The Science Behind the Skillrow

Technogym explains all at the 2018 World Rowing Sports Medicine, Science and Coaches Conference in Berlin

5 minute read
Words & Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 20.12.18

Technogym, one of the top brands in technologies and digital services for fitness, sport and health, has recently brought a new edge to the competition in rowing machines with its new indoor ‘Skillrow’. With innovative features such as ‘Aquafeel’, ‘Multidrive’ and a fully connected monitor and mobile app, the Skillrow has steadily built up interest among competitive rowers around the world, even featuring in the athlete warm-up area at both Henley Royal Regatta and the World Rowing Championships this summer. 

Photo Skillrow at the 2018 World Rowing Championships, Plovdiv Bulgaria
Credit Benedict Tufnell

Technogym is renowned for its heavy investment in research and innovation, with more than 150 engineers working within their R&D department. ‘Aquafeel’ – which comes closer than traditional ergometers to mimicking the natural curve of the stroke in the water – is just one resulting innovation brought to the rapidly growing indoor rowing market.

This November Technogym was invited to speak at the World Rowing Sports Medicine, Science and Coaches Conference about their latest product. Nearly 300 delegates from many of the world’s rowing federations attended the conference, where they were able to hear more about exactly how the research has been conducted at Technogym’s Health and Performance Research Laboratory in Italy. 

Speaking to national team coaches, the Technogym delegates explained that when the Skillrow concept began over two years ago, their initial task was to gather as much information as possible from some of the world’s best rowers. 

Their team spent time visiting rowing clubs and invited Italian national team rowers including world champion Bruno Rosetti to take part in tests at the Technogym lab. In line with its positioning as the reference brand for the Olympic movement – Technogym has been Official Supplier to the last seven Olympic Games – the company continues to work closely with Olympic medallists including Rio men’s eights gold medallist Scott Durant from Great Britain and Italian Olympic rowers Marcello Miani and Rossano Galtarossa. Together they conducted a major analysis both of what elite rowers required from a world-class rowing machine and key areas where they could improve on what was already available. 

“For more than a century,” a Technogym representative explained, “rowing machines have been used as a means of exercise and have come to be the most popular training tool for competitive rowers. However, as demonstrated, for example in a scientific paper published by world renowned rowing bio-mechanist Valery Kleshnev, there was actually little comparison between the kinetics of existing indoor rowing machines available at the time and actual rowing on water.” 

Kleshnev’s research showed the resistance curve provided by popular rowing machines was very different to that experienced during an actual ‘on-water’ rowing stroke. Resistance was irregular through the stroke, whereas rowing on the water provided a more consistent resistance from start to finish of the stroke. 

Photo Valent Sinković warms up on a Skillrow in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Credit Benedict Tufnell

Another study titled, ‘A kinematic comparison of ergometer and on-water rowing’ published in 1989 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, drew similar conclusions. It cited ‘delayed handle forces developed at the catch’ – often referred to as catch-slip – and a ‘lack of resistance at the end of the drive phase’ – also known as finish-slip – as one of the key problems in modern rowing machines.

It was these shortcomings in existing products that spurred Technogym on to develop the patented ‘Aquafeel’ technology in the Skillrow. 

Technogym explained that there had been two phases to this process. “The first was to engineer an innovative resistance mechanism that could better mimic the on-water feel. The second phase was to test and validate it until we were happy that we had achieved what we wanted. We performed extensive tests, comparing bio-mechanical parameters and oxygen uptake.” 

After a lengthy process of prototyping, testing and refining their work in conjunction with professional athletes and researchers at the leading Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University in the UK, Technogym finally felt they had a machine that provided exactly the same metabolic load as the leading competitors’ products. Beyond this it offered an improved resistance curve through its meticulous recreation of the dynamics of the oar when rowing on water. 

They also deployed accelerometers and EMG [electromyography] sensors to measure muscle contraction, testing the load on the lower back of rowers while using the machine. The sensors confirmed that, thanks to the smoother resistance curve, rowers experienced less lower back strain while using the Skillrow and therefore have a lower injury risk. 

Their final and most vital stage of testing was to ensure the accuracy between machines. This was a particularly important point for coaches, who require extremely accurate machines to test their athletes’ comparative strength when selecting their strongest crews for competition. 

To validate the accuracy of the Skillrow, Technogym’s engineers built robots to row the machines. With the robots repeating a series of identical, timed pieces, early tests found the machines demonstrated superior accuracy, with a standard deviation of less than 1.5% of total power output.

As well as having improved accuracy and feel, the Skillrow offers impressive UI [user interface] features. It’s fully connected via WiFi, Bluetooth and Ant+ connectivity to both the Skillrow mobile app and Skillrow professional app. These should prove particularly useful for coaches wanting to chart and keep track of their athletes’ performances over time. 

Perhaps of most interest to the coaches at the conference, however, was the connected racing technology developed for the Skillrow. Here Technogym has developed a clever scientific formula that uses real rowing dynamics to translate performances on the machine into equivalent on-water times for different boat categories. To date this technology is unmatched elsewhere in the indoor rowing sector, but it goes further by calculating the level of synchronisation between rowers racing on connected Skillrow machines and adjusts their scores accordingly. 

Excitingly this means that, just like in real rowing, the more synchronised the crew are in their application of power through the rowing stroke, the faster they will go. Synchronisation is measured on the Skillrow by measuring both catch timing and peak force of each rower and then calculating an average for the crew. The Skillrow monitor then tells each individual how well they are synchronised with the rest of their crew. As in a real rowing boat, an out of sync crew will be slower than a synchronised crew when racing on the Skillrow machines. 

By the end of the presentation, the coaches were clearly impressed. The Skillrow represents a significant jump in technology that many would say is long overdue. While rowing is notoriously slow to adopt new products, the Italian national team – currently one of the best in the world according to the overall medal tally at the last two world championships – are already training on the Skillrow. With the myriad features and extensive research behind it, it may be just a matter of time before many more national teams follow suit.