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The Best Rowing Machines

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Rowing is a great way to get fit without putting impact on your joints. You can start doing it in your own home for less than you think.

With each and every stroke using nine major muscle groups, rowing is a great way to get fit without putting excessive strain on any of your joints. And thanks to indoor rowing machines (also known as ergometers, or "ergs") you can reap all the benefits without ever needing to set foot in a boot.

Despite the wildly varying quality and prices of rowing machines, buying your first indoor rower needn't be a daunting prospect. To take the stress out of the experience, we've compiled a selection of the best rowing machines on the market, whether you're looking to save money or to buy the best rowing machine money can buy. If you want to learn which type of erg is best for your needs, you can read our buying guide below.

The best rowing machines to buy

1. JLL R200 Luxury Home Rowing Machine

The JLL R200 is a magnetic rower with ten resistance levels, but it's worth pointing out right away that even its highest setting might not be enough to give the full-body workout that rowing should deliver. If space is at a premium, though, the R200 fits the bill perfectly, because it's foldable and also has wheels on the base to help with moving it around.

Despite being the cheapest on this list, it looks and feels much more solid than many other budget models. The pedals are large and designed for comfort, using velcro straps to secure your feet. The backlit LCD display lets you jump between six different data screens including time, distance, calories burned and stroke count, but it also has a handy scan mode that cycles through all the metrics during your workout. For its price tag, then, this is a sturdy, well-designed rower that does a good job for those looking for a simple workout, but may fall short for those wanting an holistic training regime.

Key specs - Dimensions in use: 180cm x 127cm x 52cm; Dimensions While Stored: 124cm x 29cm x 22.5cm; Weight Limit: 100kg; Ant/Bluetooth support: No; USB workout upload: No; Warranty: One year

2. Concept 2 Model D

The Concept 2 Model D is used by everyone from at-home fitness aficionados to medal-winning Olympians, making it the best-selling rowing machine in the world. Crossfit games, World and National Indoor Rowing Championships and even Olympic rowing squad selections are all held on the Concept 2 Model D or E. There’s good reason behind it.

As well as its smooth action, comfy ergonomic handle, easily adjustable footrests and intuitive resistance settings, the Concept 2’s Performance Monitor 5 (PM5) computer system offers simple metrics in an advanced and reliable way.

The Model D's PM5 with has a backlit LCD display. That gives you all the key metrics you need during a workout including distance, speed, calories, power curve efficiency and watts. Its USB flash drive port lets you export all your workouts to your computer, but for more advanced metrics and analysis, you can sync it to the ErgData smartphone app, which interfaces with Strava and TrainingPeaks. It'll work with both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart heart-rate monitors, too.

At just over 2.4m, the Model D is a large machine, but the quick-release framelock mechanism means you can split the body and store the two halves upright. It lacks a few of the impressive finishing touches of Concept 2’s flagship Model E, but the core functionality and physical experience is completely identical, making it tough for most consumers to justify the higher price.

It’s popular for a reason, and worth every penny of the high asking price if you’re very serious about building power and fitness.

Key specs - Dimensions in use: 244cm x 61cm x 63cm; Dimensions While Stored: 63.5 cm x 83.8 cm x 137.2 cm; Weight Limit: 227kg; ANT+/Bluetooth support: Both; USB workout upload: Yes; Warranty: Two years

3. JTX Freedom Air Rower

With 16 levels of resistance and eight different training programmes, this model from JTX offers gym quality at a relatively reasonable price. The combination of air and electromagnetic resistance gives a smooth and consistent workout, whilst its aluminium frame makes it both sturdy and lightweight.

The unit’s small footprint is ideal for those who don’t have much space to play with and it can also be folded away for more convenient storage. The backlit display tracks speed, stroke rate, distance, time, heart rate and more, but being considerably cheaper than the WaterRower and Concept 2, the JTX Freedom Air Rower doesn't have all the bells and whistles of its more expensive rivals – you can’t set a pace boat, for example. In spite of that, this is a great rowing machine for users of all fitness levels that also comes with a two-year warranty for some peace of mind.

Key specs - Dimensions in use: 225cm x 58cm x 56cm; Dimensions while stored: 125cm x 29cm x 58cm; Weight Limit: 130kg; ANT+/Bluetooth support: Bluetooth; USB workout upload: No; Warranty: Two years

4. Viavito Sumi Folding Rowing Machine

Whether you’re working out with music, in front of the TV or during unsociable hours, this Viavito machine is the one for you for the simple reason that it makes much less noise than other models. Of course, it’s not silent, but this magnetic resistance rower is one of the best for those seeking peace and quiet during their workout.

That's not its only appeal, either. Ten levels of magnetic resistance help you find the right intensity for your training, while its basic LCD screen lets you see important info such as distance, calories burned and stroke rate. The Viavito also boasts a handy fold-up design although one downside is its lack of support for heart-rate monitors.

Key specs - Dimensions in use: 178cm x 53cm x 48cm; Dimensions while stored: 74cm x 53cm x 48cm; Weight Limit: 120kg; Ant+/Bluetooth support: No; USB workout upload: No; Warranty: Two years

How to buy the best rowing machine for you

What are the different types of rowing machine?

There are four different types of rowing machine, with each one using different types of resistance, but each has its pros and cons:

  • Air rowing machines generate resistance using a flywheel that rotates within an enclosed cage. You can let more air into the cage to generate more resistance, or close it to lower the resistance. However, since your power output is based on the flywheel’s speed as much as the damper setting, there’s no need to use a higher setting to get a great workout – to the contrary, it’s better to use a lower setting unless you want to exhaust your muscles. Air-resistance machines are the most common on the market, but generate quite a bit of noise, which might not be practical in all households.
  • Hydraulic rowers, often referred to as piston rowing machines, are usually the most affordable option. These machines use a pair of hydraulic pistons to generate resistance, and tend to be the smallest and easiest in terms of storage, folding up in most cases. However they often bare little to no resemblance to the movement of rowing. Usually the range of movement is limited to a short arc that won’t offer the full body benefits of a more expensive rowing machine.
  • Water-resistance models are designed to mimic the experience of real rowing, using large water-filled tanks and internal paddles to create resistance. They're relatively quiet and often designed from wood and so are aesthetically fetching. The major disadvantage is cost – they’re rather expensive and offer less functionality than the top machines.
  • Magnetic is the final type of resistance used by rowing machines. Compared to the other varieties, these are extremely quiet and can be manually adjusted using a digital console or a slide lever, depending on the model. The disadvantage is that the magnetic resistance lacks the reactive and powerful resistance of air or water machines. Magnetic rowers’ simple, flat level of resistance can make it harder to achieve the all-round muscle gains of a more advanced rowing machine.

What else should I look out for?

Feedback and data are important to making progress in your fitness, and as such almost all rowers come with an LCD display which lets you know how far you’ve rowed and how quickly, with others giving you more advanced metrics, too. If all you want is a rower to give you a quick exercise fix, then there’s no need to go for a model that provides extensive workout data.

As with most things, though, the more you spend, the more features you normally get. Some rowing machines include a USB port you can use to export data from your workout, and some support ANT+/Bluetooth Smart too, enabling you to connect to a range of devices including smartphone apps and heart-rate monitors.

Longevity and toughness may seem like a strange requirement for an indoor machine, but extensive use can take its toll on a rowing machine so it’s worth considering how heavy-duty the unit is. Hydraulic pistons, for instance, can begin to wear out. The Concept 2 flywheel, by comparison, is fairly bombproof and many units from 30 years ago (the infamous Model B) are still in use.

The realism of the resistance is also important for more than just competitive rowers. Hydraulic and magnetic resistance may look superficially the same, but the unique benefit of rowing exercise relies on resistance changing according to the speed of the stroke. A flywheel or water chamber can generate that type of resistance, meaning that your arms and body are offered a dynamic workout just as much as your quads, whereas cheaper systems cannot.

A final advantage of that flywheel system is consistency across machines. You can jump on a top-end air or water resistance machine in any gym or health club in the world and pick up where you left off from your home workout.

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