Thursday, January 31, 2013

Comprehensive Dynamic Erg Review (Rowperfect, Oartec, Concept 2)

I had originally published this article but after further analysis and time spent comparing the machines I have made some changes which I think shed more light on which of these is best.  In the way of disclosures, I have no conflicts of interest.  All machines were bought by me with my own money and none of these companies have given me anything.  When it comes to dynamic ergometers there are 3 main players presently on the market.  Concept 2 (C2), Oartec, and Rowperfect.  I should add that with respect to Rowperfect (RP) there are actually 2 different versions for sale and these are made by different entities as far as I know.  The original RP company split into two factions I guess and I'm not exactly sure how that works.  There is the Rowperfect Indoor Sculler and the RP3.  I own the Indoor Sculler and I have briefly rowed the RP3.  I'll talk about both of them.  In addition, C2 has two dynamic offerings:  The good old static machine mounted on slides and also the newer Concept 2 Dynamic.  I have both of those too.  Don't ask me how or why I ended up with all of these, I just did.  If you are in the market for such a machine perhaps I can clarify things for you.  I wish someone would have done that for me.  

It is very important when trying to evaluate things to compare them side by side, rowing something one day and then something else weeks later is sometimes the only option but it is suboptimal.  There is nowhere that I have access to where all of these machines could be tried side by side so I just made it happen in my basement.  Apparently at Rational Fitness we will stop at nothing to arrive at an answer.  Here we have the Oartec Slider, the Rowperfect Indoor Sculler, the Concept 2 dynamic and the concept 2 model C on slides in a virtual erg-mageddon.  Where is Michael Buffer when you need him?  Lets get ready to rumble.......

Let's start with the Oartec Slider which I purchased in early 2011.  This was my first dynamic machine. I reviewed this previously and I found it to be a fine machine in general.  It is definitely solidly built and has a nice smooth flow once you get going on it.  If you get out of sync at all you will bounce back and forth between the front and back stops so it rewards good technique.  The machine requires about 10 feet for use so it is not exactly small and it cannot be dismantled for storage.  The machine is designed to give about the same 500m splits as the concept 2 so splits are fairly comparable.  I always had better splits on the C2 for an equal amount of effort but they were close.   The monitor is just decent, you can set up intervals both time or distance based, you can express your effort in watts or speed and generally you can do many of the things that you can with the C2 PM3 or PM4 monitors with a few important exceptions.  There is no log card function on the Oartec.  It will only store your immediately preceding workout in memory.  In addition there is no optional pace boat to give you a visual reference to race against.  You have the option of purchasing a pickup that plugs into the monitor that will allow you to display your heart rate assuming you are wearing a Polar monitor.  This is similar to the C2 PM3 monitor in this respect.  The PM4 will wirelessly pick up any ANT+ enabled HR strap.  One problem with the Oartec monitor is that you can only display one of the following extra data options at a time (drag factor, hr, stroke length, drive ratio, strokes).  So for example, while it might be useful to see stroke length and HR at the same time, you can't do that on the Oartec.  Some of these parameters you couldn't get previously on the C2 monitor but now you can with an option which I'll get into later.  I know that at one point in time Oartec was supposed to release a PC based program to provide additional data but that hasn't happened and it has been almost 2 years since I have heard any mention of that.  I ran into a few glitches with the monitor and Oartec was very responsive regarding software updates to correct them.  Bottom line regarding the monitor is that while it is adequate, it does not measure up to the C2 monitor.  Soundwise, it is definitely louder than the Concept 2.  It is not as loud as the RP however.   Overall it feels like a heavier boat, in fact it is very very similar in feel to a concept 2 on slides.   The construction of the machine itself is solid and at the price point of $1295 USD it is a good value.  I love the orange and black color, by the way.  I ended up switching out the seat and handle for the concept 2 model D seat and handle.  This was a very inexpensive modification and I am sure more people would prefer the OEM Oartec seat and handle because both are softer, but that's just me.

-Quality construction
-Good dynamic movement
-Attractively Priced

Didn't like:
-Monitor does not allow storage of multiple sessions
-OEM Seat and handle didn't suit me

Next we come to the Rowperfect Indoor Sculler.  This machine could and should be the best of all of them.  Given that the cost is well north of $3000 it should be nothing short of amazing.  Is it all that?  Let's see...  Here is what I like about it... It feels possibly the most like being on a single scull than any of the other ergs.  It has a built in limited tilt seat which forces the rower to keep balanced through the core.  This is great but one must keep in mind that a lot of the balancing of a shell on the water is dictated by hand height.  Still this is a cool feature.  Another nice thing is the "Oarflex" handle.  This features a built in spring in the handle that gives a bit of flex to the handle as you start the drive and theoretically places less stress on the upper extremities at that moment of highest potential force.  My battles with tennis elbow made this a major factor in my decision to get this machine. As it turns out it is not that hard to modify the Concept 2 handle to possess a similar feature.  Drop me an email and I can explain that.  The fan cage is designed so the air from the fan blows on the rower which is a welcome relief once you get going.  The design of the machine itself is pretty simple and actually quite brilliant.  It is the easiest of all of them to put together and the easiest to transport.  You could take this outside on a nice day and it would be quite easy to do.  The heaviest part is about 35 lbs and it comes apart and back together with an allen wrench.  I think the monitor is waterproof but I am not planning to test that out.  The monitor is pretty easy to use and it does some things that other monitors don't.   What do I like about the monitor?  First you can select the type of boat you are using. You can choose between a 1x, a coxless pair, a 4- and an 8.  Your results are also weight based.  So if you select an 8 for instance, your result will be what you and seven of your exact clones would row in an 8.  They say if you want results to compare with what you would pull on a C2 you just set the weight at 95kg and select a 4 person boat.  When I do that I am a bit better than I am on a C2  but you can play with the settings to get close to what you'd get on a c2 for the same effort.  The monitor comes with a HR strap and lots of options for the display including watts, stroke length, meters per stroke, total strokes, and also a cool function showing watts per heartbeat.  This last item could give a lot of good info as far as knowing how you are progressing in your fitness or maybe if you are overtraining or getting sick.  Very cool, but like many things, what is a great idea in theory gets derailed in execution.  There are some problems with this monitor.  You can't set it up for intervals.  You also can't store data.  It will only show the results of the last workout.  There is no way to interface the monitor with a computer so if there is a software update you can't get it without sending your monitor to Rowperfect either in Canada or Australia.  This can be a pain in the ass.  My first monitor got swapped out because the software version I originally got was a steaming hot mess.  The new monitor is a lot better but I still can't get it to recognize a steady heart rate; one minute it will say my HR is 150 then it will double count it to 300.  So I was looking to use watts per HR on the monitor but I really couldn't.  Of course I figured out a way around that.  I just set the monitor for avg watts and using my HR app on my iphone I can see where I am at.  The nice thing is no matter what boat type you select or weight you program, watts don't change.  This way I always know how much work I am really doing.   Also the information the monitor stores from the last session is limited in that it won't give average heart rates or watts.  I have found ways around some of these things.  I have complained to the folks at Rowperfect and they are great folks.  I was having a problem with the monitor giving erratic rates and the owner of the company walked me through repositioning the monitor pickup as it was in the wrong position.  Customer service is very responsive.  Once I corrected this the machine suddenly got a lot more pleasant to row on.  One other thing I didn't like about the machine are the footstraps.  I took them off and put on concept 2 footplates.   This is the loudest out of all the ergs but it is not an annoying sound.  You'll just have to crank up the tunes a bit louder.  The footprint of the machine is a lot smaller than the C2 static or the Oartec.  It doesn't take up much space and if you have about 7 feet or so of space you should be good to go.  This may be the ideal machine for someone who doesn't care a lot about the data collection and wants to train on perceived exertion or maybe do like I do and monitor HR with my iphone and a FISCIA key.  I like an app called "Heartworks".  It gives you nice graphs like this:  

One thing I really like about this machine is that there is nothing holding the seat like a bungee or anything.  There is a concavity in the bar that kind of keeps the seat where you want it but if you get sloppy with your technique you will know immediately. Out of all the ergs tested this feels the most like a boat, is the most pleasant to row, and provides the most feedback in terms of technique.   In summary I love this erg.  A 70 min steady state piece rowed on this machine will leave you feeling like you had a good session but not sore and irritable like I would feel after getting off the old static erg.  If I was going to do a long session it would be a no-brainer, I'd do it on this machine.   Both the C2 on slides and the Oartec feel heavy and slower by comparison.  I mentioned that another descendent from the original Rowperfect was the RP3 .  I believe these are sold here in the US now by Carlos Dinares and also by Durham Boat Company in NH.  Durham boat are nice folks to deal with and I tried their version of the RP while I was there picking up a boat.  Felt largely the same as the indoor sculler but has a different handle without the Oarflex feature.  Also it requires attachment to a computer and some software as it does not come with its own monitor.

-feels most like being on the water in a single
-monitor allows different boats to be selected and allows rower bodyweight to factor in
-small footprint
-airflow from fan cools the rower
-oarflex handle is really nice
-amazing customer service
-very easy to transport
-solid stainless steel build

Didn't like:
-no way to store more than 1 session data
-prefer C2 footstretcher
-heart rate pickup is dodgy

This leads us to the Concept 2 static on slides.  This has been around for quite a while and slides are simply an add-on that fits underneath the concept 2 rower.  The real drawback with these is they require a lot of space.  We are talking about 11 and a half feet of level ground.  Not everyone has that kind of space.  As far as using them goes, they feel a lot like the Oartec.  They feel like a heavier boat than the the RP. Slides run $290 per pair plus shipping from Concept 2.  If you buy a new Model D and a pair of slides it'll run you $1190-$1340 depending on whether you go with the PM3 or PM4 monitor.  The great thing about these is that if you already have a C2 and you have the space, for a little extra $ you have a dynamic option.  I picked mine up used on  Then if you want to train for an indoor race (which presently are all done on static machines) you can put aside the slides just before the race to get back to the feel of the static.  I put a coreperform seat on my erg to get the tilting seat feature that I have on the RP.  This works pretty well but I had to take all the hardware out of the seat and put it on loose because it wasn't tippy enough.  You can learn about coreperform here.  In summary the slides are a nice option if you already have a static and some space.  It feels like a heavier boat like I said. 

-simple add on to the classic static concept 2 model B, C, D, or E
-better than rowing static machine

Didn't like:
-takes up lots of space
-not even remotely portable

Finally we come to the Concept 2 Dynamic.  Concept 2 was a little late to the dance with their dynamic entry but in fairness they released the slides a long time ago and probably felt that was a satisfactory dynamic option at the time.  When this erg came out there was a lot I didn't like about it.  I hadn't tried it but I didn't care for the location of the flywheel under the rower and the use of cord instead of a chain attached to the handle.  I finally got to try one a few months ago and liked it enough to get one.  My concern about the flywheel location was a non issue.  I was worried about sweat getting inside there but  the fan blows the sweat away and provides a nice cooling effect for the rower. C2 provides a plastic cover for the fan in case people don't want the fan air blowing on them but I actually like the fan.  The cord is made of something called Dyneema which is a fiber made of high molecular weight polyethylene.  This material is ultra strong.  There is a potential for wear over time and C2 includes an extra cord just in case.  My skierg uses the same material and mine has held up perfectly over the past couple years so I think this is just fine.  I think the dynamic movement of this machine is ok.  It feels more similar to rowing a single after I put on the coreperform seat.  (I still like the RP seat better than the coreperform though).  I had elevate the coreperform seat a few mm with some washers to clear the fan cage on the dynamic because of its location.  This seems to set the seat too high for me to get in a good position on the footstretcher though.  There have been some complaints about the Dynamic with some users complaining they couldn't get good connection at the start of the leg drive.  This does not seem to be a huge problem for me.  I feel the connection between the footplate and the handle and I initially felt that I had no problem suspending my bodyweight.  However, the way I think i make this happen is by opening my back too early.  I figured this out because my back would bother me after rowing on this and I couldn't figure out why.  I think there may be a bit of slop in the foot to handle connection based on the design. I really have to concentrate on not opening the back.  The machine is fairly quiet and the familiar C2 PM4 is as reliable as ever.  One thing that really differentiates the C2 dynamic from all the others that is lost on people unless they do a side by side comparison, is the absence of handle tension on the return.  There is no shock cord retracting the handle on the recovery on the C2 dynamic.  There is nothing like that on a boat either.  If you get off the dynamic and get on the RP or the C2 on slides you will feel like the handle and your hands are being pulled forward a bit on the return.  This is not boatlike.  One thing that is important in rowing on the water is getting the hands back toward the stern ASAP.  There is a tendency to want to pause at the finish.  (I was taught that "finish" is a bad word for this reason).  That is a boat stopper "GTF outta tha bow" I always tell myself.  Without the shock cord pulling you toward the catch, getting the hands out is all your responsibility.  This is good practice.  As far as actual technique, you can get away with a lot of bullshit on this machine since the seat travel is limited by a strong bungee so if you get out of kilter you won't hit the frontstops or anything.  So unlike the RP or the slides or the Oartec I don't sense a lot of punishment for poor technique.  In a sense it may almost encourage it with the tendency to make you (well at least me, anyway) want to open early with the back.  On a positive note the footprint of the dynamic is the smallest of the bunch.  At just over 6 ft, it isn't hogging up a lot of space.  Having said that, it is pretty heavy and can't easily be taken apart for storage.  The machine runs 1250 plus shipping with a PM3 monitor vs 1400 for the PM4 monitor.  I can't say enough good things about the Concept 2 monitors.  They are reliable, functional and easy to use.  Customer service is great and they are always improving their products.  Recently they came out with a free app for the iphone called Ergdata.  If you buy a special cord from C2 and a plastic holder (~$40 total) that secures your phone to the PM monitor you can have your data show up on your phone.  It is brighter than the monitor screen plus it shows tons more data that wasn't previously available unless you were running rowpro or some other computer program concurrently.  By the way, if you like Rowpro you had best stick with a C2 product because neither the Oartec nor the RP interface with it.  I personally don't care for Rowpro but that is just me.  Using Ergdata, you can now see things like peak and avg force, stroke length, drag factor, stroke count and HR all on the same screen.  You can also display speed on the PM and watts on your phone or vise versa.  You can also sync with your online logbook if you use one right from your iphone.  This is great and it seems like Concept 2 is the only one doing this sort of thing.  I like it.  

-small footprint
-uses familiar C2 monitor and Ergdata is another plus
-no tension on the cord during recovery

Didn't like
-relationship between seat and stretchers, I can't find a happy catch position
-bothers my back a little
-tiny bit sloppy at the catch (all of the above could just be me)


I definitely think that dynamic is the way to go over static because I think they are easier on the body and more fun to train on.  Both those factors will foster frequent training sessions.
The ultimate question is which dynamic rower should one purchase.  The answer is it depends.  Lets look at some hypothetical scenarios.

Example 1:  An on the water rower who trains exclusively to improve for boat racing.... If this individual would find themselves needing to transport a machine frequently and had the $ then the RP would be best.

Example 2:  An athlete who cross trains and may be interested in doing some indoor competitions.  In that case a concept 2 static plus slides makes a lot of sense as long as sufficient space is available.  (Having said that I'm pretty sure you could exclusively train on a dynamic machine and jump on a static for a race and do really well or even better than you would have training on a static).  Maybe I'll try this.

Example 3:  Someone who rows for fitness and isn't interested in indoor rowing comps or maintaining an online log book .  Depending on spatial and financial constraints , the Oartec or the C2 dynamic might be a good option.

Example 4:  An individual who loves to row whilst being overly analytical and picky and has no sense of restraint.  In that case buy em all!

Battle of the Ergs

My rowing obsession started innocently enough. I bought a concept 2 from one of the guys I worked with and used it for some interval work and cardio.  Then because I had to back off the kettlebells I got a bit more serious about using the erg.  I did a few indoor rowing competitions nearby and I was hooked.  At that point I realized that because indoor rowing is a substitute for real rowing, I was essentially living in Plato's cave.  I can't seem to be able to do anything half-way when it comes to anything so early in the spring of 2011 I was off to the florida rowing center to try the real thing.  I enjoyed that and decided that it was something I wanted to do so I picked up a sculling shell and have been doing quite a bit on the water when the weather permits.  The on the water experience for me has been full of stories, adventures, and misadventures which I may go into at another time but long story short, I'm hooked on rowing.

Because I love rowing on the water I am always looking for ways to improve.  The rowing stroke is a bit like golf, there is always room for improvement.  In looking to improve there are two general areas in which improvement can occur.  These are fitness and technique.  Fitness to me is comprised of injury prevention and work capacity.  The erg adresses some of these things well and others not so much.  Ergs are great for fitness as far as work capacity goes.  You can get an excellent workout in a controlled setting and generate lots of useful data on the erg.  Injury prevention may be a different story.  Static ergs for some people are a recipe for injury, particularly involving the low back.  On a static erg the body slams into the catch position repeatedly, this involves a lot of directional changes, the force of which must be absorbed by the body.  Thus, injury risk is a concern and it is also part of the reason why more and more people are changing to dynamic ergs.  As far as technique goes, rowers like to say "ergs don't float".  This is true.  Just because you can pull a great score on the Concept 2 doesn't mean you are any good on the water.  The reason for this is because you can get away with a lot on the static erg.  The dynamic machines are designed to more closely simulate what happens on the water with the boat moving beneath the rower.  What it does not do is simulate bladework.  Bladework is a huge component to being able to move a boat.  Hence, ergs don't exactly float.  What they can do, in my opinion is develop excellent conditioning in a way that minimizes injury risk.  The dynamic ergs also to a fair extent allow the user to work on technical issues like body movement sequence and timing of the catch and drive ratios.

I talked a lot about dynamic vs static ergs in this article where I reviewed the Oartec Slider.  You may want to take a look at that and then read part II of this series because I am going to compare the Oartec Slider, the Rowperfect Indoor Sculler, the Concept 2 Dynamic and the Concept 2 static on slides.  Yeah I ended up owning all of them.  I distinctly remember saying that no way would I drop all that money on a Rowperfect.  Well I did... Was it worth it?