How to Find the Best Rowing Machine

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Rowing is best known as a collegiate and Olympic sport, a somewhat previously less-known sport that has gained prominence with athletes like Adrienne Martelli, an American who won the bronze medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics – one of the best showings for a sport that has traditionally been harder for American teams. But with some of the best rowing machines, the traditional sport has been given a modern twist.

Even better? Modern rowing machines still provide an excellent, low impact workout. You may not become an Olympic athlete, but you’ll still get the benefits without the need for a lake and a full rowing team and boat.

But in order to benefit as much as possible, you need to know how to select the best rowing machine possible. We’ll give you a short guide, and explain why you should or shouldn’t look into a rowing machine in the first place for the very best workout possible.

What is a rowing machine?

rowing machine

This may seem like a silly question, and while many have heard of rowing machines, far fewer know exactly what it involves.

Not to be mistaken for traditional rowing, a rowing machine is stationary, indoor exercise equipment, not unlike the idea of a stationary bike. Rowing machines are designed to mimic the motion and impact of traditional water rowing. Rowing machines universally use either springs or elastic cords, attached to a strap and handle. Most of the time, rowing machines work by propelling legs and arms muscles on a sliding seat.

Rowing machines tend to be a bit larger than stationary bikes, not by a good deal. They are among the more popular stationery pieces equipment, both in local gyms and at home. Along with other pieces of stationary equipment, like bikes and ellipticals, the best rowing machines provide a solid workout inside.

How do rowing machines work?

Rowing machines work by pushing against a catch, which requires you to pump your legs and rely in part on your arms even core muscles to move the elastic cords back and forth in a circular motion. It is not unlike the movements associated with traditional rowing, and not terribly different, but a bit more nuanced than using an indoor bike.

What are the benefits of rowing machine workouts?

Rowing machine workouts offer a slew of benefits, which may in part explain their popularity. Rowing machines provide more of a full workout than you might imagine, and a quality one even in the comfort of your own home. They’re great for everything from fitness goals to cross-training and even coming off of a sports injury.

Rowing machines target many muscles at once, including but not limited to: pecs, biceps, abs, obliques, quadriceps, upper back, lats, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Considered a full muscle workout unlike some other home gym equipment, rowing machines are great for all around muscle development.

As far as what else you get out of rowing machine workouts? You may be surprised to learn that a rowing machine not only offers resistance training but also cardiovascular training as well.

  • Resistance Training and Overall Conditioning: Rowing machines, at their best, offer training to work for the major muscle groups not only in the back and shoulders but also the legs. By working both her upper and lower body, you get a more all over body workout than you would say, from typical weight lifting. Even wrists can be strengthened as you grip the equipment.
  • Cardiovascular Conditioning: Rowing machines also offer something in terms of cardiovascular conditioning. Cardiovascular activity generally raises your heart rate for a sustained period of time. Some of the best rowing machines even include heart rate monitors.
  • A Low Impact Workout: Finally, rowing machines also offer a low impact workout, which means that workouts tend to be less taxing on joints, and this machine is especially encouraged for older exercisers, or anyone coming off of an injury. And in general, it’s a great idea to mix in low impact workouts with higher impact ones to prevent injury and keep you motivated.

What are the Benefits of Rowing Machines VS Indoor Bike? 

Make no mistake: both rowing machines and indoor bikes are excellent forms of exercise, and both can provide health benefits, especially if you wouldn’t have gotten activity in otherwise. What you might not be sure about, however, is whether a rowing machine or a stationary bike is a better bet for you.

Stationary bikes, not unlike rowing machines, actually provide more of full workout than you might imagine. Like rowing machines, stationary bikes provide a mix of cardiovascular and resistance training. They have the potential to get your heart rate up, and they are also considered a low impact. Both rowing machines and bikes can provide a toning for your muscle groups.

But that’s where they also differ: while rowing machines provide a more all over toning and strengthening, bikes tend to tone and build muscles in your lower body and less so for your upper body.

If you really want to target your lower body, or you are an avid biker, that could be a better option. If you simply want a machine or equipment for purposes of cross-training or coming off of an injury, the choice is not one hundred percent clear. While both are considered low impact, a bike would, of course, be a better choice if you suffer from any back or shoulder blade issues.

However, for a full, all over toning workout, a rowing machine gets the edge. A rowing machine, unlike most bikes, will tone and build muscle in your upper torso and well as your lower torso and legs. It also does a good deal more to work your core and abdominal muscles than a bike would.

Rowing Machine vs Indoor Bike Considerations

One of the most important factors to consider when deciding whether or not a rowing machine is the best option for you is, of course, personal preference. You may find yourself more engaged by one form of exercise over the other, and you may find one works better with your own needs, interests, and training schedule.

In terms of calorie burn, both bikes and rowing machines can offer comparable calories burned, depending on intensity, making for a good workout but not considered as high intensity as, for example, a fast run.

Factors to Consider Before Buying a Rowing Machine

In order to purchase the best rowing machine possible, you need to make sure you know what you’re looking for. Rowing machines are not all made alike, nor are they equal in overall quality and the type of use and workout you’ll get. And with so many competing brands a model available, it can be downright confusing to find the rowing machine that suits you best.

Luckily, here’s a short list of factors to consider. As long as you keep these essentials in mind, there’s little chance you’ll go completely wrong.

1. How much space do you have?

Our first qualification is simple, yes, but important: larger machines are not always inherently better, especially if you could use that space for other equipment or simply don’t have much to spare. Be realistic, and make sure, especially if you’re shopping online, that you are aware of the dimensions of the rowing machine.

2. Is assembly required?

Is it portable? Again, while this simple advice might apply to any home gym equipment, it still should not be underestimated in terms of importance. Assembly needs to be simple and have clear directions; some may prefer that the rowing machine is easy to move, though most will not be considered particularly portable.

3. It fits your body and your space

Yes, there are different rowing machines for different body types. Your weight and height play a key role into what rowing machine will be best for you. Rowing machines that are too short or long for your legs; not proper for your weight; or otherwise uncomfortable will prove to be a poor fit. But how can you tell?

  • Small rowing machines, often marketed as low cost or budget machines, may be suitable enough for some more petite individuals but are not the best option for taller people. The shorter machines, which tend to be around fifty inches in length, may be cramped and uncomfortable. If you are especially tall, you may have to look for a model that provides extra length.
  • Heavier rowing machines may seem more substantial, but heavier is not in fact always better. While the lightest machines can weigh as little as under thirty pounds, heavier machines can weigh nearly two hundred. That is not a good match for fragile floorboards or cramped living spaces, like apartments.
  • Supporting your weight: This may not be a problem for many, but always make sure, on the other hand, that the rower’s maximum weight does not exceed yours. If it’s a close call, then go with a different model.

4. The price is right

Just how much should you spend on a rowing machine? The question is important and not just in terms of financial concerns. While it’s always nice to get a good deal, we suggest against going with a budget rowing machine if at all possible. The cheapest rowing machines are cheaper for a reason: they tend to have fewer features, but also tend to be exceptionally light and unable to provide as full-bodied of a workout as other rowing machines.

Shoot for the range of spending anywhere from three hundred to nine hundred dollars. If you want to have more features, you can spend more, though it may not be necessary. While there are models hovering around one hundred or so dollars, most of the time will not provide as robust of a workout and may also be made from cheaper materials. If something is a steal, make sure you comparison shop. Most of the time there’s a catch.

5. Made from quality materials

The best rowing machines are made to last. Look for a material that will hold up under a good deal of strain and pressure, preferably something like steel. Although there are a few models made from cheaper materials, even wood, that’s not the best choice. Wood, for instance, can splinter and may not wear well, especially if it happens to get wet. Rubber is a good feature to have of course for the feet of the machine, which prevents scraping or any other incidents as you’re using the machine. There should also be steel bolts that need to be very secure, both for the sake of the machine and your own safety as you exercise.

6. It’s the type you want

You may be unaware, but rowing machines actually come in several varieties.

  • Air rowing machines: Air rowing machines work by allowing air to flow over an inner wheel, called a flywheel, and are among the most popular indoor rowing machines available. They naturally adapt to your movements based upon the air pressure against the wheel, making them a bit more user-friendly than some magnetically based models. While they can be a bit noisier, they may not be the best option for apart elements but overall are considered favorites for overall wear and ease of use.
  • Magnetic rowing machines: An alternative to an air rowing machine, magnetic rowing machines tend to be far quieter and create resistance by using a magnetic fastener attached to the flywheel. You can either adjust resistance levels by using a mechanical slider or digital monitor. They also tend to be more compact. These are naturally a very popular option as well.
  • Hydraulic rowing machines: Hydraulic rowing machines are a bit different, and generally fall under what we could classify as budget rowing machines. These smaller and lighter machines work instead by through resistance produced by pistons situated on the handles. Fluid or air-filled cylinders are connected to maintain that resistance. They are not adaptive like the other models.
  • Water rowing machines: These less popular models use actual water or fluid to provide resistance. Actual paddles must be placed in a tank of water, and they tend to be rather quiet. However, these are obviously the least practical of all rowing machine options. They tend to be large, of course, require a water tank, and may be difficult to use.

Which one is right for you? That depends. If you have a house with plenty of space to your own, either an air rowing or magnetic rowing machine would be a suitable option. If you do happen to live in a shared space where noise could be a problem, steer away from the air rowing machine. Unless you really prefer the aesthetic, we suggest you go for a magnetic rowing machine over a hydraulic or water rowing, for practical reasons, and, in the case of hydraulic machines, for greater durability

7.  Company standards

Who exactly are you buying from? How was the rowing machine designed, and by whom? Look for a company with a solid reputation, high customer ratings, and consistent customer ratings. Check for other details, such as return policies, warranties, and guarantees. How long is the machine supposed to last? Are there replacement parts available, and if so, how accessible are they and how expensive?

8. Overall design

Finally, the overall design of the rowing machine will, of course, be an important factor as to whether or not it’s the best machine possible for you. Is the seat comfortable? Is it material that makes sense for you? Does the overall design seem sturdy? Ask questions about functionality, and also ease of use. If you’re new to rowing, make sure it’s easy to understand and simple to adjust to your needs. If you want extra features, such as a heart monitor or digital display, take note of that. While not a necessity, these could be factors that add that extra kick to your workout. But also know you will have to pay more for extra features.

Our Rowing Machine Recommendation

There are many great rowing machines out there, but among the best is the Concept2 Model E Indoor Rowing Machine by Concept 2.  This is one of the highest rated rowing machines, with three hundred customer reviews and an average of a five-star rating. At the current price, it falls a bit above mid-range, at just under six hundred dollars (full cost is twelve hundred).

It’s designed with nickel and steel, has an ergonomic design, comes with a five-year warranty and can hold up to five hundred pounds. It comes with a monitor and is designed for a low impact, low noise workout. While there are many other great rowing machines out there, this is among the best option.

If you want an alternative, but from the same company, check out our review of a different model from the same company–Concept 2’s Model D.