4 Types Of Indoor Rowing Machines: Resistance Types


Shopping for home gym equipment can be a pretty confusing experience. There is no shortage of different types of equipment and then inside that category, there are still so many option. Indoor rowing machines are the same. While they’re all called indoor rowing machines, there’s quite a bit of difference between the models. What are the differences? Here’s what you need to know.

The biggest difference between indoor rowing machines is how they create resistance.  There are four different types of resistance rowers use; (1) Water (2) Air (3) Magnetic (4) Hydraulic. Air or water is the best option for a home rowing machine while hydraulic is the cheapest.

In the rest of this article I’ll go into how those types of resistance work, why some are better than others and which rower is a good choice within every category.

Types of indoor rower resistance and why it matters

Why would you care which resistance type your rower has? You just want to get a workout done. Well, there are a few reasons why the differences are important. Especially if you’re shopping for an indoor rower. It’s good to be aware and make sure you get the best for your money.

The biggest differences between the different types are; noise, price, size, storage movement pattern and smoothness.

I’ll go over all those differences by type below so you can make the choice that’s right for your situation.

Rowers are great for gyms with low ceilings. If you want to know what other options you have under a low ceiling, click here.

Recommended indoor rowers

Air resistance

Air rowers have a flywheel that’s a fan blade. The rowing motion is turned into rotation at the flywheel. It’s usually not a flywheel like in a car but more like a big 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. There is pretty much unlimited resistance available. Restricting the airflow changes how the strokes feel.

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.

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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. Moving air creates turbulence. More turbulent air means more noise.

Pros

  • Natural feel
  • Smooth motion
  • Automatically scaling resistance
  • Common
  • Doesn’t need a lot of maintenance
  • Some are foldable, a good one will cost around $1000.

Cons

  • Noisy
  • Large (long) footprint

Resistance type is just one part of choosing the right rower for you. Check out the buying guide on this site to find everything you should know before buying a rower.

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.

What you can expect from an air rower

Size: Air rowers are long but quite narrow. Some models allow you to fold up the slide rails for easier storage. Other models (also) have little wheels so you can easily move it around.

Quality: Air rowers are available at many different price points and therefore different quality levels. However, they are pretty simple and require little maintenance so there aren’t many things that can go wrong. The higher quality models will have stronger frames, higher quality components and better quality control resulting in a better feeling and working rower.

Feel: Air rowers are popular because they closely mimic the feel of real rowing. They’re simple but work smoothly. As an added benefit, the fan blade will provide some airflow to cool you down during a workout.

Uses: For people who want a ‘real’ rowing experience, have enough space and really want to train rowing. They might be a bit too noisy to do something else like watch TV although you could buy decent headphones for the price difference.

Resistance: The resistance in an air rower is variable by how fast/hard you row. Moving spins a fan blade. That means rowing faster raises the resistance and going slower lowers the resistance. Some models combine this with magnetic resistance for more control.

Concept 2 is by far the most popular and well known rower in the world. They’re very high quality and you’ll see that in the resale value. You won’t lose much money if you buy one new and sell it second hand. Check out the current price on Amazon.

Water resistance

Water rowers are still indoor rowers. 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.

Pros

  • More control over resistance than air rower
  • Quieter than air rower
  • Water noise is a benefit for some.
  • Expensive

Cons

  • 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.

What you can expect from a water rower

Size: Water rowers are the largest type of indoor rower. The water reservoir takes up more width than the other types while also still being long like an air type. That means the footprint is quite a bit bigger. Although, there are also a few models where you can fold up the slide rails. But even if you can fold it up, it’ll still take up more space than the other types.

Quality: Water rowers are the most expensive type. Some of that extra money goes into the construction. The original water rower is a really beautiful handcrafted wooden piece of equipment. Many have copied this for a lower price and similar quality.

Most water rowers are pretty high quality machines. Of course there is still a range of qualities like with every type.

Feel: Similar to an air rower and outdoor rowing. The noise of the water makes it more convincing. The feel of the stroke is pretty similar to an air rower which means it’s the closest feel you’re going to get to rowing on actual water.

Uses: A water rower is perfect for people that want something that is quieter than an air rower but still has the right feel. You’ll hear the blades moving through the water but most people actually like this. Suitable for all training levels.

Resistance: Like an air rower, moving faster raises the resistance and vice versa. Unlike the air type, you have a bit more control over the resistance by changing how much water you put in the reservoir.

The best know/best water rower is actually called: WaterRower. Yeah it’s that easy. These machines are not only really high quality, they’re also amazing to look at. If you want a conversation piece in your living room, this is the one to get. Click here to find it on Amazon.

Hydraulic resistance 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.

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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.

Pros

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.

Cons

  • 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 you can expect

Size: Hydraulic rowers are usually the smallest type. They’re very simple machines that don’t need a large area to use. One of the causes for this is the lack of slide rails which makes it much shorter.

Quality: This type is common in the lower price category. That’s largely because they are small and simple but some cost saving inevitably are done by reducing the quality.

Feel: These don’t try to replicate actual rowing. You just use your upper body and the movement pattern is set. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s not for everyone. It’s also not a smooth and continuous movement like the other types.

Uses: For people who want the smallest and quiet rower. They just want to get a workout done. Not useful for actually training rowing. Good for beginners and seniors.

Resistance: The resistance is usually adjusted with a dial. One other big benefit is that some hydraulic rowers have a separate lever for each arm which can reduce muscle imbalances.

Magnetic resistance 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.

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.

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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.

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

What you can expect from a magnetic resistance rower

Size: Similar in size to an air rower. Most models come with foldable or even detachable slide rails for better storage options.

Quality: Dollar for dollar the quality is pretty similar to air rowers. However, many magnetic models are a bit cheaper so they might have a bit lower quality. There’s not a huge difference in general though.

Feel: The feel comes close to an air or water rower but isn’t as natural feeling because the resistance is constant. On an air or water rower, you’ll have different speeds throughout the stroke and that changes the resistance like with outdoor rowing.

Uses: For beginners or intermediate. People that want a quiet rower for a good price. People that aren’t necessarily training for actual rowing but are just looking for a good cardio workout.

Resistance: The resistance is adjustable with a dial although on many models, the maximum resistance isn’t as strong as air or water.

Which type is best for a home gym?

You might wonder what the best type for you is after reading all of that. Maybe there is a specific condition like noise or space. If that’s the case, the choice might be different for you, but here is my assessment of which type is the best for a home gym.

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Space

In my opinion, the only reason to get a hydraulic rower is if your space is very tight. Otherwise, they’re not the best option. Because most hydraulic rowers don’t let you use your legs properly, get more of an upper body workout. You’ll get some upper body toning but not necessarily more than with other types

Want to build a home gym in a very small space? Check out my eBook. It’ll show you exactly how to do just that.

Noise

While hydraulic rowers are quiet, if noise is a consideration but size isn’t, there are better options. A magnetic or water rower will be much better options. They are larger but the feel is better and just replicates ‘real’ rowing much better. Magnetic rowers are the quieter of the two but are also a little less natural feeling. A water rower makes a bit more noise but is smoother and feels more like rowing.

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Water rowers have a small possibility that they’ll leak so you have to make sure to put it on a mat and in a place where that can’t do too much damage. The water reservoir needs a bit of maintenance like refreshing the water and making sure no algae etc. grows in there.

You might not think noise is an important consideration for you but what about the following;

  • Do you want to watch TV during your workout?
  • Do you have neighbors downstairs?

In both those cases you might want to get something quiet.

A magnetic rower is a bit cheaper but you compromise on maximum resistance and feel. Water rowers are more expensive but have higher maximum resistance and better feel.

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Other

For most other people, an air rower will be the best choice. An air rower is the simplest, easiest to maintain and tons of people have great experiences with them. Pros use them to train in the off season and indoor rowing competitions use this type. So you can be sure that air rowers are pretty realistic.

If you want more control over the resistance, get a model that combines air and magnetic resistance.

Read more about my favorite rower for a home gym here on this site.

Related questions

Does a rowing machine replicate real rowing? Yes, air, magnetic and water type rowers closely replicate the movement of outdoor rowing. In feel, water rowers come the closest. Hydraulic resistance rowers don’t really feel the same because both the movement and resistance are quite different from outdoor rowing.

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Is rowing low impact exercise? Yes, rowing is one of the lowest impact cardio exercises you can do. Because of the smooth motion your joints don’t take big impacts like you would with running. That doesn’t mean it’s easy though. With rowing you use both your legs and upper body so it can certainly be a tough workout.

Matt

Hey, I'm Matt. Welcome to HomeGymResource.com. I've been going to the gym for about 15 years and am now looking to build my own. In the process I've learned many things I'd like to share with you.

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