I get this question a lot and I will answer this to the best of my abilities here This is actually from my book, but I thought it might be helpful to put here too.
First off, there are four different types of rowing machines and they are classified based on the type of resistance they use: magnetic, air, hydraulic, or water.26 Different people tend to prefer one over the other, or are looking for a bargain and choose one based on that. In my opinion, the best way to choose a rower is to try a few out. Go to a local fitness studio or gym equipment store and try the rowers that they have. Some people love the sound of the whoosh whoosh that the water-based rowers make. Some people like the quietness of some of the magnetic machines. It really is about your personal preference. I do talk about the WaterRower and Concept2 in this book because they are the most common ones, but I will talk about them more here too. With that in mind, let me give you a brief overview of the different types of resistance.
These are usually the quietest machines, so if that is important to you, you might want to look at these types of rowers. These machines usually give you a smooth rowing feeling as well. They use magnets and a spinning flywheel to change the resistance you feel on the machine. The biggest disadvantage to these machines is that they don’t really simulate water rowing as much, but if you just want a good workout, go for it. As long as your criteria are met, then yay! I talk more about the criteria later in this section.26
Air resistance is the most popular type of rowing machine. The resistance is based on airflow through a flywheel, so as you pull, the flywheel spins. The more power you put into your stroke, the faster the flywheel spins. These machines also have a form of damper setting, mentioned earlier in this book. Air resistance machines are good at replicating rowing on the water, the resistance adjusts with your rowing, it’s smooth, and it usually needs less maintenance. The downside is that these machines are usually a little louder than other options.26 The Concept2 is an example of this type of machine and is considered the “gold standard” with rowing machines.
The Concept2 is the most common machine used in CrossFit boxes, Row House, and erg rooms for people who do the sport of crew. The way this machine feels is pretty similar to being on the water and the numbers correlate very well to numbers that people would get when rowing on the water. So people competing often use this machine. Concept2 also has an online database to compare times with other people and competitions throughout the year as well. Most of the apps that are created for the indoor rowing machine are compatible with the Concept2. However, this machine is a little more expensive, with a current price tag of roughly USD $900.27 People will search for these machines to go on sale, and they get purchased fairly quickly, however this machine holds its value fairly well and can have multiple millions of meters on it and still work great. Even though this machine feels like being on the water, it uses air resistance, not water.
These rowing machines are usually at a lower price point and are often quiet as well. These machines will still give you a good workout, but they aren’t very comfortable or as smooth as the other options. The hydraulic rowing mechanism uses pistons that are attached to the handles, and you pull against the air or fluid in the cylinder, and levels or clamps change the resistance. A downside is that the resistance will not stay consistent, as the oil heats up, the resistance will change. These rowing machines often have two handles as well, which can be nice if you want that type of movement. Another thing to keep in mind is that these machines often need more maintenance.26
Water rowers use paddles in the water as their form of resistance. There is water in a tank, and when you pull on the handle, the paddles move the water. The mass of the water moving creates a drag and therefore creates resistance. Similar to air resistance machines, the more power you put, the more the water moves. These machines are usually quieter than an air-based machine, are nice and smooth, and sound nice. There is also little maintenance needed with these machines.
The WaterRower is an example of this type of machine. There are water rowers that are not this brand, but the brand WaterRower is the next most common water based rowing machine that people get, and is roughly the same price as a Concept2, currently at USD $895.28 People love the sound this machine makes, as it makes you feel like you are on the water. If you are going to get this machine, there are some things you might want to consider. First, the footplate is actually a little narrower than it is on some other machines. So, if you have wider hips or shoulders, this is something to consider. I mentioned it earlier in the book, but this position can cause you to compensate a little if you are not careful. There are some footplate extenders you can get that are a little wider, but it is an extra cost, but definitely something to consider if you need it. Second, the seat is a little higher, so it changes the angles at your ankles, knees, and hips. Not bad, just different. And lastly, the screen is down low on many models, so if you look at the numbers a lot, it might take a toll on your neck. But the WaterRower comes in steel or wood, looks nice, and sounds cool.28 There are also some apps that work with this machine, so keep that in mind too. Not as many as with the Concept2, but still more than with off brand rowers.
Now let’s cover the “off” brand rowers. Pretty much any other brand is an “off” brand rower, such as: Lifestyle, NordicTrack, Sunny Health & Fitness, Stamina, etc. There really are so many that I won’t list them all. Each is a little different, but knowing the resistance differences might help point you in the right direction. Some of the key things to pay attention to are: how does it feel, do the numbers tell you the info you want, is it in the price range you want, and does it have all the features you want? For example, if you want to hook up to a program like ErgRow that monitors your meters, not all machines will do that. Same with hooking up a heart rate monitor, they won’t all do that either. If a machine doesn’t tell you the split or pace like mentioned earlier in this book, I personally wouldn’t buy it, as it won’t give you numbers that are helpful in setting goals and seeing improvements.
Regardless of the machine, every one varies in how it feels, so I recommend trying them out if you can. If you are going to look for a rowing machine on sale, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, indoor rowing competitions, and local Facebook CrossFit groups are great for searching. Depending on the machine, there are different things to look for. The basics include: does the screen turn on and work? Does the seat slide smoothly? Is it broken or chipped at all? Have they been keeping up with maintenance?
I hope that helps and feel free to reach out if you have questions!
If you found this helpful and want to learn more about rowing, checkout my book!
Amanda Painter is the Rowing Doc. She is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and is here to help people stay active and rowing without aches and pains so they can keep doing what they love!