How to Use the Dragon Boat Erg for Maximum Performance

The erg (some countries call it ergo, or perg, short for paddle erg), whether it is on a Kayak Pro or modified Concept 2, provides a great way to train in a paddling-specific way when training outside isn’t favourable, such as during the off-season when it may get too cold.

Additionally, many teams use it to test individual fitness and base a significant portion of their rostering decisions on these results.

If you've wondering how to best use the erg for maximum performance, look no further! Our guide will show you how to best use the erg for dragon boat training, as well as demonstrate some of the pros and cons.

Table of Contents

Key Factors to Consider Before You Use the Erg

Apex Paddle Erg Cup | Afterburn Toronto

If you’ve used it for any length of time, you may have seen some people use… interesting technique while paddling on the erg.

Technique you know that wouldn’t be good to use on the water, and yet the people you see using it may in fact get very good results on the erg.

You may have thought… is there a difference between on-water dragon boat technique and erging technique?

Is there a difference? Should there be a difference?

Well, the fact of the matter is this: fast paddling and fast erging require different techniques.

If you're not careful, you may end up developing some bad habits that while may help you erg faster, it will actually hinder your performance on the water.

Here's a breakdown of some of the differences as well as some bad habits to watch out for.

Differences Between Real Dragon Boating and Erging 

1. The water (or lack thereof when erging)

Paddling is, first and foremost, fundamentally about grabbing the water with the blade and pulling yourself, and the boat, forward as fast as possible. Erging is about how fast you can extend the rope backwards, which causes the fan wheel to spin.

In essence—paddling is about moving yourself forward, whereas erging is about moving something else backwards. The paddle won’t slip or lose connection as long as the rope remains attached to the shaft.

There’s no need to worry about splashing or ripping water at the catch. Simply reach forwards and crank.

Moreover, with no water, this greatly reduces the need to hinge down to get the blade buried. You can take advantage of this by being more upright and extending the length of the erg shaft so that the section underneath the bottom hand connecting to the rope is long enough to reach the start of the stroke while remaining upright. This can have huge effects on how you move during the pull.

2. The blade angle

In the water, the angle of the blade affects how much force gets transferred into forward movement, with the optimal transfer being right when the blade is neutral or directly perpendicular to the water.

Less force gets transferred the more you stray away from neutral, whether the angle gets positive or negative.

Moreover, you need to make sure the blade catches at a slightly positive angle in order to effectively connect with the water.

This means that you need to be careful about not changing the blade angle too drastically or quickly. The top hand and top elbow must stay locked and applying force down the shaft to prevent it from “punching” forward. It also means you can’t pull too far back or else the angle will get too negative.

For erging, the angle of the shaft doesn’t affect how much force will be transferred into backwards movement of the rope.

The top hand can be drawn into the face to get a few extra inches of reach. Then it can punch a bit forward at the beginning of the stroke, which will help pull the bottom of the shaft backwards. And then, at the back of the stroke, the top hand can be drawn in towards the body to further push the paddle back. It’s not uncommon to see people finishing their stroke with the paddle almost parallel to the ground.

You can also afford to pull much further back on the erg, taking advantage of pulling as much distance as possible each stroke.

3. The athlete's bodyweight

A heavier athlete, everything else being equal, will be able to produce more force than a lighter one. That’s why there are weight categories in many sports like weightlifting and martial arts.

But for paddling, the advantage of producing more force is offset by the fact that the athlete will also have to pull more mass forward each stroke.

Moreover, even though a heavier paddler will have more inertia, and thus more glide between strokes, a heavier boat will sink deeper into the water, increasing the wetted surface area of the boat which produces more friction for the paddler to overcome.

So, the paddler needs to find the optimal balance between being as strong as possible while also being as light as possible.

For erging, none of these principles apply. It’s better to be as strong and as heavy as possible. This is why the 100m rowing erg world record is held by Brian Shaw, a 400+ lbs. strongman competitor. I’d like to imagine what kind of damage he could do on a paddle erg!


That being said, there are still many key aspects of both paddling and erg technique that are true to both. The sequencing of the legs, hips, core, upper body and hands during the pull phase is very important to achieve maximum power and efficiency on the erg shaft, just as it is with paddling.

A good pull/recovery ratio is also important from a physiological point of view. You need to recover between strokes to avoid crashing too early. And you will perform better when you are in rhythm.

How to Approach Erg Training

Being competitive means that your training should always be directed at producing the best desired outcome in line with your goals. Everything else is secondary or supplementary to those goals.

If you are a paddler, your goal will be to paddle a boat as fast as possible. This means you should try to erg with paddling technique as close as possible to real technique. Why? Because then you will know if you are actually getting faster or not.

If you start developing bad habits on the erg but your splits are going down, how will you know if you are truly paddling faster—or if you’re simply “erging” faster? You need to maintain some standard quality of movement in order to compare present results to past results. Otherwise, those gains you made on the erg will not transfer onto the water, where you will not be able to rely on those bad habits.

If you’re a coach, and you care about making sure your athletes benefit as much as possible from erging, consider taking measures to reduce the bad habits that can occur. As much as we can tell our athletes to just “paddle the same as you do on water”, athletes will always, consciously or unconsciously, do anything they can to get away with faster times... even if it means degrading their paddling technique.

Here are some things you can do to mitigate bad habits that arise from erging:

  • Implement a barrier behind your paddlers to prevent them from pulling too far.
  • Force your paddlers to use the same leg positioning as you do in a boat—if you paddle with 1 foot back, then erg with 1 foot back and vice versa.
  • Use a weight adjustment formula so you can compare heavier athletes to lighter ones. Lighter paddlers can be just as good as heavier ones!
  • Take the screw out of the erg arm and let it float freely—this forces people to think about not skying too high, and about being a bit more deliberate at the catch.
  • Don’t let your paddlers lengthen the erg shaft beyond a reasonable length. Paddlers need to learn how to extend from the waist to reach the catch.
  • Monitor how your athletes erg, and let them know that the more they use bad habits, the less valuable their scores are. Rostering an individual with a 2:00/500m done with very good paddling technique might be favourable over someone who uses "erg technique" to pull a 1:57/500m, all other factors being equal.

That being said, if it’s fast erg technique you’re looking for, then consider adopting the so-called "bad habits" and use them to your advantage. After all, you won’t get bonus points at an erg competition for looking pretty!

Looking for the best dragon boat gear? Check out our selection of paddles, seat pads and anything else you need here!


1. What is the primary difference between on-water dragon boating and erging?

A: On-water paddling focuses on moving yourself and the boat forward by effectively grabbing the water with the paddle blade. In contrast, erging is about how fast you can extend the rope backwards to spin the fan wheel, emphasizing moving something else backwards.

2. How does the absence of water affect erging technique?

A: Without water, the need to hinge down to get the blade buried is greatly reduced. You can be more upright and extend the length of the erg shaft for better efficiency during the pull.

3. Does the blade angle matter in erging as it does in dragon boating?

A: In dragon boating, blade angle is crucial for force transfer into forward movement. However, in erging, the angle of the shaft doesn't significantly impact force transfer, allowing for more flexibility in top hand movement and stroke finish.

4. How does an athlete's body weight influence performance in both sports?

A: In dragon boating, a heavier athlete must pull more mass, balancing the advantage of producing more force. In erging, being stronger and heavier is generally more advantageous, as these principles don't apply.

5. Should I use the same technique on the erg as in a dragon boat?

A: While some key aspects of technique are similar, adapting your technique for the erg can prevent the development of bad habits that might hinder on-water performance. It's important to maintain quality movement standards for effective training transfer.

6. What are some strategies to avoid bad habits while erging?

A: Coaches can implement various methods like setting a barrier to limit stroke length, adjusting erg setup to mimic in-boat leg positioning, and using a weight adjustment formula for fairer athlete comparisons. Ensuring athletes maintain good technique during erg sessions is crucial.

7. Can erg training effectively improve my dragon boating performance?

A: Yes, erg training can be highly effective if approached correctly. It should complement on-water training, focusing on maintaining good paddling technique and rhythm, which translates to improved water performance.

8. Is it beneficial to adopt 'bad habits' for erg competitions?

A: If your primary goal is to excel in erg competitions, adapting your technique to exploit erg-specific efficiencies can be beneficial. However, be aware that these adaptations might not translate well to on-water performance.

9. How important is the pull/recovery ratio in erg training?

A: A good pull/recovery ratio is crucial for maximizing power and efficiency on the erg, similar to paddling. It helps in maintaining rhythm and avoiding early fatigue, leading to better overall performance.

10. Can erg training be used for team roster decisions?

A: Yes, many teams use erg tests to assess individual fitness levels and make rostering decisions. It provides a controlled environment to evaluate athletes' strength, endurance, and technique consistency.

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