What is the best indoor training device? Part 2 – Concept2 SkiErg

“My SkiErg has been one of the greatest additions to my training as a professional and Olympic cross country skier. My favorite part is that it is so simple to get in a great workout, no matter the time of day, or the time of year.” – Sadie Bjornsen, 2014/2018 Olympian, World Championship Bronze Medalist, 7-year National Team Member, 10-time World Cup Medalist, 5-time National Champion United States

Today is part two of our look at the three major players (Concept2 SkiErg, Ercolina Trainer, ThoraxTrainer) in indoor nordic ski training. Part one is here.

The SkiErg from Concept2 gets a ringing endorsement from one of the top female skiers in the US and the globe in Sadie Bjornsen. Being that Sadie and I both share the ability to crust ski well into June due to our geographic training locations, I find her quote even more meaningful. Reflecting on my own experiences with a SkiErg, I’d have to agree – it’s both a “great addition to training,” and provides a simple means by which one can fit in a workout, “regardless of the time of day or time of year.”

Similar to last week, we go in depth on the background of the company, product development, equipment specs, scientific research, and our final, “Seder-Skier” grade in order to help you decide if this is the right tool for you.

The latest Concept2 SkiErg, released in 2014

Specs

Price – $770 (with PM5); SkiErg Floor stand = $180

Frame – Aluminum

Wall Mounted dimensions: width at bottom: 19 in; width at top: 20.5 in; Depth: 16 in; Height: 85 in.

Mounted on Floor Stand dimensions: 23.5 in x 50 in x 85 in

Weight: SkiErg: 46 lb (20.9kg); Floor Stand: 35 lb (16kg)

Power Requirements – Takes two D cell batteries. SkiErg provides operating power when machine is in use.

Overview

Since 1981, the proven choice of rowing athletes across the globe has been the Concept Indoor Rower. The SkiErg, developed in 2009, uses the same flywheel resistance and electronic monitoring systems, giving the user a consistent analytical platform and a trusted system of collecting accurate performance data. Basically, you know what you’re going to get when you buy from Concept2: a reliable, durable product built by people who care and are ready to provide unmatched customer service.

When you train with Concept2 equipment, you can compare your training effort/output (watts), since they are all derived on the same PM5 monitor. In the world of indoor training, that is a bigger deal than you might initially think. Ever hopped on a bike for an hour at a hotel and discovered you ‘magically improved’ 30+watts over the course of your workout compared to being at home? If a gym is outfitted with a rower, SkiErg, and stationary bike, all of which Concept2 produces, you can train at the right intensity every time. One could make the argument Concept2 is the ultimate brand in indoor endurance training.

Background and Development

An informative timeline provides the progression of the Concept2 company. Two brothers, Peter and Dick Dreissigacker created a set of carbon fiber oars in their kitchen while training for the Montreal Olympic trials in 1975. Though unsuccessful in the trials as athletes, their oars garnered attention, and 1976, they bought an abandoned dairy farm in Vermont and set up shop building their unique prototype poles. By 1980, they had eight employees working in their barn ‘shop’, selling their oars across the globe. In terms of producing indoor training equipment, 1981 proved to be revolutionary; when Peter nailed his old bicycle to the floor of the barn and pulled the free end of the chain, a winter training device later launched as the Model A Indoor Rower, was born.

They moved out of the barn in 1984 to their current home in Morrisville, VT. After decades of successes in becoming the leading seller of oars to crews worldwide, they launched the SkiErg in 2009. “There was the very early experimentation, with just leaning a RowErg up against the wall and adding a handle,” said a representative of Concept2 when we reached out to them for this story.

“But then we decided it was worth doing it right.”

From the Concept2 history page on their website

Part of knowing just what is “right” comes down to the heritage of the company; if I’m going to personally buy a piece of equipment to help me in a sport as niche as cross country skiing, I want the product to have been built by people who understand the sport. Though Dick and Peter were most elite in rowing, Dick and Judy’s three children raced locally at the high school level, winning state championships and competing at Junior Nationals. All three went on to race for Dartmouth, competed in biathlon, and eventually, Emily and Hannah went to the Olympics. Currently, a number of Concept2 employees are avid nordic skiers, several with racing and coaching experience at the high school and college level. Ben Hickory, for example, won several state titles on his way to a collegiate racing career.

The 2009 SkiErg – notice the straps on the handles and color difference compared to the 2014 model.

In 2014, the updated SkiErg was released, complete with a new black color, the new PM5 monitor, an internal drive mechanism that improves cord wear and allows for single-stick technique, and ergonomic strapless handles in a catchy, bright green color.

One thing missing currently on the SkiErg, like the ThoraxTrainer and the Ercolina Trainer, is a lower body element. “Some people wish that the SkiErg had a leg-skiing simulation, but that would have made the machine more complicated, more expensive–and wouldn’t have added significantly to the training benefits.”

Speaking from personal experience, a hard workout on the SkiErg will not leave your legs feeling fresh! It does do a good job of simulating the lower-body activation which takes place in the double pole technique in terms of repositioning the body to the proper fundamental position. Besides, as you’ve maybe seen by professional skiers in training, one can hop on one leg or back and forth to simulate a skating motion while using the SkiErg as a strictly upper-body simulation. For Concept2, the design and its limitations is acceptable first and foremost because they are consistent with the brand’s guiding principles: providing a reliable, durable, easy to use but effective piece of training equipment at an affordable price.

“An erg will never completely replace the real sport–we know that,” representatives said in response to my questioning about the sport specificity of the machine and the possibility of future development on a lower body element.

“So if we can duplicate the majority of the physiological demand and provide a monitor that is really useful, while keeping the cost/complexity down, we think that’s best.”

Even though I really want someone to invent a hyper-technologically advanced and totally sport specific NordicTrack, I would say I have to agree!

Key Features

Nordic skiing builds strength and endurance in the arms and legs, and the SkiErg, like the Ercolina Trainer and the Thorax Trainer, brings that indoors by allowing the user to practice double pole and classic alternating arm technique. So, what are the most important aspects of the Concept2 device?

We would argue it is the combination of sport specificity at an affordable cost through a product that does not require a lot of maintenance or cost to repair. Setting up the SkiErg is simple and requires only 12 screws. Even the mechanically disadvantaged Ryan Sederquists’ of the world can jump for joy knowing when their erg arrives, they can be sweating to a great workout while they watch replays of the Vancouver 50k Finals in no time! If something does go wrong, Concept2 will be there for you. “We’ve always been big on providing parts and support for all machines made past and present.”

In addition to their outstanding customer support and clear vision, the SkiErg also is unique in its design, feel, and data collection.

The SkiErg can be mounted to a wall for a more compact fit, or used with a floor stand, which makes it easily as mobile as a typical stationary bike at the gym. Internally, the high-strength cords in the drive system, “stronger than steel” according to their website, are lightweight, making the the user feel responsive and smooth. If you’ve ever used a rowing machine built by Concept2 …and then tried anything else, you probably have noticed this difference.

Resistance on the machine comes by way of a flywheel, and thus, the SkiErg actually responds to your effort on every pull. As you go harder, it reacts by adjusting the resistance – you are in control of your exertion every step of the way. You can also adjust the airflow to the flywheel to fit your preference. If that is confusing to you, check out this helpful page which debunks the common myth of the flywheel acting like an “intensity level” or “resistance” setting. At first blush, this might not seem like a big deal, but upon closer examination, Concept2 earns sports specificity points for their usage of the flywheel and damper settings. Here’s a paragraph from the company which explains clearer than I could:

Think about skiing on snow. Regardless of whether you are skiing in fast or slow conditions, you will need to increase your intensity and apply more force to go faster. The difference is in how it feels to go faster in different conditions. Increasing your speed in fast conditions requires you to apply your force more quickly. Increasing your speed during slow conditions also requires more force, but the speed at which you apply the force will be slower over the course of the pull. At a damper setting of 1–4, the SkiErg feels like faster snow conditions, flats and down hills; at the higher numbers, the SkiErg feels like skiing in slow conditions or uphill. Regardless of the setting, you will need to increase your effort to increase your intensity.

In essence, the design allows for practicing your double pole across a variety of intensities in a variety of conditions/situations.

The PM5

The Performance Monitor comes standard with the purchase of your SkiErg, something that is similar to the ThoraxTrainer but not the Ercolina Upper Body Trainer. It is slick, easy to use, and provides reliable, repeatable feedback. It allows you to assess your distance, pace, calories, and power in watts. The PM5 also has Bluetooth and ANT+ wireless connectivity, which means you can use it with your heart rate monitors, apps, and other fitness devices. It comes with Concept2’s Smartphone Cradle that sits on top of the PM5 so your smartphone is within easy reach. You can even use the free Concept2 ErgData app to track workouts and sync with the Concept2 Online Logbook. It also has some built in workouts and games that are addicting! Fish Game, Darts, Target Training, and Biathlon will encourage you to train while forgetting about the pain you’re going through, and the ability to have a pacer come on the screen in the middle of a set 1km repeat is also nice.

I personally enjoy the ability to design a workout so simply – setting the distance or time of an interval AND the rests. I had never used a SkiErg before until last year, and 5 minutes into it, I was proficient at many of the most valuable features. As a coach or athlete, the platform provided by this data is also valuable in that you can compare yourself to others worldwide.

“Racing on the Concept2 Indoor Rower has been going on a long time,” said representatives of Concept2. “We wanted to build a community of folks that wanted to challenge themselves and others. The standard distance for rowing is 2K. We didn’t want to do the same distance and thought longer would be too long and less people would be interested.”

Enter the 1km TT, which serves as a sort of barometer for skiers and cross-fitters alike. The 1km TT on the Concept2 machine is a standard metric used by skiers and cross-fitters alike. It is fun to see your current world ranking. Or, if you’re up to it, compete each fall in the SkiErg World Sprints.

“Sprint skiing distances are usually between 1-2.5K, so we settled on 1K. The sprints were a good way for us to build SkiErg records and as soon as those records were put up on the site people started to challenge them.”

One Concept2 employee said their PR is 3:18. “Another local skier I know has done 3:15, and he is an excellent skier,” they commented further.

There are both American and World Records, broken down by gender, for a bunch of different events – 100 meters all the way to 42k. There are even ultra records – 24 hr ski, 100k, and Longest Continual Ski.

In case you’re wondering, the 1K American Record is held by Derek Peterson of Texas (he probably doesn’t get on snow too much I suppose…) with a 2:53.5 set in 2018. The founder himself, Dick Dreissigacker, at age 70 went 3:44.1, and Erick Sokn of Wisconsin, at an age of 61 has what I would consider the most amazing time on the list, with a 3:07.8 … and they say we lose muscular power as we age …

George Hall, in the 80-89 category, keeps us all dreaming of big things with his 4:20.7. I always tell my wife I want to die at age 100 from a rollerski accident, but I guess I should be inspired by George’s example that one can be fit and show it at all ages in a different, safer way.

One final record that blew my mind: Andrew Clayton of Jacksonville, Florida did his own version of the Equinox 24-hr challenge, going 277km on his SkiErg in 24 hours. Mind blowing! And I thought 150km on real snow was decent…

I could junk out on stats all day, but you’ll just have to check them out for yourself here.

The point, however, has been made, and that is that the Concept2 SkiErg has an online fitness community that is large and highly competitive. In fact, when asked what sets the SkiErg apart from its competitors, representatives went back to this element, speaking to the ability to have measurable, comparable results.

“The PM5 lets you compare with others anywhere in the world, and you can compare your own performance from one workout to another, making it a really powerful tool for measuring progress.”

I asked them if, during this time of Coronavirus, where virtual races have become the norm, if they’ve ever considered doing a “Virtual Birkie” of sorts. “We haven’t talked about a virtual online race much. I like the idea of a distance challenge like a SkiErg Vasaloppet. Something like a 90k done during a certain week of the year.”

I guess if the pandemic is prolonged, we might have something to stay in shape for! Stay tuned folks…

Research

A 2016 study analyzed the sport specificity of the SkiErg by comparing upper body muscle activation in the double pole technique and SkiErg workouts.

The results were summarized as follows:

“Relative poling phase during double poling was 30.30 ± 2.02% and during SkiErg workout 54 ± 3.36%. Pre-activation of trunk flexors was significantly higher during double poling due to high and forward body position before pole plant. Pre-activation of trunk flexors was not significantly different as pre-activation of shoulder and elbow extensors during SkiErg workout. Deactivation of these muscles came significantly later during SkiErg
workout”

The conclusion was that while the SkiErg is effective in building upperbody power and endurance, it is not recommended as a “specific training method” since it could disrupt the double pole technique, especially in terms of the timing of certain muscle groups (trunk flexors, shoulders, and elbow flexors).

Some basic results are below, and the study shows some interesting graphs and tables which point out muscle activation patterns and timing.

Parameter DP SkiErg p-value
Cycle time (s) 0.99 ± 0.13 1.19 ± 0.15 .004
Poling time (s) 0.30 ± 0.02 0.64 ± 0.04 .000
Relative poling time (%) 30.30 ± 2.02 53.8 ± 3.36 .000

Pre-activation OBLe 17.17 ± 5.67 7.27 ± 4.90 .001
Post-activation OBLe 18.75 ± 5.68 25.32 ± 4.56 .032
Pre-activation RA 17.3 ± 5.09 5.79 ± 4.01 .000
Post-activation RA 16.39 ± 5.99 25.21 ± 4.22 .001
Pre-activation PMa 5.15 ± 4.51 3.64 ± 4.01 1.000
Post-activation PMa 20.61 ± 7.64 28.74 ± 5.53 .028
Pre-activation TRI 4.84 ± 4.36 2.01 ± 2.36 .194
Post-activation TRI 26.97 ± 5.15 33.08 ± 4.53 .021
Pre-activation LD 1.59 ± 1.00 1.77 ± 1.22 1.000
Post-activation LD 26.53 ± 5.85 33.27 ± 3.87 .009

OBLe – obliquus externus abdominis; RA – rectus
abdominis; PMa – pectoralis
major; TRI – triceps brachii;
LD – latissimus dorsi; DP –
double poling

The Seder-Skier verdict

Price: A

This is where Concept2 stands head and shoulders above its competitors. For under $1,000, you get a great device with the all important computer. If you want to skip the floor stand, it’s for under $800. Don’t get your hopes up if you think you can find one of these used on craigslist, either. If you are lucky enough to see that, you’ll often realize the selling price is the same as a new one! These puppies hold their value! Currently, there is even a waiting list to order one.

As far as other accessories, go, you don’t need much else. The company, however, has worked to make add-ons to help increase its accessibility. “We have some add-ons that make the SkiErg more accessible to folks that need to use the machine from a seated position,” reps noted. “We have handle hooks that allow you to rest the handles lower if you can’t reach them to start your workout, and an extension kit that gives some extra cord travel if a person is in a wheelchair and can’t be close to the machine. There is a company that designed a wider floor base for extra room for a wheelchair.”

Design: A-

We fully appreciate the vision of Concept2 in designing a simple, effective, relatively compact training device with limited parts susceptible to damage and repair. For this reason, we rank it above the ThoraxTrainer. However, we can’t give it the top grade, since this is really where the Ercolina Trainer sits alone. That device’s design allows you to essentially pick up and place the training device under your car seat and bring and use wherever. The SkiErg isn’t quite that efficient in its overall design, but again, given its primary audience is commerical and home gyms for athletes of all different sports, it’s not a huge knock.

Sport Specificity: B+

From a movement pattern perspective, the SkiErg is going to parallel the Ercolina Trainer. We give it a slight notch below the Thorax only because we do think it isn’t quite as effective at mimicking the double pole motion without the advent of poles. Most elite skiers will tell you that the SkiErg feels a little bit different than actual double poling, and our research study mentioned appears to defend this in terms of muscle activation and timing patterns. These same skier, however, will also tell you that it works most of the same muscles and in a killer fashion. In the end, it doesn’t matter much, but hey, the Seder-Skier has to be scientific, technical, and find some space to be a harsh sounding critic, right?

Versatility: B+

You can single stick and double pole on the newer SkiErgs, and in terms of cross country ski versatility, this is going to be on par in capacity with its competitors. Our positive grade is unique to Concept2 mainly from a look at the wide range of users.

“I think we learned from the RowErg that if you design something to provide quality training in a specific sport, the chances are that other people will find it and realize that it offers them a really good workout–even if it’s not “their sport,” representatives said. “Because we know the sport, we can create a good indoor training experience–and once you have that, it will be appreciated by other people as well.”

Indeed, cross-fitters, swimmers, triathletes, and general gym members of all ages and fitness levels are enjoying the benefits of the SkiErg.

Another group positively impacted are injured athletes. “The SkIErg is a good fit for people with lower body injuries because they can use it from a seated position,” said a spokesperson.

If you want some different variations for the lower body, check out this video by elite nordic skier, Brian Gregg.

Who is it for:

With the ThoraxTrainer, you have to be willing to deal with potential repairs, and if you live in the US, it could be currently difficult to access the necessary customer service quickly. With the SkiErg, you avoid that potential risk; the company is here and ready to help. In developing this story, Concept2 was the only company to respond immediately and regularly. Their willingness to contribute to a story by an upstart blogger with little to gain as a result speaks volumes to the authenticity of their customer service.

That being said, the SkiErg is for probably more for someone who is ok keeping their SkiErg in one place. It is more mobile than the Thorax, but not by much, though it certainly won’t occupy as much floor space in your home gym. Bottom line: we believe it is for someone who wants the benefits of a viable training device at a lower price point than the other options. The Concept2 isn’t a cheap brand, but they’ve figured out how to bring a great product to the masses. Concept2’s SkiErg is also for someone who enjoys the media interface and the motivation that can come from being part of a larger community. If you’re a fan of something like a Peloton, you’ll love the SkiErg. In contrast, we stereotype the Thorax as being sort of the “European SkiErg” since they may well have a big online community in those countries where they’ve marketed…and the Ercolina is caricatured as the choice for the professional skier warming up with their device attached to a team wax bus or burning up intervals in their windowless basement, staring at a picture of their arch rival plastered two feet from their sweating faces.

Concept2 users seem more diverse – from striving alongside others in person or online to doing as Sadie Bjornsen sometimes does in a solo effort while watching a movie – and encompass a happy medium of both populations endorsed more extremely by the Thorax and the Ercolina.

We love the presence of a robust community of people who have posted PB’s and records and while the absolute sport specific validation isn’t probably as exact as if you are using Skisens power meter poles, it is still valid in that a lot of people use it, so comparisons to self and others is relevant and consistent. While we’d prefer to stay on snow as long as we can, on May 22nd I had to finally put storage wax on my planks up here in Leadville, meaning I’ll be looking for other meaningful ways to maintain and improve my ski fitness. I can personally say the SkiErg can be an effective tool to do just that, and I hope to get my hands on one permanently at some point in the near future.

Happy training –

The Seder-Skier

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