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Concept2 versus WaterRower

A comparison of the Concept2 D and WaterRower rowing machines.

 

Four Year Update

Written 6/26/2012

I think it has been about four years since I wrote the review below. Since then, I've rowed nearly 5 million meters on my Concept2 D and several hundred thousand on the WaterRower. Except if I find a spelling error, I wouldn't change a word of the review.

I hope you will read the entire review below before you decide which machine to get, but I want to add these following points:

  1. Both machines have held up, but the Concept2 has held up UNIMAGINABLY well. I have never had a serious problem with any part of the Concept 2D. After about 3.5 million meters, I had to replace the seat bearings. This cost me about $10.00 (if I remember correctly). This replacement is pretty much expected. The seat bearings must be small to fit under the seat and they must bear your full body weight. If I could stay on top of it, I'd replace them every million meters.
  2. WaterRower has the best customer service I have ever experienced. I had a major problem with the WaterRower when the clutch went out. It took me much diagnosis to figure out that a bad clutch made the rower slip on the backstroke (an agonizing annoyance). We had the WaterRower for about 2 years and 8 months, so I thought it was well out of warranty. To order the clutch, I called WaterRower directly and was given a customer service representative. When I said I wanted a clutch and started to give my credit card information, the representative suggested that the rower may still be under warranty. He asked for the serial number and waited patiently while I found it. After looking up the serial number, he said that it was still under warranty. After questioning me about the symptoms, he agreed that it was probably the clutch, so he sent me a new clutch for FREE! I can't remember the cost at this time, but I think it was around $70.00. So this representative went out of his way to forgo a sale and honor the WaterRower warranty! I've seen such behavior by a company representative only one other time in my life. I should also mention that I asked the representative if he expected the new clutch to go out after only three years and he said that a bad clutch is pretty rare. I'm taking his word for it. I've started using the WaterRower regularly, so we'll see how the replacement holds up. If it can take 4 or 5 million meters, I'll be happy. The Concept2 clutch, on the other hand, feels like new after 4.7 million meters!
  3. I need to clarify that I reviewed what is now the equivalent to the WaterRower Natural (http://www.waterrower.com/products_naturalseries.php). I make this clarification because it looks like WaterRower has expanded their line.
  4. Before you buy a rower, please ensure that you realize that the WaterRower brand is different from others that call themselves "water rowing machines". There has been some confusion between brands of "water rowing machines". Several machines that I do not review here are MyRower, First Degree, and H2O Fitness. I can not recommend these rowers because I do not have experience with them. Because of the spelling, it is easy to confuse MyRower (that I DO NOT review here) with WaterRower (that I do review here).

 

Why Row?

Written circa 2008

If you have found this page, my guess is that you are in one of several situations:

  1. You are about to begin or supplement your home gym and wonder if a rower would be a good addition.
  2. You know you want a rower and wonder which you should get.
  3. You have decided you want either a Concept2 or a WaterRower but still can't decide which.

This page is really directed towards those in situations 2 and 3. But, as a prelude the the Concept2 and WaterRower comparison, let me first address those in situation 1. In short, yes. Get a rower. Rowing is the best single exercise I have ever discovered. I am a life-long fitness fanatic who is pushing 40 and I have tried just about every type of training program. As a complement to a lifetime of competitive sports, I've done workouts based on long-distance running, swimming, weight lifting, hill sprints, yoga, martial arts, and even ice skating. I've probably tried a lot of other stuff I can't remember right now. Lets just say that I've tried enough to know what works and how to get a complete workout.

For example, the most basic complete workout could be accomplished in 30 minutes on an elliptical trainer and about 1.5 hours circuit training. But on a rower, one needs less than 35 minutes to get in the same completeness in their workout. Why? Because rowing works every major muscle group except, perhaps, one's upper pectorals and front deltoids. A properly executed row works leg biceps, leg triceps, calves, buttocks, lower abs, upper abs, lower back, obliques, upper back (lats), neck (traps), rear shoulder (deltoids), outer deltoids, triceps, biceps, and forearms. It even hits the front deltoids and lower pectorals to some extent. I estimate that, in combination with a few sets of push-ups, a rowing workout hits every major muscle group given proper rowing technique. Moreover, rowing is a phenomenal aerobic/cardio workout.

So, considering that a complete workout using an elliptical trainer and weights will require about 2 hours, rowing 30 minutes will save you 1.5 hours. Of course, if you have never rowed before, you may want to start with ten or fifteen minutes per day, even if you are in good shape. Rowing is hard work and, about 10 minutes into your first workout, you will see why it is such effective exercise.

Also as a catchall legal disclaimer so no one sues me for advocating rowing: make sure a doctor approves in writing of whatever exercise program you decide to pursue.

Concept2 versus WaterRower

Now, the question: Should I spend my money on a Concpet2 or a WaterRower? The answer of course is yes. You can go wrong with neither.

Because my wife and I live in different cities, we decided to both get our own rower. Originally, I bought a Spartan magnetic rower but I destroyed it pretty quickly. I then bought a Concept2 model D for myself and kept it at our apartment in LA. After my rowing continued to produce great results I talked my wife into getting a rower for our home in Albuquerque. She usually goes to a gym, but I was living proof that you could get great results rowing only about 30 minutes a day. She was hooked by the thought of saving about 1.5 hours of her time per day. Because I thought she might like the aesthetics of the WaterRower and because Xeno Müller loves his WaterRower, I got my wife one just a few weeks ago. I came into Albuquerque for the long weekend (President's Day) and have rowed about 24 km on the WaterRower this weekend so I think I can now make a fair comparison of each, although I'm more familiar with the Concept2 model D as I've logged close to 500 km since buying it in November.

Durability

First, both the Concept2 and WaterRower are built for durability. If you are not an avid rower, you may not realize how important this consideration is. But the fact is that you will get very strong from rowing any rower regularly and if you don't have a solid rower, you will eventually destroy it with your strength. Although such a situation sounds neat, its not so entertaining when you find yourself thrashing your investment by simply using it for its designed purpose. Before I bought the Concept2, I owned a Spartan magnetic rower and destroyed it in less than 4 months rowing about 30 minutes per day about 6 days a week. Worse than destroying my investment was the uneasiness of rowing on a damaged rower.

One thing I noticed about the Spartan rower was that it was, in general, made of high quality materials. You could probably drop it from 20 feet onto concrete and still get a good workout. The problem with the Spartan rower, however, was design. For example, the pulley for the cable was slightly offset from the center of the rower and every time you pulled, you cut into a plastic bearing with the cable. The cable ate through the bearing in about one week causing me to disassemble the rower and modify its design. If the Spartan had a better design, this would never happen. The Spartan had many other design flaws, such as relying on a metal spring instead of an elastic strap for recoil, etc.

In other words, it was not the materials but the design of the Spartan rower that caused it to have a short life. So beware: you can't go into a showroom and tell by the materials and construction whether your rower is going to last. The only way to be sure is to buy a model that many before you and much stronger than you have used for years.

Support

When I bought my Concept2, I only needed about 15 minutes of research because the Concept2 rowers are known above all for their durability and longevity. To put it bluntly, you want to make sure that you get yourself a rower that can take some real use if not real abuse. For this reason, I hesitate to recommend any rower besides the Concept2 or the WaterRower. The WaterRower is also known for its durability and construction--and is one reason I decided to get one for our home in New Mexico. Both the WaterRower and the Concept2 are designed for use at athletic clubs. If it is just you and your family using one of these units, a Concept2 or WaterRower will probably last many years, if not decades.

Second, both the Concept2 and WaterRower rowers are produced by companies with a solid reputation. This consideration is important because rowers, like any other piece of equipment, have parts that will wear out over time. For example, both use an elastic strap for recoil. I imagine that in four or five years the recoil strap will lose its elasticity. Parts like this should be user serviceable. Both the WaterRower and Concept2 appear to excel in this area. Concept2 has parts available for every model it has ever produced including its first model, originally produced in 1981. WaterRower has a complete list of parts for its rowers available online. Other rowers fail in this area.

For example, one enticing rower is the ProRower H2O RX-750. Despite its plentiful features and aesthetic design, I can not find the home page of the ProRower company nor can I find an address or phone number for ProRower on the internet. Although this product may come with a manufacturer warranty, will I be able to order parts for it in five or six years? How many people have been using a ProRower for a decade? That I can't find answers to these questions on the internet makes me weary of equipment like the ProRower. At a $700 price tag (Amazon), I don't want a disposable rower. I want a rower that will last and be supported for at least ten years if not longer.

Another compelling company is LifeCore Fitness. You will find their products in many gyms and their $1300.00 (Amazon) R100 magnetic/air rower probably has the same good quality for which LifeCore is known. However, a visit to the LifeCore website reveals no easy way to order user serviceable parts. I'm a regular guy, so I don't want to pay for an extended warranty or service contract just to fix my home rower when a part wears out. I want to be able to go to a web page, fill out a form and order the part I need without any service costs or third parties. Unlike WaterRower and Concept2, LifeCore offers no indication on their website that such direct ordering is easy or even possible.

Price

The Concept2 Model D is priced at $900.00 and comes stock with the PM3 monitor. The WaterRower costs $895.00 without a monitor and $1095.00 with their S4 monitor (Amazon). So basically price boils down to a $200.00 difference. Once you row for a while you will realize that these numbers are all peanuts, even in the midst of the current recession. The real difference in these machines is in their features and not their price tags. You especially do not want to try to save a few hundred dollars just to buy a piece of equipment that you are going to have to throw away. I know because I have already done that once and doesn't feel very good.

For comparison, the LifeCore R100 is priced at about $1300.00 and the ProRower H2O RX-750 is $700.00. All of these prices include the monitor. The message is that quality rowers are expensive. But you buy more than a rower, you buy the support of the company backing the rower because a rower is an investment.

Up to this point, if I were keeping score, I'd say the WaterRower and Concept2 Model D are neck and neck. The only real difference is $200.00 in price. In the $1000.00 range, $200 is a minor difference.

Air versus Water

Now let's get down to the differences between the two machines. The Concept2 is an air rower and the WaterRower is of course a water rower. Does this matter? Well, yes and no. Both machines provide a range of resistances to ensure that you will be able to row at your capacity, no matter how strong you are. The WaterRower accomplishes variable resistance by the ability to adjust the amount of water in the tank. In this case, the source of the resistance is obvious. The Concept2 accomplishes variable resistance by adjusting the baffle to the flywheel, which has the blades that move air. The more the baffle restricts the flow of air, the greater the vacuum inside the flywheel housing, and consequently the less resistance one feels at the handle. While the physics of the system seem counterintuitive, the results are straightforward: with both the Concept2 and the WaterRower, you can always get a workout tuned to your physical ability.

But the similarities between water and air end with the ability to tune resistance because the difference in mechanism has a profound affect on the feel of the row. One noticeable difference is the feel of the catch at the start of the backstroke. With the Concept2, the catch is easier and you need to accelerate the flywheel before you feel the greatest resistance. With the WaterRower, the catch is more direct and you almost immediately feel the inertia of the water before you significantly accelerate the blades. I have to admit that for this reason and a couple of others, the feel of the WaterRower is much more gratifying than the feel for the Concept2. With the WaterRower, you actually have the sensation of throwing the water around rather than the sensation of simply moving air that you have with the Concept2.

The Concept2 has a more even midstroke than the WaterRower. Through the first part of the stroke on the Concept2, you accelerate the flywheel and feel greater and greater resistance in a very even manner. With the WaterRower, the water quickly moves out of the way and disperses as a wave-front vertically in the tank--so the resistance goes down after the blades accelerate. At the end of the stroke, the water that was previously dispersed vertically in the tank falls back to the blade and resistance goes back up. The effect is subtle, but it means that the feel of the WaterRower stroke is more uneven than the stroke of the Concept2, which has only an acceleration phase and a deceleration phase. The complexity of the WaterRower stroke makes sense because the system is more complex. The WaterRower tank has both air and water in it while the Concept2 involves only air. I can't guess as to the impact of these differences on training except that one's preferences may change their training habits. My personal preference is for the feel of the water. It seems that most others who have tried both rowers also feel this way.

Rowing Mechanism and Design

Beyond the major difference between how resistance is created, the Concept2 and WaterRower differ in a couple of other key areas that affect one's rowing experience. First, the Concept2 uses a chain to pull the flywheel while the WaterRower uses a strap. The main advantage of the WaterRower's strap is that it is practically silent. Coupled with the gentler sound of the water, the dampening of the plastic slides (which I'll discuss soon), and the near silence of the strap, the WaterRower turns rowing into an acoustically pleasing experience. This is in sharp contrast to the whining, wheezing, and sawing sounds that emanate from a Concept2.

The air noise of the Concept2 is significant and the chain of the Concept2 gives one the sensation of sawing rather than rowing. But, if these kind of noises don't bother you (and those in the vicinity of your rower), they can actually be beneficial to your training. I use the sound of the chain on the recovery as an indicator of how efficiently I am getting my hands forward before going upright with my posture and cracking my knees. The WaterRower does not provide this kind of feedback and so one may require feedback in other ways, like a mirror. I consider the audible feedback of the Concept2 to be an advantage, but I usually row in the absence of any other people.

Notably, the Concept2 has an aluminum rail covered with a stainless steel slide on which the seat rolls. The WaterRower has plastic slides atop two wooden rails. Given perfectly clean slides, neither machine has an advantage in this area. However, the instant a piece of material any larger than a hair gets on the rail of the Concept2 you will notice. If your heart rate is at 140 and you are in a state of heightened awareness that often accompanies intense physical exercise, you will notice even more. Because the equivalent components of the WaterRower are made of softer materials than for the Concept2 (wood as opposed to aluminum, plastic as opposed to stainless steel) the tolerance for foreign objects on the slides or stuck to the wheels is much greater for the WaterRower. I consider this a great advantage for the WaterRower--but little perturbations greatly affect my psychology when I am training. Others may not be bothered as much as me and so these differences may not be as relevant to their preferences.

Ergonomics

The Concept2 and WaterRower have slightly different ergonomics. First, the Concept2 has a slight rake (forward tilt of the rail) while the WaterRower rail is flat. To me, the difference is negligible, but those with chronic knee problems may prefer the WaterRower in this area because it generates less compression on the knees at the end of the recovery.

Second, the WaterRower has a softer seat and handle than the Concept2. I got a $3.50 seat pad for my Concept2 when I ordered it. With the pad, I find the Concept2 seat soft enough. I've never tried it without. Although the Concept2 handle will give you blisters within the first week of use, they go away pretty quickly when your hands toughen up. I don't see any calluses on my hands, so I think the Concept2 handle is just soft enough to prevent them. I'm not sure if the WaterRower will cause blisters in the first week, but if it does, my guess is that they will be but gentle, if not subtly painful, reminders of one's admirable rowing effort. A well-earned pain indeed.

Third, the heel rests of the Concept2 are better designed for barefoot rowing. I don't think this is going to be an issue for those who wear shoes when they row. However, I love to row barefoot and it's nearly impossible with the WaterRower heel rests. The Concept2 rests are rounded with a higher rest, allowing ones heel to not only be supported by the rest, but also to lift it. The WaterRower has a flat rest which is closer to the board. The result is that you need shoes to row. I like rowing barefoot so much that this is a major issue for me. I have seen that others feel the same way. Perhaps the WaterRower company will take a hint from the myriad of online reviews and modify their heel rest design.

Fourth, the seats align the lower back subtly different for both machines. With the Concept2, the seat has a slight forward-tilt, making an upright posture slightly easier. The water rower has a slight backward-tilt, making the backward lean at the end of the backstroke easier. The result of this difference is that one tends to use one's lower back more on the WaterRower than on the Concept2. This effect is exaggerated with the WaterRower because of the greater resistance that the WaterRower has at the catch. I have a sensitive lower back, so I notice this difference easily. Even with my admittedly problematic lower back, I think the benefits that proper rowing technique gives to the lower back easily overcome the additional stress of a WaterRower. However, if you have serious back problems (and are still told by your doctor that you can row), I think you will have a more comfortable experience on the Concept2.

Monitor

The standard Concept2 Model D monitor is the PM3. I find it hard to believe that this advanced piece of electronic equipment comes from an exercise equipment company. Its most compelling capability is that it automatically calibrates for drag in real-time. As a result, you can climb on any Concept2 rower and get an accurate and calibrated measurement of your true performance. Thus, you can track your progress from day-to-day by the tenth of a second per 500 m without worrying whether something like air temperature or humidity affects your score. This capability turns training into science and allows you to push yourself in a measured way. My experience is that such fine-tuned training results in quicker gains in fitness because one tends to exercise near one's capacity every session. The Concept2 PM3 also has real-time stroke analysis and a multitude of different readout settings. All of this feedback directly impacts training efficiency and intensity and turns the Concept2 Model D rower into advanced training equipment possibly unparalleled by any other commercial exercise equipment available for home use.

While feature-packed and good enough for cross-training or general exercise, the optional S4 monitor available for the WaterRower is a toy by comparison. In my opinion, the quality and features of the PM3 monitor is the major reason anyone would consider a Concept2 over a WaterRower.

Both have heart-rate monitors as optional equipment, which may be an equalizer in this area. I have not used a heart-rate monitor while rowing yet.

Assembly and Storage

You can put a new Concept2 together faster than you can pour yourself a bowl of cereal--almost. Once you cut open the box and take out the components, it's one click: take the rail and snap it into the head unit. Now you can row.

The WaterRower, on the other hand, will take about an hour to put together and fill with water. Given that you will be a rowing enthusiast for decades to come, assembly time for both is basically negligible. My major advice for the WaterRower is to (1) read all of the instructions first, (2) carefully make sure the tank does not leak when you stand it up (it shouldn't), (2) make sure nothing got into the tank during shipping. You don't want to scratch up the inside of your new tank with a stray screw that fell in the box when it was packed. These things can happen even to the best of manufacturers. Also note that the water level is indicated by a very small scale on the left side of the tank. It's hard to see. Once you fill your WaterRower, make sure you use Advanced Program 8 on the S4 monitor to calibrate the rower. The WaterRower is not automatically calibrated like the Concept2.

Unlike the Concept2, the WaterRower is designed for vertical storage. The low center of gravity afforded by the low water tank makes lifting the back end of the WaterRower easy. The WaterRower wheels are designed for easy movement. The Concept2 manual, on the other hand, specifically says to not store your Concept2 vertically without disengaging the rail from the head unit. I don't quite understand why, because it seems like some minor changes in the design of the Concept2 would allow for it to be safely stored in the vertical position. In fact, I put a safety strap on my ceiling via a heavy-duty swag hook making it safe (I hope) to store my Concept2 vertically to save space. Stored vertically, the WaterRower takes up about half the floor space of the Concept2. Moreover, the WaterRower looks more natural than the Concept2 in the vertical position.

Incidentally, store the Concept2 vertically at your own risk. In other words, don't sue me because your rower fell when some child decided to use it as a jungle gym. You have been warned about the dangers of storing a Concept2 rower vertically.

Aesthetics & Space Requirements

As an exercise enthusiast, I think both rowers are beautiful in their own ways. However, I think most people would consider the WaterRower much more aesthetically designed than the Concept2. While the Concept2 has uneven angels through the body and asymmetry in the head unit, the WaterRower has even, rectangular lines, a beautiful wood finish, and nearly perfect symmetry because of the central placement of the water tank. It looks almost as good stored vertically as it does on the ground. In fact, I would go so far to say that the WaterRower is as much of a piece of art as it is a piece of exercise equipment. Your opinion may vary.

While the Concept2 may also be beautiful to some, it's utilitarian design and loud operation almost precludes its storage and use in a room where one might expect to entertain guests or share space with non-rowing family members, like a den or living room. It's larger space requirements may also become a serious consideration when space is an issue. In terms of dimensions, the Concept2 requires about 9 ft by 3 ft when in use and about 4 ft by 3 ft when stored. The WaterRower requires about 9 ft by 3 ft when in use and about 2.5 ft by 3 ft when stored. You can store each with an 8 ft ceiling. An extra foot of space is needed by the individual rowing at the end of the backstroke.

Summary & Recommendations

While I think that both the WaterRower and Concept2 are great fitness investments, they probably have different market niches. I would recommend the Concept2 to someone who cares less about space, aesthetics, and noise and more about maximizing one's training. Ergonomically, the Concept2 would probably work better for someone who has a history of back trouble--although I think the lower-back benefits of rowing over the long-term far outweigh any additional short-term lower back stress that comes from using the WaterRower. I have noticed my lower back pains have become less frequent and much less severe since I began rowing last summer. Though I feel some lower back stress while rowing the WaterRower, I rowed for three 8 km sessions on the WaterRower this weekend and my lower back feels great right now.

According to Xeno Muller, the WaterRower may work better for those with chronic knee problems. I have had knee injuries in the past, including a minor tear of the meniscus that bothered me for about 18 months but has since healed completely. However, I have never felt any uncomfortable stress on my knees while rowing any rower, so I can't confirm Xeno's observation.

I would recommend the WaterRower to someone who cares about space, aesthetics, and noise, especially if one needs to use and store the water rower in a public room, like a den or living room. I would also recommend a WaterRower for those who might want a more natural rowing experience to stay motivated. Like rowing on the Concept2, rowing on the WaterRower is a phenomenal workout for anyone. Additionally, except possibly for its potentially greater demands on the lower back, the WaterRower provides a more pleasurable rowing experience than the Concept2. The highlights of the WaterRower experience are one's feeling the inertia of the water at the catch, the pleasing sound of the water, the silent operation of the strap, and the consistently smooth glide of the seat.

In summary, you probably can't go wrong with either rower unless you have very specific needs. I enjoy rowing both rowers and I can't wait until Wednesday morning when I get to hit my Concept2 for an 8 km row.