Come for the on-demand rowing classes, stay for the live resistance control

Work(out) From Home is a weekly column where we review smart fitness machines and apps in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Thanks to technology, there are still plenty of ways to exercise if your gym is closed. 


Automatic resistance adjustment • Sleek design • Extensive library of on-demand classes

Monthly subscription fee • Pricey • Tough to fold and unfold

The NordicTrack RW900 Rower is a powerful machine that offers thousands of challenging workouts. But its best feature is its live resistance controls that help to keep you from plateauing during workouts.

I’ve been in quarantine for a little over six weeks now. By this point, I’ve cycled, practiced yoga, punched a heavy bag, attempted lots of planks, and swung a kettlebell until my arms felt like jello. 

This week, I tried a form of exercise I’ve always avoided at the gym for no particular reason: rowing. And I did that specifically with NordicTrack’s RW900 rowing machine.

At $1,700, it’s probably not the kind of exercise device you want to drop money on while in quarantine. But, if you do have some cash set aside, this rowing machine is one of your best at-home workout options.

Using the built-in touchscreen display on the NordicTrack RW900, you’ll have access to thousands of on-demand studio classes from iFit with options suited to all types of fitness levels. It also tracks your metrics in real-time. The subscription to iFit is free for a year, but after that you’ll have to pay a monthly fee of $14.99 to access said content. 

Sure, there’s nothing revolutionary about the concept, especially in comparison to other smart connected machines like Peloton or Echelon. But there’s one key difference that transforms the overall experience: live resistance control.

Rather than having to manually increase the resistance yourself, the rowing machine does it for you automatically throughout the class. And it’s truly a game changer when you’re working out at home and have no one to hold you accountable to push yourself. 

It’s an excellent option if you’re looking for something that will provide you with a full-body workout without letting you get comfortable over time. 

A space saver, sort of 

The NordicTrack RW900 is a nice-looking machine. And, given the high price tag, it feels very durable and high-end. While it’s not something I’d likely keep in the middle of my living room, it’s definitely a nice addition to an at-home gym. 

It's sleek AND quiet.

It’s sleek AND quiet.

Typically, you’d have the option to pay an additional fee to have a specialist come and put the rower together for you. But due to Covid-19, NordicTrack isn’t currently offering in-home assembly. So you will have to assemble it yourself. (My review unit, however, arrived fully assembled.) 

If you do decide to order one of these while in quarantine, you’ll probably want to recruit a family member or roommate to help you put it together since the pieces are quite heavy.

The rower is made up of a steel seat rail, ergonomic molded seat, adjustable pivoting pedals, foot straps, a row bar, and front-mounted wheels to move it around. 

On the front of the machine is an inertia-enhanced flywheel, which allows for smoother strokes and keeps the machine super quiet. It also comes with 26 different resistance levels that can be adjusted digitally via the display or manually using the resistance handle. 

Attached to the machine is a 22-inch HD display that’s both crisp in resolution and responsive. Its adjustable neck makes it convenient for all different heights and even floor workouts (which I’ll get to later). 

The rower is seven feet long though, so you’re going to need to make room for it. While it’s only one foot wide, you’ll also want to make sure you have a space nearby for a workout mat if you plan on taking classes that don’t require just rowing. 

But it does fold up into a very compact form so you can easily store it whenever you want. I will admit it’s not the easiest thing to fold up and then back out… at least, not at first.

Okay, I wish it were that easy to fold.

Okay, I wish it were that easy to fold.

Essentially, you have to use the frame and rail handles to fold it in half and secure it using the folding clamp. But it takes a lot of force because the frame isn’t all that light. (And, as I’ve mentioned in prior reviews, I have noodle arms.)

So I had to ask my brother and dad to help me out. And … it was an excellent father-son bonding experience to watch them argue over how to correctly fold it up. 

Regardless of which way you do it, having the option to pack it up and place it in the corner of your room or in a storage closet when it’s not being used is always nice.

The iFit app

As far as classes go, the RW900 works in tandem with the iFit app — a streaming service that offers both exercise content and the technology to automatically adjust your machine.

When you purchase the rower, you get a free one-year iFit membership. But after that, it’ll cost you $14.99 per month for an individual plan or $39.99 for a family plan, the latter of which allows you to add up to four profiles.

The app offers thousands of challenging and fun workouts.

The app offers thousands of challenging and fun workouts.

With the membership, you’ll have access to over 1,600 classes — set either in-studio or outdoors — based on different preferences like intensity level, class duration, and instructor. 

Since the app is also available on both iOS and Android, you can use it when you’re at the gym (whenever that’s a thing again). It obviously won’t automatically adjust the resistance of the machine you’re on, but at least you’ll have an instructor to guide you through the workouts. 

Don’t think, just row

While using the RW900 for the last week, I chose to start with the beginner series because I wanted to get my form right. 

In rowing terms, I needed to learn to “catch, drive, and recover.” If you have no idea what any of that means, then I recommend also starting with the beginner series. Otherwise, you’re going to start feeling very achey in parts of your body you shouldn’t. Trust me.

When you start a class, the right side of your display allows you to switch back and forth between the leaderboard (where you’re competing against others taking the class in real-time) and the rower’s current level of resistance.

You can choose from a ton of classes filmed in-studio.

You can choose from a ton of classes filmed in-studio.

Meanwhile on top of the display, you’re paying attention to metrics like average watts, split time, distance, calories burned, and strokes per minute (SPM). You’ll also be able to see a summary of all of these numbers once the workout is over.

To keep you on track, the instructors will mainly ask you to focus on your strokes per minute so that you know exactly how hard you should be working.

Not having to worry about adjusting your resistance while rowing also gives you the ability to focus on just your form and strength, too. On the Peloton Bike, I often found myself obsessing over adjusting the knob because I felt like the resistance was too challenging or because I was losing stamina towards the end of the workout. But on the NordicTrack rower, I forgot that it was even an option to alter the resistance. 

I mean, in the beginning, there were times where I felt like the resistance was a bit too high and so I lowered it manually. But I immediately started to feel guilty, so I increased that bad boy back up to what it was supposed to be. Over time, I started to feel myself getting a bit stronger and certain resistance levels suddenly became easier to power through than before.  

The instructors are super motivational.

The instructors are super motivational.

While your resistance is technically adjusted in “real-time” with the instructor, the classes aren’t actually streamed live the way Peloton’s are. They’re pre-recorded and then uploaded to the iFit app. 

It’s not a dealbreaker, but having taken live classes on the Peloton Bike, I will say there is a certain energy missing here. It helps to have live instructors call out at-home participants and get you motivated.

Regardless, the classes are still upbeat, the instructors are motivational, and the workouts are enough to get your heart rate going very high. 

During a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, which alternated between rowing and floor workouts, the instructor was great at talking the class through planks and squats. And that certainly helped distract from the feeling that my body felt like it was on fire. 

And while I love the format of in-studio classes on any connected fitness machine, I weirdly loved the outdoor classes with the rowing machine more.

iFit filmed these classes out on the water in places like Slovenia, Switzerland, England, Ireland, and many more. The even cooler part is that the workout mimics the wind and water conditions of that day and adjusts the resistance accordingly. That way, it helps train you for rowing outdoors in a manner that’s actually realistic to what you’d experience in real life.

I prefer to take these really calming ones filmed outside.

I prefer to take these really calming ones filmed outside.

I typically don’t go for the outdoor, scenic options (Peloton offers them, as well) because I need a real person to keep pushing me through my workout. But with iFit, you’re out on the water with an instructor so you get the best of both worlds.

Every now and then, the instructor would remind me to keep going and to increase my SPM or even comment on how beautiful the weather was for the day while I continued to row on through Avis in Portugal or Kafue River in Zambia.

I’m not sure if it’s the fact that I’ve been stuck in quarantine for almost two months now or that I grew up spending summers out on the lake, but rowing “outdoors” was a very calming experience… even when the resistance was turned up to super high.

Another expensive machine that’s worth the money

As I mentioned before, at $1,700, the NordicTrack RW900 is not cheap. And there’s also the iFit subscription fee you’ll have to (eventually) pay on top of that. But if you don’t want to pay up front, you can also finance the rower for either 12 or 36 months.

It might be a lot to pay during these trying times, but the RW900 is less expensive than competitors like the Hydrow Rower or The Ergatta Rower, which cost $2,000 or more. 

It's expensive, but definitely worth it.

It’s expensive, but definitely worth it.

I can easily say that the RW900 is worth it for what you’re getting at that price: a sleek and compact machine with a stunningly large display that offers access to a variety of on-demand classes that combine rowing with cross-training workouts.

And, with automatic resistance adjustments, it also feels like you have your own personal trainer standing right beside you, increasing the intensity for you to keep pushing you harder with each workout. 

If you really don’t want to spend that much, you can always opt for NordicTrack’s $999 RW500, which has a much smaller display but the same features as this one.

As for me, I’m going to go continue my journey rowing all around the world…to help me forget that I’m trapped in the suburbs. 

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