You have to make choices when putting together a home gym. Free weights or a multi-gym? Resistance bands or cables? When it comes to cardio, most of us have space (and money) for just one piece of equipment. So, what should you go for — a treadmill, bike, stepper, or rower? Rowing offers a full-body workout and arguably has more benefits than the other cardio equipment.
But there’s just one problem — rowing machines can be expensive. A quality machine by a popular brand will set you back by around a grand. Fortunately, there’s another option — you could build your own rowing machine. It’s not that hard, especially when you’ve got step-by-step instructions and videos to guide you. In this article, we’ll provide five different DIY rowing machine options so you’ll find one that’s doable for you.
- Why Rowing Machine
- Benefits & Drawbacks of DIY Rowing Machines
- DIY Rowing Machine Safety Guidelines
- 5 DIY Rowing Machine Ideas
- Mastering Your Rowing Form
- 5 Common Rowing Errors to Avoid
Why Rowing Machine
Before we delve into the details of crafting your own DIY rowing machine, let’s explore why a rower should be your favored cardio equipment. Here are eight reasons why rowing is numero uno:
1. Full Body Workout
Most cardio machines focus on your lower body. A rowing machine, however, engages both upper and lower body muscles. Every stroke will activate the following muscle groups:
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Erector Spinae
Multiple muscle group engagement makes rowing a far more efficient exercise than other cardio options, such as running on a treadmill. Even though it is primarily an aerobic activity, the anaerobic benefits you get from rowing are unparalleled.
2. Burning Calories
Because it involves both the upper and lower body, you will burn a good amount of calories when you exercise on a rowing machine. While the number of calories you will burn depends on several variables, including your weight, age, and the intensity of your workout, you can expect to burn between 500-700 calories per hour. 
3. Low Impact
Rowing is a closed-chain workout since your feet never leave the rower’s foot platform. As a result, you avoid the jarring and impact stress that comes with constant ground impact.
In addition to its low-impact nature, rowing is shown to be beneficial for people with existing joint pain. In one study, people in the early stages of osteoporosis had an average 30 percent improvement in joint rotation in the elbow, knee, lumbar, and shoulder joints. 
4. Excellent Cardiovascular Exercise
Rowing is a very effective workout for your heart and lungs. Rowing strengthens the heart, pushing more blood with every beat. At the same time, your blood vessels will become stronger, your heart rate will come down, and your blood pressure will reach the ideal level (below 120/80 mm Hg).
5. Boosts Power
The rowing machine is ideal if you aim to increase your power, especially in the lower body. Power is the ability to exert the maximum force in a minimal amount of time. Every rowing stroke requires a massive power output from the lower body as your glutes propel your body back to leg extension during the drive phase. Then, your upper body powers the pull-through of the handle to your ribs.
Rowing will also improve your cardiovascular and muscular endurance, allowing you to keep going longer.
Rowing allows you to get into a rhythm. The smooth back-and-forth motion can be very meditative as your body effortlessly performs the actions and your mind switches to autopilot. Many people find that rowing helps them relax and be more mindful. Exercising also releases the feel-good hormones that promote feelings of well-being and positivity.
7. It is Time-Efficient
Rowing is one of the most time-efficient forms of exercise, as it combines resistance and cardiovascular training.
Rowing is an excellent exercise for high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which includes doing repeated rounds of short sprints followed by shorter rest periods. For example, after a 2-minute warmup, you go full-send for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. This is repeated for eight rounds, followed by a two-minute cool-down.
This type of HIIT rowing workout takes just eight minutes, including the warmup and cool-down. HIIT training also brings on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) effect, which will boost your metabolism and burn more calories for the next 24-36 hours. 
8. It Improves Your Posture
Neck and back problems resulting from poor posture have become widespread over the past decade. With most of us spending hours each day hunched over a screen, that’s hardly a surprise. Rowing is a great way to fight back against poor posture.
Rowing biases the glutes, core, erector spinae, and lats, all of which are involved in maintaining proper posture. The stronger these muscles, the better your posture. To row with the correct form, you must pull your shoulder blades back and down and push your chest out.
Benefits & Drawbacks of DIY Rowing Machines
Weighing the benefits and drawbacks of making your own rowing machine is crucial before beginning a DIY project. Here’s the breakdown:
- Saving money: Building a DIY rowing machine can save you a lot of money. Many people find commercial rowing machines exorbitantly expensive.
- Customization: If you build your own rowing machine from the ground up, you can customize it to your needs, including weight and height capacities.
- DIY Talents: Tackling DIY projects will make you a better craftsman over time.
- Time: Building a rowing machine from the ground up requires time and effort.
- Barrier To Entry: You should be comfortable using tools like an electric drill and saw. Some DIY rowing machine projects can be too complex for beginners. Seek a professional’s help if you’re stuck.
- Lack of Latest Tools: Homemade rowing machines usually lack tools like electronic displays, pre-set programs, or ergonomic design.
- Repairs and maintenance: You must periodically check if the rower needs repair. Commercial models usually come with warranties and options for expert servicing.
- Not Very Durable: A DIY rowing machine’s durability may fluctuate depending on the construction quality and materials utilized.
DIY Rowing Machine Safety Guidelines
Safety should be your top priority when starting a DIY rowing machine project. Building your own fitness equipment can be rewarding, but there are also potential risks if done incorrectly. Here’s some safety advice for do-it-yourself builders:
- Avoid using paints, solvents, or adhesives that are toxic or unsafe for indoor use.
- Don’t use anything with splinters or sharp edges. To avoid injury, sand and smooth rough surfaces, especially wooden components.
- Pay close attention to the weight restrictions of the materials you use. This is especially important when using pulleys, chains, carabiners, and seating timber.
- Implement locking mechanisms: Ensure all bolts, nuts, and fastenings have locking mechanisms like washers or locking nuts so they don’t slide off during your workout.
- Footstraps: If it applies to your design, include safe, movable foot straps to keep your feet from slipping.
Inspection and Maintenance
- Establish a maintenance schedule: Frequently check your homemade rowing machine for wear and tear, loose parts, or damage.
- Lubrication: Lubricate moving parts and tighten all bolts regularly to reduce friction and guarantee smooth functioning.
- Replacement: Worn-out components, such as frayed wires or worn-out resistance bands, should be replaced immediately.
- Keep it tidy: Dust and debris can collect and impair the machine’s functionality. Frequently clean your rowing machine to avoid filth buildup.
- Allocate enough space: Ensure you have sufficient space around the rowing machine to free your arms.
- Ventilation: Proper ventilation is essential if you’re using paints, solvents, or adhesives to prevent breathing issues.
- Protective Gear: Wear safety goggles, earplugs, and dust masks, especially when cutting, sanding, or painting.
- Recognize your abilities: Ask for advice or support when working with intricate parts or designs beyond your competence.
Making a manual
- Create a project log: Make a thorough instruction manual that details the assembly process, safety measures, and maintenance procedures.
Following these safety recommendations will reduce your risk of injury while building a DIY rowing machine and ensure it offers a secure and efficient workout. Safety should always come first, and if you need help with any part of your DIY project, seek professional help.
5 DIY Rowing Machine Ideas
The five DIY rowing machine blueprints I’ve put together are appropriate for various skill levels and budgets. They are ordered as per the building complexity, starting with the easiest.
1. The Treadmill Rowing Machine
If you’ve already invested in a treadmill and don’t have the budget or the space to add a rowing machine, here is an inexpensive way to turn your treadmill into a hybrid machine so that you can use it as the base of a rower with a few simple steps:
- A set of resistance bands, complete with strap and handle
- A treadmill
- An 18-inch length of rope
- A 10-inch piece of dowel
- A padded chair seat with a wooden or ply base
- 4 x roller wheels to fasten to the seat’s bottom
- Connect between three and five bands to the handle and strap that comes with the resistance band set.
- Place the piece of dowel through the resistance band handle to provide a wider gripping area.
- Lay the bands along the length of the treadmill bed, with the handle near the end of it.
- Loop the 18-inch length of rope through the strap end of the bands and bring the rope down to the front base of the treadmill to tie it to the frame.
- Lay the padded seat on the floor with the wooden base up. Screw the four rollers in the corners to make a movable seat.
- Place the seat about 36 inches in front of the treadmill.
- Your treadmill rowing machine is now complete. Grab the dowel handle and sit on the seat with your feet braced against the treadmill’s end frame. You’re now ready to start your rowing workout.
2. The Shoestring Rowing Machine
If you don’t have a treadmill, you can use the same idea from the previous blueprint with a door anchor. Here’s how to do it:
- A set of resistance bands, complete with strap, door anchor, and handle
- An 18-inch rope
- A 10-inch dowel
- A padded chair seat with a wooden or ply base
- 4 x roller wheels that can be fastened to the bottom of the seat
- A 36-inch square plastic sheet
- Two shoelaces
- Connect 3-5 resistance bands and attach them to the door anchor that comes with your resistance band set.
- Place the door anchor in the middle bottom of a closed door.
- Extend the bands. Place the piece of dowel through the resistance band handle.
- To create anchors for your feet, drill two holes at the front of the plastic sheet, a foot distance apart and about an inch from the end.
- Make loops out of the two shoelaces and thread them through the holes in the plastic sheet.
- Put the seat on the floor with the base up. Screw the roller wheels to its bottom.
- Lay the plastic sheet in front of the resistance band handle with the shoelaces nearest it.
- Position the seat in the middle of the plastic sheet.
- Your shoelace rowing machine is now ready to use. Loop your feet around the shoelaces to brace your lower body, grab the dowel handle, and start rowing.
3. Resistance Band Rowing Machine
You can pick up a good quality resistance band set consisting of different strength bands for around $40. This will provide you with a range of resistances for a DIY rowing machine. All you need then is a wooden frame, handles, and anchor point, and you’ve got a functional rowing machine. Here’s how to make it:
- 2 x 4 dressed timber — 39 inches long x 2*
- 2 x 4 dressed timer — 13 inches long x 3
- ¾ inch Iron pipe x 18 inches – x 2
- Ply Board 16 x 12 inches x 1 sheet
- End caps x 2
- Steel hooks x 2
- Swivel joints brackets x 2
- Lag bolts x 4
- Carbinerers x 2
- Wood glue
All these materials are available from big box stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot.
*The length of this timber will change depending on your height. The 39-inch length is based on a 5-foot-10 individual. To determine the length that you require, sit on the floor with your legs extended as if you were in the extended rowing position. Then have someone measure from your heel to the base of your butt. That’s how long the rail timber needs to be.
- Create the frame by placing two of the 13-inch timbers between the rail lengths. Place the lengths at the ends of the rail.
- Apply wood glue and then use two screws at each joint. On the front piece, only screw the top joint with a single screw. Twist the bottom of the piece of timber to create a 45-degree angle. This will allow your fees to sit naturally.
- Now, go back and put another screw in the top. Then, screw the bottom joint.
- Lay your rectangular frame down flat on your workbench.
- Measure 12 inches from the end of the frame and place your third piece of 13-inch timber between the rails. You may have to hammer it into position. This is where your seat will be. Screw this piece into place.
- Grab your 16 x 12″ sheet of plyboard and screw it at the back of the rectangular frame to supply your seat. Use four screws, being sure to countersink the heads to avoid them when sitting on the seat.
The Rest of the Machine:
- Measure 15 inches from the foot end of the machine on both side rails and place a mark.
- Position the swivel joint brackets on each side at the mark. Use a pencil to mark the two pilot holes circles where the screws go.
- Drill the pilot holes for the lag bolts.
- Put the swivel bracket back in place and put the lag bolts, screwing them down with your drill. Do this on both sides.
- Take one of the 18-inch three-quarter pieces of pipe and put it into the swivel joint of one of the brackets. Use an Allen wrench to tighten it. Do the same on the other side.
- Measure 11 inches from the base of the pipe and make a mark.
- Slide one of the hooks onto the pipe, ensuring it is facing forward. Position it at the 11-inch mark. You use an Allen key to secure it into place. Do the same on the other side.
- Place carabiners on the hooks
- Put your end caps on the end of each pipe and tighten them.
Your resistance band rowing machine is now complete. You can either use the door anchor device that comes with most resistance bands or put in place your own floor anchor. Either way, you can loop the red resistance band around the anchor and place your rowing machine on the floor about 2 feet in front of it. Place the ends of the band around the carabiners on the ends of the hooks on your rowing machine arms. You are now all set to sit on the machine (you may want to use a pillow for comfort) and start rowing. A good starting band resistance is about 125 pounds.
4. DIY Skateboard Rowing Machine
Here’s a similar DIY rowing machine concept to the last one, with the difference being that it actually allows the seat to move back and forth, just like a commercial rowing machine.
- Loop resistance bands x 2 (different strengths)
- Two heavy dumbbells or pieces of 2 x 4 timber
- A secure upright (the frame of a power rack is ideal)
- An 18-inch dowel
- Place the two heavy dumbbells (or pieces of timber) at the upright base to create a footrest. Create a ‘T’ shape, with the base of the T pushing against the upright.
- Loop the heaviest band around the bottom of the upright.
- Position your skateboard about three feet in front of the upright, facing it.
- Loop the other end of the heaviest band around the front axle of the skateboard. This provides the pull towards the upright after each row.
- Loop the other band around the upright, about 12 inches higher than the first.
- Slot the piece of dowel through the other end of the lighter resistance band.
- Your skateboard resistance band is now complete. Sit on the skateboard, rest your feet on the footrest, grab the dowel handle, and you’re ready to row!
5. Wooden Bicycle Wheel Rowing Machine
Creating a DIY wooden rowing machine using an old bicycle wheel and chain can be a challenging yet rewarding project. To ensure accuracy and ease of construction, here are detailed step-by-step instructions along with the dimensions:
- Old bicycle wheel with tire and tube
- One piece of dressed timber measuring 90 mm x 90 mm x 2 meters (for the rail)
- Two pieces of dressed timber measuring 70 mm x 30 mm x 320 mm (for the back legs)
- Two pieces of dressed timber measuring 70 mm x 30 mm x 500 mm (for the front legs)
- Two pieces of dressed timber measuring 90 mm by 10 mm by 900 mm (for the bicycle wheel brace)
- Two pieces of dressed timber measuring 70 mm x 30 mm x 200 mm (for the foot platforms)
- Two pieces of timber measuring 70mm x 30 mm x 900 mm (for the seat track panels
- One piece of pine panel measuring 70 mm x 30 mm x 900 mm (for the seat rated at 220 pounds)
- Four-seat roller wheels
- Steel sheeting to make bicycle wheel fins
- Bicycle chain
- Pulleys x 2, rated at 440 pounds (200 kilograms)
- Bungee cords, 10 mm x 1800 mm long
- Plastic-coated stainless steel cable — 6 mm x 500 mm (to connect the chain to the handle)
- Heavy-duty connector clip (to connect the chain to the bungee cord)
- Galvanized steel tubing — 25 mm x 3 mm x 400 mm (for the handle)
- Seat cushion and foam padding
- Velcro foot straps x 2
- Screws, bolts, and nuts (various sizes)
- Attach the rear legs to the wooden rail using a straightedge to ensure everything is square. Use a drill to put two screws through each leg, diagonal to one another.
- Attach the front legs at a forward-leaning angle of 75 degrees (200mm will extend above the rail). The legs should be 8 inches from the end of the rail.
- Attach the bicycle wheel brace to the front of the rail. Attach each brace to the rail 20 inches from its end, then angle it forward at 30 degrees to cross the front leg extensions. Attach the brace to the extension with two screws.
- Cut eight 40mm strips of sheet metal that are 25mm wide.
- Bend a tab on the end of each metal strip.
- Use a drill to make eight evenly spaced holes around the bicycle wheel frame.
- Screw the metal strips at both ends as extra spokes to create more resistance when rowing.
- Drill two center holes on the wheel braces. These should be 600mm from the ground.
- Position the wheel between the braces and screw into place.
- Attach one pulley to the inside of the right side front leg 100mm from the floor.
- Attach the other swivel pulley to the inside of the right back leg 100mm from the floor.
- Attach a piece of bracing timber between the base of the front legs.
- Attach a piece of bracing timber at the base of the bicycle wheel braces.
- Attach one end of the bungee cord to the front leg bracing with a nail.
- Run the bungee cord along the length of the rail, through the end pulley and back.
- The heavy-duty connector clip attaches the bungee cord to the chain.
- Fit the other end of the chain to the bicycle wheel.
- Attach the chin to the handle with the plastic-coated stainless steel cable.
- Attach the foot platforms, screwing them to the bicycle wheel braces. Angle them slightly for correct ergonomics.
- Attach velcro straps to the foot platforms.
- Attach the seat track panels from the end of the rail so that there is a 12.5mm lip to serve as the track for the seat.
- Measure the distance between the rail tracks and mark them on the seat’s base. Screw the four-seat rollers in place using this guidance.
- Attach the foam seated padding to the top of the seat with double-sided tape and glue.
There’s no denying that this is quite an advanced build. But you’ll end up with a high-quality, durable rower — and it’ll cost you less than $200.
Mastering Your Rowing Form
Now, it’s time to talk about rowing form. After all, making your own rowing machine is pointless if you don’t know how to use it properly. Here’s an overview of the four phases of the rowing action:
The rowing stroke comprises four distinct phases — catch, drive, finish, and return. We’ll delve into each phase with an explanation of its purpose.
1. The Catch
The catch marks the beginning of the stroke, where you are initially compressed and tense. Your arms remain straight, your knees and hips are bent, and your ankles are dorsiflexed, with minimal space in your abdominal region. In terms of on-water rowing, this is when your oar is just entering the water, preparing to propel the boat by pushing or dragging the oar through the water.
2. The Drive
During this phase, you exert significant force with your legs to drive the oar through the water, advancing the boat. This phase directly influences the numbers displayed on the rowing machine’s LCD, indicating your split time and the intensity of your effort. This is where the real power is generated. It requires a vigorous leg push.
3. The Finish
The finish phase occurs at the culmination of the drive. At this point, the oar emerges from the water. Your core should be engaged, arms bent, knees extended, and hips more extended than in the previous position. After completing the handle movement, you are ready to return it to the front, known as the catch position.
4. The Recovery
The recovery phase involves reversing the actions performed earlier. It’s aptly named “recovery” because it offers a brief moment of respite and recuperation.
Bringing It All Together
Each of the four phases can be encapsulated with the following cue:
“Legs, core, arms… arms, core, legs”
5 Common Rowing Errors to Avoid
As a personal trainer, I see the following five rowing form errors cropping up repeatedly. Here’s how to correct them:
- Gripping the Handle Too Tightly: Maintain a relaxed and comfortable grip. Keep your wrists flat throughout the entire stroke.
- Leaning Forward at the Catch: Resist the urge to hunch forward in the catch position. Maintaining a straight, upright back while engaging your core and lats is essential to ensure proper positioning.
- Bending Arms Prematurely at the Catch: In the catch position, aim to keep your arms as straight as possible to connect the handle effectively to your leg drive.
- Chicken Wing Arms: Avoid sticking your elbows out to the sides during the finish phase. Allow your elbows to go past midline while keeping your shoulders relaxed; this is a more efficient posture.
- Excessive Forward Lean: Prevent excessive forward leaning just before the catch position, as it can strain your lower back. Maintain a forward upper body lean during recovery, ensuring your shoulders are ahead of your hips before bending your knees.
Are homemade rowing machines as efficient as commercial ones?
No, homemade rowing are generally not as efficient as the commercial. Commercial rowers frequently have more sophisticated features, but DIY equipment can offer a more affordable substitute.
What is the cost of constructing a do-it-yourself rowing machine?
The design and materials you use will affect the cost of your DIY rowing machine. Simple designs made of recyclable materials or PVC pipes can be made for less than $50, while more intricate designs involving lots of timber and parts may cost around $200.
Can I adjust a homemade rowing machine to suit my level of fitness?
Yes, one of the benefits of DIY rowing machines is that you may adjust the resistance and other characteristics to suit your exercise objectives and current fitness level. If you want to make it more difficult or suited for novices, you can change the band resistance levels or use a stronger bungee cord (in the case of our fifth option).
How tough is building a DIY rowing machine if I’m not very handy?
Depending on the design, building a do-it-yourself rowing machine can be challenging. Beginners with some DIY knowledge should employ simpler designs with inexpensive materials and tools. More intricate designs like hydraulic piston rowers might call for more sophisticated knowledge and equipment. Success depends on adhering to specific directions.
What are the primary advantages of creating a homemade rowing machine?
In addition to cost savings and customization based on your needs, the satisfaction of creating your own training equipment is one advantage of building a DIY rowing machine.
Taking on a DIY rowing machine project is a rewarding, cost-effective experience. Depending on which of the five DIY rowing machine plans you follow, it will test your handyman skills, resourcefulness, and craftsmanship.
Once you have built your DIY rowing machine, it is up to you to put it to effective use. Schedule three to five rowing sessions per week. Start with 10 minutes and then gradually build your rowing time and intensity.
By working consistently, you’ll be able to achieve your body transformation and fitness goals. So, embrace the challenge, enjoy the process, and row your way to a healthier, stronger you!
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