BRIGANTINE — In one smooth motion, Ed Rehill extends his arms, bends his knees and pulls himself up the track of the Concept2 rowing machine.
When he reaches the end of the track, he lifts his hands slightly, pushes back with his legs and pulls the handle of the rowing machine until he is back to where he started.
The 81-year-old president of the Brigantine Rowing Club still works out on one of the club’s 35 rowing machines five to six days each week for about 90 minutes at a time.
For Rehill and most rowers in South Jersey, the rowing machine is a crucial workout tool specifically designed for the sport. Athletes spend hours training on rowing machines each season to prepare for their races on the water.
“A lot of people say that they hate the erg. I enjoy the erg because, for me, it’s a means to an end as far as it helps build your strength and your conditioning,” Rehill said while unstrapping his feet and getting up from the machine.
With 42 years experience as a club volunteer and even more time spent as a rower, Rehill walks around the second floor of the boathouse explaining all he knows about the sport.
The Brigantine resident can even explain why rowers refer to rowing machines as “ergs.”
“The ergometer measures work, and it can measure it in different ways,” Rehill said.
Rehill, who helped start the Holy Spirit High School girls crew program in 1983 and still competes in masters races, says the workouts he and his rowers complete on the erg are unlike those of any other sport.
“Using a rowing machine is a total body workout because you’re using pretty much every muscle in your body,” Rehill said.
For the last 20 years with the Brigantine Rowing Club, Rehill has helped set up the Greenhead Sprints, a 2,000-meter erg contest open to all rowers in South Jersey. High school rowers make up the largest group of participants each year.
“The main reason the coaches like it for high school and for colleges, too, is because it kind of gives them an idea of where their crew is at as far as training and conditioning,” Rehill said.
Holy Spirit girls crew coach Joe Welsh has been with the program for 33 years and says he tests his rowers with 5,000-meter pieces, which take about 20 minutes, and 2,000-meter pieces, which are the standard erg tests for rowers.
“We look at 2,000 meters to give us a nice idea as to a kid’s toughness for one and what their potential is as far as that energy output and the power output,” Welsh said. “A 5,000-meter piece is more endurance that shows us aerobically that they are able to push a lower number or a lower split at that long distance.”
Welsh knows that most rowers have an aversion to the erg because it is physically and mentally demanding, but overall, he says, the erg is crucial for the sport.
“I think of it more as the only real tool that we have that emulates the actual stroke of the boat,” Welsh said. “It’s a necessary evil, to put it that way.”
Welsh’s younger brother, Dan, coaches the Egg Harbor Township girls team and shares the same sentiment about ergs.
“There’s getting in shape, and then there’s getting in shape for your sport,” Welsh said. “The erg itself is an incredibly useful machine because it gives us coaches the feedback we need to make our boats. It’s not 100 percent the erg score, but it gives you an idea of what kids are pulling.”
The most popular erg for rowers is the Concept2, which has a digital screen that offers a variety of information including stroke rate, 500 meter split time, watts, calories, distance and duration.
“For on-water athletes, the repeatable and comparable data from the performance monitor allows for comparisons between workouts and between athletes,” Meredith Breiland, spokesperson for Concept2, said via email. “Erg tests on the Concept2 Indoor Rower are often used to select athletes for competitive racing.”
While the information the erg provides is invaluable for coaches and rowers, Rehill said ergs are just one aspect of rowing.
“There’s a saying with the athletes and the coaches, ‘ergs don’t float,’ which means there’s a big difference from the erg to the water,” Rehill said. “But when you can’t get out on the water, the erg’s the next best thing for training.”