The Best Rowing Machine
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.
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.
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.
How We Found the Best Rowing Machine
Indoor rowing machines (a.k.a., ergometers) serve a specific purpose in the world of professional rowing: They allow for individualized, off-season training. But the same elements that make a rowing machine a great off-season workout for the pros also make it great any-season workout for the at-home exerciser.
ErgometerAn instrument for measuring work or energy. Also, what outdoor rowers call indoor rowing machines. Since rowers use ergs as a standardized method of measuring athletic ability, the name is pretty literal.
When we asked Stephen Gladstone, the Head Coach of the Yale Heavyweight Rowing Crew, his opinion on what makes a great erg, we expected to learn more about the benefits of different types of rowing machines. Instead, he told us: “I won’t waste your time. There’s one machine that’s head and shoulders above the rest: The Concept 2.”
Concept 2 produces the best-selling rowing machine in the world, the Concept 2 D. But we wanted to know: Do the characteristics that make C2s such a great choice for outdoor rowers translate to indoor rowing? In other words, do you have to be an athlete in order to appreciate a C2? According to Greg Hughes, Head Coach of Princeton Heavyweight Rowing, “Absolutely not.” It’s a rowing machine for the people.
With the backing of two renowned trainers (plus a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic rowing team), we knew the Concept 2 had to be an exceptional machine. But even though our experts were adamant about its quality, they couldn’t point us to the specific design or construction elements that made it so much better than the competition. So we dug into the product stats, aiming to uncover other, lesser-known machines boasting similar features that might compete with the Goliath of the rowing machine market.
We analyzed the Concept 2's design and searched for other machines with similar features.
The Concept 2’s engineering is straightforward: an adjustable air fan (allowing for enough resistance variation to mimic various boat and crew weights), an ergonomic seat and handle, a sturdy but portable body, an all-metal rail, and, finally, a simple, battery-powered display showing the essential stats (distance, time, pace, calories, watts). But it’s the resistance element that’s most important.
A rowing machine unites low-impact cardio and strength training in one workout, and this unique blend of aerobic and anaerobic is best accomplished by air or water resistance. Air and water's response to external force is only as powerful as that force. This symbiotic intensity results in fluctuations, requiring you to recalibrate effort with every row. Fitness expert and author of 25Days, 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 rowing machine resistance, hydraulic and magnetic, but our experts steered us away. While they're typically cheaper, neither hydraulic nor magnetic resistance 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 resistance that you create, not just endure.
The benefits of user-powered rowing machines leaves magnetic or hydraulic resistance in their wake. Our research surfaced that this isn’t just a superior workout, it’s also a safer one. Since rowing can easily result in back injuries, it helps to have a resistance type whose function and feel responds directly to your technique.
While no expert recommended water rowers with the same level of enthusiasm as they did air, we couldn’t come up with a reason water resistance should be disqualified, either in terms of workout quality or user safety. A 2006 sport biomechanics comparison of the Concept 2 and the WaterRower show that they allow for nearly the same muscular activity that had us pursuing air resistance. So when we cast a wide net for rowers that could claim the C2’s same stats, we included water rowers in our search. Even if they didn’t satisfy the strict needs of competitive rowers, they met our requirements for a safe, effective home-use machine.
Here are the features we looked for, in order of importance:
Smooth resistance that primarily depends on you. Variable resistance not only simulates the water factor of the outdoor sport, but also makes for a better workout thanks to the explosive muscle action it requires. This dynamic, body-powered movement is the biggest exercise benefit of using a rowing machine, so resistance type was by far the most important thing we considered, cutting out more than half the rowing machines out there.
Ergonomic for the human body; adjustable for yours. A molded, cushioned seat makes long rowing sessions bearable. Easy-to-grip handles do the same. We kept an eye out for both, and required adjustable foot pedals and straps.
A battery-powered monitor that provides useful, easy-to-read info. The only mechanical part of an air or water rower — 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.
Lasts a lifetime. 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.
Easy to store. 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 can be separated into two pieces with ease.
It’s worth noting that these standards are only fulfilled by high-quality ergometers, and they carry high price tags. We found that a safe and effective rowing machine workout demands a quality machine, and any structural tweaks that make it cheaper also make it unsound. If spending $1,000 on a rowing machine is simply 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. But it bears repeating: The rowers we recommend are unanimously reported to be life-long machines, providing enduring quality and unbeatable workouts with minimal maintenance. It’s an investment with returns.
Scouting the market with these wants in mind, we came up with six promising models from a market of around 200.
- Concept 2 Model D
- Concept 2 Model E
- First Degree Fitness Apollo Pro 2
- Water Rower Classic
- Water Rower M1 Hirise
- Water Rower Slider Dynamic
We tested 6 top ergs, almost identical on paper, to find which provides the best workout experience.
Coach Gladstone told us it was “patently absurd” for non-rowers to review rowing machines. So, before our select group of rowing machines made it into the office, we set about honing our practical skills and receiving an education in proper technique, eager to take our familiarity with ergs from casual to critical. We read up on proper alignment, watched tutorials, and enlisted the help of trainers to monitor our practice at the local gym. By the time the machines made it in, we were prepped to track our split time and stroke rate on set distance rows.
And that’s just what we did. We started out by getting a feel for the ride quality of each model with distance workouts. We paid attention to the smoothness of the strap as it winds and unwinds, the sensation of the seat sliding along the rails, and the relationship between human effort and machine resistance on every model.
Because this is the relationship that air and water resistance excel at, we held the ergs to a high standard of smooth, even intensity that responds closely to power output without creating any “dead spots” — times when the pulley goes slack.
We compared all the design elements impacting ride feel, from resistance type to cord material.
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: The first stroke on an air rower encounters a ton of resistance, but each stroke after that builds up momentum in the fan that compounds your effort. When you stop rowing you can hear the fan continue to whir. A water baffle isn’t as hard to get churning, but it also loses energy much more quickly. These qualities relate back to what we suggest are the best use-cases for both air and water. Air stores inertia and that feeds into your intense, constant effort during a goal-oriented workout. Water’s more sluggish drag makes for demanding exercise, but one that’s less able to support consistency. The ride feel is fantastic, but not efficient.
The volume of air or water moving against the baffles — the blades in the air fan or paddles in the water tank — simulates the weight of a boat and crew. To fairly judge all the rowers, we needed to ensure that the “weight” was comparable. We learned from pro rowers to stay inside the 3-4 damper range on the Concept 2, and made this mid-low level our standard across resistance types. We verified our estimates by gauging our perceived exertion while maintaining 24 strokes per minute.
Outside of resistance type, we found the No. 1 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. The C2’s tugs well, with just a slight rumble, but the Slider Dynamic’s bouncy, grinding chain was incredibly loud, something akin to angry snoring. As for nylon, the WaterRowers’ cord in particular winds and unwinds like elastic silk — no slack, no sound, no catching, just perfectly even tension throughout the stroke.
Despite design differences, most handles give the same calluses. One feature we expected to have impact — a handle that forms a downward-sloping curve rather than a strait line — actually didn’t score well with our testers. It makes it hard to keep a natural elbow height through the stroke. Slight curves like the kind that show up on the C2 are unnoticeable, but a substantial bend like First Degree Fitness’ scored low.
Most of our ergs offer first-class rowing. One exception: the Slider Dynamic. It’s the only rower we looked at that features a floating head, a relatively niche design type where the front of the machine, the air fan, is in motion rather than the seat. But the Slider Dynamic doubles up with a moving seat as well as moving head, and that proved too many points of motion for comfort. We had read a convincing study about how a floating head makes for a slightly more ergonomic rower, but our experience with this iteration pointed in the other direction. “It’s the first machine to make my knees hurt,” complained one tester. Another reported, “I was certain I was either going to fly off or lose an appendage.”
We examined the displays' usefulness and clarity.
A rowing machine display doesn’t impact your workout any more than keeping an eye on your fitness tracker. Because it can’t control intensity, the programming boils down to measurement. Essentially glorified stopwatches, they allow you to set goals for distance, calories, time, heart rate. Since these features are largely universal, what’s most important is display clarity.
The best show sharp contrast between digits and backlit screen, with crisp, smooth-edged numbers, well-spaced for clear reading. Concept 2 and WaterRower displays were clear and easy to read. First Degree Fitness’, however, had a dark screen and blocky, pixelated numbers, difficult to pick out with a quick glance. We also liked that Concept 2 and WaterRower’s displays advanced the meter count by single integers, while FDF credited 3-7 meters per stroke and left us in the dark about how it calculates that distance. The only display that didn’t blink to life when we started rowing (instead requiring manual start) appears on the unpopular Slider Dynamic.
We checked how easily we could adjust settings like resistance and foot position.
The ease of adjusting resistance primarily applies to air. Air rowers feature practically identical rotating levers that can be moved with a finger. Of the water rowers, only First Degree Fitness offers varying resistance without hauling out a bucket, but the dial that controls the water chambers is also located far forward, making mid-stroke adjustments nearly impossible. The monitor has a function for adjusting resistance, but we didn’t have any luck getting it to work.
An adjustment all rowers share: foot pedals. Sliding pads can be moved up and down on the tilted footrest. Ladderlock buckles tighten a strap over the ball of the foot. We prefer foot pads like those on the Concept 2 with visible pegs, versus ones like the WaterRower which require a little blind guessing. We also like a separate belt for each foot, rather than having to figure out how much slack you need to insert two feet at once. Concept 2 and First Degree Fitness made it easy on us with individual threading, but WaterRower’s felt like an unwelcome chore till we got the hang of it.
We made sure they were easy to move and store.
A lot of exercise equipment claims to be portable, but most are too big and clumsy to really hide away. Rowing machines really can be stored with ease, just make sure the sliding seat is already slid fully forward to avoid a clamor. Even water rowers can go vertical: We once accidentally wheeled one around with the water tank uncorked and still didn’t spill a drop.
The Concept 2 E was a little harder to maneuver than the rest because of its larger size, but the only real pain was — you guessed it — the Slider Dynamic. The manual suggests you can lock the moving portions to allow for transport, but we couldn’t find said lock anywhere. Shuffling it around open and swinging was both annoying and a little dangerous.
Our Picks for Best Rowing Machine
Best for Training
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.
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.
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.
Best Rowing Experience
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.