After researching over 65 rowing machines, using 13 of them, and legitimately testing 5 of them, we've determined that the Concept 2 Model D Rower is the best rowing machine for most people. Factoring in durability, performance, warranty, price, and availability, the Concept 2 Model D Rower offers the best value and is the generally agreed upon option for those seeking a rowing machine that will last.
The Concept 2 Model D Rower is the most popular rowing machine in the world. Combining Concept 2's attention to detail, incredible customer service, and understanding of water rowing, the Concept 2 Model D Rower not only performs, but it will do so with hardly any maintenance for decades to come. Concept 2 has been the gold standard for rowing machines for many years and the Model D is the best option they currently offer.
Not only can these machines be found in every CrossFit gym in the country, they're equally suited for anyone wanting to increase their cardiovascular abilities and get a good workout. The Concept 2 Model D Rower is our pick for the best rowing machine.
If you'd rather save a few bucks, although we'd suggest you go with the Concept 2 Model D, the Xebex Air Rower has proven to combine many of the design and functionality elements of the Concept 2 Rower with a lower price (or free items) and less costly imported manufacturing to create a good value rower.
Although we'll go into more detail on why the Concept 2 Model D Rower ranks above the Xebex Air Rower, the overall fit and finish, performance, monitor, resale value, customer service, and durability of the Concept 2 Rowers surpass the Xebex Air Rower. That's not to say the Xebex Air Rower is a bad rowing machine, in fact, it's an excellent rowing machine, but competing with Concept 2 in the ergometer space is a difficult thing to do.
The big advantage that the Xebex Air Rower has over the Concept 2 Rowers is a slightly lower price point along with additional free items often available. For the price, the Xebex Air Rower is a great value.
Another option outside of our Top Pick and Runner-Up is the WaterRower. The WaterRower is an excellent rower that utilizes water instead of air as it's main mode of resistance. In addition to using water to more closely stimulate the resistance you would receive in real life rowing, the body of the WaterRower is most often made of handcrafted wood.
The WaterRower can be found in Orangetheory Fitness Gyms all over the country (although theirs are made of metal and orange, very orange.) The WaterRower didn't take our top spot for a few reasons which we'll detail further, but most notably we feel that the air resistance provided by Concept 2 Rowers along with their monitors not only provide more accurate metrics, but also a better experience.
Although the WaterRower has a beautiful aesthetic and is actually significantly quieter than our other options, they do require more maintenance and don't have nearly the durability of our top pick, the Concept 2 Rower.
Our budget pick rower is the Stamina ATS Air Rower. Although we would highly suggest spending more than what our budget pick costs, this is a great option for those who want to determine if rowing is a form of cardio they enjoy.
The Stamina ATS Air Rower is by far the most budget-friendly rower on our list, and is the lowest amount of money we would suggest readers spend on a rowing machine. The Stamina ATS Air Rower uses dynamic air resistance combined with a steel rowing beam that should provide a platform for many years of rowing enjoyment. In addition to being relatively well-built for the price, the Stamina ATS Air Rower also folds up so it can be stored out-of-the-way when not in use.
With a 4.2/5 star rating on Amazon from over 800 customer reviews, the Stamina ATS Air Rower is a good starter rower for those who want to get into rowing at a low-cost.
Table of contents
- Benefits of using a rowing machine
- How we picked and tested
- Our top pick: Concept 2 Model D Rower
- The less-expensive runner-up: Xebex Air Rower
- Another option: WaterRower Rowing Machine
- Budget pick: Stamina ATS Air Rower
- The competition
Benefits of using a rowing machine
There are many different cardio machines available for your use. Nearly all can provide a “good” workout, so long as they are consistently used with varying amounts of intensity. So, the question really is, why should you use a rowing machine versus the myriad of other options that are available?
Simply put, rowing machines require the user to use every muscle in the body through full ranges of motion. There isn't a motor propelling the treadmill belt and forcing you to follow, there aren't arms that limit your range of motion like what's found on Air Bikes (see our full guide on the subject here). You propel the machine, and in return, the machine makes you a more physically capable person.
Muscles used during rowing
If you've ever used a rowing machine, then you understand the stimulation and strengthening that is placed on the heart and lungs. Thanks to its versatility, the rower can be used for sprint intervals all the way up to very long, marathon type training. This allows the user to decide how to use the rower for their goals, whether it's fat burning, performance, or both.
One of the major benefits, especially for those that have spent much of their life running with an improper gait, is that the rower is low impact and non-weight bearing. High-impact activities like playing sports involve lots of running, jumping, and stress on joints. For people with a history of injuries that have left them with bad knees and backs, the rowing machine is ideally suited.
To understand the benefits of rowing, one only needs to spend 30 seconds on the machine.
To understand the benefits of rowing, one only needs to spend 30 seconds on the machine. Whether pushing off the platforms in a squat manner to extending the hips and pulling the handle to your body, the rowing machine is an incredibly versatile and effective machine.
The best cardio machine, however, is the one you actually use. Many people enjoy the movements required in rowing. They enjoy the sound of their breath combined with the whirring of the fan wheel. There is no doubt that the enjoyment that comes from rowing is superior to that of a standard treadmill.
Whether you're an athlete looking to improve performance or simply someone trying to live a healthier life, the rowing machine can help you achieve your goals.
How we picked and tested
To compile our list of rowing machines, we researched all of the major manufacturers as well as reached out to industry experts and various forums such as r/homegym. In addition to this, we went to Garage Gym Reviews HQ to rank and test what we liked and didn't like about all of the most popular models. After researching over 65 different rowers worth your time and money, we narrowed it down to our top picks.
There is an overwhelmingly large amount of rowing machines available at nearly every price point today. Thanks to the increase of people working out in their homes along with the popularity of rowing, in large part due to CrossFit, there are now more options than ever (much more than we anticipated.) Whether you want to spend under $100 on a rower with resistance provided by hydraulic cylinders or over $1,600 on a WaterRower made out of handcrafted Black Walnut, there is something that will suit your fancy.
There is an overwhelmingly large amount of rowing machines available at nearly every price point today.
Due to the varying amount of options, our goal was to stick to rowers that we had used thoroughly, were highly reviewed, or recommended by respected people in the industry. The rowers we picked are all worth considering, it just depends on your goals and budget. Ultimately, after some deliberation, we narrowed down our specifications to the following list of features ordered in no particular order.
- Overall Construction: Although the rowing machines we recommend are not always the most expensive you can find, they are ones that feature the best overall construction within their price ranges. The welds are clean, the connection points are solid, and everything from the seat rolling smoothly to the flywheels spinning freely are as one would desire.
- Durability: A rower should last a LONG time; we're talking decades and similar to other areas of fitness equipment, with rowing machines, you often get what you pay for. A rowing machine should be able to take, within reason, whatever type of intensity you can throw at it.
- Mode of Resistance: Pretty much every rower gets their resistance from one of three different modes. Hydraulic cyclinders which are featured on less expensive rowing machines, flywheels that spin against air, or flywheels that spin against water. We suggest staying away from hydraulic cylinders and focusing mainly on air rowing options.
- Monitor: The monitor used to track the various metrics should be both accurate and easy to use. Nearly every company uses a different monitor and some are good while most are inaccurate and basic.
- Fluidity: The chain or cord attached to the handle and flywheel should provide a fluid motion start and return. Cheaper rowing machines will have abrupt starts and returns including the seat rollers. The more closely the rowing machine experience relates to true water rowing, the better.
- Maintenance: Rowing machines should be low maintenance. Fitness equipment is designed to improve performance, not mechanical skills and despite a rower being more complex than a barbell, it shouldn't require much more maintenance.
- Price: The price of the rowing machine should be in accordance with the features offered. Value is more important the just a low retail price and what we've found with rowing machines is the more you spend, the more you get, up to $1,000.
- Warranty: A warranty should be offered and the company should stand behind that warrant with great customer service.
During testing, we performed both long and short duration intervals including sprints and grueling long distance rowing events. We examined the build quality, opened up the various components to see how they were built, and spoke to representatives from different companies. Finally, we asked for the opinion of others on what rowing machines they've used and what they liked/disliked about each.
Our top pick: Concept 2 Model D Rower
The Concept 2 Model D Rower needs little introduction. If you've ever step foot into a CrossFit gym or just about any other serious training center, you've likely seen the black or gray Concept 2 Rower. Sometimes when you see a piece of equipment in many different places, it's because it's inexpensive. The Concept 2 Rower, however, has infiltrated so many different home gyms, training centers, CrossFit boxes, and globo gyms because it's both effective and bomb-proof.
There is not a piece of equipment we can think of that compares to the dominance Concept 2 has in the rowing machine market. There are many different rowing machines on the market today, however, they simply pale in comparison to the Model D Rower.
Concept 2 has not only refined the rowing machine, it created the category. Decades ago, the two founders of Concept 2 strapped a chain to a free spinning bicycle wheel, and as they say in show business, the rest is history.
There are quite a few reasons why the Concept 2 Rower sells as well as it does, but one of the big ones is its ease of use. Literally, anyone from those who row for sport to those who simply want to improve their health can jump on the rower and get an outstanding training effect with hardly any effort to get started other than during the movements. There are few adjustments required for the machine to be used between users and even less knowledge needed to begin pulling on the handle.
Yes, there is obviously technique involved, but we would say that to get to a proficient level of rowing technique requires little practice. Notice we said “proficient,” not “world-class.”
Photo by Robert Callahan
For anyone looking to add a rower to their training arsenal, one of the most important features is to have a machine that is going to last. As we've seen with some air bikes and treadmills, not all cardio equipment is made for the long haul. The Concept 2 Model D Rower is not only stated to last a very long time, but it's also been proven in some of the most brutal training conditions there are, CrossFit Gyms and YMCA's. If a rower can handle the abuse that CrossFitters and commercial gym owners place on equipment, then it can pretty much take anything.
One of the differing features between the Concept 2 Rower and some others is its use of air resistance. There are many different types of rowers available, but the most popular outside of air-resistance rowers is magnetic and water resistance. Magnetic resistance creates a constant force that feels the same throughout the entire stroke. This is both boring and awkward during rowing strokes. Water resistance is most like rowing on the water, however, due to many different shortcomings we'll list later on in our review of the WaterRower, it fails in comparison to air resistance.
Air resistance is the best type of resistance for a rowing machine due to the training effect provided during use as well as the ease of maintenance. The starting point of the row on the Concept 2 is the hardest and as momentum is built, the flywheel increases in speed and allows you to end your row stroke with satisfaction. The Concept 2 Rower is so great, because it will actually get used. Once you feel the satisfaction of rowing, you will get hooked.
The Concept 2 Model D Rower's frame is made of mostly aluminum and hard plastic. The aluminum provides a solid, yet lightweight base, while the hard plastic components provide protection for the internal parts of the rower, such as the flywheel.
The rail of the Concept 2 Rower is polished and when the ergonomic seat is attached, it provides a smooth experience no matter the weight of the user. The seat of the Concept 2 Rowers is a bit firmer than others available. The reason for this makes complete sense and although we haven't had any personal issues with the seat, there have been some novice users who complain of its hardness. The firmness of the seat is to provide circulation that can't be had with a more padded seat. If you feel the need for more padding, there are many third-party seat pads available, although we wouldn't recommend them.
Attached to the handle, which by the way features a good diameter for the average user along with enough grip to prevent slippage even when wet, is a chain. The chain wraps around a cog inside of the front of the machine that spins a flywheel, providing the air resistance. Here's a schematic of the Model D for those interested:
Although the schematic makes the machine appear quite complex, it's actually rather simple when compared to many other cardio machines.
The official name for machines like a rower is, “ergometer's.” Basically, this means exercise machines equipped with apparatus' that measure work performed on the machines. The monitor, and one that is pretty much the industry standard, is the Concept 2 Performance Monitor. All rowers sold by Concept 2 come with the latest Performance Monitor that is able to track every metric you'd ever want to know and more.
The current Performance Monitor being sold alongside Concept 2 rowers is the PM5. The PM5 allows the user to see:
- Elapsed time
- Stokes per minute
- Average pace
- Split meters
- Heart rate
- Projected meters in 30 minutes
And that's all on one easy to read screen. There are many other metrics, games, intervals, and features in addition to that. It is a fact that no monitor currently available on rowing machines has the capacity or abilities that the Performance Monitor does. The majority of users will have no need for most features, but, the best part is having them won't hinder a novice from jumping on and getting a great workout.
One fun part of the Concept 2 Rower that no other rower holds a candle to is their worldwide leaderboard that allows you to see how you stack up to others across the world in various challenges. If you're looking for motivation to get on the rower, then this is an awesome feature that should help you to put in more meters at a more intense pace.
The Concept 2 Model D Rower is our pick for the best rowing machine for most people.
When in use, the Concept 2 Rower takes up about the same amount of space as other rowing machines, but can be easily maneuvered using the front wheels to be stood upright and out-of-the-way. Should you want even more portability, the Concept 2 Rower breaks down into two separate pieces for easy storage.
Finally, the Concept 2 Model D isn't any more expensive than other rowing machines on its level. Sure, there are cheaper options, but we would recommend spending a little bit more to get a much better-performing machine.
The Concept 2 Model D Rower is our pick for the best rowing machine for most people.
Find more details including purchase info here.
The less-expensive runner-up: Xebex Air Rower
If you want a rowing machine that is slightly more affordable and are okay having an inferior monitor, we also like the Xebex Rower. Unlike our top pick, the Xebex Rower hasn't been on the market very long and proved its durability to the level that the our top pick, the Concept 2 Rowers have. Don't get us wrong, the Xebex Rower is an outstanding rower and stole our runner-up spot for a reason.
With a piece of equipment like a rowing machine, you want something that is going to last, and do so with little maintenance. As a whole, the Get RXd Xebex Rower is made to the standards of abuse that CrossFit Affiliates worldwide have and will unleash upon it. Although this is the audience who it's largely made for, it's not the only people who would benefit from the rower. That said, if the rower can stand up to a CrossFit Box, it can absolutely do well anywhere else.
From a stability and construction standpoint, the Xebex rower is solid. In fact, It weighs slightly more than our top pick, the Concept 2 Model D which can increase stability, but can also make it a bit difficult to move.
The welds throughout the rower are seamless with little slop and for the most part, the overall feel of the rower is one of quality, save for a few things that I wish were changed that we will detail further into the article. The Xebex Rower does sit a bit higher than the Concept 2 Model D, which is more in line with the Model E. This is great for the elderly or those with injuries but doesn't provide much of an advantage.
The parts of the rower that need to be the strongest are the legs and the piece that holds the fan up. These pieces are made of black powder-coated steel and we don't see them failing anytime soon. We tested the Xebex Rower with people weighing 250 lbs+ with full force and had no issues other than the rower scooting backward. This, however, is standard for all rowers when you have very high output weightlifters doing 100m sprints.
One part of the Xebex Rower that we actually preferred to the Concept 2 Model D Rower is the foot holders due to their ease of adjustability. The mechanism likely won't last as long on the Xebex Rower as the Concept 2 which is obviously important, but if you're running many different people through the rower, the Xebex foot adjustment is a nice feature.
The heart of any rower is the flywheel. It's essentially the drivetrain that allows there to be resistance. One look at the fan and you can see it's pretty much an identical copy of the Concept 2, at least from the outside.
The Xebex Rower has the same adjustments from 1-10 on the side that, contrary to popular belief, don't necessarily make for a harder workout, but rather just how much air enters the flywheel housing on each stroke. Think of the gears on a bike, which with each change in gear, affect the amount of energy needed to accelerate from one stroke to the next.
The internals allow the chain to pull smoothly with very little gap in the initial pull that some cheaper rowers are known for. The chain/shock cord do their jobs well, as well. We felt little difference between the Concept 2 and the Xebex Rower in this area which is a very important part.
The rail on which the seat glides is smooth and has a similar construction to the Concept 2 rower with the use of aluminum.The seat features rollers that allow the seat to glide along the rail with very little force or resistance. The seat on the Concept 2 and Xebex Rower are similar, although the Xebex Rower has more padding which makes it more comfortable at first. They're both fairly comfortable, but the back lip on the Xebex Rower allows you to feel a bit more secure.
The handle Xebex Rower is one of its worst features. It feels both cheap and a bit awkward due to how it's angled. This is the only piece of the rower that you will be holding onto, and you'll be doing so for long stretches of times, so it's important that it's comfortable. In the center of the handle is a plastic cover that is somewhat cheap and flimsy to cover the handle connection. If it were our choice, we would have just left it off.
When looking at the monitor of the Xebex Rower in comparison to the Concept 2 Rowers, it becomes apparent how much effort C2 has put in. Xebex has upgraded their monitor and although it's better, it's still lacking in many areas. You can track similar metrics on both monitors, including heart rate, however, they track differently.
And, this is an important point that needs to be addressed.
The Xebex Rower tracks calories and distance using a different formula than the PM5 on the Concept 2. This is a big deal for those that plan to use this rower in the CrossFit Open or in conjunction with the Concept 2. Xebex also doesn't have the worldwide leaderboard that is such a cool part of the Concept 2 experience.
Aside from the monitor and how it tracks distance and calories, if you shut your eyes, the Concept 2 and Xebex Rowers feel pretty similar in their experience due to both using air resistance. This said, due to the durability, construction, and features of the Concept 2 Rowers, we recommend them as our first option.
Find more details including purchase info here.
Another option: WaterRower Rowing Machine
The WaterRower Rowing Machine is the most unique rowing machine in our comparison and likely the entire world. The difference between it and every other rowing machine is the use of water for its resistance instead of air or magnets.
When asking people what they like most about the WaterRower, the response we most often got was that it was, “the most aesthetically pleasing rowing machine available.” Other than that, people liked to sound of the water during use, but no one made the statement that it was the most durable or accurate rowing machine available.
We agree, the WaterRower is one of the best looking pieces of gym equipment we've seen. The use of hardwood in gym equipment is rarely seen (due to its heft and low durability when compared to many metals) and it provides a really great look. If a rower is going to be sitting out in your living room and you want to strike up conversations about it while drinking with your pinkies out (we kid, we kid) then the WaterRower is a great option.
Although the WaterRower is often remarked on as the most aesthetically pleasing rowing machine on the market, it's rarely said to be the absolute best.
Ourselves, and most others, choose fitness equipment based upon its performance over a long timeline. This isn't to say that the WaterRower isn't durable or a good machine for rowing, but in comparison to our top two picks, we feel it slides it at a solidified third.
As stated, the WaterRower uses water as it's resistance method. This has both advantages and disadvantages, however, we feel that the cons outweigh the pros. First, the advantages:
- Quiet operation
- Most similar to actual rowing
The WaterRower is the quietest rower among our picks, which is the main reason it made the list in the first place. There are some people who need the quietest equipment available, those with sleeping children and spouses (hopefully just one spouse) as well as those that live with neighbors who complain. Our other picks aren't overly loud, but in comparison to the WaterRower, fans make much more noise than swishing water.
The other big benefit of using water for resistance is that it most closely mimics actual rowing on the water. With this said, few who use indoor rowing machines ever get out on the water in a real rower and just about every crew (rowing) team in the world trains on our top pick, the Concept 2 Rower. The sound of the swishing water does provide a great audible feedback, however, that shouldn't be overlooked.
Now, the disadvantages of using water as the resistance method in an indoor rower:
- Possible leaking
- Higher maintenance
- Mildew growth
- Less durable housing
- Less portability
- Possible freezing if left in a garage in winter
As you can see, the disadvantages of using water for resistance outweigh the advantages, at least to us. The biggest problem with using water as the resistance method is the maintenance required. Eventually, no matter if you use triple-filtered, reverse osmosis, distilled water or whatever comes out of your tap, it will need to be changed eventually. Users have reported the water eventually smelling and causing mold spores to grow on the plastic.
The requirement to change water is obviously an annoyance, but the reports of leaking are another issue altogether.
Although water isn't our favorite option, the look of the wood that's most often used by WaterRower is something we really like. Obviously, even though hardwood is used, these rowers aren't going to hold up to the abuse that rowers made of aluminum and steel will. But, the WaterRower, at least the ‘Natural' versions, aren't made for commercial use. They're designed to look good sitting in a home environment and while in use.
The WaterRower does have a monitor to track different metrics, although it's not quite as accurate or detailed as the Performance Monitors found on Concept 2 Rowers. One other issue surrounding the WaterRower monitor is that it's next to the foot placement on the right side. This may not sound like a big deal, but after a few thousand meters, it can get tiring looking down and to the right to see how much further you have to go.
Finally, the WaterRower is more expensive than all of our other top picks.
We suggest the WaterRower for those that want the quietest rowing experience possible along with an aesthetically pleasing design. There's no question, the WaterRower is a beautiful design, but due to the extra maintenance, cost, and monitor, the WaterRower is our third pick.
Find more details including purchase info here.
Budget pick: Stamina ATS Air Rower
The Stamina ATS Air Rower doesn't have the overall great features and durability of the Concept 2 Rower, the value of the Xebex Air Rower, or the unique qualities of the WaterRower, but it is inexpensive. Although we would suggest spending more on a rowing machine, especially if you plan on using it more than a handful of times, the Stamina ATS Air Rower is the absolute least expensive rower we would suggest anyone purchase.
The Stamina ATS Air Rower uses a flywheel in a similar manner as our top pick, the Concept 2 Rower to allow air resistance. One unique part of the Stamina ATS Air Rower is the frame is angled downwards instead of flat. This “increases the work placed on the legs” as they advertise, but in reality, it's mainly to put less stress on the machine during the pullback.
Most of the reviews found on Amazon state they prefer a flat rower which is most popular, but we can understand why they would make the change. The ATS Rower features standard foot plates and seat. The seat is an upholstered seat that is pretty cushy which can cause a restriction of blood flow if used for too long. The foot plates can fit just about any shoe size and thanks to the nylon straps that come standard on most rowers, your feet won't slip out.
The ATS Rower is somewhat stable, but we would not suggest sprinting on the unit as it can cause it to tip and eventually break the flywheel.
One nice feature of the ATS Rower is the ability to fold the machine in half for storage and portability. If you're short on space, this can be a nice benefit, although it's a feature seen among many other rowers as well.
The Stamina ATS Rower does have a monitor that displays speed, distance, time, and calories, although don't expect it to be very accurate.
One thing to consider with the ATS Rower is the how short the rail is that can prevent taller users from reaching a full stroke. The other rower is in our comparison can accommodate tall users, however, the ATS cannot.
If you want an inexpensive rower to find out if rowing is something you enjoy and will use, then the Stamina ATS Air Rower is one we would suggest. Otherwise, we suggest choosing one of our other options.
Find more details including purchase info here.
Concept 2 Model E Rower: We're big fans of every piece of equipment Concept 2 is making, and the Model E is no exception. The only reason we would suggest the Model E over the Model D is if you had an injury limiting your mobility for getting on a lower to the ground rower. Otherwise, they're pretty much identical.
TechnoGym SKILLROW: The TechnoGym SKILLROW has some cool features, but its price-point is a bit hard to swallow. We haven't been able to use it and weren't able to talk to anyone who had outside of the company. Until then, we will remain neutral.
Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rower: Magnetic rowers have a tendency to break down and require maintenance sooner than air rowers. The Sunny Health Rower is a very inexpensive option, but you also get what you pay for. We don't suggest this model.
Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine: The Body Trac Glider is one of the cheapest rowers available and uses gas-shock resistance instead of air. Gas-shock resistance rowers are known to not have a very long life for use and can be found broken at garage sales often. We don't suggest gas-shock resistance rowers, no matter the price. If you go through the Amazon reviews of the machine, you'll find it riddled with comments on it breaking after less than a year.
Stamina X Air Rower: The Stamina X Air Rower has a cool look to it, but we don't see any additional benefits of it over the Stamina ATS Rower other than the colors. It's also a bit more pricey and has quite a few negative reviews.
Stamina 35-1405 ATS Air Rower: The Stamina 35-1405 ATS Air Rower is pretty much the same as the Stamina X Air Rower and again doesn't have much more benefits over our budget pick that has a lower price point.
Schwinn Crewmaster Rowing Machine: The Crewmaster is Schwinn's premier rowing machine offering and is unfortunately overpriced for its features. The Crewmaster hasn't been out long enough for many reviews, but based on its components, it's somewhat lacking for the price.
Stamina Avari Magnetic Rower: Magnetic rowers break quickly and this one is overpriced.
Stamina Wave Water Rowing Machine: If you're going to buy a rower with water resistance, go with WaterRower.
Xterra ERG400 Rower: Air and magnetic resistance is a good combination for disaster. Choose one or the other.
We will update this article as new rowers are introduced and prices change.