Best Rowers for CrossFit: We Review the Top 3!

by Kate

With a massive range of brands and models available, finding the best rowers for CrossFit might sometimes seem tougher than the workout itself! Rowing is an invaluable addition to your CrossFit training arsenal and one of the most functional full body exercises around. Running or swimming are good options for other cardio exercises, but when you hit the rower you’re putting all of your large muscle groups through a long range of motion with serious resistance. Further, working up a sweat on a rower gives you a metabolically demanding, low impact cardio session that will have you hitting your Vo2 max like few other exercises. Not convinced? Think about this – Olympic rowers consistently rank among the top athletes for Vo2 max, and the highest Vo2 max level ever tested was on a rower (New Zealand sculler, Rob Waddell). It’s not surprise that the ‘Rowing WOD’ is popular among CrossFitters around the world.

best rowers for crossfit

Rowing has become an integral part of CrossFit

Adding rowing to  your regular CrossFit training is a brilliant way to add variation and intensity to your workout. On the rower, CrossFitters are able to nicely balance the typical pushing, lifting and pressing movements of CrossFit moves like burpees, deadlifts and other lifts, with an explosive pulling exercise that smashes your quads, shoulders, and all of those hard to hit posterior muscles.

For that extra bit of sweetness, the benefits of using indoor rowing machines for CrossFit training also extend beyond the actual physical effects of the exercise. Rowing can be done indoors in all weather and because it’s such an intense and efficient exercise, rowing can pack a lot of results into a short period making it a great workout if you’re pressed for time and need faster results.

concept 2 D model rower for crossfit

The Concept2 D rower is the most popular rower for CrossFitters at home
Click on the picture to find out more

When you’re in the market for rowers to add to your CrossFit equipment, there are a few key features to watch for:

The Type of Resistance

Rowing machines are made with four different types of resistance: Piston, Magnetic, Air (or fan), and Water.

Piston Resistance

Resistance in a piston rower comes from compact hydraulic cylinders attached to the arms of the machine. A piston rower is typically smaller than other types, which also often means they’re a lot cheaper so if cost and space are an issue, pistons could be worth thinking about. However, piston resistance rowers don’t have the smooth motion of other rowers and can therefore lessen the overall effectiveness of your workout. Piston rowers aren’t really suitable for CrossFitters as they just can’t match the workout intensity of the other rowing machine options.

Magnetic Resistance

Strong electromagnets control the resistance in a magnetic rower. A magnetic machine offers a similar resistance to a piston rower but they have a much smoother operation and the resistance intensity can be more easily adjusted. Magnetic rowers also have a super quiet operation. If space is an issue, a magnetic rower can be a problem due to their long main rail that can’t be folded or separated for storage.  In our rower reviews, we found the LifeCORE r100 a great option for a magnetic rower for CrossFit – read on to see why.

 

 

lifecore r100 rowing machine

The Lifecore r100 is an example of a good rowing machine with magnetic resistance. Click on the picture to find out more.

Air Resistance

An air rower or fan rower is by far the most popular type of rower with CrossFit athletes and regular rowing machine users alike. The resistance in an air rower comes from a damper lever on the side of the flywheel which adjusts the amount of airflow into the wheel. An air rower is the closest simulation to rowing on water and offer the smoothest range of motion which gives you a better workout.On the downside, air rowers are the noisiest models to operate and they’re also often the largest models on the market. Air rowers are also often the most expensive but in terms of quality to cost ratio, air rowers are typically the best value rowers out there. In this review of rowers, the Concept 2 brand rowers come out on top for air resistance rowing machines.

best rowers for crossfit

The concept2 is an air resistance rower, and the one used in the CrossFit games
Click on the picture to purchase

 

Water Resistance

Water Resistance models are a generally good simulation for actual rowing and like the air models, they also allow a smooth movement. The resistance in a water rower comes from a variable amount of water in the resistance tank which increases or decreases the amount of tension on the wheels. While water resistance is customizable, it’s not nearly as convenient to change resistance as the other types of rowers can be. These rowing machines are generally more uncommon. They’re far heavier than other types of rowers and while not as noisy as an air rower, the water models do make a fair bit of sound.

The Ergometer

The ergometer, or erg, is the computer that records all of your exercise stats like stroke counting, how fast you’re going and how many calories you’ve burned. By the way,  in case you’re wondering about calories burned rowing you’re looking at around 500-600 calories per hour for an average build man doing an easy row.

Ergs are handy tools for anyone wanting to track their setting and progress, so for CrossFitters the ergometer is essential. Most modern models will be erg rowing machines.

A good erg machine will have a large display that’s easy to read mid-workout. The two most important stats during your rowing training for CrossFit will be the stroke rate and the split time. The stroke rate not only shows you how hard you’re working but also helps you to control your rhythm. The split time tells you how much force you’re applying after each stroke so again, the split time is important to maintain a smooth and regulated workout, regulate your momentum and also helps to track intensity intervals. The watts readout is also important as it tracks the actual power produced by the wheel so will give a good indication of the quality of your stroke as well as your overall intensity.

As well as these numbers, a good ergometer might also synch to a heart rate monitor. Things like preset workout programs and resistance notes are extra features on some machines and some CrossFitters do enjoy these features but these extras come more down to individual preference and what you think you need to get the most out of your rowing workout.  The best Ergometers in terms of the number of features in the rowers we reviewed come from the LifeCORE r100 although the PM3 and PM4 ergometers from Concept 2 have more than everything you need to track your workout.

Other Factors

No matter the individual fitness of the rower or the overall intensity of the workout, you need to keep good posture and proper technique to maximize the effectiveness of any rowing workout. While a lot of this comes with practice and training, the style of machine also has a lot to do with your rowing technique. Ensure your rower has the right seat height and overall rail length for your body size. The C2 E model has the highest seat of those reviewed here, but the LifeCORE seat is adjustable as is the angle of the whole LifeCORE frame.

Also, when buying a rower, look at the length and width of the handle to ensure it’s right for your shoulders and grip distance. The weight capacity and stability of the machine is also an important factor to consider when matching a rower to your body.

So, now we’ve got an idea of the key features to look for in a rowing machine for CrossFit training, let’s now take a look at the three most popular rowers for CrossFitters and compare the models.

Best Rowers For CrossFit Training

Concept 2 Rowers

concept 2 rowers

For a lot of CrossFitters, Concept 2 Rowers are the only choice for incorporating indoor rowing into a WOD.  Taking a look at these features, it’s really not that hard to understand why the Concept 2 rowing machine is such a popular choice. Concept 2s have a smooth glide for a seamless rowing movement and have been specially designed to minimize the noise you’d expect from a lot of other air resistance rowers. In addition to the features of the individual C2 rowers themselves, the Concept 2 logbook – an online fitness tracking system available to Concept 2 customers – contributes to the overall popularity of the Concept 2 brand.

There are three types of Concept 2 rowers: Model D, Model E and the Dynamic.

All Concept 2 models are easy start, tough, air resistance rowers and each model has varying features for different physical needs. All models come with one or the other of the two makes of C2 ergometers, the PM3 and the PM4.

The PM3 and PM4 both have the standard split times, watts, stroke rate, time, intervals and averages. Both also come with inbuilt games. The PM3 lets you race against other machines with additional equipment, while the PM4 lets you set up a race wirelessly. PM3 can be linked to a heart rate monitor with additional extras while the PM4 has a native heart rate function inbuilt. The PM4 also has an increased memory capacity and rechargeable battery.  While each model of C2 rower comes with one or the other display as its default standard, you can opt to replace monitors from one to the other.

concept 2 PM3 and PM4 displays

Concept 2 Model D

Model D is the most affordable C2 rower and is recommended for most home users and those CrossFitters who want to WOD at home. It’s an air resistance rower with a spiral damper that lets you easily adjust the airflow and change the feel of the stroke to suit your preference.

The Model D sits fairly low, with a 14” seat height and the monorail is 52” though a longer rail can be fitted at an extra cost. The chain is nickel coated to ensure maximum durability. The frame is aluminum, the whole machine weighs around 57 lb, and the rail is easily separated for convenient storage. The D comes with the PM3 Concept 2 erg as standard.

Price will vary with any additional Concept 2  features such as Performance Monitor Display types or custom length rails.

concept 2 D model rower

 

Click here or on the picture above to check it on Roguefitness.com

Pros – Cheapest in the C2 range while still a high quality machine. Packs up for easy storage.

Cons – Unable to adjust seat height

 

Concept 2 Model E

The Model E has the same 96” overall length as the D Model, though it’s a touch heavier at 65 lbs. Also, the E Model has a much higher seat at 20” which makes it a good choice if there are any knee or other bending issues you have to contend with or you just prefer the look of a higher built machine. The rail can be separated for storage, and like the D model a longer rail is available at an additional cost. With its welded steel frame, Concept 2 recommends the Model E for commercial applications so this is most likely the C2 rowing machines you’ll see used by most gyms and CrossFit affiliates. The Model E comes with the PM4 as standard.

concept 2 E model rower

Click here or on the picture above to check it out on Rogue’s website

Pros – Packs for easy storage. High seat improves maneuverability for some users.

Cons – Non-adjustable heights.

Concept 2 Dynamic

The C2 Dynamic is the ultimate step up to high level rowing machines for CrossFit and is best suited to kayakers and other athletes training for rowing on the water. The Dynamic is shorter in overall length than the D and E, at 76” however, the monorail length itself is a touch longer. Note that the rail on the Dynamic can’t be separated for storage so the Dynamic is only really an option is you have the space for it. Unlike the Model D or E, the Dynamic’s footrest moves freely so there’s minimal body mass movement throughout the stroke maximizing your core stabilization. The Dynamic comes with the PM3 erg as standard.

concept 2 Dynamic model rower

Pros – closest match to actually rowing on water

Cons – large machine, size can’t be compacted for storage.

LifeCORE r100

lifecore

The LifeCORE r100 rowing machine is a decent alternative to the Concept 2 models. The LifeCORE is a magnetic rower which means it has a super quiet function and smooth glide. While this will be a great feature for a lot of athletes looking for a home rower, a magnetic rower machine doesn’t proved the same simulation for actual water rowing as an air resistance model does. That said, with 16 levels of resistance you can still pack a workout from the LifeCORE. The rower comes with 15 pre-programed options as well as four heart rate programs deigned to sync with a Polar brand monitor. All 19 programs are easily accessible from the large LCD display which also reads pace, watts, time, speed, distance and calories.

Overall the r100 is 94 inches, built of sturdy aluminum frame with steel support and the entire machine folds for easy storage. The LifeCORE has a cooling fan as well as specially designed angled footrest. While the footrest has been designed for a more ergonomically powerful rowing position, some users do report discomfort and heel problems from the angle, so the LifeCORE might be something better tested in person before deciding to purchase.

lifecore r100 rowing machine

Pros – almost silent operation with a smooth glide.

Cons – angled footrest might not be suitable for all users.

Stamina Air Rower

StaminaLogo

The Stamina Air Rower is a good quality rowing machine perfect for CrossFitters looking to supplement their CrossFit training without breaking their budget. Like the Concept 2 D model, the Stamina Air Rower is a fan resistance rowing machine. While the resistance intensity on the Stamina Air Rower is great for lower impact rowing training, more advanced CrossFitters will probably do better with a slightly higher level machine. Beginner and Intermediate athletes however will do well with this well built, reasonably cheap rowing machine.

The extra wide padded seat on the Stamina glides smoothly and evenly,  and the angled monorail is also a touch longer than you’ll find on a lot of other machines so it’s perfect for taller athletes.  The large foot plate area with adjustable shoe straps means you can really pack some force into your legs, blasting your hams and quadriceps without having to worry about the discomfort of your feet slipping around, as happens on a lot of smaller and cheaper rowing machines. The Stamina Air Rower has a basic erg readout, displaying speed, distance, time and calories. When it’s not in use, the sturdy steel frame folds up nicely and can be wheeled away easily.

stamina air rower for crossfit

Click on the picture to learn more about the Stamina Air Rower

Pros – Budget cost. Extra comfortable seat and large foot pad area.

Cons – Generally lightweight and really only suitable for beginners.

The Verdict

Rowing makes a great addition to any WOD, and is a wonderful cardio alternative to the running or using an airdyne.  The added benefit of providing a far more intense resistance workout makes a rowing machine one of the best cardio machine choices available. In addition to the usual gym equipment people need for CrossFit, such as kettlebells and the more typical CrossFit moves like squats or box jumps, rower workouts bring a whole new level to your range of CrossFit moves.

If you’re in the market for the best indoor rowing machine for CrossFit, these options are all a solid choice but, as with the purchase of any fitness equipment your best match will come down to your specific CrossFit needs.

Summing up, the Concept 2s are by far the best option, with the D model most suitable for home and more general use. For something with a bit more power or commercial applications, go for the E model. If you’re training for actual on water rowing, then the Concept 2 Dynamic is your only choice. Consider though if storage is an issue for you before grabbing a Dynamic. Looking at a Concept 2 rower for sale, some may be put off by the price, and if that’s too much of a hurdle, buying a good condition used Concept 2 rowing machine in should be a serious consideration.

If you’re looking for a perfectly functional rowing machine a bit cheaper than the C2 models with added programmable features, then get your gear on a LifeCORE r100. Remember though that the magnetic resistance won’t give you as authentic a rowing experience as an air resistance model will.  The Stamina Air Rower machine is another efficient air resistance rower and, as it’s a whole lot cheaper than the C2 models, it’s a great option for anyone on a budget. The Stamina however isn’t really tough enough for advanced athletes so the Concept 2 models still come out as the overall winner for the best home rowing machines and the best rowers for CrossFit.

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