Drew is available to show up.

Eric Knight
Eric Knight

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