In this most recent refresh, we increased our chart from a top five to a top seven, adding the Merax Water Rowing Machine as well as the Fitness Reality 4000MR. We also spruced up our comprehensive guide and our FAQ section to keep it up-to-date as we head into 2020!
If you’re in search of a workout that can engage your entire body while raising your heart rate and torching calories, don’t overlook a rowing machine!
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While they may not be the first exercise machines that spring to mind, rowers provide all the cardio benefits of treadmills and exercise bikes, while working your upper body, lower body and core.
With price tags ranging up to $1,000, the machines we highlight on this page are on the higher end of the market and include some of the best rowing machines around. You may spend more, but they provide a core performance that keeps you hooked, with the amenities that make your workout experience as smooth as possible.
We’ll begin by breaking down each rower individually – this strategy helps us get a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each design. After that, we’ll move onto our buyer’s guide, which contains insight into the most important features of rowing machines to help you get your money’s worth from your next purchase.
Finally, we’ll also discuss a couple of the most frequent questions that new buyers might have about pulling the trigger on an investment like this.
Resistance Type: Air
Resistance Levels: 10 levels
Features: Steel/aluminum frame, nickel-plated steel chain, commercial-grade seat, backlit LCD monitor, built-in workout programs, built-in workout games, transportation wheels, 500lb weight capacity
One of the most popular rowing machines around, the Concept2 Model D takes the top spot on our list. If you have any experience with rowing machines, chances are you’ve used this model before – the Model D is a mainstay at gyms and fitness clubs thanks to its top-notch performance and durability.
This rower uses air resistance to provide adjustable tension that feels just like you’re rowing on the water. There’s also an impressive LCD monitor that includes built-in workout programs and games, while accurately tracking your statistics throughout your session.
With its strong aluminum and steel frame, the Model D is also one of the sturdiest rowers on our list, taking users up to 500lbs. When not in use, this rower folds up to make it easier to store and transport.
Resistance Type: Water
Resistance Levels: None
Features: American ash and aluminum frame, fixed footplate, upright storage, LCD monitor, transportation wheels, 330lb weight capacity
As far as water rowing machines under $1,000 go, the WaterRower A1 is one of the most luxurious models you’ll find. It borrows the sleek single-rail design of air rowers like the popular Model D, yet uses American ash in the construction for an elegant look and feel.
Like all water rowers, the A1 uses a large drum located behind the footplate of the machine. The resistance adjusts automatically to your speed and exertion, although you can manually add and remove water to change the intensity.
Workout feedback – including intensity, speed and 500m time – comes courtesy of the built-in LCD screen. While it’s a little expensive, the WaterRower A1 is a premium machine that looks and feels just like you’re out on the water. An outstanding choice for serious users.
Resistance Type: Water
Resistance Levels: None
Features: Wood and metal combination frame, large water flywheel, built-in LCD monitor, double-rail seat design, transportation wheels, 325lb weight capacity
Like the WaterRowerA1, the Valor from Pure Design Fitness offers both water resistance and a wood-metal hybrid frame that feels great to ride and looks stylish at the same time. The large water flywheel behind the footplate ensures the resistance levels adjust to fit your pace.
The dual-rail seat design and sturdy fixed footplate provide a strong base for your workout. While it takes up slightly more space than a monorail, the dual-rail setup creates a very realistic feel.
This rower also offers a built-in LCD screen, which you can use to track your statistics and preferences during your workout. Unfortunately, you do need to input your preferred settings before every session, which makes it feel a bit cumbersome.
Resistance Type: Water
Resistance Levels: None
Features: Steel frame, compact design, built-in LCD screen and device holder, wireless pulse transmitter included, monorail design, transportation wheels, 300lb weight capacity
If you want a top-notch rowing machine but need a design that takes up less space, then the Stamina X Water Rower could be for you. This model retains all the benefits of water rowing machines in a compact frame that will fit in smaller or more cramped spaces with ease.
The core of the Stamina X’s design is the water drum. Rather than behind the footplate, this rower has its drum underneath the seat. This cuts down on the length of the machine without affecting the feel or user mechanics.
The steel frame is rock-solid and sturdy enough to take years of punishment. When you’re done with your workout, the Stamina X also includes transportation wheels to help you store the rower without any hassle.
Resistance Type: Water
Resistance Levels: None
Features: Compact design, inclined water drum, steel frame, built-in LCD screen, competitive race mode, transportation wheels, 330lb weight capacity
Another water rower with an innovative design, the Merax Water Rowing Machine is unique in that it positions its water drum at an angle to the rest of the frame. Merax claims that this offers extra resistance when compared to flat drums; the location also saves space compared to traditional water rowers.
The frame is made from steel, with a 330lb weight capacity to handle users of all sizes. The monorail frame, fixed footpads and nylon cable make it easy for beginners to get the hang of – there aren’t any unusual quirks that require a learning curve!
An LCD monitor mounted over the water drum helps you analyze your workout. It has both quick-start and planned workout modes included to help you make the most out of the machine.
Resistance Type: Magnetic
Resistance Levels: Adjustable
Features: Steel/aluminum frame, padded handles and seat, monorail design, backlit LCD screen, transportation wheels, wireless heart rate sensor included, 300lb weight capacity
The first folding rower on our list, the ASUNA 4500 is an outstanding choice for users who want to row but may not have the space for a top-of-the-line water- or air-powered machine. The magnetic resistance on this model and folding frame make it great for tight, cramped exercise rooms.
With programmable electronic tension controls, this model can accommodate beginners and more advanced users alike. Magnetic resistance is also practically silent – there’s no need to worry about noise interrupting your concentration!
The amenities on this model are also pretty impressive. Both the seat and the handlebars include generous padding, which keeps the 4500 comfortable through long sessions. The blue backlit LCD screen also tracks your stats, in tandem with the included chest heart rate sensor – a nice touch.
Resistance Type: Magnetic resistance
Resistance Levels: 16 levels
Features: Independent dual handle system, 15 workout programs built-in, backlit LCD console, dual transmission magnetic tension system, extra-padded seat, media shelf, 300lb weight capacity
Rounding out our list is the Fitness Reality 4000MR – a popular rower that uses magnetic resistance to provide a solid workout, with a design that’s unique among its competitors.
With 16 levels of magnetic resistance, the 4000MR offers enough challenge for all levels of rower. The machine works through two handles, which can move independently to one another. While this might not be the most realistic experience, it’s a great way to target each arm individually in your rowing session.
This rower also includes a backlit LCD screen to help you track your statistics in all environments. When you’re done with your workout, you can even fold up this rower to store it neatly in a corner and reclaim your floor space!
Picking out the perfect rowing machine can be a difficult task, particularly if you’re not familiar with the design and construction of different models.
This is why we’ve compiled a buyer’s guide, listing the different features and helping you identify the strengths and weaknesses of each model.
To start out, we’ll break down some of the most important things to look for in a rowing machine in this higher-end price end range. While every rower in this range will incorporate many of these items, comparing the differences between them might help you narrow down your list of options as you search for your first rowing machine.
Shopping for a rowing machine can be particularly tricky thanks to the odd dimensions.
They are quite low to the ground and don’t require the high ceilings that a good elliptical would, yet they can be much longer than some other cardio devices. Depending on the type of frame you choose to buy, your rowing machine may be similar in footprint to a treadmill, although many extend up to around 8ft in length.
It’s also important to consider the materials used in building your rowing machine. Certain frames will be bulkier and more stable, while others are more streamlined but not quite as sturdy.
Rowing machines that use water resistance (something we’ll discuss in the next section) incorporate large, bulky water drums into their designs. This means that their frames are often wider and lower to the ground than other rowing machines.
However, water rowers often incorporate natural wood into the construction, which offers a welcome change from the grey metal you’ll find in other rowing machines – most other types of cardio machines in fact.
If aesthetics is one of your top priorities, a water rower will certainly do the trick. The wood-frame rowers might not be quite as hardwearing as some other designs, however. For machines that multiple people will use, it’s best to stick with a metal-frame option.
Aside from wood-based water rowers, metal-frame designs tend to be skinnier without sacrificing durability or weight capacity. For example, the Concept2 Model D – one of the most popular in this price range – can hold up to 500lb at a time! They’re not quite as pretty, but they are a great fit for rowers of all sizes and skill levels.
You should also pay attention to the rail design in these rowers. While most air rowers, and many water rowers, have monorail designs (where the seat slides back and forth on one rail), a few water rowers use a double-rail setup instead.
This factor alone doesn’t make a major difference in your rowing mechanics, but double-rail models are a bit bulkier to own and store. It’s certainly something to keep in mind as you shop.
Beyond metal-frame and wood-frame rowers, the other major category is hydraulic and magnetic rowers. While both air- and water-resistance rowers include a handle on a chain which you pull to simulate a rowing stroke, some magnetic and hydraulic rowers include long independent handles attached to the frame which move with your stroke (closer to the handles on an elliptical than to a chain-and-handlebar setup).
These rowers are often less expensive than water rowers, which contributes to their popularity. However, they are not as versatile as some other designs.
Unfortunately, if your rowing stroke doesn’t line up well with the path of the handles, you may find it difficult to row on one of these machines. In addition, some hydraulic rowers use a fixed seat rather than a sliding one, which takes your lower body out of the workout.
Along with the general shape of the frame, a rower’s resistance is its most important feature. These high-end models often utilize water resistance, though you will also find air- and magnetic-powered options as well.
All of the different systems have their own advantages and drawbacks but, in general, these more expensive units provide a smoother and more realistic rowing experience than many rowers in the budget range.
In the sub-$1,000 price range, water rowers are the most common type of resistance. These models use large paddles which sweep through a drum of water in the front of the machine. You determine the amount of difficulty with your speed; the faster you row, the greater the resistance.
Water rowers aren’t the quietest machines in this respect, but they do offer a great simulation of rowing on a real body of water. The dynamic resistance adjusts as you do, which makes them well-suited for users at all different fitness levels.
Plus, many people find the sound of the moving water pleasant – it certainly sounds a lot better than the mechanized whine of a treadmill belt!
One other major advantage of water rowers is their flexibility. To increase the baseline resistance in your machine, you can simply add water to the drum (or remove it for the opposite effect). While the resistance will still adjust to your exertion as you row, changing the initial parameters can help you achieve more of a challenge or make the machine easier to get started with.
Water rowers aside, air resistance rowers are the second most common type of rower in this price range. These operate in a fundamentally similar way to water rowers, but with air resistance rather than a tank of water.
You can adjust the resistance by rowing either faster or slower. Certain machines may also carry a selector which allows you to increase or decrease the tension with each stroke.
Like water rowers, air-powered rowers can still offer a realistic open-water rowing experience. They also make some noise, though they sound like air rustling rather than water sloshing (providing the type of noise is important to you!).
Beyond water and air resistance, magnetic resistance systems are one of the only other types of resistance that you’ll find on treadmills in this price range. While magnetic resistance certainly has its benefits, it’s not as common on rowers because of its more clinical feel compared to water and air machines.
Magnetic resistance remains at the same strength throughout the rowing motion, unlike other methods which mimic the pull and release of a genuine rowing stroke more closely. This makes it a bit less popular with rowing enthusiasts who want an exact replica of the feel of riding in a boat. If you’re an experienced rower, you might also outgrow the set resistance limits of a magnetic machine.
On the other hand, magnetic resistance is durable, stable and practically silent. The machines are easy for beginners to get the hang of and need very little (if any) maintenance. If you don’t like the sound and response of water or air rowers, a magnetic model will suit your needs better. Make sure not to overlook them as you go hunting for a new rowing machine!
You may also encounter some other rowing machines with a type of resistance called ‘hydraulic piston resistance.’ While these models do exist, they are very rare in this price range – hydraulic rowing machines are more common at lower price points.
Unlike most other common cardio machines, rowing machines don’t usually include a large central console. That means that it’s very rare to find rowers with large color displays or touchscreens built into the frame. In fact, nearly all of the models on our list feature simple LCD displays without many extra features.
While they may not be the biggest, the LCD monitors usually offer plenty of statistics on your workout – from time and distance, to your splits and heart rate. Some models even display a real-time graph of your exertion through a full stroke, to help you get a better grasp of how you can improve your mechanics.
Unfortunately, most of these LCD screens are small and rather inconvenient. Because you’re constantly moving towards and away from the display while you row, it might be hard to read the statistics you see without pausing for a minute.
If you want to learn exactly how you’re doing without breaking your momentum, you should look for rowers with larger displays that will be easier to read from any distance.
One other main factor with LCD monitors is the backlighting. Many of the screens on rowing machines don’t feature any light source, which makes them almost impossible to read in dark rooms. While this might not be a major issue for most users, if your home gym doesn’t have the best lighting, you may need to consider a model with a backlit screen.
Thanks to the extended footprint of most rowing machines, they can be particularly difficult to transport and store! If you’re considering purchasing a rower for your home, it’s essential that you pick a model with transport wheels, or a folding machine that can tuck into a corner when you’re not using it.
Transport wheels are common on some machines in this price range, though they may vary in size and location. In general, larger wheels will make your rower easier to tilt and maneuver as you transport it. Look for models with wheels placed near the drive side of the machine, as that’s the heavier end.
With that being said, many water rowers don’t include transport wheels and don’t fold up for easy storage. Even though their amenities are some of the best in class, the lack of ways to store them can be a major downside.
In short, make sure to figure out where you can assemble and store the machine before you pull the trigger on a water-resistance rower!
Beyond all of the features we’ve already mentioned, there are a couple of other aspects about rowing machines that you’ll want to keep in mind as you narrow down your list.
These secondary features aren’t quite as important as the main items we’ve already described, but they may still play a significant role in your eventual purchase – don’t discount them!
The seat design is one of the first secondary aspects that you should consider. Rowing seats are often hard and constructed from molded plastic without much padding to cushion your ride. While a smaller seat will feel more realistic for experienced rowers used to working out on the water, most other rowers will appreciate the extra comfort and endurance that a padded seat can provide.
The same goes for the handlebars. While an overly-padded handlebar may soak up sweat and feel unpleasant during a long session, a rock-solid bar can wear through your hands and build up unsightly calluses. A bar with a bit of give, but that still offers good stability, will provide the best compromise.
Behind the handlebar itself, you should pay attention to the cable material. This may seem unimportant, but over time more durable cables can save you time, hassle and money in repair costs. In this price range, synthetic cords are common, though you’ll also find some higher-end models with chain drives.
Chain-drive rowers, which look and feel much like bicycle chains, are the most durable out of the bunch. With just a bit of oiling, these chains can last for years without additional maintenance. If you plan on using your rower for long workouts every day, or if you want to purchase a rower that will be used by multiple people, a chain drive might be an important feature to look out for.
Cords made from nylon or other synthetic materials are standard on other rowers in this price range. These function similarly to a chain but aren’t quite as bulky. They can last for a long time, just like chains, but might not be able to endure the same amount of heavy use without needing to be repaired or replaced.
This shouldn’t be a concern for the average person, but heavy users may need to look for a more durable option than a cord.
Unlike a high-end treadmill, you won’t find many more comfort-enhancing features, like cooling fans or built-in speakers. However, you may find the rower comes with accessories, such as a wireless pulse rate sensor.
These devices, usually in the form of a chest strap, measure your heart rate in real time and feed the data to your rower to display on the monitor. These can be a major help during your workout, particularly if you aim to maintain your exertion levels within a certain heart rate range.
Thanks to the seated nature of rowing machines, many potential users wonder whether or not it’s possible to get a strong leg workout on a rower – one comparable to, say, a session on a treadmill. The good news is that rowing machines are still very effective at working your legs, particularly if you force yourself to row with proper form.
Many beginners simply pull the bar backwards with their arms, while relying very little on their legs to do any of the work. This might make it seem like rowing machines don’t work your legs, but it’s really due to poor form rather than a flaw in the machine itself.
When used properly, rowing machines force you to engage your quads and calves to pull the bar back throughout the stroke. You should only begin using your arms to pull the bar towards your chest after you’ve fully extended your legs.
While rowing machines work your legs wonderfully, they offer a different type of stress than bikes, ellipticals and treadmills. With those machines, your legs are constantly under stress – in fact, they are often the only muscles in your body that are working. Many of these machines work out your legs simply by tiring them over time.
Rowing machines, on the other hand, require your legs to exert plenty of force and drive with each stroke. It’s not the same as a heavy weightlifting workout, but it can still help you develop more strength than some other forms of sustained cardio.
Compared to other cardio machines popular with home users, rowing machines place less stress on your joints. This is because of the seated position. Rather than placing your body’s weight on your knees and ankles, rowing machines allow you to channel that force into the seat and machine.
This protects your body from additional stress and focuses your effort into working your muscles rather than damaging your bones or joints.
If you want to purchase a cardio machine for home use but you’re worried about building up damage to your joints over time, a rowing machine, an elliptical or a good exercise bike will be the best options for you.
Thanks to the lower impact, rowing machines also make a great pick for users who want to rehab from an injury. A rowing machine will provide a total-body workout without wearing down any tender areas as you get back to full strength.
Fitness instructors and home users alike often praise rowing machines as a way to work your entire body in just one exercise. But do rowing machines really offer benefits beyond other cardio equipment, or have they been overhyped?
It’s true that, compared to other cardio exercises, rowing will work out your upper body as well as your legs and core. In that respect, it’s one of the best total-body workouts you can do without needing to purchase an entire rack of free weights and a cardio machine for your home.
With that being said, rowing machines still work your legs first and foremost. If you row with proper form, you should be engaging your quads and calves to pull the bar back for most of its path, engaging your arms only after you’ve straightened out your legs.
Of course, the motion is a bit different from running or biking, but you’ll still build lower-body strength with a rowing machine.
The main difference comes in the way that rowing machines engage your core and back muscles. As you pull the bar back during the rowing stroke, you’ll need to use your abs, lats and trapezius muscles to keep your body upright and keep the handle moving steadily.
The final pull of the drive also engages your arms, especially your biceps and triceps. That’s far more than bikes or treadmills, which barely work any muscles above your waist at all!
But while rowing machines do a great job at working your entire body, they still won’t provide the same benefits as lifting weights will. If your main goal is to develop upper-body strength or build muscle rather than increase your cardio fitness, you should consider purchasing a good set of dumbbells for home use in addition to a rowing machine.
Even once you know how to row with proper form, it can still be difficult to figure out how much time you should spend rowing. The best length for your workouts may depend on your specific fitness level and time available, but it’s still possible to estimate a good range to suit most people’s goals.
If you have never rowed on a machine before, try building up to longer workouts with short 10- to 15-minute training sessions. Focus on your form before you try to go all-out, as rushing through the basics at the start can prevent you from reaping the benefits of rowing and cause serious injury down the line.
As you build up more strength, you can increase your rowing sessions to last 30 minutes or longer. Half an hour every day should be plenty of time for most users to get a great cardio workout and develop their muscles as well.
More advanced users might stretch their sessions up to an hour long, but these tougher sessions require more time for recovery – a full hour every day might wear you down after a week or two!
As well as the time, it’s also important to consider the speed at which you row. While you should always try to push yourself, you may need to pace yourself to make sure that you can complete longer sessions.
Once you are more familiar with rowing and your muscles get more comfortable, your times will improve naturally. Take breaks if and when you need to, but focus on rowing at a steady pace for large chunks of the total workout time.
On the other hand, if you want to focus on improving your splits as fast as possible, you’ll probably need to switch to shorter sessions to save energy. This sort of high-intensity interval training will build up your muscles and develop your cardio strength, but might not give you the endurance that longer and more relaxed workouts will.
Once we had evaluated the market, we decided to name the Concept2 Model D as our top pick. It was quite an easy decision, considering it is one of the most popular rowing machines around, delivering unbeatable performance and durability.
Is it the best rower for you? That’s for you to decide! To find your perfect machine, make sure to take a look at all of the options we have highlighted here. Each model offers its own unique strengths that will appeal to a certain group of users.
If you are struggling to narrow down your list, use our buyer’s guide and FAQs to settle on the best model for you, your space and your goals. Best of luck!