How many of you have ever seen a WOD that included rowing for calories and thought to yourself, “I’m going to put that thing on the side of the rower up to a 10, because 10 is the hardest setting and it’s way more intense, and I’ll burn waaaaay more calories then those suckers rowing at a 5 and I. Will. Crush. Them!!!”
Well, first things first: let’s stop calling it, “that thing on the side of the rower,” and get familiar with its real name: the damper. And secondly, let’s take a look at what the damper really does and how it actually affects your rowing.
But, if you don’t want to read this whole article, this is the big takeaway for all you fitness enthusiasts: Rowing at a higher damper setting will NOT burn more calories. Just because it’s higher and feels harder to row at, doesn’t mean a thing in terms of burning calories. More isn’t always more.
Okay, so now that we cleared that up, let me try to explain why.
The rower is most commonly referred to as just that: a rower. But its proper name is an ergometer, or erg for short. What exactly does “ergometer” mean, you ask? An ergometer is a device that measures energy. It shows you how hard you’re working or how much energy you’re putting out. It can also show you how inefficient…or let’s be real…how lazy…you might be, depending on how you’re rowing.
The intensity of your workout doesn’t depend on the machine, like running on a treadmill or pedaling on a stationary bike does. On a treadmill, you can control the intensity with the incline or speed, but you must respond to it immediately. Rowing is a little different in that, the person on the rower brings the intensity. You can work as hard or be as lazy as you want. You’re the one putting in (or not putting in) the work; the erg is just showing you how much work you’re actually doing.
Basically, the intensity of your workout doesn’t depend on if you’re rowing at a 10 or a 1. It doesn't matter if you’re rowing at a nice controlled pace of 18 strokes per minute or flying up and down the slide at 36 strokes per minute. What matters is how hard you’re pulling, which in turn measures how hard you’re working. This holds true for any damper setting: the harder you pull, the more resistance you’re going to feel and you will always need to apply more force to go faster or farther. The amount of resistance you feel is dependent on the damper.
Still with me? Good.
So, that brings us to the damper and that big thing on the side of the erg, otherwise known as the flywheel. Basically, the damper controls the amount of air that the flywheel lets in. When it’s set at a 10, it lets more air into the flywheel, making it feel really heavy and harder to accelerate every time you take a stroke. What does that mean for you? Basically, if the damper is set at 10, the more air in the flywheel, the faster the flywheel will slow down on the recovery, and the more work you have to do to accelerate the flywheel for the next stroke. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty lazy. I don’t want to do more work then I have to. You do what you want to do, but I’m not going to be rowing at a 10 any time soon.
On the flip side, when the damper is at a 1, less air is let in, which makes it feel really light and way easier to spin. But, even though this feels easier, you don’t really go anywhere and you’re basically just spinning your wheels (Ha! See what I did there? Sorry…couldn't help myself.)
On a related note, rowing at a 10 is far more fatiguing then rowing at a 4 or 5. Fatigue usually leads to the breakdown of form. The breakdown of form can lead to two things: one, looking like a dummy who doesn’t know how to row, and two, potential injury. Neither of those are a good thing. Stop rowing with the damper on 10.
A good way to visualize this is to think of a 10 as a heavy barge. A setting of a 4 or 5, which I have previously mentioned, is like rowing at the resistance of water in a racing shell, or something similar like a kayak. This is around the setting you should use for all rowing workouts. And a setting at 1 is comparable to rowing in no boat because there is no, or very little, resistance at this setting
According to the article, “What is an Erg,” by Olympic rower, Judy Greer, The earliest models of the Concept 2 rowers used a bicycle wheel as the flywheel. So another great way to picture this is to think of the gears on a bicycle. You know when you put your bike in the lowest gear and you’re spinning the pedals so fast, but you’re going nowhere? That’s basically a 1 on a rower. Not very efficient, right? Same thing goes for setting the damper at a 10. You have to put in so much more work and effort to get the wheels spinning, and even then, you might not be moving very far or very fast unless your really exerting yourself.
Now, if you want to start to get fancy, we can talk about something called drag factor. Drag factor is the measure of how much your “boat” (read: flywheel) is slowing down each stroke. The monitor on the rower then uses that drag factor to calculate the speed of the flywheel, which in turn calculates how much work you’re doing.
The point of the drag factor is more for being able to compare rowing times, between yourself and other athletes, no matter what rower is used. There are many different things that can affect the drag factor, like air temperature or the dust that may be collected in the flywheel. Drag factor is a personalized setting that will be different for everyone. It’s based on the weight of the person.
A woman who is 125 pounds (most likely) isn’t going to be producing as much energy as say, a 200-pound man. The heavier athlete will have a higher drag factor, and therefore a higher damper setting, then the smaller athlete. Setting your drag factor for a Crossfit workout isn’t all that necessary, so I wouldn't worry too much about it. Like I said, anywhere between a 4 and a 5 is where most people’s dampers should be set for an optimal workout. But, if you really are concerned or interested in drag factor and what it’s all about, then this is a great forum to read.
So, let’s recap. A higher setting does not equate to more calories expended. What matters is how hard you’re pulling. If you’re rowing at a 10, you’re basically trying to power a large rowboat across the water. If you’re at a 1, you’re not even in a boat. Keep the damper around a 4 or a 5 for your workouts and you’ll be golden!
The Author: KATE
Kate is a former Division I Rower, a bad ass CrossFitter and one hell of a writer.