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7 best rowing machines for working out at home

Keep your fitness afloat with the ergos that come closest to replicating a water workout

Jon Axworthy
Friday 25 June 2021 19:16
<p>We considered how well the machines stayed anchored, even when we were at maximum output </p>

We considered how well the machines stayed anchored, even when we were at maximum output

You only need to clap eyes on the physiques of the Olympians who are rowing for gold to realise that it’s, undoubtedly, one of the best strength and cardio workouts around. Despite being a low-impact activity, rowing torches calories with minimal risk of injury and there are a number of indoor rowing machines, or ergos, that will allow you to reap all the benefits without having to get your wellies wet.

To find them, we jumped on a range of models that relied on magnets, air and water to mirror the resistance of the river on the oars.

Technique is paramount in rowing, so you need all the component parts of the machine, from the sliding action of the seat on the rail to the drive mechanism, to be smooth and fluid so you can just concentrate on your form.

We paid particularly close attention to how uniform the resistance was throughout the stroke, as this is a measure of a quality rower, and also how comprehensive the data was that the monitor fed back to us throughout the session. The monitor also needed to be easy to read – even when we were giving everything to maintain an impressive split time.

Of all the moving parts, the seat is crucial – you need a comfortable perch that slides smoothly through the catch and release phases of your stroke, so that there’s no undue pressure put on leg muscles, particularly your hamstrings. To back this up you need solid footplates that are easily adjustable.

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One of the biggest downsides of rowing machines is that they are notoriously hard to store when not in use, as you have a large resistance cage attached to a long sliding seat mechanism. So we also looked at each product to see if it could reduce its footprint when the workout was over. 

Finally, we made sure all the rowers performed well and stayed anchored even when we were at maximum output – after all, you don’t want to start your rowing session in the living room and end up in the kitchen.

Best rowing machines for 2021 are:

Echelon rower

Best: Overall

  • Weight: 49kg
  • Dimensions: 124.5cm x 42cm x 65 cm
  • Foldable: Yes

What sets this ergo apart from the pack is its connected rowing experience, which turns your phone or tablet into your performance monitor, via an app.  Echelon membership starts at £24.99 a month, with the app split into featured, on demand and live tabs, giving access to hundreds of classes for all levels and desired outcomes, with up to five live classes every day – ideal for getting you motivated and keeping training on track.

The classes always have a focus on proper rowing technique, which is good if you’re just starting out, and each trainer emphasises the resistance level and stroke rate that you should be using for that class.

If you’d rather something a little less, well, shouty, then you can choose the scenic tab in the on demand section and row your way down some of the most breathtaking stretches of water in the world, from Dubai to Doha, while still maintaining your target stroke rate and split time.

Away from the app, the Echelon is a quality machine with straightforward assembly and resistance coming from a magnetic flywheel, providing 32 very smooth levels. One of the standout features is the resistance or damper control, which is increased or decreased using two red buttons in the handle, so it’s easy to adjust mid-row without disrupting your stroke. The foot rests were large, sturdy and fully adjustable so that we felt well anchored throughout, and the rower stayed static during the most energetic of sessions.

The Echelon also made storage very easy – with a simple action you can hinge the rail of the machine to fold it up, so it doesn’t take over a whole room.

Pro Fitness air and magnetic rower

Best: Under £300

  • Weight: 24.3kg
  • Dimensions: 75cm x 45xm x 196cm
  • Foldable: Yes

This was by far the best budget rower we tested: we found it very easy to assemble, coming together in under 20 minutes. The build quality is high and the machine was stable, even when we were giving maximum effort on the highest level of resistance. There are eight settings that are varied enough to provide you with either a strength or cardio session, depending on your training goals.

The rowing was impressively smooth and the seat ran easily over the rails – we never experienced any lag waiting for the mechanism to catch up with the rate of the flywheel. The LCD monitor was basic but accurate and had all the metrics that a rower would need, regardless of experience.

Concept2 rower

Best: Foldable rowing machine

  • Weight: 26kg
  • Dimensions: 243.84cm x 60.96cm x 35.56cm
  • Foldable: No

You just can’t have an indoor rowing round-up without the machine that has been the go-to erg of the world’s top indoor rowing competitions and Olympic teams alike. The rowerg replaces the industry-standard model D and relies purely on air resistance to deliver your workout, which you can track on the clear, concise and well-organised PM5 performance monitor. The flywheel feels very responsive to the effort you put in, so you feel in control of your session, and the nickel-plated steel chain is never sloppy at the catch, with a very smooth action.

The high build quality that the American manufacturer is renowned for is again in evidence and the whole machine feels ergonomic when in use, with a nicely weighted handle, comfortable seat and effortless monorail.

The unit is wheeled and, like other Concept2s before, it can actually be separated into two pieces (without tools) for easy storage and transportation.

JTX freedom air rower

Best: Magnetic rowing machine

  • Weight: 40kg
  • Dimensions: 230cm x 55cm x 88cm
  • Foldable: Yes

Assembly of this air- and magnetic-resistance rower takes some effort, but it is worth it because the component quality is high and at the end of it you will have a machine that is built to last. Seat and footplates are comfortable and the slide rail allows for a smooth stroke with no lag on the handle

The fan-based resistance and dual-stage drive provide a smooth feel, and all the other contact points are comfortable and sweat-proof.

The air resistance means that the harder you pull, the tougher you will find it – it’s like a rower that fights back, so you don’t have to worry about damper controls and can focus on your training instead.

The performance monitor is easy to read, no matter how hard you’re working, and has all the relevant metrics, as well as being heart-rate monitor compatible.

NordicTrack RW 900

Best: Air rowing machine

  • Weight: 49kg
  • Dimensions: 218cm x 55cm x 125cm
  • Foldable: Yes

This is another dual-resistance rower, utilising 10 levels of air resistance and a further 26 of magnetic. While getting up close and personal with the various parts of the rower during set up, we could tell that the RW900 is a high-quality, robust machine that will be able to withstand a lot of punishment. The finishing touch is the 22in HD touch tablet which will connect you to NordicTrack’s ifit training library, membership of which is free for one year after purchase.

Without ifit you can still use the rower manually, of course, however the live and on-demand workouts are well curated and will benefit all experience levels. One of the standout features of this connected rower is that during your chosen session the resistance is automatically adjusted according to the trainer’s programme and during the pre-recorded outdoor workouts the resistance matches the wind and water conditions that you’re seeing on screen.

The rower itself has a nice action throughout the stroke phases with an ergonomic seat, handle and big footplates. Resistance was easily controlled digitally or manually and the rower allows for good portability and storage because it’s foldable and can be moved on two wheels.

This rowing machine isn’t in stock right now, but we’re hoping to see it back soon.

WaterRower S4 oak

Best: Water rowing machine

  • Weight: 30.5kg
  • Dimensions: 209cm x 56cm x 53cm
  • Foldable: No

Rowing machines are usually not the most attractive pieces of home fitness equipment, but WaterRower has changed all that with its fabulous design that marries wood and water, making it something you’ll be proud to have in your house.

Thankfully, it’s not just about the looks, as the performance of the S4 is also exceptional. It uses paddles inside the water tank to create drag as you pull the soft handle that grips well. There are no damper settings as the harder you row, the more resistance you’ll feel, and the machine produces a lovely fluid movement, even when you’re going hard. In addition, the monitor is well set out and gives you all the necessary data, from stroke rate to total distance.

At the end of your session you can store the rower upright, so it has the most minimal footprint of all the models in our line-up.

Xterra ERG600W water resistance rower

Best: Budget rowing machine

  • Weight: 37.5kg
  • Dimensions: 205cm x 56cm x 107cm
  • Foldable: No

If you haven’t got the budget for the original water rower, then this is a quality machine that offers six levels of resistance that are adjusted by manually filling or emptying the tank. It sounds like a hassle, but the manufacturer has really simplified the process so that it can be completed quickly and easily where necessary. Instead of a chain drive powering the water paddles, there’s a belt, which provides a fluid stroke and makes the machine very quiet – all you hear are the paddles in the tank.

Contoured seats, nice large, flexible footplates and a smooth rail system meant that even when we were rowing over greater distances we never had to worry about the machine and could just concentrate on our technique.

The LCD console has programmable modes, such as racing against the computer, and various countdown programmes like time, distance, strokes and calories. For storage, the rower stands neatly on its end.

Rowing machine FAQs

Is it safe to row every day?

With any exercise you’re new to, it’s important to gradually build up strength and stamina balanced with rest days, so while it is safe to row every day, it is dependent on how intense your workouts are.

However, be wary that over-training can lead to injuries and your body needs time to repair muscles, so if you’re buying your first rowing machine, start slow and build up to stronger workouts.

What muscles does a rowing machine work?

Rowing can provide a full-body workout, as it activates your legs, arms, back and core muscles.

The sliding seat works your triceps, hamstrings and quadriceps, while your biceps, glutes, hamstrings and abdominals are put to work when you pull all the way back with the handle. As a result, rowing can strengthen your back, arms and abs.

What is the difference between a magnetic, air and water-powered rowing machine?

If you’ve just started the search for a rowing machine, you’re probably aware that this isn’t a simple task. Aside from filtering through many brands and settling on a budget, there’s also the big question of what type you should go for – magnetic, air or water-powered?

  • Air – These devices provide resistance by blowing air through a flywheel, meaning the harder you pull, the faster the fans spin and the more resistance you get. Fan-based rowing machines are typically the best value, which is why they are the go-to choice for most commercial gyms. However, they can be noisy.
  • Magnetic – As the name suggests, these rowers use two strong magnets that move past one another to create resistance. Because there’s no friction, magnetic machines are fairly quiet and are generally more compact.
  • Water – What separates these machines from the others is that they work by using a transparent drum that’s full of water. Resistance is created by paddles that turn as you row and many claim the action more closely replicates the feel of rowing on water. However, these machines tend to be the most expensive.

How much do you need to spend?

The type of rowing machine you’ll buy is heavily dictated by how much you’re willing to spend but there are plenty of options to suit all budgets – you can spend anything from £100 to well over £1,000.

Those at the lower end of the price scale will still do what you need them to, but you may notice that the quality isn’t great. However, if you’re new to rowing this could be a good place to start, as you can make sure you really enjoy it before shelling out.

For £100 to £750, you will be able to get your hands on an air or magnetic machine, which is likely to have more features than budget versions, such as different resistance options and preset programmes.

If you’re able to spend upwards of £750, you’ll be able to get a high-quality machine that does it all. Most rowers in this price range will be quiet, offer varying levels of resistance and have a digital monitor that can track your workouts. If it’s a more high-tech water resistance model that you’re after, expect to pay £800 or more.

Do I need a rowing machine mat?

When it comes to deciding if you need a mat, the first thing to consider is your flooring. Rowing machines are heavy duty, which means they could damage a wood or carpet floor. If you plan on doing high-intensity workouts that may cause vibrations, a mat should be able to absorb these shocks.

You may also want to consider what your living space is like. If you live in a flat, a mat can reduce noise that might leak into your neighbours’ apartments, while also keeping your machine on a stable surface.

Does the level of resistance on a rowing machine matter?

In short, yes. The higher the resistance level, the harder your workout is going to be. The idea is to replicate rowing on a real boat where you’d experience a drag from the wind. So if cardio is your thing, you’ll want to have a larger drag. Alternatively, if you only plan on using your rowing machine for low-intensity workouts, you may prefer a lower resistance.

Many air rowing machines will adjust automatically depending on your stroke size – but do be aware that using a higher resistance may make your machine noisier.

The verdict: Rowing machines

With its huge library of connected content, the Echelon rower is an excellent choice for beginner, intermediate, and advanced rowers alike. The mix of online and live classes will stop your investment from gathering dust – and it really is a joy to row.

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