4 Types Of Rowing Machines (Buying Guide)

Rowing is a great workout that can get you very fit, help you lose weight and can even be an outlet for your competitive urges but unless you are content to use the rower at your local gym, you will probably prefer to buy a rower of your own to use at home.

There are several manufacturers and lots of different models available so choosing a rower can be a daunting prospect and the last thing you want to do is spend your hard-earned money on a machine that fails to live up to your expectations.

Types of Rowing Machines

Rowers are best categorized by the mechanism used for creating resistance. There are four main types:

Electromagnetic resistance

Very smooth and quiet to use, electromagnetic resistance rowers usually require an external power source and contain often sophisticated electrical components. Resistance can be changed quickly and easily but, in my experience, the top resistance level is normally not very high. There is a lot to go wrong with an electromagnetic resistance rower but if well maintained should be reliable and long lasting.

Water resistance

Built around a sealed drum of water and a propeller attached to the handle by a cord or chain, water resistance rowers are becoming increasingly popular. The water drum looks really cool and the swishing sound they make in use gives a very authentic rowing experience. Because water is very heavy, water rowers tend to be heavy too and less portable as a result. The rowing action tends to be heavier at the start of the pull than at the end – much the same as rowing on “real” water but different to other types of braking system where resistance is more constant.

Air resistance

This type of rower is the most popular with “serious” rowers. The resistance is variable and there is plenty of it for even the strongest exerciser. The machines themselves are usually hardwearing and very easy to maintain. On the downside, air resistance rowers can be quite noisy in use, especially if you are doing intervals or sprints. Air resistance rowers are generally lighter than water rowers and can be broken down into sections for easier transportation and storage.

Hydraulic resistance

Old school rowers almost always used hydraulic resistance. Modern rowers using hydraulics are generally cheap and far less enjoyable to use then the preceding three resistance methods. Because the handles inevitably travel through an arc rather than in a straight line, hydraulic rowers use a very unnatural rowing action that can prove uncomfortable. Resistance is usually adjustable but not by much. Hydraulic resistance rowers are light, portable and easily folded flat for storage but are not really suitable for “serious” rowing training although Kettler, a good quality German fitness company, still use hydraulics in their rowing machines.

Now you know a little about the different types of rower, let’s look at a few other things that you should consider when buying a rower.


An indoor rowing machine can cost as little as $200 and as much as $3000 depending on the model you choose. Most expensive doesn’t necessarily mean best and, in my opinion, the best rower around sits half way between these two extremes. While it is true you get what you pay for, some rowers are definitely overpriced compared to the competition.

Space available

Some rowers are longer than others so it’s important to make sure your rower will fit into the space you have set aside for exercise. Make sure the rowing machine is big enough to accommodate you too – if you are very tall, you’ll probably need a rower that is around two-meters in length.


Is your rower going to stay in one place, e.g. your spare room, or are you going to have to store it in one place and use it in another? While some rowers will break down into two or even three sections, others do not. Some machines are fitted with wheels for easy movement while others will need to be carried.


Some rowers are very “no frills” while others have every bell and whistle imaginable. More often, the more expensive the rower, the more functions on offer. Don’t feel that more functions are best – you may end up paying for things you never use. Choose a model that does what you need rather than pay for things you do not want. Also, the more technology that is crammed into your rowing machine, the more there is to go wrong; an important factor to consider if your rower is going to get heavy usage.


Even the best rowing machines go wrong from time to time so make sure your rower has a decent warranty. More expensive rowers often have a longer warranty but in return you get peace of mind that your investment is protected.

Number of users

If your rower is going to be used by a lot of people or used heavily by just a few, make sure you chose a machine designed for light commercial or commercial use. Home use machines are fine for light or occasional usage but are not up to the punishment of constant, heavy use.


That rower that felt fine in the showroom can be butt-crippling uncomfortable 20-minutes into your first proper workout. Make sure the rower is long enough, has a good seat and a sufficiently wide handle to accommodate you comfortably. The best rower in the world is a waste of money if you can use it without severe discomfort.

Availability of spares

Because, hopefully, your rower will last many years, it is important that commonly required spares are readily available. Things like seats, handles, roller bearings and monitors eventually wear out but these are small components that, if worn, should not end the life of your machine. Make sure that there are spares available (and that there will be continued availability) for your rower.


If you are training for indoor rowing competitions, you should buy the type rower you are going to be racing on. At the time of writing, that’s Concept 2 rowing machines. If you have no intention of rowing in competition, it’s fine to go with a different model.

I’ve used a lot of rowing machines and enjoyed many of them but, ten times out of ten, I always come back to the Concept 2. I’ve used the old models and the newest models and they are always a pleasure to use. Hardwearing, easy to maintain and very long lasting, they are not the cheapest rowing machine around but, with a little bit of maintenance, they should provide you with decades of faithful service.

I have a Concept 2 in my garage and in all the years I have owned it, it has never needed more than a little oil on the chain and a new battery in the display unit. I consider my Concept 2 to be the best exercise investments I have ever made.