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WaterRower Classic Review: Is It Time to Buy an Indoor Rower?

When we talk about indoor rowing, most people think about Concept2. Specifically, they think about the Concept2 Model D, which is widely regarded as the gold standard in rowing machines.

Concept2 has certainly come a long way from when the Dreissigacker brothers nailed an upside down bicycle to a barn floor in Vermont to develop the first modern indoor rower in the 1980s. And while we’re not going to contest the fact that the Model D is the premium rowing machine of its era (you can check out our review of it here), there’s another rowing machine maker we want to shine a light on today.

This time, we’re going to talk about WaterRower. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the WaterRower Classic, a high-end model in the company’s line of gorgeous wooden rowing machines.

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If you’ve ever seen “House of Cards,” then you might have caught a glimpse of the beautiful piece of fitness equipment that the manipulative politician Frank Underwood frequently uses when he’s frustrated about his political schemes going awry. That’s not the WaterRower Classic. It’s the WaterRower Oxbridge, which is very, very similar to the model we’re going to talk about today.

Although Concept2 is inarguably the leading brand in rowing machines, WaterRower is a very, very close second. In fact, it’s widely known across the rowing community as a maker of world-class, high-quality indoor rowers. Add to that the fact that these exercise machines are so gorgeous they could be mistaken for a work of art.

The WaterRower Classic is one of WaterRower’s most expensive models. In this review, we’re going to check out the rowing machine’s design and ergonomic details and see if it’s suited to your individual needs. We’re also going to discuss the type of wood used, the ins and outs of using water resistance, and the S4 monitor, which acts like the rower’s speedometer and churns out your fitness metrics.

If you would like to skip to the part that’s most useful to you right now, you can also go to the Table of Contents below and click on the appropriate section.

In a Nutshell...

What We Liked: 

  • Gorgeous design 
  • Made from premium-quality American black walnut hardwood 
  • Durable and long-lasting; meant for heavy-duty use; will last for decades
  • Self-paced resistance; great for different skill levels
  • Very quiet; no ugly sounds of fans whirring
  • Requires minimal maintenance 
  • Flat rail is perfect for people with knee and lower back problems
  • Rock-star customer service 

What We Didn't Like

  • S4 Monitor not as powerful as Concept2 PM5; does not have backlight
  • Footstraps are thin and flimsy 

How a Rowing Machine Works

A rowing machine is an exercise machine that mimics the natural movements you do when you are rowing outside. Civilizations as early as the ancient Greeks built various prototypes of a rowing machine to help teach amateur sailors to row, but the rowing machine has never truly reached its full form up until the 1980s.

And it has never truly been popular among mainstream fitness enthusiasts until now. Gone are the days when the rowing machine cannot even be seen in fitness studios. These days, people make a beeline for the indoor rower, and many others buy a rowing machine for them to use at home.

The rising popularity of rowing machines is, in part, thanks to Netflix. But more importantly, it’s thanks to the various benefits that you can obtain from exercising on the indoor rower.

Perhaps the biggest of these health benefits is the total-body workout that you can get from rowing. It is an excellent cardiovascular exercise that works out your hearts and lungs but is also a good strength workout that targets all the major muscle groups in your body, from the legs, arms, butt, core, and back.

And if you're looking to lose some weight, rowing is the perfect exercise for you as you can burn up to 1,000 calories per hour. Of course, you will have to combine your workouts with a healthy diet that's rich in protein and lots of rest. ​

Rowing is also the preferred exercise for people who have suffered from injury or have joint problems. Because of the zero-impact nature of rowing, it does not produce any stress on the joints which may aggravate any existing conditions.

This is why you find many elderly people drawn to the rowing machine. Not that it’s only for elderly people. The self-paced resistance offered by the best brands make rowing a suitable exercise for all fitness levels, from beginners looking to exercise to shed off a little holiday weight to fitness buffs who spend hours at the Crossfit box.

Check out the WaterRower Classic in action below. ​

WaterRower Classic in American Black Walnut

All WaterRower models in the company’s Natural line are actually pretty much the same. The main thing that differentiates them from one another is the type of wood that is used to build and hand-craft the machine in the company’s facility in Warren, Rhode Island.

The WaterRower Classic uses American black walnut, while other models use ash wood, honey oak, or cherry wood. It’s a very strong, very stable type of wood that features a range of rich brown colors that can go from dark chocolate brown to black purple. The wood’s straight grains also give it a natural luster and a smooth texture.

More importantly, American black walnut is highly resistant to rot, making it a durable material that can contribute to the longevity of the machine.

And far better than metal, it’s also an excellent noise and shock absorber, which doesn’t only help minimize the sound of the machine during exercise, it also adds to its stability so that it doesn’t teeter and totter as you go back and forth on the machine. If assembled properly (we will get to that in a minute), the WaterRower Classic will sit solid on the floor without wobbling.

It’s so sturdy, in fact, that it can accommodate up to 700 lbs. in maximum user weight. Even the Concept2 Model D can’t top that. Concept2 claims its machines can withstand up to 500 lbs., although testing by independent bodies says it’s actually 350 lbs.

On the front end of the WaterRower Classic, you’ll see a top-of-the-line polycarbonate tank shaped like a clamshell whose two sides clamp down on each other. The design of the tank helps prevent leakage, even when you pull the machine upright for storage.

Connecting the water tank, which provides the resistance, to the user is an industrial-grade nylon strap, which is attached to the machine’s handles. You pull the handle and the nylon strap moves with it to spin the blades inside the tank. Because it has a nylon strap instead of a nickel chain like you find in the Concept2 Model D, the WaterRower Classic is extremely quiet, with only the sounds of water sloshing inside the tank.

And if you’re worried about all the wood that’s being harvested for these rowing machines, don’t be. WaterRower only uses wood coming from sustainable forests in the Appalachian Mountains. In other words, the company and its suppliers plant more trees than they take down.

WaterRower Classic Design and Ergonomics

Unlike most rowing machines, the WaterRower Classic has a low, flat wooden rail, which produces much less tension on the knees than inclined rails.

On top of the rail is a small yet sturdy seat that is placed on four ball bearings to add to its stability. And because the rail is made of a combination of wood and plastic instead of the usual metal rails, the seat glides through more smoothly and quietly.

You will also notice that the seat is pretty comfortable. Now, you might want to know that the WaterRower Classic has a much cushier seat than the Concept2 Model D.

If you’ve never been on a rowing machine before, you’ll realize soon enough that a well-padded seat is a must, especially if you haven’t been blessed with the right amount of… er… natural padding in this part of the body. A nicely upholstered seat will help you prevent unsightly and painful blisters we know you would rather not have.

Of course, you can easily fix the problem by buying a gel seat pad or making your own makeshift pad using a folded up towel. However, if you’re very picky, the WaterRower Classic wins hands down in this department.

Where you might have a problem, though, is the angle of the seat. It is ever so slightly tilted towards the back, which will help you fold back into the 1 o’clock position at the end of the drive, but will put more pressure on your lower back when you slide back forward during the recovery. If you have lower back pain, or if you’re nursing an injury in your lower back, please be very careful with this.

Now, on to the foot rests, which honestly are not as convincing as the rest of the machine. Overall, we think the foot rests are acceptable. As long as the WaterRower Classic lasts – which takes decades, if you’re concerned about that – the foot rests will always be there to accommodate your feet.

What’s nice about them is that they’re adjustable. You simply need to push a button to move the heel rests up or down so you can slide in your feet snugly, whatever your shoe size is.

What’s not so nice about them is what looks to be the thin, flimsy plastic material that WaterRower used to make the heel rests and the foot straps. If you like rowing barefoot, you won’t be able to do that with this, unless you like having the plastic cut into the back of your heels or the middle of your feet.

Also, for some reason, each individual foot rest is placed a bit close to each other. That’s not really a problem for most people. Who we’re concerned about are people with pretty long legs who might have their knees knock into each other because they’re positioned too close to each other. We suggest you take a look at the WaterRower GX, which seems to be the company's answer to these concerns. 

Granted, you probably won’t even notice all these things had you not read our review. But since the WaterRower Classic isn’t something you’d buy on impulse on Amazon every day, we decided it’s better to be fussy now and pick the littlest holes, so to speak, into a big-ticket item before laying any money down for it.

It’s not like all we found were faults, though. It was love at first sight when we saw the WaterRower Classic, and you’ll be glad to know it remains that way.

Who Can Use the WaterRower Classic?

Indoor rowing is a sport designed for everyone of all fitness levels, and so the WaterRower Classic is also made for everyone, whatever shape, size, or strength you might have right now.

You might be surprised to know that even nonagenarians with certain aches and pains that younger generations don’t have can use the rowing machine to stay healthy. That said, even the most fit CrossFitters and bodybuilders say they always find a tough workout on the indoor rower.

There are, of course, a few restrictions on the WaterRower Classic, most of which aren’t very restrictive at all. One thing you might need to know is that the machine can accommodate up to 700 lbs. or around 317 kg. in user weight. That’s already a lot, but if you or someone else who’s going to use the machine weighs more than that, you probably need to look elsewhere.

Besides, if you weigh more than 300 kg., you will most likely not need to use a rowing machine initially. Ask your physician for a well-designed program that is suitable to your fitness level and personal needs and preferences.

The length of the rail is also important. The entire rowing machine itself is 7 feet long, but the rail is 38 inches, or a little more than 3 feet. This means your legs need to be 3 feet or shorter for you to be able to fully extend them during the exercise.

For really tall people, or people with very long legs, WaterRower does provide a rail extender that can lengthen it for up to 4 inches. Most people won’t probably need this, but if you do, you’ll have to pay extra to get the XL Rail.

Another thing you need to consider is the height of the machine. Like all other Natural models, the WaterRower Classic is exactly a foot off the floor. This could be a little low if you have joint problems and have difficulty bending down, or if you have mobility issues such as if you’re on a wheelchair.

But if you’re hell-bent on buying the WaterRower Classic (because it’s really just so pretty!), you can get with it a HiRise adaptor. It’s really just a set of wooden risers that will elevate the indoor rower up by 8 inches. That would raise the machine up to 20 inches off the floor, which is more or less as high as a regular chair. The HiRise adaptor isn’t free, and you’ll need to shell out more if you want it with your WaterRower Classic.

WaterRower Classic S4 Monitor

Some people say the heart and soul of a rowing machine lies in the performance monitor. In this case, the heart and soul of the WaterRower Classic is in the Series 4 monitor.

Right off the bat, we’re going to have to say that the S4 monitor isn’t as robust as the PM5 on the Concept2 Model D. However, you’ll be glad to know that it does offer plenty of basic and some advanced features that you probably won’t even need.

At its most rudimentary level, the S4 monitor tracks your distance, duration, stroke rate, and intensity. If you’re looking to get a little serious about monitoring your stats, the most important thing to know is your split time, which is measured in minutes every 500 meters (min./500m). it lets you know how fast you were able to row a distance of 500 meters. On the S4 monitor, split time is called intensity.

The S4 monitor also lets you measure your heart rate wirelessly. The WaterRower Classic doesn’t come with a built-in heart rate monitor, so you’ll have to buy your own. WaterRower sells its own monitors, one using the older Polar technology and another using the more advanced ANT+. You can buy either of these two, or you can get another brand as long as their compatible with either Polar or ANT+.

The benefits of tracking your heart rate are invaluable. For one thing, knowing how fast your heart is beating is one way to know just how hard you’re working. The harder your heart beats, the more you’re getting a good workout. It’s also a good way to let you know whether you need to slow down a little bit or if you’re in good territory to push a little bit more.

Also, heart rate tracking is a great way to push yourself into the so-called fat-burning zones. When you elevate your heart rate to a certain target range (around 60% to 75% of your maximum heart rate), your body’s ability to burn fat goes into overdrive, without pushing your heart past its limits in the 80% to 90% range.

This is where the S4 monitor’s Zone Bar feature becomes particularly useful. The Zone Bar lets you set a certain heart rate range or intensity zone to stay in and will let you know if you’re going above or under that zone.

For instance, if you set your heart rate to 75% of your max, the Zone Bar alerts you if you’re moving into 80% and beyond or if you’re slowing down into 50% and below. In other words, the Zone Bar is an amazing feedback system between you and your WaterRower Classic.

WaterRower Classic S4 Monitor Part 2

If you’re a serial calorie-counting junkie, you will be disappointed to know that the S4 monitor does not count your number of total calories burned per workout.

What it does is it tracks your Kcal per hour, which is different, but you can use this data to calculate how much calories you burned. We’re not really big on counting calories, though, so this isn’t too much of a deal-breaker for us.

Some other minor things we decided to nitpick about include the way the S4 monitor continues to count the time even if you stop rowing. Say, for instance, you pause to take a sip of water or change the channel on the TV. The monitor will continue counting the seconds as if you never stopped. This could be annoying for some, but again, it’s not a deal-breaker. After all, this won’t affect your split time, which is what’s important to track anyway.

What could potentially be a more serious issue is the severe lack of user profiles. A user profile is one that saves your specific data. When you start rowing, the monitor automatically turns on and saves your information in your profile. Now, this isn’t a problem if you’re the only one using the WaterRower Classic. Where we would have a conundrum is if you share your rowing machine with the rest of the family.

The workaround is to upload your information right away to your computer. The S4 monitor can be connected to your PC or Mac, but you will have to use a cable for this, which is pretty unwieldy in a world where we have Wi-Fi in every household. That said, that’s the only way for you to go around the single-profile problem.

Some of you might also be disappointed to know that the S4 monitor does not have built-in software to enhance the indoor rowing experience. Concept2’s PM5, for example, lets you link your Model D or Model E to other Concept2 owners through the Internet. From there, you can compete with them in virtual races, or you can compete with yourself with the added benefit of seeing nice graphics of nature displayed on the TV in front of you.

The good news, though, is WaterRower is working on these programs. The company is developing We-Row and WaterCoach FIT, which, up to now, are still in beta. If you’re in a hurry, you can sign up as beta testers for these programs, but we have to warn you. Beta software is slow, full of bugs, and can potentially ruin your experience.

For now, we don’t recommend getting the software until WaterRower irons out all the kinks. You’ll be surprised to know that not a lot of people don’t really mind the dearth of online racing options. However, if you really must be able to race against others online, you can check out NetAthlon, which gives you the feature you want for $270 and an extra sensor.

WaterRower Classic and Water Resistance

As you have probably deduced from its name, the WaterRower Classic uses water resistance. The company says it’s the only indoor rower that can mimic the actual feel of rowing outdoors, which is easy to believe since outdoor rowing is done in actual water.

We don’t completely believe this claim. There are certain elements of outdoor rowing that you wouldn’t find in a rowing machine. For instance, when you’re rowing on a lake, you need to learn how to balance properly; otherwise, you might tip over and fall into the water.

But that’s really for another discussion. It’s not so much whether the WaterRower Classic mimics outdoor rowing as whether water resistance can provide you a good, full-body workout. The answer to that is yes.

The key to making the most out of the WaterRower Classic is to set your own resistance. Other rowing machines, such as the Bodycraft VR500 and the Kettler Kadett, let you adjust their resistance by pushing a button or turning a knob. With the WaterRower Classic, you only need to change your pace to change your resistance.

This is where a lot of people get confused. Don’t be fooled into believing the common misconception that you need to change the water levels to increase resistance. If we’re dealing with the Concept2, the myth is you need to change the damper settings to adjust air resistance. Neither of these are true.

You do not need to fill or empty the tank to change the resistance of your WaterRower Classic. You simply need to change how hard you work. The harder you row, the more resistance you will feel. And the slower you go, the less resistance you will feel.

If you haven’t rowed before, you’ll probably think you’re not getting much of a good workout on your first few minutes. However, you’ll actually feel the burn when you get up and realize that your legs have been through a lot of work.

But if you still don’t feel resistance, the problem lies more likely in your technique more than anything else. (Check out this article about the most common technique mistakes that beginners make when they start rowing).

The fastest way to overcome this is to keep a drive-to-recovery ratio of 1:2. Your drive time should be twice as fast as your recovery time, and you accomplish this by pushing with as much power with your legs as possible. This is why you’ll often hear expert rowers say rowing is as much of a leg workout as it is an upper body workout. Majority of your power during the drive comes from the legs.

To be clear, the water level is not an indication of resistance level. Instead, think of it as what the size and weight of the boat would have been if you were rowing in real water.

Let’s put it this way. Let’s say you fill the tank with 15 liters of water, which is the minimum amount that WaterRower recommends. Moving the paddle against 15 liters of water feels very much like rowing a sleek, narrow racing shell. It’s a little too fast, easy, and might not give you the grueling workout you wanted.

So you decide to add more water and fill the tank to its maximum of 19 liters. You’ll soon find out that it feels like rowing a huge, heavy barge on your own. Each single stroke is torture and the going is tough and slow – so tough, in fact, that you end up exhausting your muscles too early.

It’s important that you figure out where you’re comfortable first before filling up your tank. For beginners, a good water level to start with is 15 to 17 liters. Those who have been exercising for years may start at 17 to 19 liters. Take note, however, not to fill your tank over 19 liters, as this can damage the tank and void your warranty.

WaterRower Classis Assembly, Storage, and Maintenance

Putting together and keeping a WaterRower Classic intact is a very easy thing to do. The rowing machine comes in two large boxes that you’ll probably need an extra pair of hands to lug around from your doorstep to your living room.

Inside, you’ll get all the parts pre-assembled and a set of tools and screws to put everything together. The instructions are clear and easy to follow, with accompanying set of pictures as well.

You’ll need to start off by putting the rails together, then positioning the seat on top of the rails. Follow by putting the polycarbonate tank in position, then the footboard, and then the footpad. Next, attach the wheels to the front of the rower. You’ll need them to move the rower around during storage. And finally, you’ll have to pull the machine upright to attach the bungee cord and the recoil belt.

It helps if you don’t tighten the bolts all the way while you’re still putting the separate pieces together. Once you’re sure everything is in place, you can turn the screws fully, but be careful not to overtighten them as it can damage the wood of your WaterRower Classic.

To finish the assembly, you can then fill the tank with water using the handheld pump that WaterRower provides. Make sure to use municipal water for the tank, as it has anti-bacterial and anti-algal treatments that help keep the water clear.

If the water starts to turn murky by around the sixth month, you can drop a purification tablet into the tank. The length of time you need to wait before dropping another tablet depends very much on your own environment. If your WaterRower Classic is exposed to more sunlight, you can expect to drop the tablets more often.

WaterRower provides a set of purification tablets with your purchase, but you can order new sets afterwards when you run out. Make sure not to use ordinary pool chlorine to keep the water clear, as you don’t know what’s in there and you can possibly damage the tank).

Also, for the first few weeks, you’ll need to watch out for wood adjusting to the elements. You’ll probably hear the wood creaking or squeaking as it reacts to things such as sunlight and humidity levels in your area.

Don’t panic or think you got a wonky rower. This is totally normal and it will subside once the wood has fully adjusted to its environment. If you still hear some squeaks, listen to where it comes from and loosen and tighten the bolts if needed.

After that, the only thing you really have to do to keep your WaterRower Classic in tiptop shape is to wipe the dust off with a soft rag. If you want, you can also give the wood a good oiling with some Danish oil (which you can get from your nearest hardware store) to keep the black walnut’s natural shine.

Never use ammonia-based cleaners, chlorates, or bleach to clean any part of your rower. Also, avoid using methylated spirits, such as alcohol, as these are damaging to the wood.

To store your rower, simply pull it upright by the rear of the rail. You won’t have a hard time doing this, even though the rower weighs 53 kg., since the rail acts as a lever that makes it easy to pull up the machine.

Once standing upright, the WaterRower Classic takes up as much horizontal space as a regular kitchen tool, though you’ll need to have at least 7 feet of space to keep it upright. Some people opt not to store away the WaterRower though, as it looks so good it blends so well with the furniture.

The Verdict: Should You Buy the WaterRower Classic?

The WaterRower Classic is an expensive piece of exercise equipment, but it will pay for itself in the long run if you take full advantage of it. Think of it as a health investment. You pay for it up-front and continue benefitting from it far into the future.

If you’re not willing to shell out huge money for the rower, but you’d still like to use your own personal indoor rower, check out WaterRower’s rental program. You can rent a WaterRower for around $40 a month, plus a few fees, until you decide to buy the rowing machine at full price.

It’s quite helpful if you’re short on cash at the moment, although you’ll have to pay the rental fees and the rower’s full price if you decide to buy it later. You might also want to check out used WaterRowers on Craiglist, although take this fair warning with you to be wary of scammers and tricksters.

If, however, you do decide to buy a new WaterRower Classic, you get a five-year warranty if you register your purchase with the company within days of buying, which is pretty cool if you start needing replacement parts within the next few years.

Overall, you won’t likely need to worry about damaged parts and needing replacements because WaterRower is known for its reputation for making high-quality, durable, and beautiful wooden rowing machines.

Is the WaterRower Classic not the right indoor rower for you? Check out our definitive list of the best rowing machines for the home to find other options that may be more suitable for your tastes. 

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