Concept2 SkiErg ($730 – $1105)
Summary: The Concept2 SkiErg is a revolutionary device that provides an excellent ski-specific upper body workout. It is ideal for testing and interval training, and definitely has the potential to make you a faster skier.
Pros: Highly ski-specific. Excellent simulation of poling motion. Advanced computer is excellent for testing, competing against other skiers, and recording workouts. Good value.
Cons: Relatively large, cheaper version must be wall mounted. Can cheat on tests by over-compressing. No single sticking. Not an inconsequential investment.
The Concept2 SkiErg was designed by the same people that brought the rowing and fitness community the Indoor Rower. Concept2 has turned their attention to skiing, and have produced a machine that could have a significant impact on ski training.
We tested the version that is equipped as a stand-alone unit and fitted with the Concept2 PM4 monitor. This is the more advanced of the two Performance Monitors from Concept2. While the Concept2 SkiErg is now available for purchase, our test model, received in April, is considered an advanced prototype. Some changes may have been made on the production model in areas ranging from graphics to the monitor software. The overall functionality should be the same however.
The SkiErg is solid and well-built. Longevity testing was outside the scope of this review, but with proper care, there does not appear to be any reason why the SkiErg shouldn’t hold up to years of use.
How Well Does it Work
The most important question is, “how well does it work?” The short answer is “very well.” In the past, it has been common to take a rowing ergometer, mount it on the wall, and jerry-rig some type of special handle and call it a double pole machine. While this provided the benefits of having a computer that could accurately measure a variety of data, this solution was less than optimal. The biggest issues revolved around the chain pull rope and the handle. The metal chain did not recoil in a manner conducive to proper ski technique, and the single chain with long handle was also a poor simulation.
Concept2 has addressed both of these issues, replacing the chain with a special double high-strength nylon cord. A ski pole style grip and strap is attached to both cords. The cords run through blocks at the top of the SkiErg, spacing the handles at an appropriate distance apart. The result is a machine that does a much better job at simulating double poling.
Skiing on the SkiErg
The handle and strap system is comfortable and easy to use. The handles are a hard plastic with a flare at the end to provide a platform to pull against. The straps are standard single loop ski pole straps that can be easily adjusted. I found the actual grip inconsequential – the flared end could prove useful, but experienced skiers will adjust the strap and pull mainly against that. It is possible to pole through and release the handles as you would a ski pole. The efficacy of this system is critical to a good double poling machine. As the grips are the only interface between the skier and the machine, it is critical that they feel as close to ski poles as possible. Concept2 has done a very good job on this front.
The actual feel of double poling on the machine is very good. The range of motion is excellent, allowing the skier to start poling in a hands-high position and pole all the way through, extending the hands beyond the hips. Once up to speed, the resistance is even and smooth and the recoil is not overly strong. You don’t want the recoil to vigorously pull your hands back up – in skiing, you need to bring your arms through yourself, and while there is some pull back, it is not disruptive to poling technique.
Resistance starts as soon as you start to pole, earlier then it would on skis. When initiating poling from a strong hands-high position on skis, there is obviously no resistance until the poles hit the ground. On the SkiErg, you pull against the flywheel immediately. Overall I didn’t find this a significant issue. It certainly doesn’t hurt to build strength in the high part of the motion, and while it does feel a little odd at first, I stopped noticing after a few minutes. I had a number of other people try the SkiErg, and this was usually the first thing they mentioned as a negative, but again, after poling for a bit, most had forgotten it.
It is possible to adjust the resistance on the flywheel using a simple baffle. The range of resistance is not quite as big as you find outdoors, but it is close. The hardest setting works well for short max effort bursts and the easiest is good for a warm-up and easy poling. Because of the nature of the flywheel setup (uses air resistance), resistance increases as you pull harder. This means that max effort of 10 reps will be challenging, but a more moderate effort at the same resistance setting will be manageable for a longer period of time. Additionally, you will never get too strong for the machine – there will always be a steeper hill to pole up.
Since the baffle is not precise – the amount of resistance will vary based on environmental factors and the specific machine, Concept2 allows you to view the actual resistance on the monitor. This means you can adjust the baffle to replicate a specific resistance. This is important for testing purposes.
So from a basic performance standpoint, the SkiErg gives an excellent double pole experience. It is important to note that while both handles move independently, the flywheel will not engage for single-sticking. This is a double pole only machine.
If you are a serious skier, having a machine that provides a strong ski-like experience is extremely valuable, but the SkiErg pushes the envelope in another important area – data collection. Why would coaches bother to mount a rowing erg on the wall when there are other double poling options available? The reason is the Performance Monitor. The on-board computer allows precise measurements and constant feedback during workouts. This makes the SkiErg an ideal testing machine and excellent for clubs and teams. The Performance Monitor also keeps you honest during workouts – there is no faking it – you know exactly how hard you are going at any point.
The Performance Monitor comes in two versions, the PM3 and the PM4. The PM4 is the more advanced version with additional features, but both provide the same general functionality.
The Performance Monitors are battery powered and turn on as soon as you start poling. You can also activate them using the keypad. This allows you to setup your workout in advance.
There are a number of options for creating workouts, in addition to the pre-programmed options. You can set a workout for a specific distance or time – say 10km or 45 minutes. I used this option to create a 1km test for example. You can also create an interval workout, specifying either distance or time. The most basic intervals allow you to set the interval time or distance and the recovery, as well as an optional pace skier. Each interval is the same. You can also create variable interval workouts with different lengths. This allows you to set a warm-up period. You could make your first interval 15 minutes with minimal rest and then set the following interval times to whatever workout you have planned.
The optional pace skier is a nice feature. If you have set a pace skier, a graphical display in the “Paceskier” view will show your progress in relation to your “pacer” during the workout. Basically you have someone to visually compete against. Since pace is not a commonly used metric in cross-country skiing, it may take a few workouts to figure out the appropriate setting for a pace skier.
There is another neat use of the pace skier – you can recall past workouts from memory and ski against your historic self. This is ideal when repeating tests.
The Performance Monitors measure time, distance, speed, pace, calories, watts, and optionally, heart rate. This information can be displayed in five different ways on the monitor screen. I found the most useful to be the “All Data” view, where you can get it all. I would focus on different numbers depending on the workout. If I was warming up for strength, I was really only interested in time skiing. Pace is very handy for intervals – with a little experience, I was able to determine what pace I should be skiing for various lengths of intervals. The constant feedback made it easy to lock it in. If I fell off the pace I knew it right away. This also makes working on pacing easy. If you are doing 4×4 minutes intervals, you can easily work on starting slowly on the first interval and accelerating throughout each interval and the workout as a whole. There is no excuse for going out too hard and blowing up.
The Performance Monitors also feature several games – with more options on the PM4 than on the PM3. These games are a fun distraction for fitness oriented skiers and for longer distance workouts. Several focus on maintaining a consistent pace – again, good for distance skiing.
Overall the Performance Monitor provides a wealth of data and options. At first I found it a little overwhelming. I have never used a rowing ergometer with any regularity and am not used to the choices on this type of machine. Initially I would just hop on and start poling. If I wanted to do intervals, I would just do them, focusing on the time display. But as I forced myself to explore the options, the power of the Performance Monitor became evident. All workouts are recorded on the included Log Card, meaning that it is easy to easily review your performance. The Performance Monitor can be set to take splits at varying intervals throughout a workout, so you can have even more to analyze. For instance, you can set splits for every thirty seconds of a four minute interval.
The Log Card can store up to five individual users, and additional Log Cards can be purchased from Concept2. This is ideal for teams or clubs that have many users.
This level of analysis and data has not been widely available in the cross-country ski world. Now it can literally be in your home. It is easy to get too caught up in numbers – the rowing focus on erg scores has always been somewhat distasteful to me. Ultimately it is about what you do on the ski trail, not what time you can pull on a machine. But the precision of workouts on the SkiErg and the opportunity for controlled testing makes the SkiErg a very useful tool. Sport has become more and more precise as technology has advanced. The SkiErg continues this trend and allows teams, clubs, and individuals greater access.
The Performance Monitor has several other important features worth mentioning. The PM4 comes with a Suunto heart rate transmitter. The PM4 will read the signal, and you can easily sync the two. Syncing is not automatic, but that is actually a good thing. If you are in a room with multiple athletes, this feature allows you to avoid picking up someone else’s monitor. The PM3 is not compatible with Suunto monitors, but both the PM3 and PM4 will work with Polar monitors through an optional accessory.
The PM4 also features wireless connectivity, and both can be hardwired for data. This allows a group of SkiErgs to be connected and for skiers to actually race each other. One user can create a race as a workout, and the others join.
The Performance Monitors can be connected to a computer for data download and software updates.
I was impressed with the ease of use of the Performance Monitors, especially given the number of options. The screen is easy to read and the menus are intuitive. Setting up workouts, connecting heart rate monitors and reviewing data were all simple. The monitor includes an extensive reference with full explanations of all options as well as the terminology used. This information is not contained in the users manual – a document focused on getting you started. I would like to have a PDF version of the monitor reference to read on my computer – and print out if necessary.
The SkiErg comes as a free-standing unit or ready for wall mounting. Wall mounting hardware comes standard and the floor stand is an extra $200 plus shipping. We tested the free-standing version, and the added convenience is very nice. It means you can place your SkiErg anywhere – outside on a nice day, in front of the TV, etc. It should be noted that this is a large machine. At nearly eight feet tall, it should not be considered portable. The floor-stand has two wheels that engage when the machine is tipped – allowing you to roll it around. But it will take two people to move it any distance. It isn’t the type of thing you can stick behind the couch when you are done with your workout. If you think wall mount is the way to go and are wrong, you can always order the stand after the fact.
The other major option is the Performance Monitor – either the PM3 or the PM4 . The PM4 runs an extra $150 – but you do get a Suunto heart rate transmitter (an $80 value) for free. The accessory to allow compatibility with Polar monitors costs $25. If you have a Polar monitor, or don’t need heart rate monitoring functionality, the PM3 is a good option. You lose the ability for direct machine-to-machine racing and a rechargeable battery, but for most people this will not be an issue. The main functions are available on both monitors.
The wall mounted SkiErg with PM3 and no heart rate monitor support is $730. The SkiErg with PM4 is $880. A free-standing unit with PM4 and Polar support will be $1105.
These prices compare very favorably with other double pole machines available in the US. Boulder Nordic Sport recently announced that it will sell two different models – the Ercolina Poling Machine for $975 and the Vasa Ergometer for $1,399.00. We have not had the opportunity to try either of these machines, so cannot comment on performance.
The SkiErg is ideal for teams. I can imagine it becoming a standard for collegiate programs for testing purposes and supplementary workouts. Time is a major issue for many scholar-athletes, so the ability to get a full interval workout in 30-40 minutes is a nice option on lab days or during the late fall when roller skiing may not be an option due to weather.
These advantages hold true for individuals as well. The convenience is a major feature. Maybe you have some time on a lunch break, or need to train in the early morning because of work and/or family. Roller skiing is great, but there is added time for preparation and travel. With the SkiErg, if you have 45 minutes, 40 of those can be spent training, and training very efficiently at that. If you are a Master skier who does not have access to good roller skiing, or is not proficient at that risky activity, the SkiErg will allow you to develop the specific upper body strength and endurance necessary to improve as a cross-country skier.
The SkiErg is also a great supplement for junior skiers. Many highschool age skiers run cross-country or play soccer in the fall. This often means a significant decrease in upper body strength. A SkiErg at the local club or High School could allow for a quick evening or morning workout to maintain the capabilities built up over the summer.
I do not, however, see the SkiErg as a primary training device. Some of that is personal – I would much rather be outdoors for training, and I think many skiers would agree, but in general, I don’t believe that training exclusively on this type of machine would be beneficial. Longer distance workouts would get painfully boring and do not engage important stabilizing muscles like roller skiing and running. The motion is highly repetitive – more so than roller skiing due to the lack of terrain – potentially increasing the chance for overuse injuries if you are not smart. On the flip side, the lack of impact on elbows and shoulders is a good thing.
But mixing the SkiErg in with your other training, using it for interval work when weather and time are an issue, power training, and strength training warm-ups is great. The ability to collect high quality data at a reasonable price is a nice addition to cross-country ski training in this country.
One cautionary note on the testing front – it is possible to “cheat” by substantially over-compressing and pulling with the legs to generate a better score. The best technique is not necessarily the fastest on the SkiErg. Athletes and coaches need to be vigilant to ensure good technique is being used. The benefit of this is that the extra focus required will help with technique awareness.
FasterSkier’s Buying Advice: The SkiErg is a great training tool for teams and individuals alike. If used properly, it has the potential to be a major aid in improving ski performance.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.