If someone tells you that you need to row at a 10, tell them I said they’re an idiot. I’ve seen lots of people in the gym that have come from other places that said their coach told them to always row at a 10. No. Just no. I’ve never rowed at a 10, not even during a 500m sprint. My fastest 500m is a 1:18 and the damper was below a 7. If you think you need to row at a 10 because it’s the only way you can go fast, I have some bad news for you: you’re an inefficient rower and don’t quite understand how the damper setting works. The good news is that it’s not too late to learn and improve!
The rowing machine, and a lot of other cardio equipment in the gym, is a variable resistance machine. The amount of force you put into the machine is what it gives back to you. The harder you go, the harder it feels. Contrast this with lifting a barbell. If you’re doing a back squat at 405# and push up with everything you got, the barbell will always weigh 405#. If you try to stand up faster it’s not all of a sudden going to be heavier. On the rowing machine though, as you apply more force, the erg will give you more load. This happens regardless of the damper setting! No matter where the damper is, you can theoretically do the same amount of work.
The damper can be found on the flywheel, and it’s numbered 1-10. These are not units, they’re simply arbitrary numbers written on the machine. When it’s set to a 10, maximum airflow is allowed to enter the flywheel. The more air that enters the flywheel, the heavier it’s going to feel. The flywheel is going to slow down faster, and it’s going to be harder to keep that wheel moving. When it’s set at a 1, the airflow into the flywheel is pinched off. The wheel is going to spin very fast, and it’s going to keep moving very fast. You’re rarely going to row at a 10, and you’re rarely going to row at a 1. Generally, you’re going to row somewhere in between.
When you sit down on the machine, you need to set the damper for you so you’re at your most efficient. What that is for you is going to take a little bit of experience, some trial and error, and understanding how the damper works. As the damper is set higher, you’re going to be rowing at a slower rate so you can apply more force against the heavier drag. When the damper is lower, it’s going to be quick, and you’re going to have to move faster to be able to pick up the flywheel. To get more information about how the damper is affecting your rowing we need to discuss drag factor. Drag factor is a number that the rowing machine will calculate based on how much the spin of the flywheel is changing with each pull. There will be a positive relationship with the damper and drag factor: as you increase the damper you increase the drag factor. You can find the drag factor by going into the options menu on the monitor and find “display drag factor”.
The drag factor on one machine may vary from the machine next to it. Two rowing machines set to a 6 might feel ever so different, so that’s where drag factor comes in to help equalize the experience. Everyone is going to be a little different, but generally we want to row with a drag factor between 105-150. Usually a higher drag factor works best during shorter pieces. If you try to row a half marathon with the damper maxed out you’re going to have a very bad time. Don’t believe me? Try it!
To find the best damper/drag factor for you, you’re going to have to spend some time on the rower. Repeat the same workout, keeping the distance/time/calories the same. Try out different damper settings and discover where you achieve the best result. You don’t have to do 1-10, instead try out 2-4-6-8. You’ll need to do short sprints, long sprints, intervals, and long distance pieces. You’ll need the right setting for the workout.
It doesn’t need to be this labor intensive, but I urge you to do the tests to find what works best for you. If you don’t have time for that then here are some general guidelines. For a higher volume/long distance workout (for a crossfitter at least) when you’re doing 2000m or more, the drag factor should probably be between 105-120. If you’re going to row a shorter distance like 500-2000m, then a higher drag factor of 120-140 might work better. For even shorter sprints we could try setting the damper higher to get a drag factor between 130-150.