With its smooth gliding motion and pliable water resistance, rowing is one of the lowest-impact workouts available. It has none of the knee pounding you get from running, none of cycling’s dreaded saddle soreness, and no potential concussions from your local underground bare-knuckle boxing club. Rowing’s joint-friendliness is a wonder considering the full-body workout you get from a good session—your legs, back, abs, and arms are all put to use on every stroke.
Ergatta’s internet-connected home fitness system is a great way to get a good rowing workout without having to haul a boat to your nearest body of water. The Brooklyn-based startup hand-builds each machine to order, and it shows; the rower looks more like a high-end piece of furniture than a piece of gym equipment. The oiled cherry wood frame and clear water reservoir, which provides an adjustable level of real-feeling resistance to each stroke, are more at home in a living room than a garage. It’ll fit into smaller rooms too; the rower easily stands up vertically against the wall, taking up as much floor space as a barstool when you’re not using it.
The 17.3-inch touchscreen tablet mounted on the rower gives the elegant wooden machine a dash of modernity. The easy-to-navigate interface guides you through your workouts, and the tablet can connect to a pair of Bluetooth headphones so you can listen to one of the six available music settings: mid-energy pop, high-energy pop, dance, hip-hop, classic rock, or no music. (If you’re looking for a jaunty sea chantey, you’re better off going with Spotify.) There's no heart rate monitor included, but you can connect to one you already own using Bluetooth to better track the number of calories you burn while you row. The connection to your devices is fast and simple, and the software is reliable and responsive—I haven’t seen any bugs or issues yet. Ergatta doesn’t connect to ANT+ devices or Bluetooth devices requiring a pin, but the company is adding compatibility for those things in the future.
With a $29 monthly Ergatta membership, users have access to a range of workouts, from virtual races and interval workouts to preset training programs and mellow open row sessions. The service constantly recalibrates your fitness level and adjusts the workouts’ difficulty to accommodate your progress over time. You also can add an unlimited number of accounts per membership, so your entire household can get in on the action.
The first time I hopped on the rower, the tablet asked me set up an account and create my profile. I then completed a 2,000-meter diagnostic row, which took about 15 minutes. The software used this to calibrate my fitness profile. Ergatta uses this profile to set your effort level and the difficulty for the four “intensity zones” in future workouts. The zones consist of paddle (the easiest), steady, race, and sprint (the hardest). Every 10 workouts, the Ergatta software updates your profile, adjusting the next batch of workouts to your changing fitness levels.
The rowing itself is smooth, comfortable, and incredibly easy on the joints. After gaining 60 pounds in a stint of competitive powerlifting, my knees are not ready to start running again, and this was by far the easiest way for me to get a good cardio workout. My back and legs were tired after each session, and I wasn’t as sore as I thought I’d be. None of the sliding out of bed or icing my knees like I had when I started running again after months-long breaks. The cushy seat and slightly textured handle provide a solid grip and comfortable seating for long workouts, which is a damn sight better than sitting in a bike saddle for the same amount of time. The company claims that the rower can accommodate a human weighing up to 700 pounds and with a 40-inch inseam. So far, it’s held up to my 220 pounds and 30-inch inseam with aplomb.
If you have a partner sleeping in the next room, you'll appreciate the quietness of the water resistance system. It's much less noisy than rowers that rely on air resistance—more of a swish and gurgle instead of a fan's urgent whirring. It actually makes your workout area sound more like a spa with a water feature than a workout room (if your spa has a sweaty, bearded, tattooed guy wheezing in the fountain).
There are plenty of workouts on the platform, with Ergatta adding five or so new ones every week. The workouts themselves come in the form of virtual races, interval sprints, goal-based training programs, and a selection of games. The software tracks your elapsed and remaining times, estimated calories burned, power, distance, and splits. It also displays your heart rate if you have a monitor connected.
The virtual races pair you online with eight other Ergatta users of similar fitness levels and run you through a virtual course. As you race, you can see how far ahead (or behind) the competition you are, giving you an extra incentive to bump up your pace.
The courses aren’t accompanied by video of actual bodies of water. Instead, Ergatta opts for a digital track that measures your stroke visually and shows your location on the track; it’s similar to the way the map works in Mario Kart. After you finish, you can see how you fared against your opponents as well as how you ranked globally.
And that’s really the point: Ergatta wants your workouts to feel more like you’re playing a video game than actually working out. And it works amazingly, particularly the Meteor game. In Meteor, your avatar is a ball that's controlled by how hard and fast you row. The ball glides along a track with different levels, each corresponding to an intensity zone. As you run through the track, you have to raise or lower your onscreen avatar by rowing harder or softer to hit the different targets that appear. Each target you hit awards you points. After the game, you get to see how you rank against your opponents.
When I first played the game, I was so caught up trying to hit the targets that I didn’t realize I was working out until it was over. I was breathing hard and soaked in sweat, my legs were aching, and I was obsessed about the four targets I missed. I actually went back later that day for another workout so I could try to beat my last score. In fact, I just headed to the rower to fact-check the intensity zones and hopped on for a 10-minute Meteor session, where I beat my previous high score by 8 points. This pleases me.
This fits perfectly with Ergatta’s gaming-inspired programming. The races and game ranking systems aren’t designed to make you feel like you need to do better or to beat the other users around the world racing next to your avatar, but to give you goals to achieve and more motivation to throw on some shorts and go try to beat your high score.
And on days when you don’t feel like competing, there’s also an Open Row setting, where you pick a time or distance and row at your own pace. Watching the ball on the screen that represents my rowing rate drift up and down with my strokes, combined with the gentle swish of the water in the reservoir, was oddly soothing. It was the first time I’ve actually found cardio to be relaxing.
As an added piece of motivation, Ergatta also offers “push challenges” with an added philanthropic perk. For January, Ergatta released a push challenge that asks users to complete 15 workouts over the course of the month. For each person who completed all 15 workouts, Ergatta donated $5 to one of a changing selection of nonprofit organizations. It’s a clever motivational tool: On days when I didn’t feel like working out, I thought about the nonprofit, hopped on the rower, and went to work.
If you’re looking for a variety of workout options, this isn’t the system for you. Ergatta doesn’t offer any off-the-rower workouts, so everything you do will be on the rower itself. Also, there aren’t any coach-led classes, and you don’t get any instruction on your rowing form other than the short video. If you’re aiming to improve your rowing technique, you’re going to have to hit up YouTube.
At $2,199 plus $199 for shipping and installation, the Ergatta is priced on the higher end of at-home rowing machines, but if you have the funds, the eye-pleasing design and gaming-inspired programming are well worth the investment. This is especially true considering how rare it is to find workout equipment that you’d rather keep in your living room than hide away in your garage.
More importantly, the programming options are the most fun I’ve seen to date on any workout device. If you’re not an intrinsically motivated person when it comes to fitness, this is key. Rather than forcing myself to wake up early and get my workout in, I found myself taking breaks in the middle of the day to go “play” on my rower.
Getting a piece of equipment for home workouts is the easy part. Actually getting on it and doing the work is the real challenge. With the low-impact, mid- to high-intensity workouts and gaming-inspired motivational tools, Ergatta has actually made fitness feel more like recess than phys ed class.
Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting plowed over by a speedboat.