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Rowing Machine Buying Guide
Rowing machines? Sure, they’re fine at the gym and were popular 40 years ago, but does anyone except President Frank Underwood (from House of Cards, of course) still use a rowing machine at home?
Since we’ve taken the time to write this rowing machine buying guide, you can probably guess that the answer is “yes.” Home rowers remain extremely popular; in fact, advances in technology mean there are more types of machines on the market than ever, with a huge variety of resistance options and features.
The continued popularity of rowing machines is understandable. Rowing combines the benefits of cardio workouts with those of strength training, and is one of the only ways you can work your arms, shoulders, abs, back and legs at the same time. Many experts say the only better workout you can do is swimming. The intensity of a rowing workout, when done properly and regularly, is perhaps the fastest method for burning calories, losing weight and building muscle. That’s why many professional athletes and trainers include interval training on the rower as an integral part of their regimens.
There are four basic types of rowing machines, categorized by the way resistance is created, and there are hundreds of models which fit into those categories. How do you sift through so many possibilities? Well, we suggest that you start with this rowing machine buying guide to get a good grasp of the landscape, and after we run you through the important things you need to know, we’ll explain what to do next.
We’ll begin with the same general questions you should ask yourself before purchasing any home fitness equipment.
Will You Really Use a Rowing Machine?
Rowers aren’t like treadmills. Walking and running aren’t exercises you have to “get used to.” But unless you grew up on the water, spent a lot of time at summer camp, or have used rowing machines regularly at the gym, the physical action of rowing will be foreign to you – and a lot more strenuous than you might expect. We strongly encourage anyone who is thinking about buying one of these machines but hasn’t had rowing experience to head to a gym (get a trial membership, if necessary) and take a rower for a few spins to make sure it’s the type of workout you’ll stick with. (Don’t expect the exact same experience on a home rowing machine that you’ll get at the gym; most commercial models work a lot more smoothly.)
Also be aware that the true benefits of working out on a rowing machine are only seen with regular use. If you don’t expect to be able (and willing) to use the equipment at least three times a week, you might be better off looking at other alternatives.
Still with us? Great. Let’s move on to the other big questions to ask yourself before going shopping.
Space and Budget Considerations
There are really two more issues you’ll need to think about: whether you have the room to accommodate a rower, and the realistic budget you’ll have to work with.
Most rowing machines have large footprints, with many the size of a small couch and not built to be folded up and stored in a closet. It will be crucial to measure and determine the room you’ll have to work with, because that will tell you what size and style of rower you can consider (hydraulic rowing machines, for example, take up the least space), and whether you’ll have to stick with a portable or collapsible machine.
If you’ve purchased home gym equipment in the past, you won’t suffer sticker shock when you begin shopping. But if this is new to you, it’s best to know in advance how much you’ll be able to spend on a rower. Most of the budget options you’ll see under $500 will be very limited, either by quality or by performance. You can find well-built, decent choices around the $1000 price point, but you’re looking at a $2000 price tag if you want performance and durability approaching the machines you may have tried at the gym. Understanding how much you can realistically spend on a rower will let you quickly narrow down the alternatives and start comparing functionality and features.
The pros and cons of different type of rowing machines are important to understand, so the next step in our rowing machine buying guide is to look at the categories of rowers on the market.
Categories of Rowing Machines
We mentioned earlier that rowing machines can use four different methods to generate the resistance against which you exercise. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, and of course, comes in at a different price level.
Hydraulic Piston Rowers: Two hydraulic pistons are attached to the arms of these rowing machines. As you pull on the handles, resistance is generated by the pull of the pistons against the fluid or air that’s inside the cylinders. You can adjust the amount of resistance just by changing settings on the machine (and you can set different resistance levels on each arm). This doesn’t replicate an actual rowing experience particularly well, and will give more of a workout to the arms than the legs (since the user’s arms are doing most of the work). Hydraulic rowers are the most common and least expensive types of machines, and are normally smaller (often collapsible) and less expensive than machines in the other categories.
Magnetic Rowers: Similar to the way most elliptical trainers work, resistance is created through the effect of electromagnets in close proximity to a flywheel. The force applied by the user determines the power flowing through the magnets, and therefore, the resistance. There are adjustments which can be made by the user to increase or decrease the range of resistance. Unlike hydraulic rowers, magnetic machines usually have adjustable arms and movable seats, providing a more enjoyable and customizable full-body workout. These rowers are quiet and the rowing is smooth, although not with the same feel as if you were in a rowboat. They’re larger than some hydraulic machines but smaller than air or water ones, can’t be folded up, and are usually in the “low-to-moderate” price range.
Air Resistance Rowers: Air-powered machines generate resistance by the actions of the user. The harder and faster you row, the more resistance you’ll experience. The way it works is by means of a flywheel which looks a lot like the blades of a fan; the faster the user rows, the faster the flywheel spins and the greater the air flow resistance that’s created. These machines are noisy, but the experience is smooth and is the closest you’ll come to the feeling you have when rowing on water – unless you’re using a water rower, of course. Most air resistance machines also allow full range of motion, are easy to maintain and tend to be large and expensive, although you can find some rather flimsy cheap ones available.
Water Rowers: The Rolls-Royce of rowing machines, water rowers require a lot of space, are quite heavy, and cost a lot of money. They also best simulate the action of rowing on a lake or pond for an obvious reason: the resistance is created by paddles pushing against water contained in an enclosed tank. You don’t use actual oars; the handlebars of a water rower drive paddles inside the tank. Resistance levels are changed by adding or removing water, so adjustments are less convenient than on rowers just requiring the turn of a knob. There’s some noise created by a water rowing machine, but many users feel that it’s “good noise” because it sounds much like what you’d hear when navigating a rowboat.
Important Features of Rowing Machines
Since there are four very different types of rowers, it’s difficult to generalize about many of the features you should look for. The size of a water rower’s tank, needless to say, won’t be a concern if you’re purchasing an air rower, while the range of resistance levels possible on a magnetic rower can’t be used to compare them to air rowers which create resistance solely by the exertion of the user.
Size, portability, noise and price will normally dominate the decision process, along with the comfort and feel of a rower (if you’re able to actually try them out before buying). But here are a few other considerations and features to keep in mind as you narrow down your choices.
- Length and Weight Limitations: Your size will play a part in whether a rowing machine is right for you. Reputable manufacturers will always make the maximum weight capacity of their rowers public. However, you’ll be on your own if you’re tall; you should look for a machine with a long seat rail to accommodate your length, and you’ll probably also need large foot pedals. You’re best staying away from hydraulic models, and many magnetic rowers will also be too short for you.
- Reason for Rowing: As we’ve mentioned, only air- and water- resistance rowing machines give you a feeling close to the one you experience in a rowboat. If you’re training for in-season rowing, you’ll want to stick to one of those models. If you’re just looking for a good workout, the field is wide open.
- Durability and Quality: Equipment manufacturers that have been well-known for their construction quality, like Concept2, can usually be counted on to produce durable rowing machines. When comparing brands, though, you should be looking at the strength and solidity of the materials used in construction. For example, foot plates which are metal instead of plastic will withstand pressure better, and a smooth metal-alloy rail will work better and last longer than one made with cheaper metals. If the unit depends on pull-drive, belts are quieter than chains but will last as long and are just as strong. Look for solid back support and easily-adjustable handlebars, too.
- Console: Not all rowing machines will have electronic consoles like the ones you commonly see on treadmills and ellipticals; most hydraulic rowers, for example, don’t have consoles. Many others do, however, and if you want to be able to monitor your workout while it’s in progress, a console is a necessity. It should be an LCD model which is large enough to be easily visible from the seat of your rower, and be positioned at eye level. Since you normally won’t be able to reach out and touch a console from your seat (although a few models position the monitor on a movable arm) it should automatically display the most important metrics of a rowing session. Elapsed time, speed, distance rowed, number of strokes taken and strokes per minute are the most important, although inexpensive rowers may not show the latter two. Some will also display total calories burned or other measurements, and if you purchase a rower with built-in preset programs, those will also be displayed. There are even a few rowing machines which let you see a simulated “race” against an unseen competitor or against your own previous times. A more important function could be monitoring your heart rate as you row; some models either provide wireless monitors that you can wear, or allow the display of readouts from third-party heart monitors.
- Warranty: These vary widely depending on manufacturer, but if you’re spending a lot on a rower you should be looking for at least 3-5 years on the frame (a lifetime warranty isn’t uncommon), 2-3 years on parts and one year on labor. Lesser machines should provide at least one year on the frame and parts.
This rowing machine buying guide has given you the basics, and you should be ready to go out and shop. One final note on purchasing a rowing machine, though: don’t believe everything you read, particularly online. Manufacturers commonly post only positive reviews of their products on their websites, and many “unbiased” reviews on third-party sites are often written by the companies themselves or by their paid agents. It’s always best to read independent industry recognised reviews and try any machine you’re considering at a department or sporting goods store or a higher-end exercise equipment shop; if that’s not possible, look for a consensus of opinions posted on trusted sites by verified buyers or reviews done by professional fitness magazines, before buying into hype which may have been artificially generated.