Rowing is essentially a combination of cardio and strength training – which is why it comes with so many benefits. Despite the common misconception that rowing works out your upper body, it actually involves up to 86% of your muscles and it relies on your upper body in only 25-35%.
Although, there’s no doubt that rowing machines are a fantastic choice for anyone looking to get in shape, it may be confusing to choose one with all the options available on the market. In this guide I will walk you through the most important things to consider when buying a rowing machine, so you can choose the right one to suit your space and needs.
One of the most important factors when choosing a rowing machine is the type of resistance. It will affect how quiet, smooth and joint-friendly the machine is. The most popular types of resistance are: bungee rope, air resistance, magnetic resistance, water/fluid resistance and hybrid resistance (air + magnetic). Most indoor rowing competitions involve Concept2 rowers which are based on the air resistance, so let’s begin with that.
Air rowers create resistance through a flywheel with an integrated fan. The flywheel is connected to the handle with a chain, so when you pull the handle, the flywheel with the fan begins to spin creating air resistance. In most air rowers, you can manually adjust the resistance with a lever that adjusts the angle of the fan (creating more or less air resistance). In practice, you can also adjust it with your rowing style – the harder you pull the more resistance you’ll get.
Air resistance mechanism is not prone to wear and tear which makes it a durable and hard-wearing choice. It also offers a very wide range of resistance as it can be adjusted both manually and ‘automatically’ with the rowing technique of the user.
The air resistance is very noisy compared to other types of resistance, especially when used in small spaces such as home gyms.
Similarly to the air rowers, magnetic rowers incorporate a flywheel that’s responsible for creating resistance. However, instead of the fan, magnetic rowers use strong magnets that control the strength of the resistance. It’s usually adjusted electronically from the console of the machine – to create a lower resistance levels the magnets are moved further away from the flywheel and to create a higher resistance magnets are moved closer; consequently, pulling the flywheel with an increased strength. This type of resistance is always constant and doesn’t change with the strength of your stroke. Nowadays, most rowing machines that use the magnetic resistance system are in fact hybrid rowers (magnetic + air) which I will explain later in the article.
The resistance can be conveniently adjusted from the console and it’s always constant. The magnetic rowers are incredibly quiet and smooth and their footprint is usually smaller compared to other types of rowers.
Limited range of resistance while working in the magnetic resistance mechanism – it doesn’t increase with stronger strides.
Water rowing machines are known for the natural rowing feel as they utilise the same type of resistance as actual outdoor rowing – the water. They’re usually belt operated and the belt in connected to a fan that’s mounted inside a water-filled tank. So when you pull, the belt starts the movement of the fan and the water begins to resists the spinning of the fan – creating water resistance. One of the best things about water rowing machines is that the resistance is fully controlled by the user and it’s very simple – the harder you pull, the harder resistance you’ll get. In some cases, you get a manually adjusted lever which changes the angle of the fins and adjusts the amount of created resistance (you can also choose the amount of water you put in the tank).
Naturally, to create more resistance we are prone to start rowing faster – so it takes time to get used to this type of resistance and learn the proper rowing technique. Heavier resistance should be achieved by strong constant pulls instead of rowing faster. Therefore, water rowing machines help with developing correct rowing technique as it’s the only way to get the full water rower experience.
One of the big pros is the sound. It may not be as quiet as magnetic resistance but it’s almost silent compared to the air resistance. The sound itself is very pleasant – like waves, waterfall or (as I’ve heard) a washing machine. It can be very calming or even meditative. The frame of water rowing machines is often wooden so they look very stylish even in the middle of your living room. They are also mostly stored upright so they take almost no space while not in use.
Water rowing machines are usually more expensive compared to other types of resistance (although in my opinion it’s well worth it). It also takes time to get used to this type of resistance if you’ve been previously using air or magnetic resistance system as you need to learn to row with a proper rowing technique to get the most of this type of resistance.
Hybrid rowers use an efficient combination of air and magnetic resistance. In this circumstance, the lighter strokes are usually magnet controlled which makes them smooth and quiet but if you extend a certain level of strength in your stroke, the fan from the air resistance mechanism will chip in, adding more resistance.
You get the best of both worlds – smooth and quiet operation at most times but with a possibility to extend the resistance level if needed. There’s a lot of foldable hybrid rowers on the market so you can easily store them when not in use.
Still a bit loud when fan is in use.
BUNGEE ROPE RESISTANCE
This type of resistance is used in the beginner range of rowers as it’s more budget-friendly and easy to operate. You can manually adjust the tension of the rope that controls the amount of resistance.
They’re usually much cheaper than other rowers so they’re a great choice for users on a lower budget. Bungee rope rowers are also compact and portable which makes them perfect for small home spaces.
The resistance on the rower can’t go very high so you will most likely quickly reach the limit and want more. The bungee rope is much less durable compared to other types of resistance. Due to the compact size, they won’t be suitable for taller users. As the resistance is very limited and the build quality is usually lower compared to more expensive models, they’re only suitable for beginners.
OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Most rowers will come with a monitor and of course some will be more advanced than others. This is purely down to personal preference. Basic monitors are quite limited in what they show you, but more advanced ones could have heart rate monitoring, calorie counters, pre-set programs and allow you to enter virtual races. Some rowing machines (eg. Baltic Pro Rower) are compatible with fitness apps such as Kinomaps, which turn your rowing machine into an interactive fitness game. You simply choose a video which displays geotagged map in the real-time speed of your workout device.
You can also take your rowing session to a virtual reality world with the HoloFit VR Headset. HoloFit is a subscription based service that connects your fitness machine to a Virtual Reality Headset, allowing you to train in a variety of virtual worlds. You can choose to workout in one of the available modes: explore, time attack, cardio goals and multiplayer. During your workout sessions you’ll be swimming under water, cycling around Saturn or running across Antarctica. Find our more about Holofit – here!
If your rowing machine isn’t comfortable, you’re never going to use it. You want to look for a seat which is ergonomically designed so it conforms to the shape of your body. Also make sure it’s cushioned with thick layer of foam. Notice how high the seat is located – the higher it is, the more accessible it’ll be to users with limited mobility. If you don’t have any mobility issues you may want to opt for a lower seat position as it’ll usually make the rower more compact.
The rail that the seat is located on is also an important factor to consider. It’ll affect how stable the seat is and how much noise the movement of the seat will make. Many rowers offer a double rail system (eg. Life Fitness HX Trainer) which prevents the seat from wobbling and offers a very secure and smooth movement. This model also incorporates protective rubber layer on the rails which makes the seat movement almost silent and incredibly smooth. Additionally, rowers with a double rail system have a higher maximum user weight as they’re more stable and can withstand more than the single rail alternatives (eg. WaterRower Beech – 450kg max user weight, Concept2 Model D – 135kg max user weight).
Ideally, you’ll want the handlebars to incorporate an anti-slippery coating so that even when your hands get sweaty, the handles will stay in your hands. Some models will include heart rate sensor in the handlebars so you don’t have to buy an external chest strap.
FOLDING / STORAGE
Rowing machines are a great choice for users with space limitations and home gyms as most of the models are compact and space-saving. This will be either thanks to a folding system (eg. BodyMax R40) or ability to put the rower upright (eg. Baltic Pro Rower). The upright stored rowers take close to none space when not in use as you can simply place them in the corner or next to a wall. Most rowing machines come with incorporated transport wheels so they can be easily moved around.
Recently, wooden rowers have become very popular thanks to their stylish non-gym like look. If you don’t want to put a bulky piece of metal in the middle of your living room, you may want to consider the wooden rowers. With the elegant design and variety of wood colour options you will definitely find one that compliments your space.
ROWING AS A WORKOUT
Rowing is a very effective type of training as it provides a full body workout. The rowing stroke consists of 65 to 75 percent leg work and 25 to 35 percent upper body work and the major muscle groups it targets are: upper back, pecs, arms, abdominal muscles and obliques. Rowing will also strengthen your quadriceps, calves and glutes!
Rowing is a low impact exercise so it’s a joint-friendly cardio option. A 155-pound person can burn 316 calories in 30 minutes of a vigorous rowing workout. Rowing is a great alternative to running, cycling and elliptical trainers as it targets the widest variety of muscle groups in your body. It’s an effective cardio training so it will benefit your cardiovascular health as well (heart, lungs and blood circulation).
OUR TOP PICKS
With the variety of available models and resistance systems, there’s something for everybody out there. So make sure to check different options and keep in mind your personal needs when choosing your machine. Maybe you’re looking for a quiet solution that will look stylish in your house? Or maybe you love using fitness apps so you’d prefer something that will connect the rower to your tablet?
Here are our top picks:
- cardiostrong Baltic Pro – water resistance | double rail | stores upright | Kinomap compatible
- BodyMax R100 V4.0 – hybrid resistance | ergonomic handle | compact design
- LifeFitness Row HX Trainer – water resistance | wooden frame | double rail
- BodyMax R40 – bungee rope resistance | compact | budget-friednly
- Taurus Row-X – hybrid resistance | robust commercial grade construction | accessible seat level | foldable