The Best Rowing Machines
We picked the brains of rowing coaches, fitness experts, and physical therapists to learn what features make for an exceptional rower. Based on their input, we searched the market for air and water resistance rowing machines, then tested the best for ride-feel and design. We found one model of each type — air resistance and water resistance — that felt truly superior to the others.
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The 2 Best Rowing Machines
The Best Rowing Machines: Summed Up
Concept 2 D
Sits slightly lower than model E
Why we chose it
Smooth and steady
WaterRowers couple the density of liquid resistance with comfortable dimensions and a slick sliding seat; together these help the user fall into a soothing rowing cadence. The WaterRower Classic made us feel both relaxed and accomplished: You’re not just getting a workout, you’re moving a boat through still waters.
The dense resistance of water creates substantial drag, but on the WaterRower models, this is perfectly tempered by a whippy cord. It coils and recoils with such steady speed that one tester noted how the Classic “eats the rope back up on recovery.” This smooth agility helps balance out the impact of encountering slow water at the start of every stroke.
The ride feel on the WaterRower Classic and the larger, commercial-grade M1 HiRise are effectively equal. We found that the Classic, whose all-wood body is the manufacturer’s signature, offers the best of water resistance for the best price ($300 less than the HiRise and the most modestly priced of all the wood models we considered).
There’s no denying that part of what charmed us with the WaterRower is its classic, dark wood appearance. It’s a sleek design that we’d be happy to keep front-and-center in a home gym.
Points to consider
Adjusting the water level is difficult: Balance the bucket above the water tank, insert the included siphon pump into the opening, and squeeze the empty chamber like a stress ball, depositing a half cup or so at a time. We’re grateful that, thanks to water purification tablets, you only need to change the water every 6 months.
How We Chose the Best Rowing Machines
Air or water resistance
A rowing machine unites low-impact cardio and strength training; this unique blend of aerobic and anaerobic is best accomplished by air or water resistance. These elements’ response to external force is only as powerful as that force, requiring you to recalibrate effort with every row.
Fitness expert and author of 25 Days, Drew Logan, explained that generating your own momentum “gives a more intense workout that results in ‘zig-zag metabolism.’” Those bursts of energy that start every stroke increase the calorie burn and keep it up, even after your workout ends.
There are two other types of resistance available: hydraulic and magnetic. While they’re typically cheaper, neither allows for rowing’s greatest fitness benefits by separating intensity from effort. The experts we consulted came down hard on the importance of working against self-driven resistance.
The overall rowing experience encompasses pulley, seat, and — of course — resistance. Air and water have very distinct qualities, making them impossible to compare but interesting to contrast. Air stores inertia, which feeds into intense, constant effort during a goal-oriented workout. Water’s more sluggish drag makes for demanding exercise, but one that’s less consistent.
Outside of resistance type, we found the number-one arbiter of ride feel to be cord quality. Water ergometers tend to employ nylon cords, while air ergometers feature metal chains — a durability factor we anticipated would result in our favoring air. But while all three water rowers aced our expectation of smooth, high-tension strokes, perfecting the chain seems to be more difficult: Some tug with just a slight rumble, others feature bouncy, grinding chains that are incredibly loud, something akin to angry snoring. As for nylon, the best wind and unwind like elastic silk — no slack, no sound, no catching, just perfectly even tension throughout the stroke.
Adjustability & comfort
Your rower should be easy to manipulate so it’s comfortable for your particular body type and fitness level. That breaks down to four factors:
- Seat: A molded, cushioned seat makes long rowing sessions bearable.
- Handles: They should be easy-to-grip and shaped so that it’s easy to keep a natural elbow height through the stroke.
- Foot pedals and straps: Foot pads with visible pegs for adjustments are preferable to adjustment devices that require blind guessing. And we wanted separate belts for each foot, rather than a single strap that requires users to figure out how much slack they’ll need for both feet at once.
- Easy resistance adjustments: This is primarily a factor for air resistance. Air rowers feature practically identical rotating levers that can be moved with a finger. For water rowers, it’s rare to find a machine that varies resistance without hauling out a bucket.
The only piece of technology on air or water rowers — the monitor — helps you track your power output. We looked for monitors that provide a full gamut of useful metrics, like strokes per minute and 500m time, on an easy-to-read display with sharp contrast, crisp numbers, and well-spaced characters.
A rowing machine’s streamlined design should require minimal upkeep, but we also wanted a warranty long enough for any manufacturing flaws to come to light — a minimum two years for parts. Anything shorter than that would make us question the quality of the construction.
A rowing machine makes a great talking piece, but we’re guessing you won’t always want it front and center. We looked for rowing machines that can either be stored vertically or separated into two pieces with ease.
How to Find the Right Rowing Machine for You
Know your budget
A safe and effective rowing workout demands a quality machine; any structural tweaks that make it cheaper also make it unsound. If spending $1,000 is outside your price range, your best bet may be going with a different kind of machine. There are great cheap ellipticals and exercise bikes that can provide good workouts at a more manageable price.
Decide on resistance type
If you’re interested in using a rowing machine for focused training — whether for outdoor rowing, an indoor competition, or as part of a larger fitness program — you’ll want air resistance. If you’re drawn to rowers for the enjoyability (alongside the full-body, cardio-plus-strength training efficacy) of a rowing workout, consider a machine with water resistance.
Take a look at your space
Where will you store your rowing machine when you aren’t using it? If the answer is a closet, you’ll probably want one that stores vertically. If you’re leaving it out in the open, our WaterRower pick is an especially attractive option that you won’t mind guests seeing.
Hone your technique
Before you start in on your new machine, be sure you know how to row safely. Coach Greg Hughes recommends the training videos made by Concept 2 as well as one featuring a pair of Olympic rowers (filmed on his own turf — the Princeton boathouse).
Rowing Machine FAQ
What’s an ergometer?
An ergometer is technically an instrument for measuring work or energy. It’s also what outdoor rowers call indoor rowing machines. Because rowers use ergs as a standardized method of measuring athletic ability, the name is pretty literal.
What’s the proper rowing technique?
Every stroke consists of four distinct stages, which should meld into a seamless, repeating cycle:
- Catch: Back upright, knees bent, shins vertical, level arms
- Drive: Extend legs, engage core, lever body back
- Finish: Legs at full extension, shoulders slightly behind pelvis, hands at chest
- Recovery: Slide back to initial position by reversing the steps above
The proper ratio of effort is about 75 percent lower body and 25 percent upper body. Ensure you’re hitting that by driving through your legs and keeping your hands relaxed. Posture plays a big part, too. Concept 2 recommends imagining your upright profile at noon and tilting from the 11 o’clock position (drive) to the 1 o’clock position (recovery).
How beneficial is rowing compared to other types of workouts?
Compared to other forms of in-home workout machines, like an elliptical or treadmill, a rowing machine offers a better chance to gain muscle strength while working more muscle groups than the other options. A rower also provides a low impact workout that is easy on the joints, like an elliptical, but unlike a treadmill. A rowing machine will burn more calories in an hour than an elliptical (but not by much), but a treadmill will burn more calories per hour than a rowing machine (unless you’re rowing like the Winklevoss twins).
What muscles does a rowing machine work?
A rowing machine provides a full-body workout, meaning both the upper and lower body are exercised. Executing proper technique while rowing will exercise the upper and lower back, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes (buttox), triceps, biceps, forearms, chest, abs, and shoulders– pretty much everywhere.
Can I compete on my indoor rower?
Yes! The mother of indoor rowing competitions is the CRASH-B Sprints, held annually in Boston. The Charles River All-Star Has-Beens started when the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in 1980 — during the same era that Concept 2 launched their Model A; necessity met opportunity. CRASH-B is still held with aplomb and doesn’t require any special qualification of its applicants.
How long does a rowing machine last?
There are two factors that determine the lifespan of a rowing machine: how it was built and how often it is used. High-quality machines cost more but should last longer than ten years, while machines that are more affordable won’t last as long because they are likely made of cheaper materials. Just the same, a machine that is used daily will wear and tear quicker than a machine that is used less frequently.
Our Other Fitness Reviews
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