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Is A Rowing Machine Similar To Real Rowing? A Comprehensive Comparison

is a rowing machine similar to real rowing - a comprehensive comparison

Hello everyone. My name is Rachael Taylor, and I’m a rowing professional.

I competed in the Olympic Games so I have a pretty good idea about the differences between a rowing machine (also called an erg) and rowing on the water.

You might think that a rowing machine is an ingenious device but that it could never come close to the feeling of being on the water, is that right?

Let’s put that theory to the test and see what these two similar but different types of exercise have in common, as well as their pros and cons.

Is a Rowing Machine Like Rowing a Boat?

The answer here is yes. And no.

I’m not trying to be coy, but that’s my honest answer! Indoor and outdoor rowing are similar but similar doesn’t mean exactly alike.

Let me break things down a bit:

Is a Rowing Machine Like Rowing a Boat 1

Ways in Which These Two Workouts Are the Same

  1. Both provide a full-body workout. While rowing in a boat requires a bit more core work because you need to maintain balance, the muscle groups worked are about the same. 
  2. The motion is basically the same, other than you don’t need to balance your indoor rower.
  3. The strokes are the same, other than you don’t need to feather the oar.
  4. The number of calories burned per hour is also about the same.

Ways in Which These Two Workouts Are Different

  1. Outdoor rowing is more scenic, to be sure, but if you have one of those new smart rowing machines, you can at least look at scenery on a monitor.
  2. The benefits of nature cannot be understated. I truly love listening to the water. On a lucky day, I’ll see some fish or water birds, trees, bushes, and flowers, which are all part of the experience. It’s worth noting that water rowers help mimic the sound of water, at least.
  3. In a shell (the row boat) you need to learn balance. This isn’t a problem on an indoor rowing machine, although the new slides from Concept 2 can even help to mimic that feeling (more on that later).
  4. When you are doing some outdoor rowing, you really need to pay attention, otherwise, you’ll bump into something. Other boats, birds, debris, fishing lines, etc, can all become a hazard if you aren’t careful. Needless to say, I’ve never hit a swan or a rock with my indoor rowing machine.
  5. The expense is also something to talk about! You’ll need to pay for an indoor rowing machine, but the shell for outdoor rowing, maybe not. If you join a rowing club, they might have boats to loan to you. However, if you want to own your own boat, be prepared to shell out thousands of dollars for your shell. Hmmm, maybe that’s where the name came from!
  6. With an indoor rowing machine, you don’t have to worry about the weather! This is a big plus for indoor rowers!
  7. No life jacket required with indoor rowers.

In my time, I’ve done plenty of both types of rowing, so I’m hoping I’ve covered all the bases here.

Is a Water Rower Better Than Real Rowing?

Mens Sweep team racing at a rowing regatta

The truth is, both a water rower and real rowing are excellent ways to be active and engage the body and mind. For most people, I believe you develop a preference for one or the other. That doesn’t make one better than the other, it’s simply a matter of preference.

I think that on a nearly freezing day with high winds, I would pick my rowing machine over outdoor rowing any day.

Water rowers, like Ergatta, are very, very similar to outdoor rowing. The wooden base, the feel, and the sound of water in the tank, all combine to make this type of rowing machine a favorite among those who want a full-body workout and as close of an experience to outdoor rowing as possible.

side view of an Ergatta water rower set up in a living room

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Water rowers can also be used whenever the weather won’t cooperate, which is a big plus.

However, while you can move your water rower outdoors to get some nature time, it isn’t exactly the same feeling. I learned to row in the great outdoors, and I really appreciate every minute I’m under that big blue (or cloudy) sky.

Then again, there’s a lot to be said for working out on a water rowing machine when it’s minus 5 outside! Even Olympic rowers rely on rowing machines for their winter training. ( Side Note: Read my article on how to be an Olympic Rower here )

How Can I Mimic Rowing at Home?

You have several choices for rowing indoors, and it’s mainly a matter of preference.

Use a Water Rower

When it comes to indoor rowing, it’s hard to beat a water rower for as “close to the real thing” as possible.

a man in red shirt working out on a LIT strength machine

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Smart rowing machines, such as Ergatta and the LIT Strength Machine, help to make your rowing experience more fun by offering workouts that you can watch on the monitor so you can work more efficiently.

Even plain water rowers are good for your exercise routine since they work all the major muscle groups, similar to what rowing outdoors can do for you.

Use a Smart Rowing Machine Like Hydrow

Max Secunda using a Hydrow Rowing Machine in his living room

Max Secunda Using a Hydrow Rowing Machine

Hydrow doesn’t look like a rowing boat and there is no water tank, but it has unique features that help mimic rowing outdoors. This magnetic rowing machine is computer-controlled to feel more like outdoor rowing and has a huge monitor with on-the-water videos to make you feel as if you’re rowing in a real boat.

Hydrow is probably the most fun you can have while rowing indoors! Those instructors are nothing short of outstanding, and the scenery will take your breath away!

You can even hear the water on the video as the rowers are going along! This is another terrific way to mimic outdoor rowing without the problems about weather and other issues you will typically encounter rowing outdoors.

Use the Slides with a Concept 2

concept 2 set up with sliders

Image from Concept2

This small feature is such a game changer, I’m betting that nearly all manufacturers will offer this within two years.

Concept 2 is an air rower, which isn’t my favorite due to the noise, but Concept 2 offers an add-on called slides.

This simple device has rollers and goes underneath the feet of the rowing machine. As the name implies, these rollers “slide” the rowing machine back and forth, mimicking the movement of outdoor rowing.

You can see our own Max Secunda using Concept 2 slides in this video.

Video of Max Secunda Breaking Concept 2 Rowing Records

I’ve never felt anything that gave indoor rowing such a boost! Yes, it takes some time to get used to how these feel, but once you’ve tried them, you want to use them all the time!

The slides on Concept 2 makes rowing feel absolutely real. The only thing you are missing is the sound of water.

Do Rowing Machines Help with Rowing?

Oh yes, indoor rowing machines have so much to offer people of all fitness levels that I think everyone should have one.

Both indoor and outdoor rowing offer one of the best ways to burn calories and get fit without much stress on your joints.

Indoor rowing may not help with some areas of outdoor rowing, such as learning how to feather the oar. However, you can build stamina, increase muscle strength, and improve your overall stroke.

Rachel Taylor holding her Olympic Rowing Silver medal

Rachel Taylor (Me 😊) Holding My Silver Olympic Medal for Rowing

Both indoor and outdoor rowing require proper form, but you can work on form basics on an indoor rower as your coach stands right beside you to correct your posture or demonstrate something to you. That’s something you cannot do in a boat!

If you still have doubts about what an indoor rowing machine can do for someone who wants to row outdoors, let me tell you, every single Olympic rower and National champion rower uses indoor rowing machines.

Everyone has their personal favorites, but I promise you that we all spend hours during training and even in the off-season using our ergs.

Which Is the Best Rowing Machine for a Home Gym?

5 different indoor rowing machines

This is going to be a matter of personal preference.

Many professional athletes love using an air resistance rowing machine, like Concept 2, especially now that they’ve introduced slides.

While air rowers are noisy, they do offer unlimited levels of resistance, which is appealing to many. They don’t have many moving parts, thus easy to maintain, and they are very reliable.

Concept 2 is also lightweight (around 60 pounds) and can be taken apart in two pieces and transported anywhere. Want to row by the lake? The pool? The middle of the forest? You can carry your Concept 2 and work out nearly anywhere you like. You don’t need electricity or internet to use one.

Laura Tanley using a Concept 2 to demonstrate the proper rowing form

Laura Tanley (Certified Rowing Coach) Demonstrating the Proper Rowing Form on a Concept 2

That doesn’t mean everyone is a big fan of air rowers. I love rowing outdoors, and if I had my way, I would row outdoors every single day.

However, when the weather turns bad or I simply don’t have time to get my boat and get the gear ready, my favorite indoor rowing machines are Hydrow and Ergatta.

Ergatta is a game-based indoor rower, and I simply love its racing feature. I can race against other professional rowers or simply try to beat my own time. I’m the competitive type, so these races are fun and functional at the same time.

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Hydrow, however, reminds me of how much I love rowing on a team. You truly feel like part of the crew, and while the instructors aren’t like a coxswain, they serve the same purpose.

I like to think of Hydrow as a combination of “workout and fun”, while Ergatta is more like “race till your racer can’t race anymore!”

For every Concept 2 fan, you’ll find rowers who swear by their water rower or magnetic rowing machines.

I suggest that you try several brands before you make a big purchase. I know that Hydrow, LIT, and Aviron allow you to try their machines for at least 30 days. Concept 2 does not, but you can probably find one of those at your local gym.

Aviron Rower Impact Series

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Try each one for at least two weeks. It will become clear to you which indoor rower is best suited for your temperament and needs.

To Sum Things Up

Indoor and outdoor rowing are not the same things, but they are so close to one another that they could be fraternal twins.

Whether you plan to do some outdoor rowing at some point in your life or simply want to enjoy indoor rowing machines, be sure that you focus more on the proper form than on the speed of your rowing stroke.

Most of all, have fun. What’s the point if you aren’t having any fun??

Wishing you good times on your indoor and outdoor rowing adventures!