Indoor rowing machines can be a great way to give your arms, legs, abdominal core, gluteus maximus, and back an exceptional workout. There are four principal types of rowing machines and each has its pros and its cons. In this article, I will endeavor to help provide you with the information that you need to choose the best indoor rowing machine for your purposes based on your exercise needs and budget.
The first step is to consider whether you have room for it (rowing machines vary in size, but they tend to be approximately five feet in length by three feet in width, give or take).
The second consideration is your budget. Rowing machines vary in price based on brand and the type of resistance with which they are equipped. They generally range from below $100 to above $2,500.
After you have determined that you have space for a rowing machine and set a budget, you will want to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of each type of rowing machine. Generally speaking, rowing machines are categorized, based on resistance, into hydraulic piston, air, water, and magnetic rowing machines. Let’s delve into each, so that you can make an informed decision.
1. Hydraulic Piston Rowing Machines
These rowing machines (affordably priced at roughly $75 to $600) have a relatively-small footprint, are generally foldable, and are quiet machines. Hydraulic machines are available in single- or dual-piston hydraulic models, with dual models allowing for a separate workout in the case of each arm. However, the pistons can overheat and leak oil if workouts are longer than 20-30 minutes (you’ll want a mat under these rowers just to be on the safe side, though I have to say that my rowing machine pictured above has never leaked) and as these rowers tend to be smaller, they may not be ideal for a person over 6 feet.
Unlike magnetic (and some air) rowing machines, there is no chain or cord, so you will not have to worry about getting injured by a lash in the event of an equipment mishap. Cord-or chain-snapping, though I understand that it’s rare, was a concern for me, among other things like noise, so I opted for a hydraulic piston type.
2. Air Rowing Machines
Air rowing machines (priced on the order of $300 to $1,300) use the spinning of an internal fan to achieve rowing resistance. These machines are generally larger (which often makes them more suitable for taller people) than hydraulic machines and many are neither foldable nor adjustable in resistance (beyond your own variation in rowing intensity). While these machines often don’t have resistance dials, they essentially allow you to set dictate your intensity without stopping to adjust the dial. They generally offer smoothness of motion, ample resistance, and an authentic feel relative to actual rowing. However, because they operate using a fan, these air rowing machines are the loudest of all the rowing machine types.
3. Magnetic Rowing (and Hybrid Air/Magnetic) Machines
These machines (with pricing roughly ranging from $200 to $1,400) are larger in size (and thus generally suited for taller users as well as users of lesser height). The magnetic rowing machine uses a magnetic-brake system to create resistance (and resistance is generally adjustable on these machines). These machines are the quietest out of all the categories (they are almost entirely silent). While these rowers provide smoothness of rowing, they tend to provide weaker resistance than the alternatives and generally have cords or chains which can cause injury in the event of breakage during a workout. Also, the rowing tends not to be as realistic relative to real rowing as the rowing afforded by an air rower.
In some cases, rowers are based on both air and magnetic resistance. While these machines offer resistance adjustability and personal intensity modification without adjustment along with excellent resistance strength, they are still louder than all options other than the air rowing machine and the rowing is not as realistic relative to real rowing on the water.
4. Water Rowing Machines
The water rowing machines (which are some of the most expensive rowing machines at a price point generally ranging between $700 and $2,500+) tend to be large (and not foldable). They use paddles in a water tank to generate resistance, so you can hear the water splashing. While the noise tends to be louder than magnetic and hydraulic rowing machines, it is quieter than air rowing machines and many find the noise to be an attractive sound reminiscent of rowing on the water. Resistance can be altered by intensity of rowing like the air machine and the heaviness of the rowing can be altered based on how much water is added to the tank (with heaviness increasing as water in the tank increases). The rowing motions are very smooth on these machines and they are the closest a rowing machine gets in rowing experience to on-the-water rowing.
Ultimately, the decision of which rowing machine is right for you should be based on your budget, size, tolerance for noise, level of injury risk aversion, interest in on-the-water rowing fidelity and exercise goals. Hopefully, this article has given you the lay of the land and gotten you off to a good start in making your decision. In my experience (given the extensive body areas that the rowing machine exercises and the enjoyable nature of the rowing experience), a rowing machine is a worthwhile addition to any home gym or for personal office use.
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