Treadmills, take a hike; the best rowing machines are here to claim your cardio crown.
After all, if you want a comprehensive home workout capable of crushing calories (opens in new tab) and kicking your fitness into high gear, the humble rower ticks both boxes with gusto. What’s more, these machines are safer, more accessible and far less likely to leave your noise-sensitive neighbor with steam coming out of their ears, giving them a distinct advantage in the age-old rowing machine versus treadmill (opens in new tab) debate.
You see, where the best treadmills (opens in new tab) and exercise bikes (opens in new tab) are great options for boosting your cardiovascular endurance (opens in new tab) and putting your legs to work, rowing machines engage almost every muscle in your body (86%, according to the English Institute of Sport). So by the end of an intense session your back, legs, arms, core and more should feel well and truly worked out.
What the experts say
“Rowing machines cost next to nothing to run, because you don’t plug them in like you would a treadmill,” says Personal Trainer and gym owner Steve Hoyle. “Unlike some machines, you’ll never outgrow a rowing machine, they’re suitable for all fitness levels – from complete beginner to a professional athlete.”
They’re low impact and easy to use too. A 2015 study published in the Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine (opens in new tab) found that 20 visually impaired people increased their fitness and back strength while “significantly” decreasing their fat mass and total body fat percentage during a six-week, five days per week rowing program — not bad, eh?
This is likely due to the fact that they can help you achieve a calorie deficit (opens in new tab) — the University of Rochester Medical Center’s calorie burn rate calculator (opens in new tab) estimates a 125lb person will burn 510 calories during a “vigorous” indoor rowing session.
If that resumé has you ready to pick up a pair of (virtual) oars, all that’s left to do is decide which rowing machine is right for you. That’s where we can help. Our team of fitness writers and avid rowers have put top models to the test and selected some of their favorites to help you find your perfect match. Read on below to decide which rower is right for you.
Best rowing machines
This top-end model is beloved by rowers, thanks to its unbeatable performance and data-tracking prowess. It’s the model you’ll find used in most indoor rowing competitions and installed in gyms across the country. When we tested it out, we found it delivered a smooth, comfortable workout and we were happily surprised at how quiet it was, too.
Keeping track of how much you’ve rowed (and being rewarded when you reach landmarks) is simple with the Concept2 logbook. All that data is synced, which means you can also enter competitions and pit yourself against other users over set distances.
The flywheel is common to all air-resistance machines and produces a white noise that is certainly louder than a magnetic rowing machine, and less appealing than the swoosh of the water rower, but the Concept2 RowErg’s noise levels aren’t excessive.
The rowing machine’s monitor is compatible with the free ErgData app, which allows you to monitor all your performance statistics; it stores and displays your workout results; and it uploads everything to the Concept2 online logbook. The app also works with Android and iOS devices. The monitor also connects to a suite of other apps so you can take advantage of online classes, coaching and training programs. You can even sync up to virtual racing.
The advantage of the machine’s simple design and tech is that there’s very little to go wrong, and people tend to keep their Concept2 RowErg for many years, replacing parts as they wear out and taking advantage of the extremely helpful customer support.
Having tested (and fallen in love with) the original Hydrow (opens in new tab), our expert was understandably sceptical about any attempt to improve this impressive machine. Yet, credit where credit’s due, the Hydrow crew has managed it incredibly well.
The inaugural machine scored top marks for its accessible and engaging rowing workouts, likable instructors and realistic electromagnetic resistance system, but lost points for its hard to accommodate dimensions and high asking price. The Hydrow Wave maintains the original’s winning formula of fun workouts and a real rowing feel, but packs all of this into a smaller, lighter machine. And the best thing? At $1,495, it’s $1,000 cheaper than its predecessor.
Despite its significantly lower price tag, the Hydrow Wave still benefits from full access to the thousands of workouts available on the Hydrow platform (if you pay a monthly membership fee). Rather than taking you into an artificially lit studio — à la Peloton and the like — each of these sessions brings you aboard the rowboat of a former Olympian, professional athlete or elite coach for a follow-along class on some of the world’s most beautiful waterways.
It’s for the reasons listed above that the Hydrow Wave equals the industry-standard Concept 2 RowErg as our top-scoring rowing machine. So if you’re looking for a new way to get in shape at home, we can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Proform 750R is solid, quiet and comfortable. It’s not flashy — there’s no touchscreen display here and it’s not built from aesthetically-pleasing wood. But it performs well, offering consistent, magnetic-based resistance and a whisper-quiet workout. If you’re looking for a well-priced, well-built machine that doesn’t come with unnecessary extras, then this is a perfect option at less than $600.
Like other Proform and NordicTrack models, this rower comes with a free trial to the iFit app, which contains plenty of workouts for you to follow — some led by famous Olympians. During classes, the resistance on your machine will be adjusted by your instructor’s prompts, which is a neat little extra.
However, to access this feature – and to be able to clearly see the workout – you’ll need to secure a tablet to the front of your machine. There is a basic digital display included with the rower, which will show you metrics such as calories, distance, speed, time and strokes per minute, but you won’t be able to see the iFit classes on this.
Despite the lack of screen, we think you’d be hard pressed to find a better option at this mid-range price. The machine comes with 24 different resistance levels – we found the top-end of this to be suitably challenging. It’s also incredibly easy to fold away, making it a good option for those with limited floor space.
Be warned that the set-up process is quite tricky for this rower. The machine is incredibly heavy to move around – make sure you have a friend to help you with the installation process – and the screws come vacuum packed, which make them difficult to access. Once installed, the machine is solid and sturdy, but be prepared to sink some time into the set-up.
Many of us will be familiar with the addictive, “one more level” effects of moreish mobile games. But what if you could apply that principle to your home workouts? Well, now you can, courtesy of The Ergatta Rower.
It gamifies regular exercise sessions with workout modes such as “Meteor” and “Pulse” requiring you to increase and decrease your effort in order to hit targets. There is a fantastically fun, adrenaline-pumping race mode too, which sees you go head to head with several other members of the thousands-strong Ergatta community or friends you’ve connected with via the platform. As sporty sorts, we found this extra competitive element was a major motivator.
We also liked how the entire Ergatta platform experience was personalized to us. An initial 1,000 meter calibration test was used to determine our ability level, and workouts were adjusted accordingly.
Designed with apartment living in mind, the Ergatta’s handcrafted cherry wood frame also looks fantastic. It can be folded flat and stored upright too, so it takes up a patch of floor little over 20 square inches when not in use.
The monthly membership costs means it’s on the expensive side, but if you’re looking to replace your gym membership with this motivational machine then we think it’s worth it.
Slickly designed and easy to fold away, the Echelon Smart Rower is a stylish and convenient bit of kit for home rowers. We tested it out for several weeks and enjoyed the vast range of classes – available via the app – and the whisper quiet magnetic resistance on the machine.
There’s a lot to like about this particular rower. We were really impressed with how easy it was to set-up (although it was heavy to move around) and the foldable mechanism is very straightforward to operate. And despite the folding hinge, the machine felt solid and sturdy throughout our rowing sessions.
There’s no screen, which is a shame as you need to view the Echelon app to track your metrics. Instead, there’s an ‘arm’ that can hold your tablet or phone (we’d recommend sticking with a tablet, as phone screens are too small.)
At $1299, this is a fairly mid-range option, but prices can soon rack up when you calculate the additional cost of the Echelon app subscription ($39.99 per month.) Without the app, you don’t get any feedback on things like resistance levels or your speed – which means you can’t really track your progression.
There are a wealth of classes available on the app though, so if you need a little extra motivation to get going then this could be a great option. It will certainly look the part in anyone’s home gym, thanks to its sleek design.
Unusually for a rowing machine, we wouldn’t say the Aviron Tough Series is designed with rowers in mind. Instead, the brand finds a way to make play a central theme of its workouts, using the incredible health benefits offered by indoor rowing as a vehicle for improving user’s fitness.
It has an (ever-growing) selection of games to choose from, with each one providing a new twist on getting your fitness fix; whether that’s guiding a flying rower through an icy tundra (this one was somewhat bizarre) or firing a laser at increasingly fast aliens in a Space Invaders-esque shooter (this one was a lot of fun). Either way, we were always shocked when we came to the end of each game to find we had rowed a few thousands of meters, and had plenty of fun doing it.
The games are displayed on a clear 22” touchscreen, while you can also choose to row while watching major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and Disney+ if you fancy burning calories as you binge your favorite series.
The machine is well-made too, with a wide handle, adjustable footplate and high, ergonomic seat able to comfortably accommodate most body types. It looks sleek too, though it is on the larger side, so you’ll need a fair bit of floor space to house it.
Overall, we think fitness fanatics and rowing aficionados may prefer the Concept 2 or Hydrow Wave for a more traditional workout experience. But, for those who’ve tried the classic home workout formula and want something new and different to keep them engaged, this is a unique bit of kit that can offer just that.
How we test rowing machines
Even the cheapest rowing machines represent a considerable investment, so you’ll want to be able to ‘add to basket’ confident in the knowledge you’re purchasing a quality bit of kit.
That’s where we come in. We’ve tried and tested some of the best rowing machines on the market – from the ever-popular Concept 2 RowErg to the pioneering Hydrow Rower – to find out whether they sink or swim when it comes to giving you a great workout.
Our exercise experts judged every aspect of each machine, including how easy they were to set up, the features that set them apart from their rivals and their functionality – for providing both a lung-busting workout and a realistic rowing experience. To do this, they rowed a range of distances from short sprints to longer endurance pieces, as well as trying the preset programs and follow-along sessions available on some machines.
After testing, all feedback was collated to award rowing machines a final star rating, with a maximum score of five.
Why should you buy the best rowing machine?
Rowing machines are a great investment, as they offer great low-impact fitness benefits and they’re easy to use. The best rowing machines are built to last as Personal Trainer Stephen Hoyle explained to Live Science: “A good rowing machine will last you a very long time, with minimal upkeep. There’s no complicated machinery, just a chain that needs occasional oiling and a computer that will require the odd battery change.”
Still undecided about making the switch from a treadmill to a rowing machine? To help you, we’ve summarized our thoughts on the rowing machine versus treadmill (opens in new tab) debate; give it a read to determine what machine is best for you! We’ve also put together some advice on how to use a rowing machine to lose weight (opens in new tab).
Benefits of a rowing machine
When it comes to the benefits of using a rowing machine (opens in new tab), it’s hard to know where to start. As mentioned in the intro above, each stroke uses 86% of your body’s muscles including every major muscle group. A rowing workout is adaptable too, with the best rowing machines generating dynamic resistance that increases as your strokes become more powerful. So, exercisers of all abilities will be able to get out what they put in, and you can enjoy both aerobic (opens in new tab) and anaerobic exercise (opens in new tab) depending on the length and intensity of your session.
Beyond this, rowing machines offer a low impact alternative to classic cardio workouts like running, regular use can proffer significant bone-building benefits (according to this study in the Osteoarthritis and Cartilage journal (opens in new tab)) and many people find the rhythmic action has a calming, meditative effect.
How to use a rowing machine
One of the main benefits of rowing machines is how accessible they are. After all, all you really have to do to get started is sit down and pull. However, there are some technique cues you should know if you want to perfect your form — boosting your performance and reducing your risk of injury as a result.
First, make sure you’re sitting comfortably (and correctly). Rather than slumping down, make sure your sit bones are pointing down into the middle of the seat, advises Sarah Fuhrmann, certified rowing instructor and owner of UCanRow2 (opens in new tab).
The stroke can then be broken down into four phases; the catch, drive, finish and recovery. Alex Dunne, managing director of leading rowing machine brand Concept 2 (opens in new tab), explains:
Catch – Here, your legs are bent and your shins should be vertical. Use your triceps to fully extend your arms as you grasp the handle. Your abdominals should be engaged, flexing your torso forward slightly.
Drive – Initiate the drive phase with the powerful leg muscles, pushing away from the footplates while keeping your arms straight. Then, pull the handle towards your abdomen and lean back slightly.
Finish – This should leave you with your elbows bent, the handle pulled into your body just below the chest, and your abdominals stabilizing your torso at a slight angle around 2 O’clock on a clock face.
Recovery – This is how you return to your starting position before beginning the drive phase again. First, engage your triceps to straighten your arms away from your body. Flex your torso back forwards, then contract your hamstrings and calves to bend your legs and slide back down the rail.
Muscles worked on rowing machine
One of the most comprehensive home workout tools on the market, the rowing machine works a reported 86% of muscles in your body. But which muscles does rowing work (opens in new tab)?
Your quads, calves, hamstrings, glutes, back, arms and core will all be incorporated in a rowing machine workout, Fuhrmann says. The only significant muscle that isn’t hit hard is the chest, she adds. So, if you fancy supplementing your rowing sessions with strength work, we recommend trying our collection of the best exercises for chest muscles (opens in new tab).
Rowing machine for weight loss
A session on a rowing machine is capable of burning calories, helping you achieve a negative daily energy balance (or calorie deficit). This means you burn more calories in a day than you consume, through exercise, NEAT, TEF (the energy used to digest, absorb and metabolize food) and your basal metabolic rate (opens in new tab).
A calorie deficit is the key principle behind weight loss. A 2007 study published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism (opens in new tab) concluded that “independently of the method for weight loss, the negative energy balance alone is responsible for weight reduction”.
However, this is one of many benefits a rowing machine has to offer, and workouts should also be seen as ways to decrease body fat percentage, build muscle, strengthen bones, build fitness and more.