The 30-Second Review

The best rowing machine provides true-to-water feel, with sensorial feedback on every stroke to ensure proper technique. 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 liked most of them, but two models stood out.

Best for Training

Whether you’re serious about rowing in particular or training in general, experts recommend the Concept 2 unequivocally, and so do we. The dense resistance quality and seamless ride are second to none — when we rowed our fastest and hardest, this machine gave us the most consistency. Models D and E are practically identical, which is why we suggest the $200 cheaper D model.

Best Rowing Experience

The WaterRower Classic provides intense yet comfortable resistance, and every stroke creates a soothing splash. While the resistance proved less consistent at higher intensities, we couldn’t get enough of rowing on this machine, continuing to jump on even after our testing was complete. Made of handsome black walnut, this is one piece of equipment you won’t want to hide in the closet.

The Best Rowing Machine

We found six excellent rowing machines, and all but one provide silky smooth, even, full-body work. The resistance element itself — air or water — undoubtedly has the biggest impact on ride feel, but it’s an apple to oranges comparison.

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. The Concept 2 D ($900) is the professional option, with standardized, easy-to-adjust intensity levels and advanced programming. It’s so simple that it can be assembled in 20 minutes with about four screws, yet is unshakably sturdy and provides predictable drag no matter how hard you’re rowing. That reliability is important for long training sessions or measuring personal bests.

If you’re drawn to rowers for the enjoyability (alongside the full-body, cardio-plus-strength training efficacy) of a rowing workout, water resistance will keep you coming back for more. The splashing water tank creates a soothing soundtrack for your workout as well as concentrated drag, making for ride experience equal parts engaging and challenging. The all-wood WaterRower Classic ($1,495) strikes this balance best. A wave-crashing workout is better for rowing goals that are more casual than competitive, as consistent effort is more difficult to achieve, plus the only way to change resistance is by manually adjusting water volume, but it’s truly an exquisite machine.

Air and water rowers tend toward the pricey side, but experienced users argue that you’re looking at a superior workout and a lifelong investment compared to lower quality, mechanical resistance models. These durable makes are nearly impossible to bust, easy to store, and might just crack the code for perfect total-body exercise.

Our Picks for Best Rowing Machine

Best for Training

Concept 2 DConcept 2 makes a great rowing machine, and with the model D you get its superb, standardized ride for the best price.

When we reached out to pro rowers and Division 1 rowing coaches, we heard a constant refrain: Concept 2 is the only serious rowing machine on the market. Coach Hughes didn’t mince words — “It’s pretty incredible. Virtually indestructible. We have about 100 in our boat house and they’re used 4-6 hours per day.” C2s are rugged enough for near-constant use, and we felt that tireless reliability in action, starting with how well they respond to user effort.

The history of an idea.Concept 2’s first ergometer was built with a repurposed bicycle tire, a wooden handle, and an odometer. The company produced the Model A between 1981-1986, and, amazingly, still serves up replacement parts.

No matter the resistance we set or the power we applied, the machine remains sturdy, centered, and even. We amped up the intensity for 2000m sprints and found that the C2 supports consistent effort in a way water resistance can’t. The machine assists in keeping your intensity uniform, because it stores up remaining energy in the spinning flywheel.

But rowing on the C2 doesn’t just differ from water resistance. Testers had a lot to say about the bouncy, grinding chain action on the Slider Dynamic (the only other air rower we considered), but comments about the ride feel of both Concept 2s were noticeably brief. As one tester put it, “It’s unremarkable because it’s good,” leaving you free to focus on the effort you’re putting into your workout.

Concept 2 Models for Rowing Machine

L: Model D. R: The taller model E.

Its simple specs belie a ride that’s both impactful and somehow effortless. The smooth, almost silent row is made possible by a polished track and consistently taut chain. The fan creates noticeable wind, but even at high speeds the sound is as easy to tune out as air conditioning or white noise.

C2s are also standardized. While variables like humidity can have modest effects on the flywheel, every model functions exactly the same. That’s why they're used to compare competitive rowers off the water. While at-home rowers may not be so concerned with a standardized erg score, we did note a couple of other benefits to C2’s consistency:

First, the foot pedals adjust to numbered levels with easy snap positioning, making it easy to know your ideal foot position and get back to it quickly, in case someone else has changed the position. And predictable resistance levels mean you can accurately match your workouts to online fitness programs, and chart your progress in a translatable way.

Foot Rests for Rowing Machine

On theme with C2’s interchangeability, models D or E are essentially the same machine. When we talk about one we’re talking about both. The E is just 8 pounds heavier but is made out of stronger stuff all around — what’s plastic on the model D is aluminium on the model E, and what’s aluminum on the model D is welded steel on the model E. The only noticeable variations are seat height and display position. The model E’s seat stands 6 inches higher. And while the model D’s monitor rests on an adjustable arm, the E’s sits on unbending metal. These few technical differences do nothing to impact ride feel. We recommend the $200-cheaper model D as the best buy, but the Concept 2 E will appeal to anyone who values a higher entry point.

Concept 2 Comparison for Rowing Machine

The model E (R) sits higher off the ground, making it slightly easier to mount or dismount. Otherwise, these two machines were practically identical.

Best Rowing Experience

WaterRower ClassicA beautifully understated machine, with simple, natural functionality that's good for the the body and easy on the eyes.

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 purposeful: You’re not just getting a workout, you’re moving a boat through still waters.

Adjusting water level is hard work.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. Thanks to water purification tablets, you only need to change the water every 6 months.

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 admiringly 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. Water’s tendency to lose energy quickly is one of the reasons it failed to give a steady ride when we increased speed. But by comparison, the rickety strap on the First Degree Fitness didn’t help to offset the substantial water drag at all.

Water-Rower-Cord-for-Rowing-Machine

The Classic's nylon cord moves quickly with each drive and recovery, leading to a smooth overall motion.

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). As was the case with Concept 2, differentiating the two comes down primarily to height. On the taller model, lowering yourself to the seat is more comfortable, plus you feel less compacted on the recovery.

If an easy-access seat and more upright bearing are important to your comfort, we love the HiRise. Opting for that model does mean replacing the attractive wood with more clinical aluminium, but, on the plus side, it’s very lightweight and easy to move. One ride feel negative on the HiRise: The tiny wheels on the seat hit a screw about midway on the rail, creating a gritty sensation on every drive. The rail design on the Classic avoids this lurch, leaving us with an impeccable slide front to back.

Although we loved the look and feel of the WaterRower Classic, we could see why the Concept 2 is a better machine for training and intense rowing. In fact, when we brought up water rowers to Coach Gladstone, he guffawed. For functionality, he claimed, they’re purposeless. Though he admitted that the beautiful woodwork and quiet sloshes are a draw, musing, “It’s aesthetically made.” But trainer Drew Logan suggested that water rowers offer a more realistic rowing feel — you’re moving a volume of water, after all, just like you would be propelling a rowing shell. By the time we had completed testing, we found that there’s a lot more to water rowers than meets the eye. WaterRowers (as the name suggests) has a firm grasp on what makes its resistance type great.

WaterRower for Rowing Machine

In addition to offering an exceptional rowing experience, the WaterRower Classic offers a more polished look than other rowers.

WaterRower, we have to share, is also famous for its appearance on the political drama "House of Cards." One Amazon customer asked if this model could help him, too, plot a presidential scandal. We don’t think it could hurt.

Slow your row.

Coach Gladstone wasn’t coy about the excellence of a rowing workout (“There’s absolutely nothing better”), but added that you have to know what you’re doing. Whether you practice technique with a trainer or learn by studiously watching YouTube videos, it’s critical that you get the hang of rowing coordination to ensure that what can be the best full-body workout is, in fact, the best full-body workout. 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).

You may need to unlearn CrossFit.Rowing machines have gained a lot of modern-day popularity with their use in CrossFit, but the rowing coaches we spoke with stressed that timed use of rowing machines can quickly lead to improper use. Coach Greg Hughes put it delicately: “Crossfitters have a lot of interesting ideas about rowing.” Technique should trump speed, every time.

Every stroke consists of four distinct stages, but they should meld into a seamless, repeating cycle.

Drive
Catch: Back upright, knees bent, shins vertical, level arms
Drive: Extend legs, engage core, lever body back

Recover
Finish: Legs at full extension, shoulders slightly behind pelvis, hands at chest
Recovery: Slide back to initial position by reversing the steps above.

Correct technique focuses on the thighs, rather than the arms and back: The proper ratio of effort is about 75% lower body and 25% upper body. Ensure you’re hitting those proportions by driving through your legs and keeping your hands relaxed on the handle.

A big part of technique is posture. Tutorials on the Concept 2 website recommend imagining your upright profile at high noon and then tilting from the 11 o’clock position to the 1 o’clock position as you move from drive to recovery. We also heard a mere 5 degree bend front and back will do the trick. In either case, the back moves a lot less than you’d think.

Did You Know?

Get competitive with rowing, no boat necessary.

Indoor rowing is traditionally seen as an off-season tool for outdoor rowers, but since the 1980s, indoor rowing competitions have brought the sport indoors. The only water: flying sweat. The mother of all indoor rowing competitions is the CRASH-B Sprints held annually in Boston, Mass. The Charles River All-Star Has-Beens started when the U.S. boycotted the Olympics back in 1980. That was the same era that Concept 2 came out with their Model A, and necessity met opportunity. CRASH-B, which called itself the World Championship up until 2017, continues to be held with aplomb, and doesn’t require any special qualification of its applicants.

Rowing machines were first used in Archaic Greece.

Chabrias, an Athenian military general in 4th Century B.C., invented wooden rowing simulators for his inexperienced oarsmen. This enabled them to learn technique and timing before stepping foot on actual water crafts. And it must have worked — Chabrias successfully led numerous naval attacks against the Spartans.

Rowing is the oldest intercollegiate sport in the US.

Rowing teams were established at Yale in 1843 and Harvard in 1844. The first Harvard-Yale Regatta occurred in 1852. The rowing rivalry between these colonial colleges predates even that of their football teams, and their iconic matchup in The Game, first played in 1875.

The Best Rowing Machine, Summed Up

Rowing Machine
The Best
Concept 2 D
For Training
WaterRower Classic
Rowing Experience