everything you need to know about rowing machines

Rowing Machines: The Complete Guide

Rowing machines are becoming more and more commonplace in health clubs and home gyms alike.

There’s a reason why.

Rowing machines offer a wide range of workout styles, from long distance endurance workouts, to short intense sprints.

Rowing machines do this all while keeping you injury free, thanks to a low impact design. In fact, rowing is safer and easier to learn than other forms of cardio, such as running or swimming.

Read on below to learn about rowing machines and how they can increase your overall health and wellness.

Columbia College’s Rowing Team (Using an Early Indoor Rowing Machine)


Rowing has a long history, in fact, the origins of rowing go all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. They used row boats to get up and down the Nile River.

While ancient man enjoyed rowing, the popularity of rowing for fitness and competition took off in the 17th and 18th centuries in the UK.

Watermen, who transferred passengers across the river Thames in London, would compete against each other to see who could row the fastest.

Pretty soon, this caught on with the local college men at places like Eton, Oxford, and a Westminster. Rowing clubs were formed, and yearly races (called regattas) where scheduled.

As the popularity of college (crew) rowing teams grew, so did the sport. In fact, by the 19th century, rowing was one of the most popular sports in the world.

Nowadays, rowing is usually done solely for fitness. Instead of a crew of 8 people rowing a boat through water, you can get all of the same benefits by using a home indoor rowing machine.

All of the fitness benefits with none of the dampness!


Rowing machines have many benefits over other forms of cardio.

First off, rowing is a low-impact form of cardio. This means that there are no jarring movements when you row.

In comparison, running is a high impact form of exercise. According to research, each step you take causes impact to your joints and bones that causes micro-fractures in the tissue. This can be good, as it causes your body to repair tissue and grow stronger, but, it can cause damage if you overdo it.

With rowing, you have no worries in this regard as it’s a low impact form of exercise, meaning, there’s no hard jarring movements.

In addition, using a rowing machine allows you to do a variety of forms of exercise. You can sprint. Your can do endurance “marathon rows”. You can use it for warmups. Etc…..

Few pieces of cardio equipment are as versatile as a rowing machine.

Rowing machines have another great advantage in that they are one of the only cardiovascular exercises that can help to build muscle.

Most cardio machines are built to help you burn fat. Unfortunately, you can also end up burning muscle tissue while using these machines (such as with an elliptical).

When you’re rowing, with every stroke you pull, you’re flexing your legs, abs, arms, and upper back. These repeated muscle contractions can stimulate muscle growth, helping to give you a more defined physique.

Not a bad side benefit!

You can read more about the benefits of rowing here.

different types of indoor rowing machines


There are variety of different types of rowers available on the market.

While each types has its pro’s and cons, they are all aiming to do the same thing: create a similar stimulation as it feels when you’re rowing a boat on water.

Below are the most common types of rowers.

Air Rowing Machines

Air resistance rowing machines, also known as “fan” rowing machines, are of the most common types of rowers that you’ll see.

These types of rowing machines work by getting resistance from the air that is created by spinning the flywheel.

In simple terms, it similar to self powering a fan. You pull on the rowing handle and cause the fan blade to spin. The harder you pull, the faster the fan spins.

Concept 2 makes air rowing machines, see the picture below to get a good feel for how the machine works.

One note on air rowers is that they tend to be somewhat noisy. Every stroke that you pull will have a loud “whoosh” sound as the fan blade spins.

Magnetic Resistance Rowing Machine

Unlike fan-based rowing machines which receive its resistance from the wind, magnetic resistance rowers utilizes a magnetic brake system.

Magnetic resistance rowing machines work by using a magnetic brake that resists you as you row. This provides a smooth, virtually silent rowing experience.

Magnetic rowing machines tend to be small, and quiet, which makes them a good option for home gyms. However, they tend to not be as CONS

Hydraulic Rowing Machine

Hydraulic rowing machines receive its tension from compressed air (or fluid) within a cylinder or piston. When you pull against the piston, the air (or fluid) inside compresses and you get resistance.

Hydraulic resistance rowing machines tend to be inexpensive and small in size. If you’re looking for budget first time rowing machine, getting a hydraulic rower might be good option for you.

One note, hydraulic rowing machines have the potential to leak hydraulic fluid. So, while they can be a good option for home use, they’re best when placed on a mat, or used in your garage.

Water Rowing Machines

Water rowing machines use, you guessed it, water as their resistance! These types of rowing machines are the most true to actual rowing on water.

Water rowers work by using a water flywheel connected to a chain and handles. When you pull back on the rower handle, the flywheel spins in the water. The water moving against the flywheel produces pull (or drag) against the paddles which creates resistance.

Similar to air/flywheel rowing machines, the faster you row, the greater the resistance on a water rowing machine.

Water rowers tend to be more expensive, but they create the most realistic feel to rowing on open water. Plus, water rowing machines are beautiful pieces of machinery, as you can see with the WaterRower brand of machines.

If you’re interested in learning more about rower resistance types, you can read my article on the topic here.


When it comes to rowers, it’s important to buy a rower that’s made by a reputable brand.

As with all things in life, with rowers, you get what you pay for.

If you find a bargain bin rower for $100 from a brand you’ve never heard of, don’t be surprised when craps out on you after a week of workouts.

In the rowing world, there are a few brands that stand out.

We’ll detail a few of the top rowing brands, going over their strengths and weaknesses.

Concept 2 Rowers

Concept 2 is seen as the best of the best when it comes to rowers. In the rowing world, they are seen as the industry standard. If someone asks you what your 5K row time is, they want to know how long it takes to row a 5K on a Concept 2.

If you’re more of a performance focused athlete, the one that’s always looking to get stronger and faster, Concept 2 rowers are the best option. As an example, Crossfit solely relies on Concept 2 ergs for their competitions.

That said, Concept 2 rowing machines are also the most reliable, longest lasting rower on the market. There are people out there who have over a million meters rowed on their machines.

So, while Concept 2 rowers are expensive, they are the best. They’ll last the longest out of all of the rowers listed and they’ll have the smallest amount of upkeep required (they’ll just need a little chain oil every few months).

You can read our full review on the Concept 2 brand here.

As far as Concept 2 models to look at, the Concept 2 Model D is the gold standard in the rowing world. For the price, you get an incredibly well built machine designed to give you the best rowing experience.

Sunny Health & Fitness

Sunny Health and Fitness is on the lower end of the rowing world grade scale. That said, they’ve made a name for themselves in offer a solid rower at a low price point.

While you won’t be setting any rowing world records on a Sunny Health rowing machine, you can get in a consistent rowing workout and improve your general health and fitness levels.

If you’re looking for a sub-$250 rower, the Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515 might be the rower for you. It’s my top pick for low budget entry level rowers.

You can read more about the Sunny Health & Fitness brand here in the brand overview section of this site.


Knowing how to properly use a rowing machine is crucial. Good form will make rowing more enjoyable and fun.

While learning good rowing form is easier to pick up than proper running technique or learning a swim stroke, it is still important to spend time learning the basics.

Below is a helpful video from Concept 2 explaining everything you need to know about basic rowing technique.

For rowing, you have 4 basic movements that consist of your “rowing stroke”, these movements consist of the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery.

1. The Catch

The catch is when you’re at the bottom of your stroke. Your arms and legs should be relaxed and ready to pull. Your upper body should be leaning forward with your shoulders over your hips.

2. The Drive

The drive is where you explosively extend your legs and pull with your arms. Make sure to get full leg extension before you engage your arms.

3. The Finish

This is where you finish the pull with your arms. Your back should be leaning slight back and away from the rower (but no aggressively).

4. The Recovery

The recovery is when you glide down the rowing track back into the catch position. Extend your arms until they straighten before leaning from the hips towards the flywheel.

You’re now ready to start again in the catch position and repeat the motion.



One of the beauties of using a rowing machine is the variety of workout types that you can do.

Fast sprints for fat loss.

Or long distance workouts to build endurance.

You can do any type of cardiovascular training you want on a rowing machine.

Below are a few different types of rowing workouts that you can do on an indoor rowing machine.

rowing workout

HIIT Rower Workouts

High intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts are one of the most popular types of rowing workouts.

HIIT training consists of short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low-intensity recovery periods.

According to exercise researchers, you want to reach 85%-95% of your peak heart rate when you’re doing your short bursts of exercise. As you rest in between rounds your heart rate should drop back down before you hit the next round.

As an example, you might get on a rower and pull hard for 30 seconds, then rest for 1 minute – this would give you a work:rest ratio of 1:2.

Generally, for HIIT, you want to have a 1:1 or 1:2 work:rest ratio. Following this guideline will help to improve your overall aerobic fitness levels. Doing 5-10 rounds should be perfect for starting off. You can add time, rounds, etc.. as you progress.

The key is to maintain a high level of intensity during your HIIT workout.

Endurance Rowing Workouts

While doing short, intense sprints can be fun, they aren’t the only style of workout that you can do on a rower.

Doing long distance rowing is great for building your cardiovascular health and endurance.

Similar to running a 5K, you can row a 5K on your indoor rower. In fact, there are individuals that will row a marathon, which is pretty crazy to think about.

For endurance workouts on a rower, it’s pretty simple. Pick a distance or an amount of time, strap into the rower, and start pulling.

One key for getting better at endurance rowing is to make sure you have good rowing form. Bad body positioning can make long rows much more difficult, especially as you’ll complete thousands of rowing “stroke”.

Any inefficiencies you have will decrease your performance and make rowing a bit harder.


Rowing is an incredible way to improve your health and fitness. Whether your goal is to try and set a world record 5K row time, or simply to lose 5 lbs, using a rowing machine can help you reach that goal.

If you’re looking for more rowing resources, check out the other helpful articles on this site.

Our goal is to provide helpful, accurate information on rowing that allows you to make informed decisions. Whether that’s buying your first rowing machine, or simply learning how to tune up your existing one.

Row on!