Many of us are looking for the Holy Grail in home exercise machines. It has to provide an all-over body workout, without taking up too much space.
This best compact rowing machine guide could be the answer. I have come up with some of my favorites and will let you in on the secrets behind these pieces of equipment.
What Is a Compact Rowing Machine?
When it comes to rowing machines, the first thing that usually springs to mind are the large pieces of equipment you see at the gym or on TV.
I’ll be honest. By their very nature, rowing machines are not the smallest pieces of home exercise equipment. This comes down to the movement involved in creating the rowing motion.
I am sure that you are aware of how this works. The body moves from a hunched up, knees against chest position (the “catch”), through to a legs fully extended, leaning back posture (the “finish”).
Therefore, there is a requirement for the machine to be at least the length of this extension. What’s more, the machine’s feet and resistance mechanism also have to be included, making the machine even larger. However, there is a solution.
The market has seen a boom in compact rowing machines. They are designed to minimize the actual footprint of the exerciser, be easily transportable and pack away simply for storage.
Although smaller, they still can offer the same full-body workout, but with space-saving a priority.
Are All Compact Rowing Machines the Same?
Most compact rowing machines are similar, but not exactly the same.
There are four main types of rowing machine. They differ in the way resistance is created, which affects their size.
These rowing machines use one or two hydraulic pistons to control resistance. They are not as long as the other types of rowing machine, although a little wider. Broadly speaking though, they do offer the smallest footprint overall.
This is achieved by locating the pistons for resistance at the sides or underneath the seat. Other rowing machines usually have the resistance mechanism located at one of the machine ends, increasing the length.
Magnetic rowing machines operate in much the same way as many exercise bikes. Resistance is controlled by magnets acting on a flywheel. This means a compartment is required to house the “wheel,” usually placed at the feet.
This housing makes them longer than hydraulic machines, but narrower and not as long as air rowers.
The type most people know, with the distinctive “whoosh” sound as the rowing machine is used. A wheel creates air resistance as the arms pull on the hand grips. For it to be truly effective, this wheel has to be large.
This increases the overall size of the machine.
Currently one of the more “fashionable” rowing machines. They use a large water reservoir for resistance (imagine a squashed five-gallon water bottle). This, combined with the fact they are also designed for aesthetic benefits (often made out of varnished wood), leads to them being heavy and not easily transportable.
Due to this, it is unusual to find a water rowing machine that could be truly termed as “compact.”
Most of these machines do come in “foldable” varieties, although it is uncommon to find it in water machines.
Why Should I Choose a Compact Rowing Machine?
It may be the case that you have an enormous apartment, possess a home gym and want the most imposing looking piece of equipment possible. If that’s the case, then a compact rowing machine may not be for you.
However, if you are like me and that’s not what you are after, here are a few reasons why you may consider purchasing a compact rowing machine.
It appears that people today, especially Millennials, are living in smaller properties than ever before. It has become both a life choice and an aspect of necessity. (1)
This dictates that having additional equipment in the home has to be able to fit comfortably within those four small walls. A compact rowing machine can allow you to own one of the larger pieces of gym equipment, without having to throw the sofa in the trash.
It isn’t always about the space it takes up in the room itself. Some compact rowing machines are foldable, meaning they can be easily stored in a closet.
Consider Other People
Recent research has shown that now nearly one in three American adults are sharing a home. That does not take into account partners, but “doubling-up” with others to save money. (2)
Even if you are living with your partner or family, they may not be keen on your exercise equipment taking up valuable floor space. Especially if they do not use it themselves. A compact machine can help alleviate this problem.
Furthermore, if you are in shared accommodation, it may mean your equipment has to remain in your bedroom. Where a compact machine may fit, the larger ones may not.
Not only are compact machines more easily moved out of the way (due to their lighter weight), they are easier to get into your home.
If you are like me and live in an apartment block where the elevator is not reliable, carrying a compact machine up and down stairs is not an issue.
What to Look for in a Compact Rowing Machine
If you have decided that a compact rowing machine is for you, there are a few things to consider when choosing your ideal machine. What you need in your rower comes down to your specific requirements.
I have put together what I consider the most important elements to take into account.
Different compact rowing machines do vary in the area they take up. Always measure the space you have available to use your machine first, and then check against the size of the machine.
Remember that you need to easily get off and on the machine too. So, allow at least a further 12–15 inches around the entirety of the machine for comfort and safety.
Consider whether you would prefer hydraulic, air or magnetic resistance. I have explored the pros and cons of these further in my Best Rowing Machines article.
But, very briefly:
- Hydraulic—smallest, quiet, most basic, good for beginners, least adaptable.
- Magnetic—quietest, larger, easy resistance changing.
- Air—loudest, largest, most similar to “real” rowing, used by professionals.
- Water—not really a consideration in the “compact” market.
If you are going to move the compact rowing machine out of the way after use, consider the weight. You do not want to injure yourself transporting the rower into storage. Furthermore, consider wheels. Some machines can be wheeled instead of carried.
If your rowing machine is to remain in one location all the time, this may not be a consideration. However, if you are planning to put it into a closet or under a bed, it may prove a positive benefit.
When sharing accommodation, other members of the household may not appreciate a loud compact rowing machine. In addition, if you enjoy watching TV while exercising, a low-noise machine could be enticing.
Always consider other factors that may increase your rowing experience. Do you want the arm positions to be movable? Maybe you want to track your heart rate? In the following reviews, where a machine has something particularly novel, I have made sure to mention it.
The Best Compact Rowing Machines Reviewed (Our Choices)
Here are my top five rowing machines available on the market today.
Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine
This rowing machine has one hydraulic piston located underneath the center bar. This “hidden” feature makes it look more like an air or magnetic machine. It could be important if you want to make the impression you have not gone down the “basic” route.
Unlike the Stamina 35 below, the 1050 has two arm pivots. This results in a more natural full-range of motion. It recreates “actual” rowing—the hands and arms can be taken out to the sides and back in towards the torso. If you are after a simulation of being in the water, this factor could be of interest.
Being hydraulic, its footprint is small. It measures 58.25 inches by 42.5 inches by 18.125 inches. Plus, it is one of the lightest of all the rowing machines reviewed, at 39 pounds.
Although it is not foldable, the actual height of 18.125 inches means that it can still be stored in fairly small closets.
The resistance can be increased by turning a small knob on the hydraulic piston. This can easily be reached while seated on the machine itself.
The LCD fitness monitor has an interesting “scan” feature. Every six seconds it can switch between time, distance and calories burned. It may be appealing for the serious home fitness enthusiast who really wants to stay on top of their progress.
The Stamina Body Trac has a weight capacity of 250 pounds.
- Small and light.
- Full range of rowing movement.
- Easy access to resistance control.
- Modern looking.
- Some users have found that their feet frequently slip out of the restraining foot straps.
Stamina 35-1215 Orbital Rowing Machine with Free Motion Arms
The Stamina 35-1215 is 48 inches long by 32.5 inches wide by 27.75 inches high. This would make it attractive for people with little room in their house.
In addition, its weight of 47 pounds means that it can easily be transported to another location after use. The arms also fold, allowing it to be placed under a bed for storage if required.
This hydraulic rowing machine has a low-noise output, which may be useful if you do not wish to disturb others in your home. With a weight capacity of 250 pounds, it should be suitable for most people.
Resistance is controlled either through increasing tension on the hydraulic system or placing the seat on an incline.
An LCD screen display shows speed, time, miles rowed and calories burned. This is controlled by one large single button—an aspect which may be useful if you have poor finger dexterity or are uncomfortable with numerous “tech” buttons.
- Small, lightweight and foldable.
- Easy one-button control.
- Simple operation.
- Arms are locked in one-position and cannot be altered—rowing action will always be by the sides.
- Some users have found even the lowest resistance setting too “tough” for beginners.
Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW1205 12 Adjustable Resistance Rowing Machine
With a weight of just 20 pounds, this is the lightest of all the machines reviewed here. I would suggest that this machine may suit those who are either lack strength or for older people. However, due to its lighter construction, this does dictate that the weight limit is lower than other machines, being 220 pounds.
Furthermore, it is the smallest machine measuring 53 inches by 20 inches by 22 inches—without folding. As it is so narrow, in my opinion this would be practical if it was being used in the bedroom where space can sometimes be limited.
Resistance is controlled by adjusting the hydraulic piston. With 12 selectable levels, it could be useful for people who want full versatility in their workouts.
The Sunny Health & Fitness 1205 has a fitness monitor to track progress.
While the rowing arms are padded for comfort, they only allow for one range of movement. This may not be suitable for those who want a more “realistic” action.
- The smallest and lightest of all the machines reviewed.
- 12 adjustable resistance levels.
- Small footprint means less stability—larger people may become off-balance when using.
- If the machine is used for more than 15 minutes, it appears that the hydraulic resistance reduces.
Velocity Exercise Magnetic Rower
Although a magnetic rowing machine, the Velocity still remains a “slim-line” compact option. Measuring 45 inches by 30 inches by 11 inches, this is a machine that does not require a lot of wide space, unusual for a magnetic rower.
While storable in its fully constructed position, this rowing machine can also be folded. This reduces the footprint, although it does mean that the vertical height is increased. If it is to be stored, it can then be placed in a closet or simply pushed to the corner of the room.
The Velocity includes feet rollers so that it can be moved with little effort from one place to another. Being 75 pounds, the wheels could appeal to those with back issues who do not want to lift.
The 12 levels of resistance are controlled electronically. There is no requirement to manually turn. This could be a nice feature if you lack either dexterity or strength in your hands.
As the resistance is controlled by magnets, this leads to “whisper-quiet” noise levels while in use. Perhaps handy if you like to use your machine in front of the TV.
The Velocity can take a weight up to 275 pounds. It may make it a good choice for larger persons, who find they are too heavy for a hydraulic machine.
Finally, this could suit those who are keen on monitoring their cardio action. This compact rowing machine comes with a chest-strap heart monitor which relays information to the LCD console. Allowing you to check your aerobic fitness.
- Large weight capacity.
- Lightweight, foldable with transport wheels.
- Includes a heart monitor.
- With one rear single foot, some people may find it a little unstable.
Concept2 Model E Indoor Rowing Machine PM5
It’s true air-resistance rowing machines are not usually considered “compact.” However, I have included this smaller machine for those who want this style of machine.
For an air machine, it is very portable. It can either be folded, or separated into two pieces for storage. What’s more, the inclusion of caster wheels means that the Concept2 Model E can be easily pushed from room to room.
I would say that this makes it a good choice for those who want air-resistance, but do not want the “bulk” of the traditional machines.
It is the largest machine in this review, measuring 96 inches by 24 inches by 20 inches, although remarkably it still only weighs 65 pounds. I would suggest that this is the best machine in this review for the heavier person—with a massive 500-pound weight capacity.
Progress is tracked through an onboard computer. This includes both a heart monitor and USB port to download your training sessions. If you are someone who likes tech and graphs, I would suggest this could be a nice feature.
As an air machine, resistance is controlled as speed increases. While effective, this does mean it generates a fair amount of noise.
- For an air rower, it is easily transportable and foldable.
- Tech features for people who are that way inclined.
- Enormous 500-pound weight capacity.
- Larger than magnetic and hydraulic rowers.
For me, the best compact rowing machine is the Stamina Body Trac. Although it is not the smallest, I do like the features that come with this rower.
Appearance-wise, it does not look like the traditional hydraulic machines, with the piston being located beneath the seat. In addition, it allows for a full-range of rowing movement, making it the most adaptable and realistic.
Furthermore, it has a low height, despite not being foldable. Making it ideal for small space storage or even leaving in situ.
That being said, the other machines all have their compact benefits. The super-light Sunny Health & Fitness 1205, incline feature of the Stamina 35, the quiet Velocity and the weight capacity of the Concept2 Model E.
But, for all-round size and portability combined with functionality, my choice has to be the Stamina Body Trac.