In the ever-expanding universe of home fitness equipment, one machine has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Rowing machines’ growing dominance has been in part spurred by its frequent inclusion as a key component in CrossFit and other high-intensity interval training workouts.
And for good reason. They can provide a superior cardio and strength training workout for your entire body in short order.
“As a workout, rowing, and specifically on an indoor rower, is truly a full-body workout,” says Vickie Otto, a physical therapist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Not only do you get an excellent cardio workout, but you also get to strengthen your legs, your arms, your back and your core. So, you’re hitting just about every aspect of what would be a full-body workout.”
Plus, it’s a very low-impact exercise, which makes it appropriate for people who have joint issues in the lower extremities, says Matt Camargo, director of ProSport Performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. “Individuals who have a history of ankle and knee issues could benefit by incorporating a rower” in their fitness routines, he says.
Otto agrees that a rower might be a better option for people who can’t run, as “it’s a little bit more gentle on the joints. If you can’t run because you have knee or hip issues, rowing can be a good alternative.”
Choosing the Right Rowing Machine
If you’re ready to bring a rowing machine home, be aware that there’s quite a range of options on the market available.
There are two primary types of rowing machines:
1. Chain and Flywheel Designs
This design features a handle that’s attached to chain attached that connects to a flywheel. This type of rower uses air to generate resistance. You can adjust the resistance by opening or closing the damper. This device lets in more air for heavier resistance or closes it off for less resistance. You set the resistance and row with it.
2. Water Rowers
Water rowers use a similar design except that water, located inside a sealed container attached to the machine, provides the resistance. “With a water rower, you’re making your own resistance,” Otto says.
The harder you row, the more water the paddles move, creating more drag and higher resistance. This makes for a seamless increase in resistance as you work out, which mimics the effects of being on the water and rowing in an actual boat.
Regardless of whether you choose a water or an air rower, the rowing movement is the same.
When choosing the right rower for you needs, also consider the following elements:
Most rowing machines feature a computer that allows you to track your distance rowed and other workout stats. Some offer basic information such as distance and time, while others offer more granular data, including power output and programmable workouts. Some even let you play games to keep the workout more interesting.
“If you’re really techy and want to get into the nitty-gritty data of it, maybe look for a machine that has a more sophisticated computer,” Otto says. If you’re looking for just a basic cardio workout, you may not need a super fancy set up with a high-powered computer. Something that tracks simple time and distance may provide all the data you need. Air rowers typically have more robust computers, but not always.
There’s a wide range of price points for rowing machines, and you can find something for just about every budget. The least expensive machines will set you back about $250, while the most expensive ones may be 10 times that price. It all depends on what features and add-ons the machine offers.
“If you’re just looking for a quick 30-minute cardio boost, the less expensive rowers have you covered,” Otto says. For more complicated workouts or if you’re training for rowing competitions, it might be worth investing in a more sophisticated machine. Water rowers tend to be more expensive than air rowers.
Size and Durability
Some rowers can easily be folded up and rolled out of the way into a closet or under the bed when not in use, which makes them ideal for small spaces. Others, however, are large, sturdy machines that won’t move much once they’re placed in the room.
Consider whether you want to be able to use that same workout space for other kinds of activities or if it will be dedicated to rowing only. Air rowers are typically lighter and may be more maneuverable than their water rowing counterparts.
Water rowers tend to be a good bit quieter than air rowers, while offering very smooth resistance. Many people find the gentle sloshing sound soothing and less distracting than the whoosh of air you can hear on each stroke with an air rower, which can be very loud if you’re really cranking.
Two of the biggest names in rowers are Concept 2 and Nordic Track, but there are many other makers in the market including Echelon, Hydrorow and Sole Fitness. Each has its own list of pros and cons. Some offer Bluetooth connectivity to upload your workouts to the cloud, while others offer access to guided workouts via a connected screen. Consider which features will most help you establish and maintain a consistent workout routine.
The Take Home
At the end of the day, the best rower for you is the one you can afford and that you’ll use regularly. Otto recommends “asking around. I think word of mouth is huge on this one.” Talk to other people you know who have or use rowing machines and see what they prefer.”
And definitely try out any machine you’re considering before you buy. “Every machine is going to feel different to you. If you have the opportunity to try it out before you buy it, then that will hopefully help increase your comfort on the machine,” Otto says. Increased comfort can lead to increased motivation to use it, she adds.
Starting Out Safely
When you’re getting started with rowing workouts, it’s really important to make sure you’ve got good form, as it’s easy to get injured if you’re rowing incorrectly, Otto says. “First-time rowers should seek out individualized instruction to make sure you’re doing it properly to prevent injury.”
Camargo adds that getting “guidance from a fitness professional before using the rower,” particularly if you have a history of lower back issues, is a good way to help “ensure no setbacks and can help eliminate any potential limiting factors that cause more harm than good.” And it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine.
Still, rowing workouts can be an excellent choice for people returning from injuries or those starting a new fitness journey because it’s scalable and gentle on the joints.
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