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Published: Dec 18, 2022 13 min read
Courtesy of Hydrow

Treadmills and exercise bikes are usually the go-to pieces of fitness equipment for at-home gyms. But what many people don’t know is that rowing machines can provide a far more complete workout.

When using proper form on an indoor rowing machine, your upper and lower body will get a very good workout. Each rowing stroke activates muscles in your arms and core, all the way down to your quads and calves. (Research indicates that legs get 65% to 75% of a rowing workout, while the upper body accounts for 25% to 35%. In comparison, the biggest fitness benefits for cycling and running center on the lower body.) Rowing is also considered a low-impact exercise, so it can provide an all-in-one strength and cardio session with a lower risk of injury involved.

The two most important factors you should consider when vetting different rowing machines are their resistance type and fitness tracking capabilities. The type of resistance can drastically change the feel of your workout. Machines that use water or air to generate resistance can closely resemble the actual in-water rowing experience. On the other hand, rowers with magnetic or hydraulic systems provide a more consistent pull, like the resistance on an exercise bike. The resistance type also affects how much noise the machine produces — which might be especially important if you live in a shared space or an apartment building.

Almost all rowing machines come with built-in monitors that your progress and can help you analyze and tinker with your routine. Affordable rowing machines generally display only basic metrics such as stroke count, time rowed, and calories burned. Higher-priced models can get more specific with heart rate or average rowing speed (called the average split), for example.

Rowing machine buying guide

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a rowing machine to get a solid piece of exercise equipment. At-home rowing machines start as low as $100, though they can run to upwards of $2,500. Finding the best rower for you depends on your budget, as well as how often you're planning on using it, your current fitness level, and your long-term goals. Once you have an idea of how you plan to use a rowing machine, take factors into account as you go browsing different models:

• Resistance type. Rowing machines have one of four different resistance mechanisms: magnetic, hydraulic, air, and water. While one type isn’t necessarily better than the other, each brings a different feel to the rowing motion.

Water and air rowers, as you can probably guess, use these elements to generate the resistance you’ll feel with each stroke. These two types of resistance are said to most resemble the actual experience of rowing out on the water. A water-resistance rower has a set of paddles placed inside a water tank, which you’ll move when you pull the machine's cord. With an air rower, instead of pushing water, you’ll be spinning a flywheel. With either kind of machine, the faster you row, the higher the level of resistance.

Magnetic rowers, on the other hand, use a set of magnets around a flywheel to generate resistance. Magnets are more than enough for a vigorous workout, however, their resistance is fixed and doesn't vary with each stroke. Depending on your rower, you can manually adjust the resistance level with a knob on the machine or through the built-in screen.

Lastly, hydraulic rowers have a piston filled with air or fluid that you push with each stroke. Some serious rowing machine users complain that hydraulic rowing machines don't feel as smooth as others, and that they can quickly heat up (which can temporarily make the resistance feel weaker). So they’re most suitable for shorter rowing sessions. If that's acceptable, the good thing is that most hydraulic rowing machines are inexpensive (often, $300 or less).

• Noise level. A rowing machine's resistance type directly impacts how much noise it’ll make. Magnetic rowers are known for being completely silent since the magnets never touch the flywheel and no friction is generated. Hydraulic rowers also tend to be on the quieter side.

Water and air rowers, however, can be noisy. That may be annoying to some users (and their housemates or upstairs neighbors), but many water-resistance machine users actually find the sounds of splashing and swooshing to be relaxing — similar to rowing on a lake. Air rowers, however, can get particularly noisy since their flywheel is basically a fan.

• Connected rowers. The trendy Peloton approach of at-home fitness now extends beyond exercise bikes. These days, rowing machine enthusiasts have access to live and on-demand classes daily, provided they pay $15 to $40 for monthly memberships on top of the rower itself, which might cost thousands. While the costs can quickly add up, these machines and their corresponding subscriptions could very well be worth it for people who make rowing the centerpiece of their exercise routine.

• Available space. Most rowers are seven feet (or more) in length so you’ll definitely want to visualize their placement before making a purchase. If having a dedicated area for your rowing machine is out of the question, you’ll want to buy one that can easily be stored vertically or has a slide rail that folds.

Best rowing machines

1. Editor's pick: Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rowing Machine

Courtesy of Walmart

Resistance mechanism: 8-level magnetic | Monitor: LCD | Weight Limit: 250 lbs. | Machine Size: 82”L x 19”W x 23”H Assembled, 37”L X 19”W X 53.5”H Folded

Exercise equipment from Sunny Health & Fitness tends to get overwhelmingly positive customer reviews, due to their affordable prices on simple, sold machines that feature all the essentials. The brand offers great options for beginners, such as the SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rowing Machine. Normally selling at retail for around $300 or less, this quiet, magnetic-resistance rower has everything you need to achieve a vigorous workout.

The SF-RW5515 has an eight-level resistance system to help you remain challenged throughout your routine. The integrated LCD monitor tracks basic metrics such as stroke count, time rowed, and calories burned. The scan feature continuously switches between stats, allowing you to keep track of your progress without breaking form.

The slide rail is 48” long (44” of which are usable when rowing), making it suitable for users of all heights. It’s foldable and has built-in wheels, so it’s relatively easy to store. Also, its fully padded seat (11″L x 14″W) and anti-slip foot pedals with safety straps can keep you comfortable, letting you focus entirely on perfecting your rowing motion.

2. Best affordable smart rower: Fitness Reality 1000 Plus Bluetooth Magnetic Rowing Machine

Courtesy of Walmart

Resistance mechanism: 14-level magnetic | Monitor: LCD | Weight Limit: 250 lbs. | Machine Size: 88.5"L x 21.5"W x 21.5"H Assembled, 39.5"L x 21.5"W x 53.5"H Folded

The Fitness Reality 1000 Plus is another affordable option, but with a slight edge. For starters, it boasts a 14-level magnetic resistance system, while most budget-friendly options offer only eight levels. But what makes it really stand out from other rowers in its price range (around $300) is Bluetooth capability.

This rower can connect via Bluetooth to the My Cloud Fitness app, allowing you to set workout goals and track your workout data directly on your phone for free. However, some users complain that the rower repeatedly disconnects from the app. With this in mind, the app and Bluetooth capability shouldn’t necessarily be the main selling points.

Putting the possibly finicky app aside, the 1000 Plus comes with an integrated monitor that tracks basic metrics like distance traveled, time, total count of strokes, strokes per minute, and calories burned. If you'd rather distract yourself with music, podcasts, or TV shows while you row, there’s a built-in smartphone holder.

All rowing machines provide an excellent upper-body workout, but the 1000 Plus expands the opportunities to target your upper muscles. It has adjustable footplates which you can stand on while using the rower’s pull cord to do curls, upright rows, bent-over rows, front raises, shrugs, triceps extensions, standing shoulder presses, and more.

3. Best for low prices & small spaces: Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine

Courtesy of Walmart

Resistance mechanism: 12-level hydraulic | Monitor: LCD | Weight Limit: 250 lbs. | Machine Size: 58.25”L x 42.5”W x 18.125”H

For under $200, the Stamina BodyTrac Glider 1050 is very affordable and can provide a fairly realistic rowing experience. Instead of having a single pull cord, it comes with two separate arms which you can move forward or backwards, similar to rowing oars out in the water. Keep in mind that this approach could be difficult for some beginners who might have trouble maintaining a proper rowing stroke (or synchronizing their arm and leg movements).

This Stamina model has a 12-level hydraulic resistance system, which is more than ample for short sessions or low-intensity workouts. However, hydraulic systems use fluid to generate resistance, and the system can heat up as you push through your workout. As a result, resistance levels can grow weaker. In other words, this kind of rowing machine might not be adequate for long, high-intensity rowing sessions, though some users mention taking breaks in between rowing sets to stretch or do other off-machine exercises as a solution.

One benefit to hydraulic resistance rowing machines is their size. This machine is around 20” smaller in length than water, air, or magnetic rowers since its hydraulic piston is located underneath the rower. (Other machines have flywheels located in front of the sliding rail.) Although this model’s arm rowers make it 20” wider than rowers equipped with a pull cord, these extra inches only make a difference when the rower is being used. When the machine is not in use, you can fold the arms to bring its overall width down to 23.5”.

4. Best Dual-Resistance Rowing Machine: NordicTrack RW900 Rower

Courtesy of NordicTrack

Resistance mechanism: Dual magnetic and air | Monitor: 22” HD Touchscreen | Weight Limit: 375 lbs. | Machine Size: 86.5" L x 22.0" W x 50.4" H Assembled, 44.5" L x 55" W x 28.7" H Folded

The NordicTrack RW900 features a two-in-one resistance system, offering 26 levels of magnetic resistance and an additional 10 powered by air. The magnetic mechanism provides constant resistance throughout your workout, while the air mechanism adds a more natural rowing feel — shifting heavier or lighter depending on your rowing pace and how much air can enter the flywheel.

This dual system is enhanced by the RW900’s Live Resistance Control feature. If you're participating in a live class, the trainer can use this feature to remotely adjust your magnetic resistance level. You can, however, bring the level down (or up) whenever you want, or even push yourself further by cranking up the air resistance.

The RW900 includes 30 built-in workout programs. But to truly make the most of this machine and justify its price ($1,599), it should probably be purchased along with the NordicTrack’s compatible fitness platform, iFit. With an iFit membership you get access to a vast workout library, as well as a wide range of daily live classes for rowing machines, exercise bikes, treadmills, and more. An iFit membership costs $396 per year or $39 per month for a family plan, or $180 per year for the individual plan.

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