Why you should make friends with the indoor rowing machine (just like Bradley Wiggins)

Richard Jones
Alex Gregory corrects writer Richard Jones' rowing technique - © Sportsbeat/Luke Britton All Rights Reserved

Last Saturday, the world witnessed one of the more peculiar sporting career changes in recent memory. Cyclist Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 winner of the Tour de France, made his debut bow in his new sport of choice – rowing. 

Wiggins looked almost unrecognisable from his cycling days as he competed in The British Indoor Rowing Championships. The mod hair-do has gone in favour of a Björn Borg-esque mop, complete with white headband; and the once pigeon like arms are now twice the size, honed not for lightness but sheer power.

For a 37-year-old (albeit one who has spent the majority of his life exercising), Wiggins looked in tip-top shape. Unfortunately, this impressive demeanor didn't translate into a podium position on the leaderboard. Wiggins made an error at the start of his row and failed to recover, finishing in 21st place out of 99 competitors (his aim was for a top ten finish).

Bradley Wiggins during the Open Men 2km Ht4 (2000m) during the British Indoor Rowing Championships at Lee Valley Velopark, London Credit:  Steven Paston/ PA

A few days earlier, channelling my inner Wiggins, I took my own indoor rowing masterclass, hosted by British Rowing. The mission wasn't some late challenge for the 2020 Olympic rowing team, rather a stab at mixing up my gym routine going into 2018. 

Anyone who has frequented a gym has probably jumped on a rowing machine, most likely as a quick warm-up before moving over to the weights or running machine. But the masterclass led by two-time Olympic Gold medalist in the sport, Alex Gregory, promised to make the rowing machine (or ergo, as people in the biz call it) the forefront of my exercise regime.

It's an exercise that commonly prompts poor technique in the uninitiated. "If people are doing it wrong they can get away with that," says Gregory. "But they won’t be getting the most out of the exercise."

Indoor rowing technique

As I start pulling the ergo's chain, I feel a little twinge in my back. Gregory explains that as an office worker, my back is used to being supported by a chair, so I'm using muscles that aren't often activated. My weak core also comes into play. Your abs are key for rowing – and indeed your posture – but are allowed an easy ride by desk work. Gregory explains that the more I row, the stronger these muscle groups will become. He reminds me to not lean forward past the 11 o'clock position while on the ergo, to keep my back supported throughout the stroke.

Most beginners to the rowing machine also use too much of their arms. The biggest muscles in your body are your quads and glutes, and that’s what you want to be using. So apart from the very end of the stroke, when your legs are extended and your arms are required to bring the oar into your chest, you should not see rowing as a pulling exercise. The legs do the donkey work by pushing against the foot rests.

Gregory then explains that the many first-timers thing the whole movement needs to be at the same speed. Wrong. After you've reached full extension, take your time to recover, keeping that core strong and steady. You want to hear a loud whirr coming from the flywheel as you build up control, with the strokes per minute rating on your monitor sat around the 20 mark. Once you know you've got that strong, consistent drive, try to take the strokes per minute to the late 20s.

The now-retired Gregory has found the machine invaluable in his transition out of professional sport. "When you do it every day as part of your job it becomes a chore," he says, "but stepping away from rowing, I see it as a really efficient way of staying fit. I have a rowing machine at home, and 20 minutes before taking the kids to school every day makes me feel loads better. I’ve been surprised by how I’ve been able to keep up the same body shape."

What was striking about the competitors on display at the British Indoor Rowing Championships was how well proportioned their physiques were, compared to their often comically disproportioned gym bunny counterparts. Gregory might not have the biggest biceps at the gym, but at 6ft 5ins, his long, rangey arms mean he can pull the chain a long way back.

Wiggins lags behind at 6ft 2ins – something that puts him at a natural disadvantage – but according to Gregory, he was doing the right thing by dipping his toes in the indoor rowing side before moving to the water. 

"Every rowing club will put you on an ergo first thing," he says, "to get that sequence. I’ve just rowed across the arctic ocean, and one of the crew had never rowed before. We spent hours on the rowing machine going through that technique so that when he got into that boat he was so accustomed to that movement."

Alex Gregory, two-time Olympic Gold medallist rower and Clare Holman, British Rowing master trainer lead the masterclass Credit: Sportsbeat/Luke Britton

There are obvious differences. The rowing machine is on a stable platform, and half of the challenge on the water is staying upright. You also have to take into account your crew-mates and working at the same stroke pattern. It is this telepathic team-work that Gregory misses most about the sport: "A lot of the time on the water, you’re in silence. It’s almost like the ultimate team sport because you're trying to get the boat moving as fast as possibly can but without saying anything to each other - just doing it through movements."

You can still have this aspect of the sport without the risk of capsizing into icy water. Try working with a gym partner, or just working to the same stroke as your neighbours on the ergo. "I would very rarely do a training session on my own," reveals Gregory. "I would always make sure I was alongside someone because it gets you through. Why not use other people. If there is a stranger in the gym, do it beside him. There will be a little bit of competitiveness – bring that back a little bit. But use the stroke because it will get your through.

"When you do these indoor rowing sessions, everyone is on the same page – they know what the session is going to be and then they start moving together – and we had a few strokes in the room where everyone was moving together. I was aware of that and it gives you an adrenaline boost from doing it together. It’s like being in a crew again." 

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