With numerous models and types on the market, selecting the correct rower can be tough.
This article explains the different styles of rowing machine—and their pros and cons. In addition, I have included what I consider the best rowing machine available.
Why Choose a Rowing Machine?
Many people consider that rowing machines are the pinnacle of home exercise equipment. With its ability to perform a full-body workout, this could be the only machine you will ever need.
Whatever their type, rowing machines have the ability to:
- Provide low-impact exercise—easy on all the joints.
- Give aerobic workouts—not only increasing your fitness levels, but can prevent cardiovascular disease too. (1)
- Provide a simple and fun method of working out.
- Help you lose weight—you can burn 300 calories per hour on a rowing machine. (2)
- Build muscle—rowing machines work the back, shoulders, triceps, biceps, pecs, abdominals, calves, thighs and glutes.
Here’s a short video explaining the benefits.
What Are the Different Rowing Machine Types?
Choosing a rowing machine is like selecting a car. Although all cars fulfill the same function in getting you from A to B, the way they achieve it and their features can differ.
Cars can be diesel, gas, electric or hybrid. All have their own benefits and drawbacks.
In the same way, rowing machines in general come in air, magnetic, water and hydraulic versions. There are even specific compact rowing machines. Again, all with their distinctive pros and cons.
These different types of rowers are named after the way resistance is created. On an actual boat, the movement of the oars in the water creates resistance, putting pressure on the muscles and pushing the heart. In the home, resistance has to be created through other means.
Here’s a brief overview of the various types.
Air Rowing Machines
Also known as ergometers or ergos, air machines are the most common type of rower found across the world in gyms.
These rowers have a large flywheel consisting of numerous vanes. As the handle is pulled, the flywheel spins. Air pushes against these vanes, creating resistance.
The faster your stroke, the more resistance you create. You cannot adjust the tension manually. However, many machines do include dampers which allow more air into the flywheel casing, giving a “harder” feel to the stroke.
Most professional rowers use air rowers in their off-season, as they feel it best recreates the actual rowing sensation.
- Replicates the sensation of being on an actual boat.
- Hands-free resistance—you don’t need to turn a dial to make your workout harder, just increase the stroke rate.
- Monitor—air rowers have the most advanced electronic monitors—providing more workout information than other machines.
- Smooth—some users consider them the most pleasurable rowers to use.
- Noise—the loudest of all the rowers.
Magnetic Rowing Machines
Instead of using air, these machines use magnets for resistance.
This is usually controlled by turning a dial which affects how close the magnets are to the spinning flywheel. Closer means more resistance, further away means less.
At no point do these magnets come into direct contact with the flywheel. Instead, eddy currents from the magnets apply pressure to the wheel, meaning more force is required to make it spin. (3)
- Noise—magnetic rowers are the quietest type.
- Choice of resistance and speed—fast or slow strokes, you can have high resistance or low which is not possible on air or water machines.
- Size—in most cases they are smaller than water or air rowers.
- Workouts—some have pre-programmed workouts that automatically adjust resistance.
- Little similarity to “real” rowing.
Water Rowing Machines
Often considered the most “stylish” of rowing machines, water rowers are the newest type on the market, being invented in 1987. (4)
Water rowers have a large water reservoir located behind the foot plates. As the handle is pulled back, a flywheel spins in the water, creating resistance. In a similar way to the air versions, the faster the stroke, the more resistance is created.
- Design—many are made out of wood or stylish metal, allowing them to appear as “furniture” rather than equipment.
- Noise—louder than magnetic rowers, but quieter than the air types.
- Sound—many people enjoy the water “sound”, making them feel like they are on a river.
- Maintenance free—few parts to wear out.
- Size and weight—usually the largest and heaviest of all rowers.
- Water—either has to be changed often or have purifier added to prevent algae.
- Storage—few water rowing machines are foldable.
Hydraulic Rowing Machines
The oldest type of rowing machine. Hydraulic rowers use pistons to create resistance during the stroke.
As they lack a flywheel, they are smaller than all the other types of rower and are the most basic. It is assumed that the days of this machine are numbered, as they have more disadvantages over the other machines. There are a few good machines still available, although their availability is decreasing.
- Basic—good for people who like simplicity.
- Small and light—if you’re seriously short on space, hydraulic rowers are small both folded and unfolded.
- Sound—many hydraulic machines “squeak”.
- Resistance—although controllable, resistance can fall during use as the pistons heat up.
- Lack of information—usually they have the most basic of monitors, some have none at all.
- Does not replicate real rowing.
How to Choose the Correct Rowing Machine?
Rowing machines vary in type and, therefore, in associated features. It’s difficult to give an exhaustive list.
However, the questions I believe you should ask are:
- Is the rower purely for function or is design important too? Water rowers are usually the most attractive, hydraulic the least.
- How important is information? Do you require a lot of detail from the monitor or is just strokes and calories burned sufficient?
- Does it matter if the machine is noisy?
- Do you want to replicate “real” rowing?
- Is resistance control essential, or are you happy to change this just by increasing stroke rate?
- Is space an issue? Does it need to be transportable and/or storable?
The Best Rowing Machines Reviewed (Our Choices)
Here’s my choice of the best rowing machines available on the market.
Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine PM5
If you have ever been inside a gym, chances are that you will have seen this air rower. It is one of the most widely used in the world. The Model D has 10 levels of selectable dampers to give you the exact stroke feel that you require.
I would suggest that this is an ideal machine for people who love both technology and information. The in-built PM5 monitor has Bluetooth capability. This allows workout detail to be transmitted to apps including iFit and Apple Health.
Furthermore, the monitor includes intervals, distance, heart rate and even games. All of which can be downloaded to a laptop through a USB connection.
This monitor is backlit and sits on a raised arm, placing it around eye-level. This may appeal to those who are using the machine in low light conditions and/or who have trouble reading from a distance.
With a 14-inch seat height and adjustable footrests, this machine is suitable for people of varying sizes. This would be a good choice, in my opinion, if different members of your household are planning on using the machine.
- One of the most widely used rowing machines.
- Comprehensive data feedback—more than any other machine in these reviews.
- Can be split into two pieces for storage.
- Some people have issues with assembly.
WaterRower Club Rowing Machine in Ash Wood
This water rower could appeal to those who want a little more than an exercise machine.
The rower frame is constructed from ash wood, sourced from replenishable forests. If environmental sustainability is important, I’d suggest it makes this rower a good choice.
With a stained and varnished wood design, this model may suit those who want design combined with function. It looks more like a piece of classic furniture than exercise equipment.
The S4 monitor provides comprehensive information. This includes stroke rate, time, calories and heart rate. With 10 small function buttons, I would suggest that it’s suited to those comfortable with technology and without dexterity problems.
Although it weighs 117 pounds, it can be tipped and transported on the attached wheels. Furthermore, it can be stored vertically without having to remove water from the reservoir. If it will be placed in a corner or closet when not used, this could be appealing.
- Attractive design for people looking to make a statement.
- Suitable for vertical storage.
- Transportable on wheels.
- Some users may find the S4 monitor a little complicated.
Stamina Avari Programmable Magnetic Exercise Rower
This magnetic rower has 12 pre-programmed workouts. This means that, during rowing, resistance can be automatically increased or decreased. You don’t have to adjust it manually.
In addition, it is has four programmable settings, allowing you to choose your own workout resistance plan. I think that these two features would appeal if you want variety, combined with increasing difficulty in your training.
However, if you want to adjust resistance manually during exercise, this is easily done at the touch of a button. You don’t need to stop or turn a dial.
Unusually, it includes a chest strap heart monitor. While many other machines include a heart rate monitor function, the chest transmitter has to be purchased separately. Hence, this machine may appeal to those who are interested in monitoring and/or improving their aerobic capacity.
A heavily-padded foam handle, ergonomically designed seat and adjustable footrests are all included. I would say that this could be beneficial to people who find sitting on a rower for long periods of time uncomfortable.
- Includes 12 workouts, one heart rate regime and four customizable programs.
- Designed for comfortable use.
- Heart rate chest strap included.
- Aluminum frame means it’s lightweight and easy to transport.
Concept2 Model E Indoor Rowing Machine PM5
In my opinion, the Model E could be a good choice for people who struggle with mobility, especially seniors.
This is down to the height of the rowing machine seat. At 20 inches, this places the rowing machine at “normal” chair height. Therefore, climbing on and off the machine is no more difficult than sitting on a chair. As far as I am aware, no other rower is this high.
The Model E air rower has a further feature, which I believe makes it useful for the older generation. The PM5 monitor (the same features as the Model D already reviewed above) is on a long holding arm extended towards the user.
Firstly, this places the monitor within easy reach. There’s no stretching or bending involved. Secondly, as it is closer, it is much easier to read—both useful for those with limited mobility or poor eyesight.
The Model E air rower can be separated into two parts with a “quick-release” mechanism, no tools are required. This could be useful if the rower is to be stored away when not in use.
- Long monitor arm, high seat, and easy release mechanism—ideal for the older generation.
- 10 level damper adjustment.
- High seat may not suit everyone.
Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine
Weighing just 39 pounds, and with a footprint of 52 inches by 12 inches, this is the smallest and lightest machine reviewed here.
I feel that this machine could suit those who are really short on space. It can easily be lifted and stored in a closet, or even pushed under a bed when not in use.
Unusually for a hydraulic machine, the Stamina Body Trac is packed with features, hence its inclusion in my top five. The fitness monitor can track strokes, time, rate and calories burned.
In addition, it has a “scan” feature. This means each of the above details are individually shown for six seconds, before passing onto the next. I’m sure that this would provide a useful motivating feature to help you remain on the rower longer.
The rowing arms have two points of articulation. This helps to recreate a “real” rowing movement, not often found in hydraulic rowers. It also enables people of different sizes to use this machine. Therefore, I suggest making it useful for multi-person households.
Resistance is controlled by turning a dial on the piston itself. This can be done from a seated position, although you will have to stop rowing to adjust.
- Small and lightweight—good for small homes.
- Articulated rowing arms to replicate actual rowing.
- Advanced looking—despite being a hydraulic machine.
- No heart monitor function.
- Users complain of the hydraulic piston “squeaking”.
In my opinion, the Concept2 Model D is the best rowing machine.
I have chosen this machine over the others, as it:
- Replicates a real rowing experience.
- Is reliable—its use in gyms shows that it doesn’t wear out easily.
- Provides all the information you will ever need from a rower, via the monitor.
- Is 21st Century “ready”—can communicate with devices wirelessly or through a USB connection.
- Separates for easy storage.
- Strokes feedback can be adjusted through 10 levels or dampers.
However, this is just my personal choice. If you want amazing design, the ash WaterRower might be better. For quiet use, the Stamina Avari. Or, for the older generation, the model E.
Choose a rowing machine that suits your own personal requirements. This will give you more pleasurable use and ensure that your fitness increases.