The Best Rowing Machines
How We Found the Best Rowing Machines
3 Experts Interviewed
6 Rowing Machines Tested
2 Top Picks
The Best Rowing Machines
We picked the brains of rowing coaches, fitness experts, and physical therapists to learn what features make for an exceptional rower. Based on their input, we searched the market for air and water resistance rowing machines, then tested the best for ride feel and design. We found one model of each type — air resistance and water resistance — that felt truly superior to the others.
The 2 Best Rowing Machines
The Best Rowing Machines: Summed Up
Concept 2 D
Why we chose it
When we asked Stephen Gladstone, the Head Coach of the Yale Heavyweight Rowing Crew, his opinion on what makes a great erg, we expected to learn more about the benefits of different types of rowing machines. Instead, he told us: “I won’t waste your time. There’s one machine that’s head and shoulders above the rest: The Concept 2.”
The Concept 2 D is the best-selling rowing machine in the world for a reason. With the backing of two renowned trainers, plus a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic rowing team, it's clearly earned its stripes in the rowing world.
The Concept 2’s simple specs belie a ride that’s both impactful and somehow effortless. The smooth, almost silent row is made possible by a polished track and consistently taut chain. The fan creates noticeable wind, but even at high speeds the sound is as easy to tune out as air conditioning or white noise.
No matter the resistance we set or the power we applied, the machine remains sturdy, centered, and even. We amped up the intensity for 2000m sprints and found that the C2 supports consistent effort in a way water resistance can’t. The machine assists in keeping your intensity uniform, because it stores up remaining energy in the spinning flywheel. Comments about the ride feel of both Concept 2s were noticeably brief. As one tester put it, “It’s unremarkable because it’s good,” and leaves you free to focus on the effort you’re putting into your workout.
The foot pedals adjust to numbered levels with easy snap positioning, making it easy to know your ideal foot position and get back to it quickly, in case someone else has changed the position. And predictable resistance levels mean you can accurately match your workouts to online fitness programs, and chart your progress in a translatable way.
Greg Hughes, Head Coach of Princeton Heavyweight Rowing, didn’t mince words: “It’s pretty incredible. Virtually indestructible. We have about 100 in our boat house and they’re used 4-6 hours per day.”
If you do experience any issues in the first two years, though, all parts are covered with Concept 2’s warranty. And if any frame parts fail “due to a defect in materials or workmanship,” that’s covered for the first five years.
Points to consider
Sits slightly lower than model E
On theme with C2’s interchangeability, models D or E are essentially the same machine. When we talk about one we’re talking about both. The Concept 2 E is just 8 pounds heavier but is made out of stronger stuff all around — what’s plastic on the model D is aluminium on the model E, and what’s aluminum on the model D is welded steel on the model E. The only noticeable variations are seat height and display position.
The model E’s seat stands 6 inches higher. And while the model D’s monitor rests on an adjustable arm, the E’s sits on unbending metal. These few technical differences do nothing to impact ride feel. We recommend the $200-cheaper model D as the best buy, but the Concept 2 E will appeal to anyone who values a higher seat and more solid construction.
Why we chose it
Smooth and steady
WaterRowers couple the density of liquid resistance with comfortable dimensions and a slick sliding seat; together these help the user fall into a soothing rowing cadence. The WaterRower Classic made us feel both relaxed and accomplished: You’re not just getting a workout, you’re moving a boat through still waters.
The dense resistance of water creates substantial drag, but on the WaterRower models, this is perfectly tempered by a whippy cord. It coils and recoils with such steady speed that one tester noted how the Classic “eats the rope back up on recovery.” This smooth agility helps balance out the impact of encountering slow water at the start of every stroke.
The ride feel on the WaterRower Classic and the larger, commercial-grade M1 HiRise are effectively equal. We found that the Classic, whose all-wood body is the manufacturer’s signature, offers the best of water resistance for the best price ($300 less than the HiRise and the most modestly priced of all the wood models we considered).
There’s no denying that part of what charmed us with the WaterRower is its classic, dark wood appearance. It’s a sleek design that we’d be happy to keep front-and-center in a home gym.
Points to consider
Adjusting the water level is difficult: Balance the bucket above the water tank, insert the included siphon pump into the opening, and squeeze the empty chamber like a stress ball, depositing a half cup or so at a time. We’re grateful that, thanks to water purification tablets, you only need to change the water every 6 months.
How We Chose the Best Rowing Machines
Air or water resistance
A rowing machine unites low-impact cardio and strength training; this unique blend of aerobic and anaerobic is best accomplished by air or water resistance. These elements’ response to external force is only as powerful as that force, requiring you to recalibrate effort with every row.
Fitness expert and author of 25 Days, Drew Logan, explained that generating your own momentum "gives a more intense workout that results in ‘zig-zag metabolism.’” Those bursts of energy that start every stroke increase the calorie burn and keep it up, even after your workout ends.
There are two other types of resistance available: hydraulic and magnetic. While they're typically cheaper, neither allows for rowing's greatest fitness benefits by separating intensity from effort. The experts we consulted came down hard on the importance of working against self-driven resistance.
The overall rowing experience encompasses pulley, seat, and — of course — resistance. Air and water have very distinct qualities, making them impossible to compare but interesting to contrast. Air stores inertia, which feeds into intense, constant effort during a goal-oriented workout. Water’s more sluggish drag makes for demanding exercise, but one that’s less consistent.
Outside of resistance type, we found the number-one arbiter of ride feel to be cord quality. Water ergometers tend to employ nylon cords, while air ergometers feature metal chains — a durability factor we anticipated would result in our favoring air. But while all three water rowers aced our expectation of smooth, high-tension strokes, perfecting the chain seems to be more difficult: Some tug with just a slight rumble, others feature bouncy, grinding chains that are incredibly loud, something akin to angry snoring. As for nylon, the best wind and unwind like elastic silk — no slack, no sound, no catching, just perfectly even tension throughout the stroke.
Adjustability & comfort
Your rower should be easy to manipulate so it’s comfortable for your particular body type and fitness level. That breaks down to four factors:
- Seat: A molded, cushioned seat makes long rowing sessions bearable.
- Handles: They should be easy-to-grip and shaped so that it’s easy to keep a natural elbow height through the stroke.
- Foot pedals and straps: Foot pads with visible pegs for adjustments are preferable to adjustment devices that require blind guessing. And we wanted separate belts for each foot, rather than a single strap that requires users to figure out how much slack they’ll need for both feet at once.
- Easy resistance adjustments: This is primarily a factor for air resistance. Air rowers feature practically identical rotating levers that can be moved with a finger. For water rowers, it’s rare to find a machine that varies resistance without hauling out a bucket.
The only piece of technology on air or water rower — the monitor — helps you track your power output. We looked for monitors that provide a full gamut of useful metrics, like strokes per minute and 500m time, on an easy-to-read display with sharp contrast, crisp numbers, and well-spaced characters.
A rowing machine’s streamlined design should require minimal upkeep, but we also wanted a warranty long enough for any manufacturing flaws to come to light — a minimum two years for parts. Anything shorter than that would make us question the quality of the construction.
A rowing machine makes a great talking piece, but we’re guessing you won’t always want it front and center. We looked for rowing machines that can either be stored vertically or separated into two pieces with ease.
How to Find the Right Rowing Machine for You
Know your budget
A safe and effective rowing workout demands a quality machine; any structural tweaks that make it cheaper also make it unsound. If spending $1,000 is outside your price range, your best bet may be going with a different kind of machine. There are great cheap ellipticals and exercise bikes that can provide good workouts at a more manageable price.
Decide on resistance type
If you’re interested in using a rowing machine for focused training — whether for outdoor rowing, an indoor competition, or as part of a larger fitness program — you’ll want air resistance. If you’re drawn to rowers for the enjoyability (alongside the full-body, cardio-plus-strength training efficacy) of a rowing workout, consider a machine with water resistance.
Take a look at your space
Where will you store your rowing machine when you aren't using it? If the answer is a closet, you’ll probably want one that stores vertically. If you’re leaving it out in the open, our WaterRower pick is an especially attractive option that you won’t mind guests seeing.
Hone your technique
Before you start in on your new machine, be sure you know how to row safely. Coach Greg Hughes recommends the training videos made by Concept 2 as well as one featuring a pair of Olympic rowers (filmed on his own turf — the Princeton boathouse).
Rowing Machine FAQ
What’s an ergometer?
An ergometer is technically an instrument for measuring work or energy. It’s also what outdoor rowers call indoor rowing machines. Because rowers use ergs as a standardized method of measuring athletic ability, the name is pretty literal.
What’s the proper rowing technique?
Every stroke consists of four distinct stages, which should meld into a seamless, repeating cycle:
- Catch: Back upright, knees bent, shins vertical, level arms
- Drive: Extend legs, engage core, lever body back
- Finish: Legs at full extension, shoulders slightly behind pelvis, hands at chest
- Recovery: Slide back to initial position by reversing the steps above
How do I know if I’m rowing right?
The proper ratio of effort is about 75 percent lower body and 25 percent upper body. Ensure you’re hitting that by driving through your legs and keeping your hands relaxed. Posture plays a big part, too. Concept 2 recommends imagining your upright profile at noon and tilting from the 11 o’clock position (drive) to the 1 o’clock position (recovery).
How did indoor rowing start?
Rowing machines were first used in Archaic Greece. Chabrias, an Athenian military general in 4th Century B.C., invented wooden rowing simulators for his inexperienced oarsmen. This enabled them to learn technique and timing before stepping foot on actual water crafts. And it must have worked — Chabrias successfully led numerous naval attacks against the Spartans.
Can I compete on my indoor rower?
Yes! The mother of indoor rowing competitions is the CRASH-B Sprints, held annually in Boston. The Charles River All-Star Has-Beens started when the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in 1980 — during the same era that Concept 2 launched their Model A; necessity met opportunity. CRASH-B is still held with aplomb and doesn’t require any special qualification of its applicants.
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