The Portable Rowing Machine Buyers Guide – Absolutely everything you need to know

Creating a bespoke work out environment in your own home can be an exciting hobby to have but can also help save money in the long run. If you are serious about doing your workouts long term; kitting out your own mini gym with the equipment to suit your workout routine can often be cheaper and more productive than paying for a gym membership. Having a work out room within walking distance from your bedroom means you are more likely to use it, especially in those winter cold winter months.

A rowing machine is a must have for your home gym.

To understand why this is the case, we first need to understand what this piece of equipment is and what it is good for. Sometimes called an indoor rowing machine essentially simulates the actions of rowing a boat and whilst you might think this is mainly an arm exercise you would be wrong.

An indoor rower is made by attaching a string on a weighted line, the rower pulls the handle with their arms, but is moved back thanks to the force of the legs. All this must be done with perfect posture keeping the back straight and the shoulders back, meaning that core strength is used. So straight away it is obvious to see that a wide range of muscles are being used. In fact, rowing enthusiasts actually consider rowing to primarily be beneficial to the lower body.

Due to the variable tension settings, indoor rowing machines can be used for a wide variety of exercises to suit your work out needs; this also means that the machine adapts as your needs do. As you require a more challenging work out the machine will be able to offer that without having to buy more weights for example.

Low Tension Settings

Low tensions settings (least weight being pulled) mean that you can do a lot of reps relatively quickly. This makes the machine a perfect choice for cardio. Unlike a simple treadmill, you are now warming a much wider range of muscles than you would be if you were using a treadmill, however, it requires a bit of discipline as your posture needs to always be spot on to make sure your core is getting the full benefit of the workout.

The low tension cardio option is also a good choice for older individuals or people with knee issues. Long-term runners tend to complain of knee issues, this is because all your weight is being supported by your knees as you hop from one leg to the other.

If you suffer from knee ailments, a rowing machine could be the perfect warm-up machine for you.

Mid Tension Settings

Whilst low tension is good for cardio, mid tension settings are incredibly good for your core strength.

This setting allows for a relatively high number of reps, if done right with the correct posture, it ensures that your core set of muscles are constantly being worked out; from when you initially push out on the rowing machine using your legs, to when you maintain your posture when your legs are fully extended, and finally when you slowly let the machine pull you back in keeping your back in the upright position and your shoulders back allow you to ensure your abdominal muscles are taught.

When doing these mid tension workouts, you will often find (at least at the start until your core strength builds up) that it is your abdominal muscles that ache the most and force you to stop. The mid tension workout on a rowing machine is also incredibly beneficial if you are trying to lose weight. Regularly performing this kind of exercise will speed up your metabolism, which often slows down considerably when you put on weight.

This exercise promotes cardio but thanks to the mid tension also ensures that calories (and therefore fat) are being burned for a relatively extended amount of time. This combined with a proper diet can be a perfect weight loss set up.

High Tension Settings

The one fall back of having your own work out room at home as opposed to a gym membership can sometimes be that you don’t have enough equipment to work everything out if you are trying to bulk up and build muscle.

This is where the rowing machine can be a real treat as it pretty much works out everything.

When you first grab the handle and start to move the weight from standstill you are immediately working your Erector Spinae (Lower back), your hamstrings and your gastrocnemius and soleus (calf muscles). As you push back towards having fully extended legs, the same muscles are still being worked, but in order to move back, your quadriceps need to kick in as well as your Rhomboids (upper central back muscles) in order to hold on to the handle.

Once you have fully extended your legs, in order to straighten your back and keep your shoulder posture correct, you are using a lot of upper body muscles both front (Pectoralis Major) and back muscles. However, your rectus abdominus (lower abs) also help you keep your posture. Your deltoids, triceps and the extensors and flexors on your wrist (all arm muscles) stop you from being pulled back. Finally, as you reach the fully extended “sat up” position, your biceps and oblique muscles help you keep the position. This means that if you have the right posture, increase the weight enough, and do this exercise slow and methodically you are working pretty much every muscle in your body.

Resistance Types of Rowing Machines

Now we know what a portable indoor rower is good for, what should you get? A wide range of resistance programs It is important that all of the above work out styles are catered for by the machine you decide to buy.

All the portable rowing machines you can buy will fit the first two scenarios, but you need to make sure you have a wide range of resistances so that you can alter the tension or weight to fit your needs. You will almost always start out on a relatively light setting as you get used to the device but once you have had it for a while it would be a shame if you wanted to up your lift and there simply wasn’t an option for it.

Resistance systems rowing machines are usually made in one of four ways. Each feels slightly different and it’s probably worth investing is what you are going to feel most comfortable with long term.

Magnetic – These use magnets to make the pulling action harder or easier, this kind of system is smooth and very closely resembles actual rowing (harder initial pull but once you gain momentum they go a lot easier). These are especially good for leg workouts.

Hydraulic – These systems use liquids with variable densities to make it easier or harder for you to complete the pulling motion, these aren’t quite as realistic as magnetic systems when it comes to mimicking rowing, however, they are very good for working a whole range of muscles easily.

Sculling – These use a swinging as opposed to a bar and a cable. These are usually the cheaper options and can be more compact.

Air – Air rowers are the perfect combination of aerobic workout and a well-rounded muscle tone building. These work by creating resistance when the air is pushed through thin gaps in pipes, regulating the size of the pipe hole regulates the strength of the resistance.


If you are sorting out your own home exercise center you are going to be space conscious. Before you make the purchase decide where you are going to place the device and measure the space you have available. There is no reason buying something larger than what you have space for so do you’re measuring in advance.

What should you buy?

With that all being said, you hopefully have a pretty good idea of what you can do with a portable rowing machine and what you should be looking for, so below is a range of highly rated options from Amazon to get your browsing started:

Stamina 1205 Precision Rower – Click to view the latest price

The Stamina 1205 Precision rower is on the list mainly because it offers absolutely everything you need for a decent price and it is very compact. It is the smallest device we are going to recommend coming in at only 48 inches long and weighing only 47 lbs, meaning that it will just about fit in any flat.

Since it is a hydraulic device you will have a very well rounded workout. On the downside, this probably isn’t the best machine if you are looking for a cardio solution. The resistance programs don’t start quite as low as they should, the display and programmable settings of this device are also quite limited.

Stamina Air Rower 1399 – Click to view the latest price

This device is by no means small however it is foldable meaning it can be made more compact for storage. Its steel frame measures 77 inches long, but can be folded away to a mere 48, it is also able to carry users who weigh up to 250 pounds and comes with a three-year warranty. This device weighs 53 pounds.

There is also a multi-function performance monitor meaning that records your performance over time meaning that you can track everything from distance rowed to calories burned. This device is also particularly comfy. Seats are upholstered nicely, the bar is padded to prevent blisters and the nylon foot straps make it easy for you to just focus on your work out.

Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rowing Machine – Click to view the latest price

This rowing machine is magnetic, offering an absolutely great leg work out. The range of resistances is top notch meaning that you can take this device all the way from easy-going cardio to full-on muscle mass building.

The machine has a total of 8 levels of adjustable resistance. The large display is completely programmable and offers up all the information you need to keep track of your work out. The handlebars, foot pedals, and seat are all designed with anti-slip technology meaning you can simply focus on the workout.

The main downside to this device is its size. The dimension of this device are 82L x 19W x 23H in making it one of the larger devices we are reviewing, however, it does offer built-in transportation wheels for easy storage once your work out is complete.

Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine – Click to view the latest price

This small compact device might not look like much, if budget or size is your limitation, it is pretty much the top of the range. Weighing just 37 pounds and measuring in at 23.5 x 46 inches you won’t find a more compact portable rowing machine that offers this much versatility.

Furthermore, this devices can also be made even smaller for storage purposes. Its display isn’t the best there is, but it offers a wide variety of info clearly, helping you could everything from reps to calories. The manual resistance knob allows for easy adjustments of the air resistance system.

Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine with PM5 – Click to view the latest price

If money and size isn’t an issue and you really just want top notch results then the Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine with PM5 is definitely the device for you.

Everything about this device is perfectly adjustable, from the seat height to the resistance. The performance monitor is also the top of the range offering a stroke by stroke performance comparison to let you know when your form is slipping.

The device is 96 inches long when assembled and 24 inches wide, but can take users of up to a whopping 500 pounds, on the other hand however with just one click the device can be split into two separate pieces for easy storage.

This is by far the best of the indoor rowing machines we have seen here today, it is versatile in its training and its monitoring is so good it is almost like having a coach with you making sure you keep on track, however the space requirements and cost mean you have to be serious about wanting this device.

One thing for sure, however, if used frequently it will offer an amazingly well rounded cardiovascular and muscle toning exercise regime.