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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Painter Diver

What to Look for When Buying a Rowing Machine: Beginner’s Guide

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

Rowing machines have gotten extremely popular with the increase in boutique fitness classes like RowHouse, Orange Theory Fitness, and CityRow, which use the rowing machine as part of their workouts. You can even find rowing machines in big box gyms like Planet Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness, but now with more and more people working out at home, the market for buying a rowing machine is growing! That being said, now that you want a rowing machine, let’s talk about what to look for when buying a rowing machine.

What should you look for in a home rowing machine?

This is actually one of the most common questions I get weekly in my inbox. When buying a rowing machine, it’s important to know some of the basics as not all rowing machines are created equal.

There are different types of resistance that have pluses and minuses, which I will go into below. But, there are also other things to consider like features, the numbers on the machine, and more. So let’s dive in!

What are the different types of rowing machines?

Here is an excerpt from my book, Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Rowing about the different types of rowing machines:

There are four different types of rowing machines and they are classified based on the type of resistance they use: magnetic, air, hydraulic, or water. Different people tend to prefer one over the other, or are looking for a bargain and choose one based on that. In my opinion, the best way to choose a rower is to try a few out. Go to a local fitness studio or gym equipment store and try the rowers that they have. Some people love the sound of the whoosh whoosh that the water-based rowers make. Some people like the quietness of some of the magnetic machines. It really is about your personal preference. I do talk about the WaterRower and Concept2 in this book because they are the most common ones, but I will talk about them more here too. With that in mind, let me give you a brief overview of the different types of resistance.

Magnetic Resistance Rowing Machines

These are usually the quietest machines, so if that is important to you, you might want to look at these types of rowers. These machines usually give you a smooth rowing feeling as well. They use magnets and a spinning flywheel to change the resistance you feel on the machine. The biggest disadvantage to these machines is that they don’t really simulate water rowing as much, but if you just want a good workout, go for it. As long as your criteria are met, then yay! I talk more about the criteria later in this section.

Air Resistance Rowing Machines

Air resistance is the most popular type of rowing machine. The resistance is based on airflow through a flywheel, so as you pull, the flywheel spins. The more power you put into your stroke, the faster the flywheel spins. These machines also have a form of damper setting, mentioned earlier in this book. (We aren’t going into damper setting in this blog post.) Air resistance machines are good at replicating rowing on the water, the resistance adjusts with your rowing, it’s smooth, and it usually needs less maintenance. The downside is that these machines are usually a little louder than other options. The Concept2 is an example of this type of machine and is considered the “gold standard” with rowing machines.

The Concept2 is the most common machine used in CrossFit boxes, Row House, and erg rooms for people who do the sport of crew. The way this machine feels is pretty similar to being on the water and the numbers correlate very well to numbers that people would get when rowing on the water. So people competing often use this machine. Concept2 also has an online database to compare times with other people and competitions throughout the year as well. Most of the apps that are created for the indoor rowing machine are compatible with the Concept2. However, this machine is a little more expensive, with a current price tag of roughly USD $900. People will search for these machines to go on sale (which I talk about later in this blog), and they get purchased fairly quickly, however this machine holds its value fairly well and can have multiple millions of meters on it and still work great. Even though this machine feels like being on the water, it uses air resistance, not water.

Hydraulic Resistance Rowing Machine

These rowing machines are usually at a lower price point and are often quiet as well. These machines will still give you a good workout, but they aren’t very comfortable or as smooth as the other options. The hydraulic rowing mechanism uses pistons that are attached to the handles, and you pull against the air or fluid in the cylinder, and levels or clamps change the resistance. A downside is that the resistance will not stay consistent, as the oil heats up, the resistance will change. These rowing machines often have two handles as well, which can be nice if you want that type of movement. Another thing to keep in mind is that these machines often need more maintenance.

Water Resistance Rowing Machine

Water rowing machines use paddles in the water as their form of resistance. There is water in a tank, and when you pull on the handle, the paddles move the water. The mass of the water moving creates a drag and therefore creates resistance. Similar to air resistance machines, the more power you put, the more the water moves. These machines are usually quieter than an air-based machine, are nice and smooth, and sound nice. There is also little maintenance needed with these machines, but water purifying tablets are often recommended.

The WaterRower is an example of this type of machine. There are water rowers that are not this brand, but the brand WaterRower is the next most common water based rowing machine that people get, and is roughly the same price as a Concept2, currently starting at USD $895. People love the sound this machine makes, as it makes you feel like you are on the water. If you are going to get this machine, there are some things you might want to consider. First, the footplate and handle are actually a little narrower than on some other machines. So, if you have wider hips or shoulders, this is something to consider. (Here is a blog post on the handle differences.) I mentioned it earlier in the book, but this position can cause you to compensate a little if you are not careful. There are some footplate extenders you can get that are a little wider, but it is an extra cost, but definitely something to consider if you need it. Second, the seat is a little higher, so it changes the angles at your ankles, knees, and hips. Not bad, just different. And lastly, the screen is down low on many models, so if you look at the numbers a lot, it might take a toll on your neck. But the WaterRower comes in steel or wood, looks nice, and sounds cool. There are also some apps that work with this machine, so keep that in mind too. Not as many as with the Concept2, but still more than with "off" brand rowers. Now let’s cover the “off” brand rowers. Pretty much any other brand is an “off” brand rower, such as: Life Fitness, NordicTrack, Sunny Health & Fitness, Stamina, etc. There really are so many that I won’t list them all. Each is a little different, but knowing the resistance differences might help point you in the right direction. Some of the key things to pay attention to are: how does it feel, do the numbers tell you the info you want, is it in the price range you want, and does it have all the features you want? For example, if you want to hook up to a program like ErgRow that monitors your meters, not all machines will do that. Same with hooking up a heart rate monitor, they won’t all do that either. If a machine doesn’t tell you the split or pace like mentioned earlier in this book, I personally wouldn’t buy it, as it won’t give you numbers that are helpful in setting goals and seeing improvements. (I go a little into this later in this blog too.)

Regardless of the machine, every one varies in how it feels, so I recommend trying them out if you can.

If any of that was confusing, please feel free to comment below as I know it’s from my book and all the context might not be there.

What should you look for in a rowing machine?

This is something that people overlook a lot, but really shouldn’t. Often people just go off of price and think it’s a rowing machine…they are all the same. But as you saw above, they aren’t all the same. It’s like buying a car. Some cars will need more service, some will last longer than others, some will fall apart quickly, some are more comfortable, and some just get the job done. Rowers are similar. Some will get the job done, but might need more TLC, or might fall apart more quickly, while others might last longer or be more comfortable. This is important as almost weekly in my rowing group I see people who got a cheaper rowing machine to start, only to then upgrade to a nicer machine once they realize the differences. However, I do believe that there are circumstances where people would benefit from the cheaper rowing machines, so I like to share some things to look for when deciding between the cheaper options.

First, think about the type of machine like we talked about above. Water, hydrolic, air, magnetic. Do you need it to be small because you don’t have a lot of space? Do you want the water sound to keep you motivated? Do you need to store it upright? Things like this are really important to start, so knowing where you are going to put the rowing machine can help you start going in the direction of a certain type of rowing machine.

Second, do you want something fancy with a screen, or are you going to hook the machine up to a heart rate monitor or an app? Machines like Hydrow are all about their app. If that keeps you motivated and will get you rowing, YAY! It is more expensive then the “gold standard” Concept2, but if you want a screen with some rowing, then do it! If you want to keep track of your heart rate, make sure your machine will connect with a heart rate monitor, as many of the cheaper ones do not. If you want to compete with others, a Concept2 or using an app, like Indoor Collective, ErgData, or CityRowGo can help with that. But the apps only work on certain machines, so that’s something to look into. Knowing what you want when rowing will help point you in a direction of what rowing machine to purchase.

Third, and the most common reason I see people upgrading machines is because of the numbers on the machine. I recommend checking out this youtube video I made about the numbers where I explain it much better than here, but essentially some of the cheaper rowing machines do not give useful data to see if your rowing is improving. The monitor should show you Strokes Per Minute (SPM), Pace (/500m), Distance, and Time to really be beneficial. Many of the cheaper options will not show you a Pace, and instead give a # of Strokes instead. This is really not very helpful when it comes to rowing and ends up making learning to row and what the numbers mean more difficult for beginner rowers. So look at the screen, and if you need help, just post in the Facebook group or email me and I’m happy to help if you have a machine you aren’t certain about buying.

Fourth, are you a bit overweight and need some extra room to make rowing comfortable? Don’t worry, I am too, but first check out this video on rowing with a belly and thick thighs from someone who can relate…me! These tips should help on any rower for at least a start. But for buying a machine, look at the width of the foot plate, handles, and see if the footplate is lower than the seat. Some machines have the feet lower than the seat, which can help give you a little extra room. Others have wider foot plates or handles, or you can sometimes buy wider options to attach to the machines. This blog post covers why you might want to pay attention to the handle width, and it goes for the foot plate too.

If you are buying a used machine, depending on the machine, there are different things to look for. The basics include: does the screen turn on and work? Does the seat slide smoothly? Is it broken or chipped at all? Have they been keeping up with maintenance? What model is the rower? These are some of the basics to ask when you see a machine for sale. Then you can always post in Facebook groups like mine, Keep Rowing Longer, and people will be happy to give advice.

Where can you buy a rowing machine?

An easy place to search is on Google or Amazon to just start getting an idea of what rowers are out there. Then I recommend going to their site and seeing if you can find the manual or see pictures of the rowing machine and the screen. If you are going to look for a rowing machine on sale, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, indoor rowing competitions, and local Facebook CrossFit groups are great for searching. These days a lot of people are also returning to gyms, so people are trying to get rid of their equipment. If the price is over the original sale price, I’d walk away, but if it’s cheaper than the original price on Amazon, it’s probably a good deal, especially the Concept2 machines, even if you are only saving $100. You can also always post in Facebook groups asking for advice and people will help, but if it’s a good deal, know that the machine might not be available for long.

What sort of rowing machine is best?

Honestly, the “gold standard” rower is the Concept2, and after that is the WaterRower. They have both been around a long time and hold their value. When it comes to other machines, it really depends on the things mentioned in this article, as what is “best” really depends on what you are looking for. What is “best” for one person, might not be “best” for someone else. I hope the tips in this blog post help you come up with a “best” option for you.

How much should I spend on a rowing machine?

This is also a tough question, as everyone is different. There really is no right answer for this either. If you start with a cheaper machine, you might end up upgrading pretty quickly, or you might find you hate rowing and are glad you bought a cheaper machine. The machine also needs to fit with your space, rowing goals and desires, and be a good rower for you. So find out what your budget is, reflect on if you know you like rowing or are giving it a test drive, and find what works for you. Good luck.

I hope this helps you feel more confident in what to look for when buying a rowing machine. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or email me. Or connect in the other ways below.

If anyone is looking for a book that teaches you everything about rowing and now getting hurt, all in one place, checkout the book, Beginner's Guide to Indoor Rowing!

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