Is There A Difference Between A Rowing Machine And An Erg?

Rowing is a hot fitness trend right now, and for lots of great reasons.  If you find yourself wondering what is an erg and how to use one, read this article to learn how it works.

Is There a Difference Between a Rowing Machine and an Erg? 

There are lots of ways to get a heart-pumping cardio workout, and one of the most effective is by rowing.  Rowing machines are surging in popularity, thanks in part to their role in Crossfit classes around the world.  They are non-impact, easy to use, and suitable for most everyone, but lots of people still have questions.


If you’re wondering if rowing fits into your weekly workout schedule, this article will help you decide.  We’ll give you definitions of common rowing terms, help answer the question what is an erg, and dive into the different types of machines available to help you determine which is right for you.

What is an Erg?

There are a lot of different names for a rowing machine.  If you’ve ever been in a class setting wondering what is an erg, then you’ve heard one of the many nicknames out there.  


These machines might be called a rower, an ergometer, or an erg, but they are all the same thing.  Indoor rowers use one of five resistance methods to give you the feeling of pulling oars through the water, and modern ergs have a display screen that gives you measurements and data on how much work you’ve performed.


One way that an erg stands apart from other cardio equipment is that it is a full-body workout.  Between 65-75% of the movement imitates in your lower body, and your upper body takes between 25-35% of the load.  


It’s also a non-impact cardiovascular option, which means it’s easy on your joints and may be suitable for people who are recovering from injuries.  Unlike walking, jogging, or calisthenics, you won’t have any orthopedic trauma when you workout.

Rower Types: Static Vs. Dynamic

Two types of rowers simulate the action of pulling paddles through water on a boat, static and dynamic.  Although there are several nuanced differences between the two models, the main one is how you move when you use the equipment.  Here’s what you need to know.

Static Rower

To row, you’ll press back and extend your legs causing the sliding seat to move backward; then you’ll bend your arms to finish the movement.  Then you’ll return to your starting position in the reverse order.


To row, you’ll press back and extend your legs causing the sliding seat to move backward, then you’ll bend your arms to finish the movement.  Then you’ll return to your starting position in the reverse order.


It’s important to remember that on a static erg it’s the user who moves forward and back on the machine, not the machine itself.


This model is the most popular type, and it’s what you’ll find most commonly in fitness centers and Crossfit boxes.  They are also the most popular for home use.


They come in one of five resistance types which we will discuss in more detail below.  The most common is an air-powered rower, and you can find one that fits in nearly any budget.  Entry-level models can cost as little as $100, and top of the line versions designed for commercial use retail as high as $2,000.

Dynamic Rower

Although the dynamic erg has similar instructions for using the equipment, the machine operates differently.  You’ll still sit on a seat and mount your feet to the foot-boards, but when you grip the handle to pull, the device moves instead of the user.


The flywheel attached to the front of the rower will move away from the user, which more closely mimics the action of rowing on the water.  If you’re in a boat, you stay stationary while the boat slides beneath you, and this machine tries to mimic that feeling and motion.


Although dynamic rowers have been on the market for several years, they aren’t as mainstream as static models.  Part of the reason is that they are significantly more expensive, ranging from around $1,400 to upwards of $3,000.  They are a preferred option among competitive rowers who want a way to cross train off the water, but the price point can be a limiting factor.

Types of Resistance Used on a Rower

Rowing machines deliver an awesome cardiovascular workout thanks to how they mimic the feel of pulling paddles through the water.  They create that resistance in one of five ways: via air, water, magnetic, hydraulic pistons, or a combination of air and magnetic.  


Here we’ll break down the basics on the main resistance types used in ergs.


Rowers that use air for resistance are both the most popular and one of the most affordable options.  Experts believe that air resistance ergs give you a more realistic feeling by using a spinning fan flywheel that propels air every time you pull.  The more power you exert with each pull, the more wind is generated and the higher the resistance will be.


These machines are user controlled and will adapt to how hard you’re rowing without the need for adjustments during the workout.


Air models cost anywhere from $300 to $1,500, and the more expensive models may also include advanced data screens and additional adjustment options that increase your air pressure and add more resistance.


Rowers that use water resistance have a tank that houses fluid on the front of the machine.  The flywheel propels through the liquid with every stroke, which creates tension. This option offers variable resistance based on how hard you pull, and you can also make it more or less difficult by adding more or less water to the tank.


These models are common in OrangeTheory fitness classes, and you might also find them in commercial gyms and fitness centers.  They are heavier than air options thanks to the weight of the water tank, but they deliver a challenging and effective workout.  


Water ergs cost between $700 and $2,000, making them a more expensive but still affordable option for home use.


Magnetic rowers are appealing because they are nearly silent, unlike water or air models.  They use magnets to create resistance, and you will set your desired level by turning a knob before you begin your workout.  One drawback is that the tension isn’t variable, if you want to change it you will need to stop rowing to make an adjustment in the middle of your set.


These models range between $200 and $1,400, and deliver an excellent workout, though users report that it’s not as consistent as what you’ll get with an air rower.  Because the distance between the magnets and therefore their magnetic pull may vary slightly during each stroke, it might feel less smooth and a little choppy during the movement.


Hydraulic ergs use piston resistance during the movement to deliver a challenging workout.  There are a few significant advantages to this type of rower. First, they are the most compact design of all of the models.  Many even fold up making them easy to store, and they weigh less than the other options.


As they are using a piston system, they are nearly silent when in use which makes them a popular choice for home use, especially in apartments and condos.  They are also some of the least expensive, and you can pick one up for between $100 and $600.


Despite all of the pros, there are some cons to consider.  Although this option often has a resistance level setting, it doesn’t offer a variable workout like you’ll find with a water or air powered machine.  


Additionally, the movement pattern is not very similar to the action of rowing outdoors.  Some users report that the resistance is choppy and may come in spurts, and they don’t feel that they work as hard as they would with a water or air powered machine.


Also, tall users might find that the seat rail is too short and doesn’t allow them to move through their full range of motion.


For those reasons, this type of erg is best suited to beginner exercisers or those with limited mobility who want a gentle workout, like seniors or people recovering from an injury.  

Combination Air and Magnetic

One of the newer technologies in ergs is a combination of air and magnetic resistance.  These systems use the best of both worlds to create a smooth stroke and give you options for added tension that is greater than what you could find on a machine that only uses one or the other.


They are quieter than air only machines but louder than the near silent magnetic models.  Since resistance is generated through both mechanisms, the fan doesn’t need to spin as fast for you to feel the tension, which reduces the noise output.


The movement is nearly identical to an air rower, and many models offer programming, pre-set workouts, and adjustable resistance levels.  There are even high-end models that allow you to make adjustments on the handle during a stroke, rather than having to stop your workout to change your settings on the screen.


Expect to spend between $300 and $1,500 on a hybrid model.


Final Thoughts

Here we’ve answered the question what is an erg, and given you a complete breakdown of the different models available.  Whether you’re looking for one for home use or considering using one at your local gym, you can guarantee that it will deliver a safe and effective full body workout.

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