How to Set the Rowing Machine Damper

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You’ve tried the rowing machine and have received instructions from a personal trainer or gym coach but things just don’t feel right. Maybe you’ve already had to take a trip to the PT because of an injured back. The rowing machine damper is an important setting to understand so you can optimize your workouts and not injure yourself.

In this article you’re going to learn about the damper on a rowing machine, specifically the Concept 2, and how to set it properly, for you and your training goals.

I rowed competitively across the US and Canada for 20 years so I’ve spent more than my fair share of time dying on a rowing machine (aka: the erg).  Truth be told, I never dove into the intricacies of the damper in any of those years and just set it to between 3-4, per my rowing coach’s instructions, and went on my merry way, which you can absolutely do, but there is more to the damper than just a plastic cover with a knob.

Continue reading to learn more about the damper on a rowing machine, its actual use, how to set it and why I’m currently using a damper setting of 1.

The Concept 2 flywheel. Do NOT pull the handle while the plastic cage is removed (unless you’d like a few less fingers).

What is the Rowing Machine Damper?

The damper on the Concept 2 rower is the plastic lever on the right side of the fan cage that can be adjusted to either increase or decrease the airflow to the flywheel.  

The lower settings allow less air to enter the fan, or flywheel, making the rowing stroke, quicker.  It will feel closer to rowing in a lightweight carbon fiber boat with little wind and great water.

The higher settings allow for more air to enter the flywheel and that means it takes more effort to turn the flywheel and the flywheel slows much faster.  This does not mean you’re creating more resistance.  I liken this to mimicking less than ideal conditions like you’re a novice rowing in an old wooden shell, probably with wooden oars so the boat is significantly heavier and/or there is a head wind.  For rowers on the water, this is when it feels like you can pull as hard as possible but the boat doesn’t seem to glide through the water very fast, or at all.  It’s not a fun way to row.

What Does the Damper on a Rowing Machine Do?

The damper setting on the rowing machine sets the drag factor of the stroke and affects how the stroke feels, not the resistance.  Yes, you read that correctly, it does NOT SET THE RESISTANCE.  YOU generate the resistance level based on how quickly you move through the drive.  The more power you generate with your legs, back and arms the more resistance you create.

It’s a huge myth, unfortunately perpetuated in gyms, studios and crossfit gyms all over the world and on way too many websites, that the damper is what sets your resistance, or your workout intensity, and that the higher the setting the better the workout and this can’t be more false.  This is a myth that provides job security for your physical therapist because injury is inevitable.

How to Set the Rowing Machine Damper for You

The damper is the plastic dial on the side of the flywheel cage.

I mentioned above that you can know exactly where the damper is set by the numbers on the side of the fan cage BUT a damper setting of 3 on one machine may not have the same drag factor as another machine .  This variation is because the airflow can be impacted by how new the machine is, if it’s tuned, how clean the fan cage is and even by atmospheric differences like air temperature and elevation.

If you can’t be bothered by data, just set it anywhere between 3 and 5 and enjoy your workout.  

BUT people who flock to the rowing machine tend to be data junkies soooo… it’s time to nerd out!

On the display, or PM monitor, on the Concept 2:

  • From the Main Menu select More Options
  • Select Display Drag Factor
  • Start rowing and within a few strokes your drag factor will display

When Concept 2 interviewed some Olympic rowers, the range in drag factor they predominantly used was between 110 and 130, which is a damper setting of between 3 and 5, generally.

What I recommend is try rowing at different stroke rates, or spm, at different splits, which is time/500m, to see how things feel. 

Right now, I’m highly detrained because of life but just bought my new Concept 2 so I’m not going nuts.  I’m actually erring on a lower drag factor of 100. I don’t want to fry my lungs or body so I’m doing 10 min steady state at 18 spm with a split between 2:15 and 2:20.  For me, that’s enough to lightly tax my lungs while working to slowly regain my strength without overdoing it, which I have a tendency to do.  As my strength and cardiovascular fitness return I’ll increase that drag factor gradually and will end up between 115-120. 

Those metrics may be different for you depending on countless factors so that’s why I’m a big fan of playing around with stuff yourself.

When to Set the Damper on a Rowing Machine to a 10

Never!  I mean it. N-E-V-E-R!

The Olympians interviewed only went up to damper 10 for very specific, very short, power stroke focused drills that are sometimes necessary for elite level training.  In my own personal experience as a very competitive athlete who raced all over the US and Canada (just below elite), we never went above a 5 and we won countless races and medaled at The Head of the Charles. We also had no problem getting to the point of throwing up during/after a rowing machine workout. If you want to build supplemental power, a power focused weight training program is terrific.

Moral of the story – Unless you’re an elite rowing athlete, which isn’t my target audience for this portion of my site, NEVER GO ABOVE A DAMPER SETTING OF 5!  

If your crossfit coach or personal trainer is telling you to go to 10, honor the sanctity of this one body you get in this life, refuse and then share this link with them.

Conclusion

I have a few other articles related to rowing which can be very helpful and I suggest taking a look at them, even if you think you know what you’re doing.  I can tell you from personal observation, unless you are a rower on an actual team, you’re probably doing something on the machine that’s ineffective, inefficient or even potentially putting you on a path to injury.

How to Use a Rowing Machine

Common Rowing Machine Mistakes

Benefits of a Rowing Machine

Now go forth, be merry, and be a monster on the erg.

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AUTHOR

As a highly disciplined competitive athlete for 35 years Jess is now working to find more balance, more fun and more ease in the way she moves her body. In building her home gym she's been able to integrate a lot of equipment that helps her find play and she hopes to inspire others to do the same. She is a former nationally competitive rower, Concept 2 CIRI and 500 RYT Yoga Teacher.