Shoppers’ Guide to Rowing Machines

Any rowing machine can support speedy calorie burn, tone your heart, and exercise every major muscle group. But there are so many brands and products to choose from! Which rower is the best fit for your body, your budget and your workout room? This guide helps you decide. The sections are:

  1. Main Types of Rowing Machines
  2. Rowing Machine Sizes
  3. Evaluating Rowing Machines Part-by-Part

Main Types of Rowing Machines


Rowing machines use resistance to train your body. Four main types of resistance are used: water, air, magnetic and hydraulic. Each type has advantages and disadvantages. Here are summaries.

Water Rowing Machines

Water rowing machines can support very realistic rowing action. A water rowing machine has paddles that revolve in an enclosed tank of water. When you pull on the rower’s handle, the paddles turn. Resistance is created by the mass and drag of the moving water. Each stroke produces an audible splash.

The resistance can increase naturally with the user’s effort, so water rowing machines by WaterRower and HCI Fitness don’t include tension knobs or resistance buttons. For users who prefer numbers and choosing a precise resistance level, First Degree Fitness offers water rowers with digital resistance control. With all brands of water rowers, another way to alter the potential resistance is to change the volume of water in the tank.

Water rowing machines are known for durability. Their resistance systems are virtually indestructible, and these systems invariably get paired with high quality components. These machines are also very low maintenance. The main disadvantage is their selling price, which is over $1,000. WaterRowers can be rented by the week for a very low rate, however.

Many competitive rowers say that machines with water resistance provide the next best thing to training on a river. However, air resistance rowing machines are also very popular among serious rowers.

Air Rowing Machines

Air rowing machines have fan-like flywheels. These models use fanlike blades to brake a flywheel and generate resistance.

Air rowing machines can be very durable. The best-selling rowing machine in the world is the Concept2 Model D air rower, and it can potentially last a lifetime. Even so, it costs less than water rowers do.

Like water rowers, air rowers can respond naturally to user effort. The faster the flywheel is spun, the greater the resistance it delivers. Many air rowers also have a manual control, letting you adjust a vent to alter the resistance.

When choosing an air rower, consider whether you’d like to feel a breeze while rowing. On some models the flywheel doubles as a workout fan. On others it is fully encased.

The main disadvantage of choosing an air rower is the sound generated by the fan/flywheel. For this reason, some people prefer hybrid rowing machines that only use air resistance at low levels. At higher levels, quiet magnetic resistance kicks in. An example of a good quality hybrid rower is the Sole SR500.

Magnetic Rowing Machines

Magnetic rowing machines are very quiet if they’re well-made. These models control resistance with electromagnets that engage a mechanical brake. This is the quietest way to brake a flywheel.

The braking resistance on magnetic rowers is adjustable, and it’s divided into distinct levels such as Level 1 through Level 20. These levels can always be adjusted manually, but some magnetic rowers have automated resistance control too. A good example is the Kettler Coach E.

It features 12 preset programs, plus the rowing machine can adjust its resistance in response to the user’s heart rate.

A drawback of magnetic rowing machines is that their resistance is constant; it doesn’t change if you pull the handle harder. In contrast, rowers using water or air resistance more accurately simulate the physics of actual rowing.  

Hydraulic Rowing Machines

Hydraulic rowing machines are generally the least expensive. These simple rowers have one or two hydraulic pistons attached to their handles. Their resistance can be adjusted with a dial on each piston.

The main advantages of hydraulic machines are small size, quiet operation and low price.

The small size doesn’t necessarily mean that tall people won’t be comfortable. Most of the space is saved by the resistance system; hydraulic cylinders take up less space than a water tank, a fan flywheel or a magnetic flywheel.

What are the disadvantages? One drawback of these rowers is the stroke design. It exercises the body, but it doesn’t feel like “real” rowing. Another is the overall quality of the machine. For many of the hydraulic rowing machines in our reviews, we note customers’ warnings about the cylinders being prone to overheating and leaking. These units are also likely to use a fabric cord instead of a metal chain for pulling.  

The BodyTrac Glider by Stamina is one of the more reliable hydraulic rowers.

Rowing Machine Sizes

 


Rowing machine size matters for several reasons. You’ll want a machine that fits your workout space, is long enough for your legs, and has enough weight capacity. The height of the rowing machine might matter too.

Machine Size & Workout Space

Rowing machines are typically about two feet wide and six feet to seven feet long (72″ to 84″). Most can be made compact for storage. Usually this is accomplished by folding the long beam upright and then rolling the machine away on its attached wheels. It’s easy and convenient.

The top-selling rower, the Concept2 Model D, is also one of the largest at 8 feet (96″) long. It can be split into two sections and stored vertically. The beautiful ashwood WaterRower Natural is 7 feet long. It can be stored upright as well.

The smallest rowing machines save space by using small hydraulic cylinders instead of bigger flywheels. Many compact models are offered by Stamina Products. The surprisingly durable Stamina BodyTrac Glider is just under 5 feet long, and the Stamina 1215 Orbital Rower (not as highly recommended) is just 50″ long.

Leg Room

Most rowing machines can comfortably accommodate people with long inseams. This is even true for some of the compact rowing machines. Our rowing machine reviews often have notes about specific user heights or inseams. The Concept2 Model D is one of the best options for tall people. It can suit up to a 38″ inseam according to user reviews.

Weight Capacity  

Rowing machines tend to be sturdy. Even the cheapest rowing machines by Stamina officially have 250-pound weight capacities, and users write that 300 pounds feel safe too. The lowest weight capacity we’ve seen is on the NordicTrack RW200, which can hold up to 200 pounds.

WaterRowers are among those with especially impressive weight capacities. They can hold up to 1000 pounds or more.

Machine Height  

Some rowing machines are close to the ground. They have seat heights of about 12-inches. An example is the WaterRower Natural. Other rowing machines are raised on legs, typically up to about 20-inches like office chairs. An example is the light commercial Bodycraft VR500.

Many brands offer both options. Usually the units with legs cost slightly more because of the extra material.

Neither design is “the best” for everyone. Sometimes the raised version is preferred for commercial workout rooms. It lets a club member with limited mobility get onto the seat easily, and the user doesn’t feel uncomfortably low when surrounded by people using treadmills and other workout machines. On the other hand, many competitive rowers prefer to be low to the ground. Fitness centers commonly feature lines of low-to-the-ground rowers for their group rowing classes.

Evaluate a Rowing Machine Part-by-Part

 


Besides resistance type and machine size/capacity, what factors do people consider when choosing a rowing machine? Here are some elements seen in our reviews.

  • Data Monitor: Monitors on rowing machines show different amounts of data. The cheapest rowing machines tend to provide only a few readouts, such as time, distance, calories burned and total strokes. Machines that cost more typically provide a lot more feedback, including heart rate information. WaterRower and a few other brands let buyers choose among several monitors.

The best data monitors are backlit for easy reading in any ambient light.

Some monitors require a cord. Others use batteries, giving you more flexibility about where to place the machine.

  • Wireless Heart Rate Monitors: Getting an accurate pulse reading can help you exercise much more efficiently. The best rowing machines have accurate wireless heart rate receivers. Usually their required chest straps are sold separately.

Non-wireless pulse readings are provided on rowing machines at all price points. These tend to be inaccurate according to customer reviews.

  • Workout Programs: Many rowing machines have built-in workout programming. They make it easy to exercise for specific goals in terms of stroke count, calories burned, elapsed time and more. Some brands with built-in programming are BodyCraft, Concept2, NordicTrack and WaterRower.

Most of the cheaper rowing machines give little workout guidance. One exception is the low-priced NordicTrack RW200, which has 20 preset workouts.

The most engaging workouts are likely the video workouts sold at WaterRower’s website. Their top option is the WaterRower Signature with access to workouts led by Olympic medalist and rowing coach Xeno Müller. Customers also get frame-by-frame stroke analyses from Müller himself.

  • Comfortable Seating: Some rowing machines have nicely contoured seats with a good amount of cushioning, and others don’t. We have noted complaints about uncomfortable seats in some of our rowing machine reviews.
  • Rowing Chain: The most durable rowing machines use metal chains in their handlebar setups. A cheap alternative is a nylon cord. A cord doesn’t require maintenance, but it’s likely to snap with friction. Our reviews note when this is known to be a problem.

A chain requires minimal maintenance. For example, a Concept2 rowing chain should be oiled every 50 hours of use.

  • Warranty: Warranties for rowing machines have three main parts: the frame, the parts, and labor. Parts coverage is almost always short for commercial rowing machines, yet these units generally last a long time in home gyms.

Rowing machine frames are unlikely to break. The most important consideration is the parts warranty. Replacing parts such as monitors, cords and hydraulic pistons could be expensive. Generally the warranties on mid-priced rowing machines give customers the best deal. Cheap hydraulic rowing machines have poor warranties.

A three-year parts warranty is typical for a good quality residential rower. WaterRowers are durable water rowers with three-year parts warranties. Concept2 machines are durable air rowers with three-year parts warranties. Our favorite magnetic rowing machine, the Kettler Coach E, has a three-year warranty too.

In sum, some top criteria for choosing a rowing machine are resistance type, machine size, programming and warranty. For insights about a specific rowing machine model, see the pro/con lists in our rowing machine reviews.