A Guide to Rowing Machines

Tips for Choosing the Right Rowing Machine for You

If you’re looking for an indoor exercise machine that offers a full-body workout with minimal impact on the joints, rowing machines deserve your consideration. Buying a rowing machine could be one of the best decisions you make – or a complete waste of money.

Suppose you have used one in a gym and like the action, then yes, it’s probably a good buy. But remember, rowing machines in the gym will be a top commercial model, and if your budget is limited, it won’t feel as smooth or be as easy to use.

Before you consider buying a rower, are you sure you will use it? To get fit and into shape, you will need to use it at least four times a week, so if you don’t enjoy the action of a rower, you won’t use it. Once you’ve decided to get a rowing machine, then you deserve to know as much as possible about the advantages of rowing machines, the workout possibilities they offer, what types are out there, and every aspect of them.

This guide aims to provide all the information you should know about rowing machines before choosing and buying one. So, to begin with, let’s have a look at what precisely a rowing machine can do for you.

Learn more in my complete guide below!

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What Can A Rowing Machine Do For You?

Great for cardio and weight loss

Like treadmills, indoor cycling bikes, or elliptical machines, rowing machines can supply the user with a superior cardio workout. By working out daily on a rower, you will improve your cardiovascular health, as rowing will put your heart and lungs to the test. More blood will be pumped into your muscle tissue with increased lung and heart activity, delivering nutrients and oxygen.

Of course, just as any aerobic exercise, rowing every day can help you burn a significant amount of the body’s fat reserve. A rowing workout can burn calories quickly since it engages more muscle groups than other types of exercises. According to Harvard Health Publications, a vigorous workout on a rowing machine can help a 185 lbs individual to lose 377 calories during a session of 30 minutes.

Great for endurance and strength training

The rowing motion engages the leg muscles, specifically the thighs, the core, a substantial amount of back muscles, and the arms, focusing on the forearms and deltoid muscles. Simply put, any repeated action that engages a specific muscle group will eventually lead to an increase in strength for that particular muscle group. Therefore, exercising regularly on a rowing machine doesn’t necessarily help you build muscle mass.

In general, if you look at the physical build of a professional rower, you will see that they have a harmoniously proportionate body with lean cut muscles. So, rowing helps a lot with strength building, muscle definition, and an overall healthy muscular shape.

Just like running or cycling, rowing daily will help you build stamina. In addition, most professional rowers must use indoor rowing machines to maintain their overall energy and muscle tone for the off-season periods.

Low impact

Since you’re in a seated position as you row, your legs don’t have to support your whole weight. Therefore, rowing will have less of an impact on your leg joints. However, the rowing motion does put your legs to work, and there will be a little bit of impact, but far lower than for running on a treadmill, for example.

As you’re seated in the rowing position, pretty close to the floor, the risk of falling (which may happen quite often when on a treadmill) and sustaining an injury is zero. Also, since the complete set of motions in a rowing stroke isn’t too challenging to master and doesn’t pose excessive stress with each stroke, the chances of any other injury are minimal.

Stress reduction

Many people who take rowing as their main cardio workout find it soothing for their nerves. After a stressful day of work, an hour of rowing can be quite psychically relaxing, reminding you of the rowing of an actual boat. Therefore, after your daily rowing session, you can be completely refreshed, mentally and physically.

Rowing indoors

Rowing from the comfort of your home has its benefits. For example, you can watch TV during your rowing workout. In addition, you won’t have to worry about sunburns, and of course, you won’t have to support any other costs related to rowing an actual boat, such as driving to a lake, renting a rowing shell, etc.

Track your performance

There are, of course, fitness consoles that can help you track your time spent working out, give you an estimated calorie burn, or help you monitor your heart rate as you row. Furthermore, most indoor rowing machines come with a performance fitness console. These can monitor and register your progress and indicate important values during your workout, such as speed, strokes per minute, watts, distance traveled, along with the ones mentioned above, time, calories burned, and HR pulse.

The most advanced fitness consoles for indoor rowing machines also have online connectivity and allow you to upload your workout data online, analyze it from different angles to improve and compete with other rowers continuously.

Types of Rowers

The type of resistance in a rowing machine is the main criteria by which these exercising machines are classified. Depending on their resistance generating mechanism, there are four types of rowers: air, water, hydraulic and magnetic. However, many now consider hydraulic machines to be an out-of-date and false economy.


Also known as wind rowers, this type of rowers comes equipped with a flywheel resistance system shaped like a fan. As you pull the rower’s chord, strap, or chain, the fan will spin, and the air current created will generate resistance. The main advantage of air rowers is that the resistance created is directly proportional to the stroke intensity.

This results in a “natural” feel to each stroke, similar to rowing an actual boat. Some air rowers, such as the Concept2 Model D, feature a damper that adjusts the amount of air that enters the fan’s case. The more air, the higher the resistance. Air rowers also feature a sliding seat, which adds much effectiveness to the rowing motion and overall workout.

Air rowers come with a downside, though. As the flywheel spins in motion, it will produce a “woosh” sound, which may become annoying after a while.


This rowing machine involves a water tank equipped with a paddle that spins into the water, giving tension to each pull. Most experts and professional rowers are inclined to say that this type of rowing machine is the most effective in producing the natural feel of rowing.

All water rowers come with a gliding seat. Also, just like air rowers, the tension of each stroke is increased by the amount of strength the user puts into pulling the strap or chain. Water rowers are typically heavy, and most of them feature a wooden frame.

The sound produced by a water rowing machine is somewhat soothing, similar to an outdoors rowing experience, and considerably less loud than for air rowers. The only downside of these machines is that they’re quite a bit pricey.


As terminology suggests, these rowers use hydraulic pistons as main tension generators. In general, hydraulic rowers feature two “oars” or arms, on
each side of the frame, connected to the piston(s) system.

The rowing motion resembles the rowing of a real boat since it involves two oars. Hydraulic rowing machines are pretty quiet, and in general, they feature a smaller footprint than water or air rowers. They’re also the cheapest rowing machines available.

There are two significant downsides to be noted regarding hydraulic rowers. First of all, resistance doesn’t change the harder you pull. However, most machines of this kind have adjustable resistance so that you can work out on a tension level of your choice. Second, not all hydraulic rowers have a sliding seat. So, the ones with a fixed seat won’t provide a good workout for the legs.


These rowers use an eddy-current brake system, similar to those used on upright or recumbent bikes. The brake (or drive) mechanism involves a pulley, a flywheel, a servomotor, and a magnetic pad. These machines require a connection to a power circuit for the resistance levels to become available. The resistance is increased, by increasing the magnet’s pull, via an electric current.

Similar to hydraulic rowers, the magnetic ones also feature constant resistance, regardless of the strength the user pulls. They’re also considerably more affordable than air or water rowers. In addition, they typically have a smaller footprint than water or air rowers.

Now, there are rowing machines that combine some of these types of braking mechanisms. For example, the Sole SR500 is an air rower that uses an eddy current brake to bolster resistance rather than an air damper, such as most other air rowing machines.

Features to Look For

Along with the particular aspects I mentioned above related to each rower’s resistance mechanism, you should consider some other features before deciding on a rower for home use. So, here’s a bit of information regarding these aspects.

Frame: foldable vs. non-foldable

Especially air or water rowing machines feature a pretty long frame, and storage or use space for such a fitness machine can be a problem. However, many rowers feature a foldable frame.

Typically, the gliding seat rail folds up, offering several feet of space length-wise for storage. Therefore, there shouldn’t be any stability or durability issues between rowers with and without a folding frame. It’s just essential that you opt for the right one, depending on the storage or exercise space you have in your home.

Conversely, if you’re short on space but do want a rowing machine to exercise with from the comfort of your home, a hydraulic rower may be the most fitting choice. But, unfortunately, many of them are half the size of an air rower.

Seat: cushioned vs. padded

If you’ve been looking at rowing machines, you probably have noticed that most of them have a rather hard seat, in most cases padded with a sheet of rubber. These seats are usually contoured,
and despite the fact they might be a bit hard, they ensure all the comfort that a rowing machine should provide.

On top of that, a contoured seat can help with the rowing motion, as inexperienced users may find it challenging to maintain the correct position and have to readjust frequently.

On the other hand, some rowers fashion a cushioned seat. This type of seat may seem more comfortable, especially to users with lower back problems. Moreover, it might ensure better comfort, up to some extent.

In terms of comfort, there isn’t much difference between a padded seat or a cushioned seat. Lower back problems and numbness can still occur due to the rowing position and motion. These are the main downsides of rowing. Nonetheless, if you opt for a padded, contoured seat, you can always apply a gel cushion on it if you think it’s too uncomfortable. There are plenty to choose from.

Seat: gliding vs. fixed

Most rowing machines have a gliding seat. This type of seat emulates the rowing motion of an actual racing shell. A gliding seat is great to have, as it will provide a superior leg and thigh workout. However, there are rowing machines that feature a fixed seat. Typically hydraulic machines have a seat of this type. These are usually cheaper, and, by working out on one, even if you will benefit from a decent cardio workout, your legs will be pretty much left out.

Seat rail: horizontal vs. inclined

Typically, a racing shell requires a horizontal rowing motion. This is because its seat glides on a horizontal rail. This is the most common type of seat on a rowing machine. There are, though, rowing machines that feature a seat rail slightly inclined. Now, a machine of this type doesn’t supply a completely natural rowing motion. That’s why it might not be the best choice for a professional rower, as it might lead the user to develop unwanted habits in their rowing stroke.

On the other hand, a slightly inclined rail will offer a better leg and thigh workout, as pushing your whole body slightly upwards is at least a little more complex than moving it back, with a completely horizontal motion.

Pulling strap vs. chain

Most rowing machines come with a strap that connects the pulling handle to the machine’s mechanism. But there are models however which come equipped with a chain, similar to a bike’s chain. Now, I’m pretty sure many people would like to know what’s best: chain or strap? Well, both come with their pluses and drawbacks.

A pulling chain is highly durable and can last a lifetime without breaking. But it requires greasing, and the sprocket may wear out, causing the chain to skip. Along with that, the erratic rowing motion can cause the chain to jump off the sprocket, which requires its adjustment. Of course, if used accordingly, none of these problems should occur. Maintenance is nonetheless needed.

On the other hand, for rowers equipped with a pulling strap, the strap doesn’t require any maintenance. Also, each strap is typically solid nylon, designed to last for years of regular use. However, the belt can wear out, mainly if multiple persons use the machine; all require replacement. That’s why, when buying a rowing machine with a strap, it is a good idea to order an extra one, if available, to have just in case.

Footplates: pivoting vs. fixed

When it comes to footrests (or footplates), the best choice is the adjustable ones. These give you the possibility to adjust their angle to find the position that suits you best. However, some rowing machines have pivoting footrests, which do not lock in place, allowing your feet to find their best position during every phase of the rowing motion.

This is not a bad idea, as it takes some of the impacts off of your ankles, which may be great for an elderly user or a user recovering from an injury. However, some users may find pivoting footplates somewhat “uncertain,” as they would prefer solid support from their footrests.

On the other hand, specific rowing machines feature completely fixed footrests. If this is the case, even though the fixed angle of the footrests is correct, some users may be unsatisfied or uncomfortable with it. However, improvising and placing something on each footplate to adjust the pitch is always possible.

Fitness Console

Most indoor rowing machines feature a fitness console or ergometer. The most simple units provide information regarding time, distance, speed, and calories burned. Slightly more advanced consoles also cover values such as strokes per minute, pulse, and wattage. They also include preset workout programs, combining various values.

Now, these are the values and features that any rower, professional or not, should expect from a rower’s console. In addition, however, some rowing machines come equipped with consoles that incorporate various games and feature online connectivity.

Being able to export your progress online, analyze it from a different perspective, compare it with the data of other rowers, and even compete. These features help a lot in keeping you motivated and make the workout more enjoyable. However, they bring the overall price of the machine up. So, it’s up to you to decide if you should opt for them or not.

Other Aspects to Consider Before Buying

The training that you require. It pretty much goes without saying that indoor rowing machines are for aerobic exercise and muscle toning. Of course, they’re also great machines for losing weight. Furthermore, they can help you with muscle cutting, but not particularly with building muscle mass. Rowing machines promote the harmonious development of the whole body.

Available space. Rowers with a gliding seat are lengthy, sometimes over 80 inches, as they must supply a complete stretch for the user’s legs. Therefore, you might want to check and double-check if the rower you’re looking at will fit into your home. Also, when it comes to this, foldability may help.

Noise level. The only models that you should worry about when it comes to noise are air resistance rowers. These produce a fair amount of noise as you row. However, the noise problem can always be solved by listening to music or turning on the TV.

Budget. Just about any exercising machine is an investment. Whether you want to buy an indoor cycling bike, a treadmill, or a rowing machine, I’m pretty sure you would like it to last. That’s why it’s best to invest in a top-quality model, even if it’s a bit more expensive. Many affordable rowing machines are top quality and easy to find.

A Few Recommendations

Many companies offer rowing machines, among gym equipment of other types. But only a few make the best rowers on the market. Therefore, in the last section of this guide, I will point out some of the best brands you should look for if you want a rowing machine for home use.

Efitment Aero Air Fan Rowing Machine

Add progressive air resistance to your next in-home workout with the Efitment Aero Rowing Machine RW036. Maintain optimal stability when you strap your feet onto the oversized footrests. Slide with ease on the durable 51-inch steel slide rail that supports a maximum user weight capacity of up to 245 pounds.

Engage the RW036 with the smooth, maintenance-free belt-drive mechanism to activate the progressive fan resistance. With progressive air resistance, the harder you pull, the more resistance you’ll feel on this rowing machine. This rower’s resistance is dynamic, and you are not restricted by specific settings, such as on a magnetic rower. Read Full Review.

Sunny SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rowing Machine

Rowing MachinesThe Sunny Health and Fitness SF-RW5515 magnetic rowing machine provides an eight-level tension knob to switch up the intensity of your workout conveniently. With a simple twist, you can increase or decrease magnetic resistance so your training can remain challenging and active throughout your routine.

No matter how intense your performance level may be, this rowing machine remains stable. The Sunny SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rowing Machine also provides a cushioned seat that gives the user a comfortable rowing experience. In addition, it has a folding design and comes equipped with a manual magnetic resistance system with eight levels, while its console or ergometer is a simple unit.  Read Full Review.

FDF Newport Challenge AR Rowing Machine

Although it’s an older model, the First Degree Fitness Newport Challenge AR (Adjustable Resistance) fluid rower features FDFs patented adjustable fluid resistance technology. Thus, allowing the rower to control and adjust the resistance from ‘Feather light’ to ‘Olympic sprint’ load levels. Additionally, with the FDF Newport challenge, you’ll benefit from a strength-building and challenging cardiovascular training session.

The FDF Newport Challenge AR fluid rower comes with a fully programmable fitness console that will help you keep track of critical fitness-related data to easily keep an eye on your long-term progress. Therefore, you will benefit from information about tempo signal, time, strokes per minute, distance, estimated calories burned per hour, interval training, and 500m split time. Read Full Review.

Concept2 Model D Rowing Machine

Rowing MachinesConcept2 is an air resistance rowing machine, which means its action is smooth and will closely replicate rowing on the water; it will also adjust to your effort involving the faster you row, the higher the resistance. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how hard you pull; it will match your strength, no problem.

The construction is substantial and will put up with years of a punishment without complaint. These models are used in gymnasiums all over the world and therefore built to last. They’re also the first choice for most rowing clubs and serious rowers – which says it all! If you’ve used a rowing machine at a gym, it was most likely a Concept2. However, many gym users buy a budget rowing machine for home use and are disappointed – because it doesn’t feel like a Concept2. Read Full Review.

WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine

The WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine with S4 Monitor is one of the most aesthetically pleasing rowers on the market. Not to mention, it is one of the best-performing ones as well! It is part of the “Natural” series of WaterRowers, due to its solid Ash Wood and stained Honey Oak construction material.

It uses a “water flywheel” or paddles suspended in a water tank to provide the rower’s resistance. This is ‘variable’ resistance because there are no adjustments. To feel more resistance, row faster, and feel less resistance, row slower. In addition to determining resistance based on your rowing intensity, you can further adjust the rowing experience by adding or subtracting water from the water tank. The more water you add, the “heavier” the rowing will feel (like rowing a boat with passengers). Read Full Review.

BodyCraft Pro VR500 Rowing Machine

Rowing MachinesThe BodyCraft VR500 rowing machine is slightly more expensive than the average rowing machine cost, but it’s worth every penny. Efficient, durable, and packed with handy features, professional athletes often use this particular machine during their training sessions. Indeed, with this machine alone, you will be able to benefit from a challenging full-body workout that will engage every major muscle group for rapid and efficient weight loss.

This is a rowing machine made for commercial use, offering a wide array of features and functions. But one of its most essential qualities is that it combines air resistance with magnetic resistance. Thus, to deliver superior workout possibilities and a resistance “feel” similar to the rowing of a real boat. Read Full Review.

A Guide to Rowing Machines Summary

A few easily recognized rower brands may be tempting to buy just because of their long-standing reputations. If you are familiar with rowing, you may also be familiar with brand names like Concept2, Stamina, and WaterRower. There are always new brands emerging that bring new technologies and innovation to the rower market. Don’t be tempted to choose a rower just because of its brand name. It would be best if you still meet your fitness needs. When you consider all these factors, you are sure to find the rower that will work the best for you.

Investing in a rowing machine is something that users should take seriously because the wrong choice is detrimental to your budget and health. Users should take the time to consider their options carefully, weigh the pros and cons, analyze their personal needs and the different types of resistance to make sure that they find the perfect rower. It’s also advisable to acquaint yourself with the various features of each machine by reading up on product reviews and comparisons.

Moreover, a rowing machine can undoubtedly be considered a solid investment for your health. Perfect for any individual suffering from joint or lower back pains, it provides an easy but result-inducing workout that engages most major muscle groups in the body. More importantly, a rowing machine can burn anything between 300 to 800 calories in an hour, depending, of course, on the resistance type as well as the user’s age, weight, gender, fitness capacity.

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