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There are a few different types of indoor rowing machines. What are the different types, why are they different and what is the best option?
Stationary rowing machines are different because of how they create resistance. There are: Air, Magnetic, Water and Hydraulic rowing machines. For most people, air resistance rowers are best since they’re affordable, low maintenance, reliable and have a natural feel.
Below you can find the biggest differences between the types and the pros and cons for all of them.
What Are The 4 Types Of Indoor Rowing Machines?
What makes an indoor rower different is how it creates resistance. There are four main types of indoor rowing machine:
Usually a rowing machine just uses one kind of resistance although there are a few that combine air with magnetic resistance.
Let’s take a closer look at what you can expect from the different types.
Air Resistance Stationary Rowing Machines
Air rowers have a flywheel that’s a fan blade. The rowing motion is turned into rotation which spins the fan. The fan pushes the air which gives resistance. Some air rowers have a way to restrict the airflow which changes the resistance curve.
The way the resistance changes the most is by rowing faster. If you go faster the fan blade has to spin faster which creates extra resistance. Because air resistance isn’t linear but is progressive, this gets really tough when you’re pushing yourself hard and rowing fast. There is pretty much unlimited resistance available.
The good thing is that this type of resistance always matches your capabilities. If you go slower, the resistance becomes lower, if you go faster the resistance goes up. This is similar to what you would experience in the water.
This type of rower is the most popular for home and commercial/health club use. You’ll see these all around the world in gyms and they’re even used for indoor rowing competitions.
One of the other benefits is that you create some airflow in your home gym by rowing. This can help you keep cool. On the flipside, air rowers can be a bit noisy.
- Natural feel
- Smooth motion
- Automatically scaling resistance
- Doesn’t need a lot of maintenance
- Some are foldable, a good one will cost around $1000.
- Large (long) footprint
This is the type of rower many commercial gyms and health clubs have because of the benefits. It’s perfect for a home gym too. If you can afford a good one, this is the way to go.
Magnetic Resistance Stationary Rowing Machines
Magnetic rowers use a magnetic brake to regulate the resistance. This means the resistance isn’t dependent on how fast you move like the air and water types although there are a few models that combine the magnetic brake with a fan blade like an air rower.
Magnetic resistance rowing machines can be recognized by the closed shroud around the flywheel.
Most magnetic rowers have a metal flywheel that the magnetic brake works on. Because of this, there is no direct friction between the brake and the flywheel which results in low noise levels. There will still be a little noise but not as much as an air rower.
The magnet exerts a certain amount of force on the flywheel to make it stop. How strong this force is, is often adjusted with a rotating dial (closer to the flywheel means stronger). Some high-end models have a digital adjustment on the console. This means it’s much easier to get the resistance exactly the same every workout.
Some models have a combination of air and magnetic resistance. Here you’re getting the best of both worlds. For low speeds, the magnetic resistance will be tougher, for higher speeds the air resistance will be. The models that combine the two types and are built well are usually quite expensive.
- Quiet: The metal flywheel is usually smooth so not much air is moved which means less noise.
- If combined with air resistance, gives a lot of control over the resistance
- Low maintenance: Just get the dust out and lubricate the moving parts. This doesn’t have to happen all that often. Parts very rarely have to be replaced.
- Available in the lower price ranges: A decent magnetic rower is a lot cheaper than a decent water rower.
- Doesn’t feel as realistic as an air or water rower: Because of the way the resistance is created, the resistance curve throughout the stroke is quite different and generally considered less realistic.
- Motion not as smooth as air or water rowers: Of course that also depends on the quality of the rower but in general air or water rowers feel smoother.
Water Resistance Stationary Rowing Machines
Water rowers are stationary rowing machines even though the name might be a little confusing. They just have the fan blades in a water reservoir to create resistance.
Water rowers are generally quieter than air rowers because they don’t actually move air that brings noise to your ears. All you hear is the sound of the chain and some water sloshing in the reservoir, which is actually pretty relaxing. Water resistance gives you a more natural feeling like you’re actually on water. Ok, when you open your eyes it’ll be clear you aren’t but for some it might help.
You’re basically moving a fan blade through water. This actually gives you a bit more options for influencing resistance than with an air rower. The dynamic resistance that goes up with speed is quite similar to with an air rower so you’ll never run be stronger than your rower.
However, you can also influence the amount of water in the reservoir. Water gives more resistance than air. So how much water you put in the reservoir has an impact on the resistance. More water means more resistance.
The problem is that water rowers are quite a bit larger, need more maintenance and usually can’t be folded up for storage.
- More control over resistance than air rower
- Quieter than air rower
- Water noise is a benefit for some.
- Although uncommon, water can leak, creating a mess.
- Slightly more maintenance. Water has to be refreshed and reservoir has to be cleaned sometimes.
- Large footprint. Most models can’t fold up to save space.
Hydraulic Resistance Stationary Rowing Machines
Hydraulic rowing machines have you move a piston through a tube with liquid. Think about the shock absorber in a car (without the spring). It resists movement. The hydraulic rower works in a very similar way. They are usually adjustable in several steps.
Hydraulic rowers are the smallest type of all rowers. So if you’re very short on space, this might be a good option. They’re also pretty cheap which is a big plus for most people. The designs are usually simple and in combination with this type being small, means that the production costs are low which in turn lowers the price for the consumer.
The drawback is that it doesn’t really work like a normal rower. The movement pattern on an elliptical rower is quite different than the other types and ‘real’ rowing.
You move the piston that creates the resistance by pulling a lever. That lever is a metal bar. This bar is set into a movement pattern you can’t move away from. All other rowers have a handle on a piece of string/chain. This means you can pull it in (almost) every direction you want.
Another problem is that many (but not all) hydraulic rowers have a fixed seat that doesn’t slide. This means you don’t use your legs at all and only your upper body is used. This is very different from any other rower since with other models, the leg use is very important.
During rowing on other types of indoor rowing machines or real boat, it’s estimated that the power is generated for about 65% in the legs and 35% in the upper body. So you can understand that taking the legs out the exercise makes it something completely different.
That’s not to say you can’t use it for a workout. But don’t expect to be actually training for rowing. For people that are just looking for a simple workout machine, an hydraulic rower can work.
Let’s look at a few of the pros of hydraulic rowers.
- Small: Hydraulic rowers are suitable for small spaces.
- Cheap: They cost less in general than other types do.
- Simple: They’re a very simple machine. Not much can break although the hydraulic pistons could wear out.
- Can provide a decent upper body workout for a low price.
- Quiet: This is the quietest rower type. If you keep up with lubrication and maintenance, they should be virtually quiet.
- Unnatural movement pattern: It’s just and upper body exercise. Very different from other types of indoor rowers.
- Most models don’t use legs: The legs get taken out of the equation.
- Lower quality: This type of rower is cheap and simple. The build quality of many is sadly also cheap.
What Type Of Rowing Machine Is Best?
Taking everything into account, an air rowing machine is the best option for most people. Air rowers are low maintenance, reliable, compact and not too expensive. Yes, a Concept2 air rowing machine isn’t cheap but definitely not the most expensive rowing machine out there either.
If you want something quieter, both water and magnetic resistance rowers are an option. Magnetic resistance rowers are cheaper but don’t feel as natural. Good water rowers are more expensive, feel natural but require more maintenance and are more expensive.