Sitting down on a rowing machine (rower) and the first thing that pops in to your head is moving that adjustable tab on the right up to a 5 or higher. 5 if you’re warming up, 10 if you mean business…and you know you do.
Familiar story right? Right.
Well, it’s time we settle the score; once and for all so you can go tell your friends, “You’ll never believe what I read today.” As they breathlessly await what you’re going to say next.
What is Damper Setting?
All Concept2 Rowing Machines (and the SkiErg for that matter), are flywheel-based machines. This means there is a fan blade inside of a housing on the machine. This fan blade connects to a gear. Wrapped around the gear is a chain like the one you would find on a bike. The end of the chain is attached to a handle. The handle is what you hold when you are actually rowing on the machine.
Damper setting is the adjustable tab on the side of a Concept2 Rowing Machine. It moves up and down between 1 and 10. When the tab is at 1, it limits the amount of air allowed into the fan blade; at a 10 it allows all the air into the fan blade.
As Concept2 puts it “Higher damper settings allow more air into the flywheel housing. The more air, the more work it takes to spin the flywheel against the air. More air also slows the flywheel down faster . . . requiring more work to accelerate it on the next stroke. Lower damper settings allow less air into the flywheel housing, making it easier to spin the flywheel.”
To sum it up, when the damper is placed at 1 you can expect it to spin quickly, easily and continue spinning quickly. When it’s at 10, it takes serious effort to get it moving and it slows down quickly as well.
What is Drag Factor?
Drag factor standardizes and helps us calibrate damper setting.
Consider this; a perforated metal strip surrounds the flywheel. This strip allows air in and out of the flywheel. However, over time it clogs with dust and limits airflow. The amount of which will be different on every machine. So what once was a vibrant healthy flow of consistent air to the flywheel is now a sad, slow seepage of air.
This means if we set the damper to 5 on 10 different machines, none of them will have the same amount of airflow. The flywheel will spin faster or slower without our knowledge because we haven’t measured. It’s like squatting with unlabeled plates. Without drag factor, we’re living in crazy land.
Drag factor measures the speed at which the flywheel slows down and gives that rate as a number, generally ranging between 90 and 200 (rough estimate). So take 10 machines and set them to the same drag factor, they will all feel the same even though the damper settings may be different. It’s like knowing exactly how much weight you’ve loaded on a bar instead of guessing. Simple as that.
Check out this video that nicely sums everything (6.5 minutes):
How to Choose the Right Drag Factor
Let’s take two athletes, an endurance athlete and a power athlete and put them side-by-side.
An endurance athlete has trained and developed greater slow-twitch muscle fiber access and utility and our strength/power athlete has a better-developed fast-twitch muscle fiber system.
Muscle Fibers Face Off
|Efficient at using oxygen||Does not burn oxygen to create energy|
|Delayed muscle firing||Fast to fire; explosive movements|
|Does not fatigue easily||Tires out quickly|
|Best suited for: Endurance sports||Best suited for: Short bursts of activity|
Recreated from: (https://blog.vitacost.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Marsh-muscle-fibers-table3.png)
Knowing that a low drag factor means the flywheel spins faster and easier, and continues spinning due to lack of air to slow it down, and to catch up to that high speed you would have to be very explosive and quick, then of our two athletes, who would have an easier time catching up with the speed of the flywheel?
That’s right, the power athlete! Why? Because with a better fast twitch system, the power athlete can quickly activate their legs to press into the foot plates and catch-up to the speed of the flywheel. That translates into work and the athlete now has good force and acceleration capability, two of the three most important things to maximize while rowing.
Conversely, to set the drag factor as high as possible the flywheel is slow to accelerate, feels heavier, and slows down quickly so you don’t have to be as explosive to match the flywheel speed. Of the two athletes would be more comfortable trying to apply force? You guessed it, the endurance runner.
Now that we’ve successfully blown apart the assumption that a high drag factor is reserved for big strong athletes and low drag factor for lightweight endurance athletes, the answer you’ve been waiting for, which drag factor should I use?
“Surely you can’t be serious?” You’re asking yourself.
Drag factor is a personal choice based off how you connect best to the handle and can apply the 3 most important factors to the rowing stroke:
I encourage you to try and play around with different drag factors and perhaps work on something inverse of what you’ve done before.
This video may help clarify a bit. (3.5 minute)
How to Be Successful At Any Drag Factor
To connect to a low drag factor, transition from the recovery into the drive without any hesitation of the legs. Notice, I said legs. Your legs give you 60% of the power in the rowing stroke so as quickly as possible transition from relaxed legs in the recovery to very active, fast, powerful legs on the drive.
To get the most out of a high drag factor, relax through the recovery and get in a good position. When you change directions at the catch to transition into the drive, focus on being tight through the body and with as much force as you can muster, press your legs in to the foot plates by trying to press your weight off the seat. Make sure the arms are locked out, because if those elbows are bent, you’ll burn out your biceps
and forearms, making your workout that much worse.
Of course, there are drag factors that fall in-between and most likely that’s where most people should end up. Somewhere in the middle with a bias that suits their strengths as achieved by actively questioning where they work best.
Spend time using different drag factors during workouts and pay attention to the results, not just how it feels. You’d be amazed what spending time focusing on a skill will get you. Oh wait, no you won’t, you already do it for other movements, now it’s time to apply it to rowing. Now go, spread the knowledge.
You have likely heard of the benefits of rowing but may have been uninterested due to the seemingly complex movement involved. While it does take some time and care to develop proper technique, no runner should be deterred from this amazing exercise. Rowing is a truly unique and beneficial tool for any runner. It can serve as both the perfect complement to and an efficient replacement for running. This full body workout has virtually no impact on the joints and is a very low risk for runners.
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