Gamified Rowing Workouts Max Out Fitness and Fun

Gamified Rowing Workouts Max Out Fitness and Fun

Halfway through the third heat of my 1,200-meter row, I took control of the leaderboard—and dammit if I was gonna let go. Every time a competitor eked closer, I shifted into a new gear. In the fourth and final leg, I went all-in and rocketed across the finish line. As I gulped some well-earned water and my chest slowed its erratic heaving, I glimpsed at the final standings of my race. There I was at the top, 22 seconds ahead of the next fastest person, whose screen name was…BARRETis11. So, it seemed I had soundly beaten an 11-year-old. No matter—a win is a win.

Ergatta Rower: What It Is and Who It’s For

I’m working out on Ergatta, a rowing machine and system that came out last year, just in time for exercise to move largely indoors. Co-founder and CEO Tom Aulet tells me he and his R&D partners designed Ergatta for those who don’t necessarily like the rah-rah of group fitness.

Instead, they opted for a game-based system. Strap into the footholds and fire up the high-def screen to log into your dashboard. You’ll first be prompted to do a series of workouts that acclimate Ergatta to your fitness level, setting a baseline. You can choose among tons of rowing patterns that’ll test your endurance, interval prowess, or both. You can also sort by percent of effort, as well as time—anywhere between 10 and 60 minutes. Those are great, and the multi-workout push programs will help you improve your rowing capacity and power. If you want some active recovery, or have a certain push pattern in mind, free row is for you.

But the real fun of Ergatta lies in its races and games. The network pits you against other rowers at your skill level (not in real time). (One day I hope to be with the adults.) But the real advancement comes in Ergatta’s focus on gaming. It mixes rowing with video games to tap into your competitive spirit—and keep your mind off your burning lungs.

I’m a huge fan of “meteor,” in which your stroke corresponds with a fiery ball zooming across the screen. The objective is to pick up coins along the way. To grab high-up coins, you have to do high-intensity intervals, even if you don’t register it as such. Twenty minutes on the rower can be a straight sufferfest. Playing meteor for twenty minutes, on the other hand, is an absolute blast. The graphics are sophisticated and dynamic enough to keep your attention while not overcomplicating or distracting—like old-school Atari got a big boost. Ergatta plans on releasing about a game a month, which automatically uploads onto your system via updates.

Ergatta rower in the upright position Courtesy Image

How Gamifying Your Workouts Can Break Fitness Plateaus

There’s a ton of science behind gaming and competition as a way to boost performance. Exercise physiologists and psychologists often work with professional cyclists, since half a second can mean the difference between a first-place finish and not hitting the podium. Adding an element of competition in training, even if it’s in the form of an unseen avatar, can motivate athletes to go faster. Take this study from Northumbrian University in England: Researchers had seasoned cyclists go all-out for 4,000 meters, repeating the test a few times on separate days to get a good idea of each cyclist’s max effort. Then they put the participants in a pseudo virtual reality situation where they competed against an avatar set to their best personal best while they pedaled to control a different avatar in real time. Except researchers lied to the cyclists. The avatar they were competing against was actually set to go 2 percent harder than their personal best, translating to 1 percent faster. And you know what? The cyclists rose to the challenge and beat their best time.

This works for non-athletes too. Recently published research from the University of Bath found when people wore VR screens and cycled against avatars, they improved their physical performance, were more motivated to work hard, and were able to find their way into “flow states”—meaning they got into a rhythm, which is like workout nirvana.

So let’s address the elephant in the room of at-home subscription cardio equipment: the Peloton Bike. This is not Peloton. And that’s by design. If you like the sense of community and interactive motivation that being in a live remote class provides, this might not be for you—but it is for people who don’t care for that kind of workout. It’s not a knock on either method. More like different strokes for different folks.

As far as the equipment itself goes, Ergatta’s got the market cornered on handsomeness. The Brooklyn-based company worked with WaterRower, famed for its hallmark hardwood frames and clear water tank. Fins generate resistance to the handles, making for a smooth, natural-feeling pull. Like other WaterRowers, you can store it upright. And Ergatta’s white glove service is just that—premium.


If there’s one knock, it’s that the speakers embedded in the screen are pretty lousy; the easy fix is that rather than selecting one of the music genre presets, I pipe in music through my living room speaker instead. Problem solved.

Bottom Line

If you like rowing, and you have at least a whiff of competitiveness, Ergatta might just be the equipment for you. Pro-tip: Do yourself a favor and spend extra time opening up your hip flexors. You gotta stay limber when you’re rowing through space.

[$2,199 plus $29/month or $290/year for membership;]

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