If you’re looking for a low-impact way to get a great cardio workout, look no further than the rowing machine. Indoor rowing has grown in popularity as boutique fitness classes centered around the machine have popped up. Other boutique classes that follow more of a strength-and-cardio circuit format have started to incorporate quick bursts of work on the rower as part of the overall workout.
When shopping for a rowing machine for your home, it’s important to find a model that fits your needs. While rowing machines can use different types of resistance—water, air, and magnets are some of the most common—there’s not necessarily one type of resistance that’s better than another, says Jenna Langhans, NASM CPT and instructor at CityRow NYC. “It really depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for.” The same thing goes for other features, like the type of stats the machine can track, and whether or not it has a big built-in display. What’s worth spending more money on will depend how you plan to use the machine.
One thing that is important, no matter which flashy features you do or don’t opt for, is that you buy a rowing machine that’s made well, says Cameron Yuen, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., senior physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments. “Avoid buying a lower end model. The savings are really not worth the poor construction, poor reliability, and poor features,” he says, adding that he recommends opting for at least a mid-tier machine. After all, you want to make sure the machine gives you a good rowing experience so that you actually want to use it, he says. A well-built machine will also last much longer.
The best way to test out a rowing machine is by using them at the gym first. That way, you can make sure it’s comfortable and has the features that are important to you, Yuen says. If you can test it even just at the store or showroom before you buy it, that’s helpful too. If you can’t try it in person first, read reviews online, watch all of the videos the brand offers, and call the company to ask lots of questions.
And once you find your rowing machine, make sure you learn proper form before jumping on (this article may be helpful if you’re still getting the hang of rowing). “Proper rowing form is hard to learn, and so many people use the machine improperly,” says Ava Fagin, C.S.C.S. “It’s easy to hurt your lower back on this machine if you’re not able to learn properly.” The last thing you want is to set up your new, shiny machine and then hurt yourself immediately so that you can’t even use it, right?
When shopping for a rowing machine, our experts suggest checking for a handful of specific features to make sure that your workout will be comfortable and help you meet your exercise goals. For SELF’s product reviews, where we rigorously test and evaluate all kinds of wellness products to help you decide what’s worth buying, we asked Langhans, Yuen, and Fagin what to look for in a quality rowing machine. Based on their input, here’s what we pay attention to when testing rowing machines for reviews.
Rowing Machines Evaluation and Testing Criteria
Noise level can be really important if you’re using a rower in an open space where other people also will be, or if you live in an apartment. For example, “the WaterRower in general is known for being quieter and sleeker than the fan-based Concept2,” Langhans says.
“When buying any piece of large equipment, you want to consider the maintenance of the machine,” says Langhans. A machine that has many detachable parts can be easier to fix, since you’d only need to replace the one broken part. A machine with more complicated parts, like a chain and a fan, may need to be fixed professionally. Another thing to keep in mind: You’ll have to change/clean the water in a water rower periodically, which you don’t need to do with a fan-based rowing machine, Langhans points out.
Rowers can take up a lot of floor space, so you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to store out of the way when you’re not using it, says Fagin. Ideally, a rower can either be stored vertically or fold, says Yuen.
In addition to evaluating the above overall features, keep the following advice in mind as you evaluate specific features.
When you’re using the rowing machine, you’ll be sitting in the same position for an extended period of time. So you want to make sure the seat is comfortable and fits your body well. “Constantly adjusting yourself for comfort detracts from workout performance and focus, and overall makes rowing a less engaging activity,” Yuen says. Also, you want the seat to be an appropriate distance from the ground. “It might be hard to get on and off the rower if it’s too low,” Fagin says.
When you use a rowing machine, you’ll put your feet on two separate pads and then strap them in place. You want to make sure the straps are adjustable enough so that your feet will fit in them snugly. This is especially important to check if you have larger or smaller than average feet, Yuen says.
There are a few different types of resistance you can choose from. Water or air resistance tend to be the best options for a smooth experience and maximum resistance options, says Yuen. Also, some rowing machines don’t have adjustable resistance, and it will just change based on how hard you pull; others have specific resistance levels you can set and change throughout your workout. If you have very specific training goals, that sort of precision can be helpful, says Yuen.
All rowing machines will have an ergometer, an apparatus that measures energy expended. Some models may just show basics stats like meters and power. If you’re newer to rowing, basic stats and a very user-friendly dashboard or screen may be the most important, says Langhans. On the other hand, a dashboard with more in-depth tracking options and data may be better for people looking to get a competitive edge or improve on specific rowing goals.
“As the fitness industry moves more and more towards digital, a lot of companies are investing more in providing more high-tech features such as bigger screens, or monitors,” says Langhans. For example, some rowers sell additional attachments that allow you to have a full screen to stream workouts. “Most of the higher tech features will be add-ons to the rower,” Langhans adds. She suggests asking the company beforehand what they offer if that’s important to you.
Some rowing machines come with a larger built-in display screen so you can stream workouts right on the machine. If you go for one of these options, make sure the screen is at eye level so that you can comfortable watch it while you row without straining your neck or compromising form. “You don’t want to constantly have to look down where your feet are,” says Yuen. “Ideally it’s a large screen at eye level that can also be easily adjusted mid workout.”
While not necessary to do a cardio workout, these may be important to you. Pre-programmed workouts, streaming capabilities, Bluetooth headphone connection, WiFi connection, and the ability to sync with third-party apps or a heart rate monitor, are all features that can enhance the rowing experience and may be important to many consumers.
How SELF Tests Rowing Machines
We evaluate exercise machines by using them consistently over a set period of time, ideally at least three weeks.
Experts Consulted for These Guidelines
Product Reviews Using These Guidelines