If you’re here, you probably use (or plan to use) the Concept 2 SkiErg. There are a few other products on the market by other brands, but frankly none are comparable. I highly recommend the Concept 2 SkiErg, and this guide will be written to Concept 2 users.
So why are you using it? It’s funny: most athletes who use the SkiErg would say they train “functionally,” yet a very small percentage of these people have ever Cross Country skied.
The small percentage of you that have done Cross Country Skiing before know that the SkiErg is no closer to that sport than running on an AirRunner is to Lacrosse. Yes, there are similarities and significant conditioning carryover that can improve sport performance, but just because someone can produce power on an erg doesn’t mean they can synthesize skills in the field of play.
My point is, most of you are here because the means is the end. You want to get better at the SkiErg so that you can perform better on Ski Erg Time Trials and workouts that involve the machine. In other words, performance in the Sport of Fitness.
Even if your goal is general fitness, weight loss or aerobic function, the way you make the quickest progress is still the same: move better, learn efficient technique and build capacity.
And that is what this guide is about.
Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for SkiErg you must master the movement’s specific mobility, strength and skill demands. Renowned CrossFit Coach, Ben Bergeron, calls mobility, strength and skill the three-headed monster. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
SkiErg has a low barrier to entry for mobility when compared with most weightlifting or gymnastics movements. Yet, in order to be effective and efficient, you will need to claim the following positions…
1) Shoulder Flexion with External Rotation: When initiating the pull on the SkiErg, it’s ideal for the athlete to be able to express a good overhead position. While the shoulder won’t open as far as the arch position in gymnastics movements, it’s still important to have some degrees of freedom. It’s also important to understand the mechanics of that overhead position. Weightlifting movements can be especially difficult to ‘claim’ an overhead (shoulder flexion) position because you are working against the weight. However, when an athlete initiates a SkiErg stroke, it’s perfectly fine if the shoulder is slightly closed off. This is because as the athlete begins to close their hips and drives the chest down, the shoulder gets pulled open. This takes advantage of the natural tension in the lats and triceps to generate a more relaxed and snappy pull.
One way you will know if your overhead isn’t up to par is seeing more movement faults. I’ve watched hundreds of athletes ski and almost always it follows a trend: mobile athletes will move away from active muscular contraction as their lats and triceps tire and instead rely on the natural elasticity of their soft tissues, which requires much less energy. On the other hand, athletes with a poor overhead position and sub-par soft tissue quality will not transition to the less active pull because they do not perceive the position as safe.
Lastly, realize the pull happens with the elbows pointed down (shoulder externally rotated), not out to the side (internally rotated). This is relevant in the mobility conversation because externally rotating the shoulder winds up the shoulder joint, requiring more range from the lats, which is often already the problem child for an athlete’s overhead position.
If you find yourself Skiing with elbows pointed out to the side, check your Range of Motion in your lats.
The bottom line: have degrees of freedom in your overhead position, which encourages you to have efficient strokes.
Here are a few mobilizations to help with your overhead position:
2) Hip Hinge: Hip function is a huge separator for athletes, on the SkiErg or otherwise. An inexperienced athlete who has good hinging mechanics will often ski using their hips right off the bat, while athletes who lack hip range and/or hinging mechanics often rely on the upper body.
As a rule of thumb, 99+% people don’t have full expression of their hip range. Athlete who are able to express power and control through all three movement planes have a much higher likelihood of making a career of Sport.
The hips are used in every single ‘functional’ movement, so if you want to get better at ‘functional fitness’ I highly recommend investing in your hip function.
Here are a few exercises / drills to help with your hinging mechanics:
There is no strength requirement to ski. That’s one of the best aspects of this tool. If you can stand (or even sit) you can use the SkiErg to get an effective dose of fitness.
Ergs in general (ski, row, bike, etc.) are great tools for building volume in endurance work without the wear and tear on joints and minimal soft tissue damage. The low eccentric environment is ideal for deconditioned populations (or) getting a quick workout in with minimal warm-up or movement prep needed.
While you don’t have to be strong to ski, if you want to compete in the Sport of Fitness and “play with the big boys and girls” you need to be powerful.
Strength is a prerequisite for power: you must be strong to be powerful.
Power is the merger of force and speed. It is what allows you to spin the flywheel through long fluid pulls.
Specialists can go sub 1:15 in a 500m Ski. And to give you an idea about capacity, Jonas Nielson of Norway set the 5k World Record at 15:59. That’s a 1:36/500m Pace. And on the female side, Kate Hillard of Australia skied an 18:43, which is a 1:52/500m Pace.
Now, CrossFit athletes won’t touch the numbers from Skiing specialists, but these examples give you a good sense of the realm of possibility if skiing is your sole focus.
There are several key skill-related components of skiing.
This first sub-set of skills is the actual position, technique and timing of the movement, where I will cover (1) Foot placement (2) Sequencing the SkiErg stroke, and (3) The Recovery.
Then we will move to our secondary skills of (4) Breathing During Skiing (5) Optimizing Stroke Rate (6) Damper Setting (7) Getting Up to Speed, and lastly (8) SkiErg in Mixed Modal Settings.
(1) Foot Placement
The SkiErg is a unique cyclical movement because you do not sit on it (e.g. AirBike or Rower), yet you aren’t manipulating your own bodyweight to create a performance metric either (e.g. Running, Swimming, Double Unders).
You are creating torque on a flywheel, but you are standing below the place where you initiate the pull on the machine.
Normally ergs (e.g. bike, row) have several points where you can make adjustments to the machine to help it fit your unique body size and shape (e.g. foot position, seat height, seat slide, etc.)
In the SkiErg, there is only one adjustment you can make for your body size and preference: how far your feet are from the erg.
Concept 2 recommends you stand 18-24” (45-60cm) from the flywheel. To keep it simple, think about getting far enough away from the machine where you aren’t worrying about hitting your face off the monitor.
Too close and you will feel crowded, especially taller athletes. Creating some distance between you and the machine creates a longer line of action and allows for a longer, smoother pull.
If your SkiErg is on a floor stand (versus wall mounted) the average female will be two thirds of the way back and the average male will be towards the back. If you have ever watched Rich Froning ski you will notice he hovers heels off the edge of the stand. I think he is overdoing it a bit, but I won’t tell him if you don’t.
(2) Sequencing the SkiErg Stroke
The hips initiate the pull. They go back and down, creating a counterbalance, which allows the upper body to hinge over. The finish position for the SkiErg is similar to the lower body orientation in an RDL or Kettlebell Swing: the hips go back in the bottom of the movement, the shins are near vertical, the spine is neutral in the hinge and the shoulders are out in front of the body.
This action (hips back and down) not only assists you in maintaining balance, but also serves as a driver to the movement. Dropping your hips takes advantage of your bodyweight in the initiation of the movement.
As you descend in the stroke, the hip flexors work to close the hip and the abs keep the midline rigid allowing for an effective transfer of tension to the upper body.
Most people pull too early with the upper body. You want to drive the chest down and allow the shoulders to open up, putting tension on the lats and triceps.
Driving the movement with the lower body and waiting to pull allows you to take advantage of the elasticity of the upper body. This is essentially “free energy.” It’s the same idea as “riding the bounce” out of the hole in a clean or squat.
The core needs to be rigid to effectively transfer energy from the muscle groups that drive the start of the movement (hips) to the ones that finish the movement (arms).
The stronger the hips close and the more rigid the core, the more ‘snap’ you will get out of your upper body.
Your ability to take advantage of the stretch reflex of your upper body will largely determine how successful (efficient) you are at skiing.
Finish the stroke strong, but allow a small bent to remain in the arms.
Common Errors in the SkiErg Stroke
- Straight Arms (You want bent elbows)
- Elbows pointed out (vs. down)
- Early arm pull (usually combined with an upright torso)
- The Tricep Extension
- Squatting / Keeping the Chest Up (vs. driving the chest downward) (not using elasticity)
- Hips do not offset – falling forward
- Intentionally coming onto the toes
(3) The Recovery
Begin to stand up (initiate the recovery) as soon as you pull with your arms. The simplest way to ensure you are doing this is making sure your hips are moving at all times; do not pause at the bottom of the movement and ‘lock out’ the stroke.
This is easiest to understand using video.
To reverse the action of the hip, use the glutes and hamstrings to stand you up and bring your hips back underneath your torso. Stand tall to maximize the length of the stroke. A reaction from this “getting tall” may be popping onto the balls of your feet. However, coming onto your toes is subtle and only happens for a moment, if at all. It is more of a reaction and shouldn’t be something you actively attempt to create.
This concept (toes as a reaction vs. action) which is also true for Weightlifting. (Just trying to help you connect the dots!)
There are two ways that you can recover your arms in the SkiErg stroke:
1) Straight Lines: This is the technique that you would use if you were actually skiing. The hands trace straight lines through space (no side-to-side action). Therefore, the hands quickly change directions (reverse) at the top and bottom of the stroke.
Note: If you watch an athlete SkiErg directly from the side, you will notice the handles actually create a small circle at the bottom of the movement. During the pull, the handles are slightly closer to the machine than during the recovery.
2) Circles / Butterfly: While this technique works for the SkiErg it wouldn’t work while actually skiing. But, as we already established, most of you don’t care about nordic sports performance, you care about SkiErg performance for the Sport of Fitness, so this is a viable option. Here, you simply redirect the momentum of your arms out the sides and then lift, much like the Butterfly stroke in swimming.
The takeaway here is that both techniques are correct. There are elite athletes who use either technique. While uncommon, I have even seen elite athletes switch between the two mid-workout. Since the recovery will never be the limiter while skiing, It comes down to personal preference.
(4) Breathing during SkiErg
Before continuing, if you haven’t read my article of Breath Ratios, I highly recommend it. If will help this next section make much more sense.
There are three possible Breath Ratios that are appropriate while Skiing, but the vast majority of the time, the most efficient pattern is a 1:1 Breath-to-Stroke Ratio.
However, at high fatigue and slower paces, a 2:1 Breath-to-Stroke Ratio may be used.
And, at low fatigue and slower paces, a 1:2 Breath-to-Stroke Ratio may be used.
1:1 = 1 Breath Cycle (inhale + exhale) per Stroke.
Exhale on the pull, inhale on the recovery.
2:1 = 2 Breath Cycles (inhale + exhale) per Stroke.
One breath cycle on the pull, another on the recovery.
1:2 = 0.5 Breath Cycles (just an inhale or an exhale) per Stroke.
Inhale on the drive phase of one stroke, exhale on the drive phase of the next.
The 1:1 Breath-to-Stroke Ratio is the most efficient. In fact, unless you are experienced on the SkiErg, I don’t recommend deviating from 1:1. The 1:1 breath ratio can be sustained at fairly high level of fatigue when compared to the rower, largely because average stroke rates on the rower are on average 10 SPM (Strokes per Minute) less. You might average 30 SPM on the rower for a 2k Time Trial, where on the SkiErg you might average 40 SPM.
A simple way to think about your respiration rate (number of breaths per minute) while skiing at 1:1 is simply looking at your Stroke Rate. Therefore, as you pick up pace and/or experience increased systemic fatigue, increasing your Stroke Rate will also allow you to increase your ventilation rate.
Simply put: Use your wiggle room within appropriate stroke rates to cope with the demands of your breathing.
What happens if the demands of your breathing fall outside the appropriate stroke rate for skiing?
Well, in these rare cases, that’s when you transition to a different breath-to-stroke ratio.
Scenario #1: “I need to start Skiing, but my breathing is jacked up.”
Let’s say the workout is…
-Unbroken Chest-to-Bar Pull-Ups
A big set of Pull-Ups will jack up your heart rate and breathing. Yet, it’s a sprint-style workout, so you want to immediately start skiing to accumulate those Calories, even if initially your pace is slower.
So, you will drop down from the Pull-Ups and immediately start pulling on the handles.
You will breathe twice for each pull, until you can clear enough fatigue and recover your breathing back to the 1:1 breath ratio. Often in this scenario, your stroke rate is low while in 2:1, and when you transition back to 1:1 it picks back up, along with your pace.
Scenario #2: “This is very easy, but I’m going to be here for a very long time.”
Let’s say the workout is…
For Time: Ski 42,195m
That’s a marathon. And while you wouldn’t do it in normal training, it’s possible that you see an extreme workout like this in an event like the CrossFit Games…considering they had a marathon row the other year.
In a super long Time Trial like this, ventilation rate will stay low along with systemic fatigue. The limiter for people who don’t SkiErg long Time Trials regularly (almost everyone) on an event of this distance is not metabolic fatigue but (1) fueling limitations (you will need to transition from sugar to more fat) and (2) mechanical breakdown (muscles stop functioning).
In this sort of scenario, transitioning to a 1:2 Breath-to-Stroke ratio (at least some of the time) can be advantageous.
This is because a lower respiration rate allows for a larger breath (tidal volume) and more efficient exchange of gas because a lower percentage of air is lost in dead space (tissue unable to exchange gas…aka. your mouth and throat). It’s a concept I explain thoroughly in my eBook Breath Work for the Sport of Fitness. If you frequently feel limited by your breathing in workouts or just want to understand your physiology better to optimize your performance, I highly recommend it.
This is the reason why dramatically increasing your rate of breathing doesn’t mean dramatically better performance. In fact, often the opposite is true in terms of efficiency. That’s why a 1:2 Breath Ratio can work for long, slow SkiErg events.
(5) Optimizing Stroke Rate
Stroke rate shows up in the upper right corner of the Concept 2 screen as a number of Strokes Per Minute (S/M or SPM).
The first realization people have when they first power up the SkiErg is that stroke rate is not tied with power or pace. It is totally possible (and common) for a more advanced skier to achieve more power at lower stroke rates when right next to him or her is a beginner appearing to “move fast” while producing little power, having a poor connection to the flywheel and wearing themselves out quickly.
The best stroke rate is one where you can produce sustainable power and move controlled but not slowly. This is often best achieved from a hard (quicker) pull followed by a more relaxed (slower) recovery. This play of power and relaxation is what allows for sustainability. At faster speeds and shorter durations, power is prioritized over sustainability.
Here are some general recommendations for stroke rates based on duration and power output, assuming each is a max effort time trial…
0-400m = 50-70+ SPM
400-750m = 44-54 SPM
750-2000m = 38-50 SPM
2000-5000m = 33-46 SPM
5000-10000 = 30-42 SPM
10000+ = 28-35 SPM
For athletes who are training to compete in the Sport of Fitness, I recommend following an 80/20 Rule. That is, complete approximately 80% of your training time between stroke rates of 32 and 48. The remaining 20% can be outside that range, whether lower or higher. This would include harder, faster, shorter intervals where stroke rate climbs above that range, as well as relaxed warm-ups, cooldown flushes and easy aerobic work that falls below that range.
Lastly, I encourage you to be disciplined with your stroke rate. In other words, there will be times where you will want to move out of the recommended range based on how you are feeling in a given workout on a given day, but likely this will slow your development. Don’t begin to play with your stroke rate or trust how your ‘feel’ (intuition) until you’ve reinforced the correct base. It’s the idea of snowflake training…yes you are unique, but let’s be honest, all snowflakes have more in common than they are unique. Follow the principles and put in the time and work before trusting yourself.
(6) Damper Setting
To clarify terms here, damper setting is the number between 1 and 10 that the arrow points to on the flywheel. The drag factor is the resistance that a certain damper setting provides. A given damper setting will vary machine to machine, while drag factor will be consistent.
Most people who use a SkiErg also have access to the Concept 2 Rower. If you have never done so, I highly recommend you complete a Drag Factor Test, for any piece of equipment (SkiErg, Rower, Bike Erg) you use from Concept 2.
The good news is you can complete that same test on the SkiErg to find your ideal drag factor.
For those of you who aren’t interested in taking the test (shame on you!), I recommend you pick a damper setting approximately one number less than you use for rowing. So if you row on a damper of 6, use a damper of 5 on the SkiErg. This will correlate to ~15 points on the Drag Factor.
There are two reasons for this.
1) SkiErg paces are slightly slower than row paces
2) SkiErg stroke rates are higher than rowing stroke rate
Both of these factors lend themselves to a lower optimal damper setting.
(7) Getting up to Speed
The discussion up to this point has been focused on the technique, stroke rate, etc. that occurs while sustaining a certain pace. An important part of the technique that we haven’t covered is how to most effectively and efficiently get up to speed on the SkiErg.
When you start pulling on the handles, the flywheel has zero momentum. You must build the speed of that flywheel just past the pace that you plan to hold, then settle into your desired pace.
So, say you have a 1k Ski Buy-In in a workout. And let’s say an appropriate pace for you on this element is 1:56/500m. At “3,2,1,Go!” quickly build (~5 strokes) to around a 1:52/500m pace and then over the next ~5 strokes after that, allow the pace to settle at the 1:56 pace.
Those first five strokes can be awkward because you have to build from a dead stop to full speed. The best solution here is starting with partial strokes and building into full length strokes. For the partial strokes, simply don’t reach as high to initiate the stroke and extend as far at the bottom of the stroke. Initiate the movement from the hips and avoid using the arms much.
(8) Skiing in Mixed Modal Settings
The first thing to understand is the difference the units will make in how you attack a workout: meters vs. calories. I suggest you read Rowing for Calories versus Meters because once again, the same principles apply to SkiErg workouts.
SkiErg is almost always paired with other movements in the Sport of Fitness; It is rare that you will see a SkiErg Time Trial.
What are the implications of this? Things become very complicated.
Essentially there becomes endless combinations of movements, workout duration, rep schemes, etc.
The best way to learn how to attack a workout you have never done before is having a multitude of experiences that lend themselves to you accurately predicting your capacity, limitations and the time the workout will take.
Accurately predict your pace (capacity) and you will be able to accurately calculate time. But, where this becomes much more challenging is during workouts with interfering movements.
Interfering movements means that the other movement(s) in the workout use the same muscle groups as SkiErg: hip flexors, abdominals, lats and/or triceps.
Here are two interference style workouts…
Interference Pyramid Chipper
-25 Burpees to 6” Target
-35 Cal Ski
-40 Chest-to-Bar (Scale: Pull-Up or Ring Row)
-35 Cal Ski
-25 Burpees to 6” Target
12 Rounds for Time
-12/10 Calorie SkiErg
-10 Toes-to-Bar (Scale: 12 Straight Leg Sit-Ups)
-8 Meter Handstand Walk (25 ft) (Scale: 2 x 8m Bear Crawl)
These two pieces will give you a great foundation of experience in what it is like to be limited because of interference in SkiErg workouts.
Again, different workouts will have different limiters, but workouts with high interference are the hardest to predict because it is difficult to know how long you will need to rest between (or within) elements are muscular fatigue builds.
I will leave you this final thought…
Break before you are broken.”Pat Sherwood
TL/DR | Here’s the Summary
No minimums for safe, effective movement
Lats & Overhead
Hip Hinge Mechanics
(1) Foot placement – 18-24 inches from the flywheel
(2) Sequencing the SkiErg stroke – initiate movement from hips, core tight, finish with upper body
(3) The Recovery – 2 ways to do it correctly: straight lines & circles
(4) Breathing During Skiing – Use a 1:1 Breath-to-Stroke Ratio 99% of the time
(5) Optimizing Stroke Rate – 80% of the time, use a Stroke Rate between 32-48.
(6) Damper Setting – Complete the Drag Factor test. On average 1 damper setting lower than rowing.
(7) Getting Up to Speed – 5 Partial Strokes to build the momentum of the flywheel. Then settle into your sustainable pace.
(8) SkiErg in Mixed Modal Settings – Experience is the best teacher in learning complementary & interfering movements.
Also in the Movement Library: The Ultimate Guide for Rowing
If you want to reach your potential in the Sport of Fitness, you must have elite fitness. In other words… conditioning.
That’s why this program focuses on the “3 Kings” of Cyclical Movement: Rowing, AirBike & Running.
Cyclical Supremacy is all about building your engine so you can express higher levels of performance in all types of workouts.
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