Best rowing machine 2018 for improving cardio fitness and upper body strength at home

Stick your oar in and row it like Redgrave, without getting wet, with the best home rowers

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Rowing machines may assist you in getting arms like Arnie, thighs like Hoy and cardio prowess to rival Mo. But failing that, they'll definitely improve your upper body strength and cardiovascular fitness.

In fact, very few pieces of fitness kit deliver a workout quite like the humble rowing machine.

What is the best rowing machine?

I personally believe that if one is going to clutter a room with fitness equipment, it may as well look like a work of art and the eye-wateringly expensive WaterRower Natural rowing machine (it is fashioned from Ash wood, don't you know) is one of the most handsome pieces of kit on the market.

It's also one of the most natural experiences around, with a patented WaterFlywheel that utilises the same physical elements (water) and the same physical dynamics (fluid drag) that occur when a boat moves through water.

How to buy the best rowing machine

Once the slightly tricky technique of rowing a machine (or rowing anything, in fact) is mastered, you'll benefit from an all-over shakedown that targets most of the major muscle groups, as well as sculpting a lean upper body and improving the all-important respiratory system.

Rowers are the machine of choice for cross-fit nuts, Olympic athletes and professional sports stars. If it's good enough for the fittest folk on earth, it's perfectly suitable for those who want to tame a beer belly.

A rowing machine is also, perhaps surprisingly, less cumbersome than the likes of a cross-trainer or running machine, with many lightweight models folding flat and/or standing up, for easy storage in cupboards or corners of rooms.

Prices start at around £160 for the more basic magnetic resistance machines and rise to nearly £2,000 for the units that boast all of the bells and whistles.

There are a number of other factors to consider before setting foot in the Rowing Machines R Us, the first being space. Also worthy of thought: how much noise you and your loved ones can put up with and your exercise intensity needs.

Box-fresh oarsfolk will not be able to tell the difference between a machine that uses air resistance and one that favours water or some trick electro-magnetic unit, but these factors will be important to more experienced rowers.

The majority of units tend to favour an air resistance system, which is the tried and tested formula in the mock rowing world but also one of the noisiest.

Water and magnetic resistance technology is much quieter and the former is said to offer the most natural rowing experience.

Those on a really tight budget and with minimal floor space can look to old-school, hydraulic rowers, which use dual handles and hydraulic pistons to replicate resistance. They tend to deliver a less realistic experience and don't target the spread of muscle groups that the more traditional rail, handle and chain models offer. And for that reason, we'll focus on those. 

The best rowing machines of 2018, in order

1. WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine

The best and most stylish rowing machine on the planet

Specifications
Folding: No, but stands up to save space
Digital display: Yes
Resistance: Water
Reasons to buy
+Aesthetically pleasing+Natural-feeling WaterFlywheel+Ash construction delivers quieter ride
Reasons to avoid
-Computer lacks features

Just take a few moments to admire the beauty of the WaterRower. Fashioned from solid ash and stained honey oak, it is designed to resemble the glorious vessels found spearing down the Thames during the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

This is more than just a seductive household ornament, though. This cleverly conceived rower features a decidedly moist flywheel that's designed to mimic the feeling of gliding across the watery surface.

Rather than the irksome humming of a fan and clanking of a chain, users are greeted to the sound of rushing water with every stroke and the unique resistance mechanism adapts to the user's input: pull harder and the resistance increases, it's that simple. 

The result is a seriously heart-pounding, all-over workout that targets up to nine muscle groups in one fell swoop.

According to its US maker, every WaterRower Natural frame is hand built using solid ash wood, sustainably sourced from the Appalachians. It is then stained in honey oak and finished with a light Danish oil.

A small S4 Performance Monitor comes with the package and displays distance, stroke rate, workout duration and distance without the need to plug into the mains.

Although not foldable, the relatively clunky 50kg unit does feature guide wheels at the rear and is designed to be stored vertically when not in use, although with a body like that, maybe you'll want to show if off to house guests.

2. Kettler Stroker Rowing Machine

Great name, great value for money

Specifications
Folding: Yes
Digital display: Yes
Resistance: Magnetic
Reasons to buy
+Affordable+Foldable
Reasons to avoid
-Maybe not as robust as rivals-It's called Kettler Stroker

Okay, Kettler Stroker sounds like an innuendo or insult, but this rowing machine represents great value for money when you delve into its many facets. So stop giggling at the back. 

A 4kg manual resistance magnetic flywheel provides eight levels of workout difficulty, while integrated Polar heart rate monitoring, via a chest strap, means you can easily conduct effort-based training or receive alerts when you're pushing things a bit far.

Although not the most handsome or advanced rower, the small LCD display takes care of time, distance covered, oar strokes and energy consumption. 

General build quality is excellent and the Stroker's movement is smooth and natural feeling – ho ho! Better still, it folds up neatly and can easily be stored in cupboard when not in use.

3. Life Fitness Row GX Trainer

Gym-spec equipment for the home

Specifications
Folding: No
Digital display: Yes
Resistance: Water
Reasons to buy
+Excellent build quality+Adjustable resistance
Reasons to avoid
-Pricey

Fresh from the marque's professional range, the Life Fitness Row GX has been designed and built to withstand the rigours of daily, punishing use. 

Much like the previously mentioned WaterRower, this unit uses a similar Fluid Resistance technology to create that natural rowing experience. But here, users can manually adjust the resistance of the water with up to 15 differing levels.

Unlike some gym machines there's no multimedia compatibility, nor can you download data to smart devices or connect external heart rate monitoring systems, but a small computer does take care of distance, stroke rate and other important pieces of information.

In short, it covers the business of rowing extremely well but those wanting something more technologically advanced should look elsewhere.

4. Concept 2 Model D Indoor Rower

The World's best selling machine, no less

Specifications
Folding: Yes
Digital display: Yes
Resistance: Air
Reasons to buy
+Reliably good workout+Capable computer
Reasons to avoid
-A bit on the noisesome side

Anyone who has set foot inside a gym will have likely spent some time thrashing away on a Concept 2. The ubiquitous machine is the best selling indoor rower in the world and that's because the hardy air resistance system can handle a pummelling from Olympic athletes.

The included The Performance Monitor 5 provides the brain to match the brawn, allowing you to track data such as distance, speed, pace, calories burned, and watts. There's also a good choice of pre-set workouts, games and the ability to connect ANT+ and Bluetooth products for wireless heart rate monitoring.

It's not the most handsome, exciting or quiet rowing machine, but the Concept 2 won't let you down.

5. NordicTrack RX800

Specifications
Folding: Yes
Digital display: Yes
Resistance: Air
Reasons to buy
+Comfy seat+Robust design
Reasons to avoid
-Tinny built-in speakers

One of the main roadblocks to rowing machine ownership is the floor space these long, skinny apparatuses take up. But not so if said piece of equipment folds in half like a wet napkin.

This NordicTrack offering is arguably the most 'foldable' of all the machines mentioned here, with an ability to contort like a Cirque du Soleil gymnast when not in use.

Perhaps not as robust and weighty as the Concept 2 or WaterRower, this space-saving alternative still delivers the goods with ten different resistance settings, a selection of workouts via the digital screen and built-in speakers that will happily accept tunes from a standard 3.5mm jack.

6. Marcy Azure Rowing Machine

Best rowing machine for beginners or casual use

Specifications
Folding: Yes
Digital display: Yes
Resistance: Magnetic
Reasons to buy
+Transportation wheels+Pivoting footplates
Reasons to avoid
-Light flywheel-Fewer resistance options 

The cheaper end of the rowing machine spectrum is never going to deliver the goods like the really lavish stuff, but this entry-level offering from Marcy is a solid effort for those dipping a toe in home fitness waters for the first time.

The 4kg flywheel and magnetic resistance system boast eight levels of resistance, while the solid aluminium rails and robust seat rollers ensure the rowing movement is smooth and not as noisy as rival air-driven units.

However, those looking for a realistic rowing feel might be a little disappointed and the digital display is basic to say the very least.    

7. Opti Magnetic Rowing Machine

Rowing straight outta the bargain basement

Specifications
Folding: Yes
Digital display: Yes
Resistance: Magnetic
Reasons to buy
+Cheap+Capable computer
Reasons to avoid
-Not overly smooth

Much like an exercise bike, this cheap-as-chips rowing machine uses a two section magnetic braking system to create resistance. 

The result isn't the most natural experience but it does the job and delivers a full-body workout with eight different levels of tension to cover a variety of fitness levels.

A basic digital computer gives readouts on stroke, time, distance, calories, stride/time and total count, while its foldable frame is great when space is at a premium. High-end it is not, clearly.