Types of Rowing Machine Resistance: Air vs Magnetic vs Water

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Rowing is a great way to build fitness and improve body composition. Better yet, you don’t even need to be on the water to receive its benefits. 

Rowing machines are available to suit your budget and space requirements. Allowing you to bring this traditional watersport to your home. The most popular rowing machines provide resistance using magnets, water, air, or hydraulics. Let’s take a look at these different types of rowing machines

rowing machines comparison featured image

In a Hurry? Check the Key Differences of Rowing Machine’s Resistance

The main difference between each rower is how it generates its resistance. They all have their pros and cons, and which one you choose will depend on your needs and requirements. But, both the air and water rowers are loud and costly. If you’re concerned about the noise, then a magnetic or hydraulic rower will be best suited. They’re both almost silent. Yet, because their mechanisms are different, they don’t provide a natural rowing motion. Some users find its motion uncomfortable and awkward. In short,  

  • If you’re a serious athlete who doesn’t care about noise or price, go with the air rower.
  • If you want to create an experience of rowing on water, the water rower is your best option.
  • The magnetic rower is ideal if you want a high-quality machine that is almost silent.
  • If you’re bound by a budget, then consider the hydraulic machine.

What You Need to Consider Before Choosing the Resistance

When it comes to buying a rowing machine, most people don’t consider the type of resistance. All rowers use the same muscles and the same movement. But, some subtle differences will influence your purchasing decision. Consider these factors before investing in your rowing machine. 

Feel

If you want to replicate the feeling of rowing on water, choose an air or water rower. The resistance on air and water rowers is influenced by speed, therefore feels like a real rower. On the other hand, hydraulic and magnetic rowers use a predetermined resistance level. Thus, not creating the same feeling you would experience on the water.

Noise 

If you live in a small apartment, your neighbors might not appreciate loud rowing sounds coming through their walls. Equally, you might not want to hear your rower while you’re watching TV or listening to music. Air and water rowers can be pretty noisy, whereas magnetic and hydraulic rowers are near silent. 

Type of Floor 

Rowing machines can do some serious damage to certain types of flooring and vice versa. During a row, especially at high-intensity, your rower might move around a bit. Gym floors are designed for this type of impact, but your home floors might not be as forgiving. Tile, concrete, vinyl, laminate, and wood flooring isn’t the most compatible surface for rowing machines. When buying a new rower, look for one with grips on the bottom to prevent slipping and damage. 

Data Accuracy

If you just want to add some movement to your day, you might not care about how accurate your data is. But, if you’re training for an event or taking part in a competition, your measurements must be accurate. Air rowers have the best reputation when it comes to data accuracy. 

Cost

Budget plays a big factor when it comes to buying a rowing machine. The cost of air, water, and magnetic rowers is very similar based on their features and quality. Lower end models will cost you several hundred bucks, whereas the higher end models will be upwards of $1000. Hydraulic rowers are by far the cheapest of the four. Again, you’ll pay extra for quality and features, but you can get one for less than $100. 

a woman using a rowing machine

Magnetic Rowing Machine

Magnetic rowing machines create resistance using, you guessed it, magnets. Resistance is generated by one magnet moving further or closer from the metal flywheel. The closer the magnet gets to the flywheel, the more resistance. If you’ve ever tried pushing the same sides of two magnets together, you’ll know what I’m talking about. As there is no part-on-part contact between the magnets the machine is pretty much silent. If you live in a small apartment, want to watch TV or listen to music during your row, it’s perfect. The no part-on-part contact also makes the movement smooth and consistent. This makes it really smooth and comfortable on your joints. 

The resistance is controlled manually by adjusting a dial or lever. Thus, the resistance will remain the same regardless of your rowing speed. Manual change of resistance is ideal for when you want to work on a specific goal. Want to build muscle? Increase the resistance. Want to focus on improving your cardiovascular fitness? Lower the resistance. Simple. But, this isn’t the same as rowing on the water so does feel a little unnatural. 

Most magnetic rowers are foldable or come with detachable sides. If you’re limited by space, they are a suitable option. But, unfortunately, some magnetic rowers need to be plugged into a power outlet. This will influence where you use your magnetic rower. 

Pros:

  • Almost Silent
  • Adapted for different fitness goals 
  • Smooth and consistent motion
  • Preset programs 

Cons:

  • Manually set resistance isn’t a natural feeling 
  • Some models need a power outlet 

Is It For You?

Magnetic rowing machines are best suited to those who are noise conscious. They make virtually no noise, which is great if you enjoy watching TV during a workout or live in a small apartment. 

Best Magnetic Pick
Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rower Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rower

With a newly improved smoother and quieter magnetic tension system with 8 levels of adjustable tension, convenient large LCD console, fully padded seat, larger anti-slip foot pedals and built-on transportation wheels, the Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rowing Machine is designed for providing the challenging feel of an outdoor rowing.

Water Rowing Machine 

Water rowing machines create a more natural feeling of being on the water. The fan blades sit in a pool of water, so when you row, you’re moving the fan blades through the water, and that’s what causes the resistance. There are two ways to adjust the resistance of a water rowing machine; speed and volume. The faster you row, the greater the resistance. Additionally, you can add or remove water from the reservoir to adjust the resistance. The more water you add, the greater the resistance. The combination of speed and volume means the resistance levels are infinite. 

Water rowers can be quite noisy, but it’s a pretty nice sound. You’ll hear the water breaking, just like you would on a real rowing boat. Pulling through the water also provides an incredibly smooth motion. It’s comfortable on the joints and limits pressure and potential strains. 

Pros:

  • Zen-like water sounds
  • Infinite resistance 
  • Mimics real-life rowing
  • Easy to maintain 
  • Aesthetic 

Cons:

  • Monitors aren’t as advanced as other types of rowing machines 
  • More expensive than other types of rowing machines 

Is It For You?

Water rowing machines are perfect for those looking to mimic real-life rowing at home. If you close your eyes, it will feel and sound like you’re on the water. 

Best Water Pick
Merax Water Rowing Machine Merax Water Rowing Machine

Merax water rowing machine provides a soothing glide that mimics the dynamic rowing movements across the real water. You can enjoy the relaxing sound of water splashing inside the aqua blue water tank or stream your favorite show without turning the volume too high.

Air Rowing Machine 

Air rowing machines are the most common, they’re the ones you’ll find in most commercial gyms. Air rowers create resistance just like water rowers, but instead of water, they use air. The handle is attached to a fan flywheel. When the rower pulls the handle the flywheel needs to push the air out of the way to spin. The faster you row, the greater the resistance due to more air particles having to be pushed away. Because resistance is controlled by speed, there is no resistance limit. 

We mentioned air rowing machines are the most common, and there’s a reason for that. The monitors on high-quality air rowers are incomparable. The accuracy of data such as 500m split times, watts, pace boats, and force curves are near perfect. The reason why its accuracy is so good is that it takes into account the drag factor with each stroke. Drag can be affected by variables such as humidity, elevation, and dust. A high-end air rower will take into account your conditions to determine your true value of work. This information can be invaluable. If you’re a serious rower looking to follow a specific training plan or compete, the air rower is the best option. 

Pros:

  • Highly accurate data
  • A similar motion to real rowing
  • Accounts for drag factor

Cons:

  • Loud 

Is It For You?

Air rowers are best suited to serious athletes. Highly accurate data analytics make it easy to train towards your goals.  

Best Air Pick
MaxKare Air Rowing Machine MaxKare Air Rowing Machine

Designed for your comfort and better-using experience, MaxKare air rower can be your good choice to do a low-impact, full-body exercise. It can help you exercise your lower back, shoulders, arms, hip, and legs scientifically.

Hydraulic Rowing Machine

Hydraulic rowers are considered the most basic. They don’t have a lot of fancy gimmicks, but they are very well-priced, quiet, and compact. The resistance is created from hydraulic cylinders that are attached to the handle of the rower. Within the hydraulic cylinders, there is air or fluid. When you pull, you are pulling against the air or fluid and level of adjustment. This is what creates the resistance. 

Hydraulic cylinders don’t replicate the smooth motion you’d find on other machines or the water. This makes the movement slightly uncomfortable. It feels more like pulling against a weighted cable, rather than rowing on water. But, this type of resistance still provides a great workout for your upper and lower body. 

Pros:

  • Small and compact
  • Low price 
  • Quiet 

Cons:

  • Movement isn’t smooth
  • Limited features

Is It For You?

Hydraulic rowing machines are best suited to those looking for a cheap, yet effective way to keep fit.

Conclusion: What is the Best Type of Rowing Machine

There are many types of rowing machines available on the market. Which one is best for you depends on your needs and requirements. The main things to consider when buying a rower is cost, data accuracy, flooring, noise, and feel. 

Michaela Summers

Michaela Summers is a health and fitness content creator. She holds a Master of Research in Health and Wellbeing and a BSc in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of Exeter.She is on a mission to help people live a more fulfilling, impactful life through fitness and lifestyle. When she's not writing, she can be found in the gym, playing tennis, or exploring the great outdoors.