Rowing machines are popular for providing efficient aerobic workouts while putting little stress on joints. Choosing a machine can be difficult though. To narrow the options significantly, you can begin by identifying your favorite resistance system. Each type of resistance provides a different sort of rowing experience.
Water Rowing Machines
Water rowing machines are generally the most expensive. They’re made from high quality materials, feel great to use, and can perform for decades. Water rowers are the only type featuring hardwood frames, although steel-framed water rowers are available too. The rustic yet classy combination of wood and water is an appealing alternative to industrial-looking designs.
How Water Rowers Work
Water rowing machines have round water tanks. These hold rotating fins or paddles. When the rider pulls back on the handlebar, the paddles revolve to create drag. This resistance will increase with the speed of the pull, just as it would in an actual boat, and the stroke feels realistic.
The sliding seat on a water rower provides a full body workout. In contrast, the cheapest rowing machines usually have stationary seats.
More to Consider
Beautiful, realistic and durable! What’s not to like? Besides the higher price, a possible drawback of choosing a water rower is its size. The water tank adds significant length to the machine. The popular WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine, for example, is seven feet long. Water rowers are heavy too because of their substantial frames and water weight. Other types of rowing machines are easier to move.
Water rowers are not silent machines. With each stroke there is a splash. Most riders find the water’s sound soothing, but it could be distracting in some households.
Maintaining a water rowing machine is easy. The water needs to be changed periodically, but it can stay fresh for a long time if chemically treated. First Degree Fitness uses water tanks that are tinted blue to shield out light that could contribute to algae growth. These machines also have chains that need to be oiled after approximately 50 hours of use.
Air Rowing Machines
Air rowing machines, like water rowing machines, are popular with competitive rowers. Air rowing machines can produce a realistic on-the-water feel but require even less maintenance than water rowers do. They cost less than water rowers too.
How Air Rowers Work
To mimic the drag of water, air rowers use fan-like flywheels. Their fins produce resistance as air flows over and around. As with water rowers, the resistance increases naturally as the user’s power ramps up. Some of the models also have dampers to adjust the airflow.
Pros and Cons
Many air resistance rowers are very well built. The air rowers made by Concept2 lead the industry and are good enough for commercial use. The stroke feels very realistic with this brand, although with some air rowers the resistance has a brief ”dead spot” in the stroke cycle. Air rowers usually have sliding seats to support full-body workouts too.
Natural movement, easy care and durability are some top selling points for air rowers. What are the downsides? Air rowers are among the noisiest because of their potentially powerful fans; the sound might disturb others in your home. (For this reason, some people choose hybrid machines like the Sole SR500 that combine air resistance with quiet magnetic resistance.) Air rowers also demand a lot of space, but most are designed for compact storage and have transport wheels.
Magnetic Rowing Machines
Magnetic rowing machines are popular for home use because they’re especially quiet. While water rowers create a splash, and air rowers make fan noise, a magnetic rower can barely be heard even at high resistance levels.
How Magnetic Rowers Work
Magnetic rowers such as the Kettler Coach E use electromagnets for resistance. The magnets are placed near the flywheel but don’t actually make contact. This lack of friction is chiefly responsible for the quiet ride. The tension can be adjusted manually or with computerized controls.
Another factor contributing to quiet operation is the lack of a chain in the handlebar system. Chains are durable but can make noise, so magnetic rowers tend to use non-metal cords or straps. A drawback is that cheap cords and straps are prone to fraying and snapping. Our product reviews mention when this seems to be a problem.
More Pros & Cons
Magnetic rowing machines tend to support a realistic stroke cycle: When the rider’s hands move through the stroke and return, they are at different heights, just like with outdoor rowing. This is a big advantage over hydraulic machines, which keep hands at a constant height through the whole stroke cycle. Magnetic rowing machines also have moving seats.
A drawback of magnetic rowing machines is their less natural feel. Each stroke is the same regardless of effort, and resistance needs to be adjusted with a knob or buttons. With water and air machines, simply putting in more effort produces more resistance.
Hydraulic Rowing Machines
Hydraulic rowers (also called piston rowers) are designed for budget-friendly exercise. These machines carry the lowest prices. Hydraulic rowers have small footprints and tend to operate quietly.
How Hydraulic Rowers Work
Piston rowing machines each have one or two hydraulic cylinders attached to their handlebars. A fluid inside the cylinders conveys force when the handles are pulled back. If there are two handles and two cylinders, then it’s possible to set different resistance levels for each side of the body. However, it’s not easy to adjust the resistance in the midst of a workout.
Pros and Cons
Hydraulic rowers are effective for upper body toning and cardiovascular exercise. In many cases though, they have fixed seats; there is no training for the lower body. One of the best exceptions is the Avari Easy Glide Rower, which has a long aluminum beam.
Some hydraulic machines with fixed seats could bring muscle strain. It’s best to choose a hydraulic rower with pivoting footrests, because then the lower body can more naturally follow upper-body motion. The Stamina InMotion Rower is among the best options with pivoting footrests.
A disadvantage of hydraulic rowers is that pistons are prone to failing. This is especially likely with vigorous use; the hydraulic fluid heats up, expands and could leak. Our rowing machine reviews note when this is known to be a problem. Another drawback is that nylon cords are often used to help keep prices low. As noted in some of our reviews, the cords can fray and snap.
Something for Everyone
The rowing machine market has something for every budget and workout preference. For more guidance, see our reviews or drop us a line.