Why You Should Educate Yourself Before Taking the Test
So why not just give you the Drag Factor Test right off the bat? Sure the “why” is great, but is it necessary? Yes. For one, our test will only work if you know where you sit as a unique demographic. Your opinions and beliefs will play a large role in how you interpret the “feel” of the test, and feel is an important -yet subjective- part of the test.
In other words, take the time to educate yourself by reading the common myths about drag factor and develop a more accurate idea of where your setting should be before even starting the test itself. This way you can compare the objective (time, pace, watts) with the subjective (“feel,” RPE, sustainability, muscular fatigue, etc.).
Why Damper Setting Isn’t Accurate
You’re here because you want to learn where to put that line on your rower between 1 and 10. That’s your damper setting. The first thing you need to realize is that this setting is not universal, meaning it is different on each machine.
A new or recently cleaned flywheel will allow more air into the system at the same damper setting and will provide more resistance, while old or dirty machines often spin much easier at the same damper setting because much of the air is blocked from entering the system. So if I gave any recommendation on damper setting, it would mean a different resistance for every person reading this.
The good news is Concept 2 Rowers have an onboard computer that calculates resistance and takes into account all those individual differences of your machine. It shows up as a number called “Drag Factor.”
Therefore, a drag factor of 120 will be exactly the same resistance on every machine even though it may be a damper setting of four on one and six on another.
This is hugely beneficial to know because if you attend a CrossFit gym and/or you compete in the Sport of Fitness you will constantly be getting on different machines, often without time to check damper setting. In these moments, you need to have developed the feel to know where that machine is providing less or more resistance that what is typical and adjust on the fly(wheel) according.
By the Way: This Drag Factor test can also be completed for the Concept 2 SkiErg. While the results won’t be wildly different, I do recommend taking the test again.
Why You Need to Know Your Source
As a person researching damper settings, drag factors and information on rowing in general, realize that much of the information is geared towards Crew. That is, the sport of rowing. While there is certainly some great information put out there that applies to both rowing on water and land, sometimes there’s needs to be a deviation in the two.
Case in point, Crew team members often complete their erg training at a drag factor between 115 and 125 to most accurately simulate the resistance of water. Their goal isn’t to get the fastest time on a Concept 2 erg, it is to maximize their physiology and carryover ability to row on the water. This article isn’t written to crew members, it is written to people looking to maximize their scores on rowing workouts in the Sport of Fitness on a Concept 2 rower. Those two things are very different.
Facts & Feels: Determining Your Drag Factor Setting
I like comparing your drag factor setting to the gears on a bike. When you crank up the resistance, there is more potential for power production. However, that doesn’t mean you will produce more power. There is going to be an individualized sweet spot for each person, where they have found through a combination of objective testing (facts) and intuition (feel), which is subjective in nature. Because neither can provide a complete picture for your correct drag factor, we need both.
In the bike analogy, if you pick a “gear” too easy, you will spin quickly (efficient) but you will not reach your potential for power (not effective). On the other hand, if you pick a “gear” too hard, you won’t be able to move fast enough to produce power either. We have all seen someone get stuck in a high gear on a bike going up a hill, leaning side-to-side and pedaling through virtual molasses.
Remember, more resistance doesn’t mean more power. To produce the power = wattage = pace, you need to find that middle ground: the perfect blend of resistance (gear / Damper Setting) and speed (chain speed & SPM) that allows optimal expression of your physiology. That’s the whole point of the Drag Factor Test is finding that perfect blend.
My job isn’t just to tell you “where to put that little line from one to ten,” it’s about giving you the tools you need to optimize your performance in unique workout scenarios. The Sport of Fitness is unique compared to other sports because the test is never the same. For a rower, swimmer or track star a 5000m Race is always the same. (Okay sure factors like weather, wind and other competitors play a role, but you get the idea). The point is these athletes know how to pace and optimize their performance because they have done their event hundreds of times.
However, in the Sport of Fitness you never know what the test will be. Every year in the Open, novel workouts are announced just a day or two (at most) before you complete them. The Sport of Fitness rewards athletes who are not just physically gifted, but those that are cerebral as well.
So, let’s dive into some unhelpful preconceived notions that might be holding you back:
I’ll get a better workout if I increase the resistance.”
False. Well, likely false. Often what I see if athletes who don’t know where their optimal drag factor (and corresponding damper setting) should be end up ramping the damper all the way to 10.
Truthfully when I hear a statement like this, it is a clear sign of immaturity of that person’s understanding. It’s like saying squatting 315 is a better workout than squatting 135. Well…potentially…but I have a lot of questions that need answered before I can say that.
- Why are you training?
- What’s the goal of this specific session?
- How fast and how long are you rowing?
- What stroke rate and breath ratio are you able to maintain?
- What is your limiter in the workout and what do you want it to be?
This workout is short so I should increase my damper setting.”
If I row on a higher damper setting I’ll get done quicker.”
False. Well, likely false. Really you need to increase pace. Damper setting could have a part of this, but it certainly doesn’t have to. In fact, sometimes this has an inverse return. This is something we will get into more during the Drag Factor Test.
I’m weak so I should row on a low damper setting.”
Maybe. It often is true, but probably not for the reason you think. This isn’t about strength, it’s about power. While those things are different, they have a lot of overlap so even though you change the damper setting for the wrong reason, you might be right in the end.
Now, it’s time to get into the main course. Here at the key factors when deciding drag factor.
Drag Factor Considerations
In general, the more factors on the left side that accurately describe you the higher your optimal drag factor setting will be.
Now, let’s dive into each factor…
Consideration #1: Big vs. Small Athletes
This is often the most intuitive of the factors (it tends to make sense to people), and it is likely the most important consideration in determining drag factor as well. An athlete who is bigger in overall size (height and weight) will typically have a higher optimal drag factor. This is often a male athlete. Smaller (lighter and shorter) athletes simply produce less force so they will have a lower optimal drag factor setting.
While a big athlete’s bodyweight can be a hindrance in rowing on the water, it’s not on an erg. The different is in Crew you are moving yourself across the surface of the water, where on the Concept 2 you are spinning a flywheel against the air. In other words, an athlete’s strength-to-bodyweight ratio becomes much less important because the only thing that really matters is raw power production. This is why large males in the CrossFit space, even if simultaneously fit & fat (not mutually exclusive by the way), tend to enjoy (and do better on) workouts that involve ergs, like the AirBike and Rower.
Not to mention Big & Tall male’s joints and midline tolerate the low-eccentric, bodyweight-supported (they have a seat) environments of the ergs a lot better than activities where they must support their bodyweight, such as cyclical activities (e.g. Double Unders and Running) or gymnastics (e.g. Chest-to-Bar & Handstand Push-Ups).
Related Read: Considerations for Big & Tall CrossFit Competitors
For many smaller athletes, the impact that their bodyweight has on weightlifting and erg-based cyclical activities like rowing may simply be a fact of life. However, for those athletes looking to compete in the Sport of Fitness, it may be a reason to begin to manipulate bodyweight so they can be competitive with the rest of the field. An appropriate example of an athlete who “did it right” (i.e. increased slowly over a number of years and in a way where it didn’t negatively impact bodyweight movements) is Noah Olsen. Check out the transformation.
Consideration #2: Strong vs. Weak Athletes
Many of these factors are highly correlated with the previous ones, so it is important to tease out the differences and so you can understand where you fall in each factor.
For example, big athletes tend to be strong and strong athletes tend to be more fast twitch, but certainly it’s not always this way.
Here we are talking about absolute strength. Context always matters for strength, so here we are talking about barbell movements in non-fatigued environments and low-reps…the way strength is most traditionally viewed. It will be more advantageous to rowing prowess for a strong athlete to row on a higher damper setting.
Consideration #3: Slow vs. Fast Twitch
Slower twitch athletes should use a higher damper setting. These are athletes that are more adept to sustainable activities versus power ones. They will perform better at (and often self-select) continuous efforts over intervals.
At first glance, it’s counterintuitive to many people to increase the drag factor for an athlete who is slower twitch. But it comes down to speed of contraction. The higher drag factor almost immediately provides resistance at the catch, regardless of how slow you initiate the pull. It allows athletes who get up to their maximal contractile potential slowly a chance to engage better with the flywheel.
Additionally, fast twitch athletes (think 100m Sprinter) are often trained to move quickly and a harder drag factor tends to bog them down from being able to create their power potential. A lower drag factor allows fast twitch athletes to engage quickly and avoid muscular burnout because connection with the machine often tends to come more naturally.
The most likely scenario is that a strong athlete is also fast twitch because fast twitch fibers exert more force. However, this isn’t a 1 + 1 equation. For example, take a skinny track star. This athlete is certainly fast twitch and can likely express a lot a speed-strength, but it’s possible their absolute strength (relative to high-level CrossFit athlete) is quite low. This is because on the speed strength continuum absolute speed and absolute strength are on opposite ends of the spectrum. They are loosely correlated. This is why fast twitch athletes with less absolute strength should use a lower drag factor.
Consideration #4: Systemic vs. Local Fatigue
Going back to our bicycle gearing analogy for changing drag factor, we can learn another helpful tidbit from the cycling world. In training, cyclists often play with gearing going up and down, calling them “spinning” and “mashing.” Spinning is usually recommended for longevity and sustainability, as it puts more of the burden on systemic elements (i.e. Heart & Lungs) and is less likely to burn out your muscles via local fatigue. Harder muscular contractions where the joint angle moves slowly are more likely to occlude (block blood flow to) the muscle. When sustainability (endurance) is the goal, this is generally regarded as something to avoid.
Therefore, for sustainable rowing the goal is to put more of the burden on systemic elements via using a lower drag factor setting.
Consideration #5: Sprint vs. Sustainable Efforts
If we are less concerned about sustainability because of a short workout duration, an easier pairing of movements or other factors, it is a worthwhile trade off the occlude the muscle a bit in exchange for more power and a faster pace.
In general, it’s a best practice to keep your drag factor relatively consistent for workouts regardless of during. However, by increasing the damper setting just a bit (not more than an increment of 1 or 1.5), it can allow the athlete to express a little more power. Again, this is relatively subtle and is a higher level skill.
Consideration #6: Higher SPM vs. Lower SPM
The way you row a faster pace is by first increasing the length of the stroke, then the power per pull, and finally the frequency of those pulls (aka. Stroke Rate). If you have already largely optimize the first two factors than we will look at your SPM (Strokes per Minute).
In sprinting efforts, the goal is to have as high of a stroke rate possible without form breaking down or decay of individual pull power.
If we are talking about sustainable efforts, the goal is to find consistency and rhythm.
With a higher drag factor, the chain velocity (m/s) will be slower, not allowing for stroke rate to be as high. This is especially true for sprint efforts.
With a lower drag factor, the chain velocity (m/s) is much quicker. Faster pulls allows for more strokes in less time. Therefore, a faster stroke rate is possible while sprinting and beneficial when sustaining.
Test Time: The ZOAR Drag Factor Test
Okay, here we are. We’ve set the groundwork so you are finally ready to take the test.
Realize that the results you uncover may or may not confirm your previous opinions on your individualized drag factor setting. Hopefully you already started developing an idea if your previous setting was too high or too low.
My last note before we dive into the test is most people won’t be on the extremes of the spectrum. Optimal drag factor setting is a bell curve, where the biggest segment of people fall somewhere in the middle. If you are an outlier (e.g. a 6’8” male or 90-lb female) you probably already know you are an outlier and understand that it could impact your results. To everyone else…you probably messed up the testing if your corresponding damper setting is a 1 or a 10.
Between Part I & Part II, Rest 5:00
**During this time: Review Results & Compare How You Felt with Average Wattage**
I recommend creating a custom workout for each part. First, set a 3:00 interval with 0:40 rest. You will complete 5 intervals adjusting the damper during the rest. Make sure you screen is displaying watts. After all 5 intervals, return to the menu at the end of Part I to save your results.
Then, set a 0:30 interval with 2:00 rest. After completing 5 intervals adjusting the damper during the rest. Make sure you screen is displaying watts. After all 5 intervals, return to the menu at the end of Part II to save your results.
To view your results, select “Memory” then the magnifying glass. This will yield averages for each interval. Remember which damper setting you completed each to get an idea of where you performed best.
Interpreting Your Results
The goal is now for you to process the combination of your power output and how you felt during each set of the test. Most people experience an optimal range where chain speed, tension and power collide. Again for most people, it’s either going to be 3, 5 or 7, unless you’re an outlier. That number should be within 1 damper setting for Part I (Sustain) and Part II (Sprint), regardless of where you are at on the spectrum.
Now that you’ve determined your optimal damper setting (unique to a given erg), it’s time to see where that damper setting is in terms of drag factor (universal).
Simply go to “More Options” on the home screen, then “Display Drag Factor.” (See Image)
Begin rowing at a comfortable pace and see where it levels out.
Now, every time you row on a new machine simply go to the Drag Factor and move the damper up or down until you are within a few points of your optimal setting.
Realize that you won’t always have time to do this (sometimes you have to switch ergs mid-workout) so also remember what your drag factor feels like. As you jump on a new erg mid-workout, guess what damper setting will be at and then adjust if it feels off once you’ve started rowing.
Good luck completing the ZOAR Drag Factor Test and feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions on the test or interpreting your results.
Lastly, if you’re still stress about finding your “perfect” drag factor, I’ll leave you with a quote from Caryn Davies, x 2 Olypmic Champion, Women’s Eight…
Ultimately I don’t really think it matters what [drag factor] you use —within a reasonable range— as long as you’re consistent.”
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.
Are you ready to build a massive engine and reign as Cyclical Supremacy?