Although indoor rowing doesn’t have the distinctive charms of being on a skiff on the river—the unexpected sprays of water, for instance, or ominous storm clouds rolling in way too fast—it does tend to share one thing in common with the outdoor type: It’s a killer workout. That’s a big part of the reason rowing machines were much more in demand during the COVID lockdown, but it’s not too late to nab one. Consider it a “Made It Through 2020” present to yourself.
When it comes to choosing one, there are three important points for comparison worth noting, according to trainers and coaches:
There are four different mechanisms used by rowers to provide resistance, says Ben Walker, C.P.T., owner of Anywhere Fitness in Dublin, Ireland. Those include hydraulic, air, water, or magnetic resistance. If noise is an issue—like if you have downstairs neighbors, for example—then a hydraulic or water-based model is ideal, he suggests, because they are quieter.
But if you’re more concerned about performance, many rowers opt for an air-based or magnetic model because they’re easier to maintain, more affordable, and less likely to break. Like other features, though, it tends to come down to personal preference in terms how much you like the feel of the rower.
Look for companies that have had time to perfect their design and have good reviews in terms of durability and maintenance, suggests former elite rower Maria Brezler. Quality isn’t just about a financial investment, she adds, it can change how you feel when you’re doing a workout.
“You can get on one machine and it feels like you’re riding in an old beat-up Rav-4, while another will feel like driving a Mercedes,” she says.
Are you happy with the motion of rowing and the ability to change resistance levels, or did you want to see your data, like speed and distance? Do you want a built-in screen that lets you compete with others, or do you want all the extra frills, like live classes led by a rowing instructor?
“Only you will know what it will take to become more competitive with yourself, and what fuels your motivation,” says Brezler. If you’re just starting out, you might need more nudges like those live classes and leaderboards. But if you’re using a rower only as a fill-in machine until you can get back on the water, you may need a more stripped-down version.
When it comes to specific brands, favorites can vary as much as treadmill selection, but we’ve talked to a bunch of rowing fanatics on what they consider the best home rowers for mimicking the feeling of being on the water. Here, a list of nine choices to consider: