Indoor Rowing = Outdoor Rowing and Other Myths

If you are considering learning to row on the water, the odds are good these days that you’ve used an indoor rowing machine—called colloquially an “erg” here in the U.S. or an “ergo” overseas.

Let me break the news to you, dear Novice Rower. Rowing on an erg just isn’t the same as rowing on the water. Just like spinning isn’t biking, running on the treadmill isn’t trail running, and karaoke isn’t singing with Taylor Swift on stage. Sad, but true.

Allow me to share a favorite saying in the rowing community: “ergs don’t float.” When you are pulling that erg handle and hearing the chain grind, you aren’t holding oars, or plying the water with them. On an erg, you are stationary—not feeling the boat move underneath you with your stroke, and not correcting the side-to-side motion of the boat (or the “set of the boat”) with your core.

These aren’t small differences, my friend. All told, it means that you can be strong on the erg, but not a strong rower. (As a novice, this might be how your rowing life is defined for a while.) However, when your technique improves, the opposite might be true.

As I tell my erging-friends-who-don’t-row, if you hate erging, you will like rowing much better. I call it the “wind in your face” factor. My boathouse is on the shores of the Mississippi River gorge with bald eagles, beavers, foxes, sunrises/sunsets, and beautiful scenery. I feel the wind in my face, hear birds calling, the splash of my oar, the boat gliding through the water, my swearing teammates…! Good stuff!

During the Minnesota winter, I row indoors at my CrossFit gym, at an indoor rowing studio, or at my local community center. Lovely places all, with great people, but watching myself in the mirror, or staring at a wall, listening to Vampire Weekend, The White Stripes, or House Hunters International—well, it just isn’t the same.

So if rowing at your local gym seems awkward…or your CrossFit Open Workout 16.4 didn’t work out all that well for you…have courage. You might just be destined to be on the water, not in the gym!

Rowing week at Dear Novice Rower continues next post, with some ideas on where to learn to row indoors (properly).


Graphic from