The 4 Different Types of Indoor Rowing Machines

Last updated April 6, 2022
Different Types of Indoor Rowing Machines

You’ve decided you want a rowing machine at home, but faced with a myriad of options it can be seemingly impossible to pick the best type of rowing machine for your circumstances.

Basically, there are four distinct types of indoor rowing machines:

  • Air or Flywheel Rowing Machines
  • Water Rowing Machines
  • Magnetic Rowing Machines
  • Hydraulic Rowing Machines

I’m going to condense 20 years of personal training and gym ownership experience into a guide to the types of rowing machines, helping you pick the best one for your needs.

Main Difference Overview between Rowing Machine Types

Air Rowing MachinesWater Rowing MachinesMagnetic Rowing MachinesHydraulic Rowing Machines
NoiseAir rowers use a flywheel - it’s the noisiest of the rowers and creates a ‘wind’ around the flywheelWater rowers are relatively quiet and have an almost ‘hypnotic’ quality to the noise they produce!Magnetic rowers are really quiet and are well suited to places where you’ll have neighbors in close proximityHydraulic rowers are particularly quiet - as quiet as the magnetic rowers. Again, a neighbor-friendly option
FeelingAir rowers are consistent, smooth, and excellent for adjusting up and down for resistance changesWater rowers are designed to feel like the ‘real thing’. They provide a consistent resistance, but bear in mind it can’t be changedMagnetic rowers are smooth and can be adjusted with precision. They don’t feel as natural as water or air thoughHydraulic rowers aren’t as smooth or natural as water and air, plus the resistance can change as the oil in the pistons heat up
ComfortAir rowers are smooth to pull, have a consistent action and are comfortable to use. They are typically very well built, which helps. Water rowers are very smooth and comfortable to use. They’re consistent through the pull.Magnetic rowers are generally very smooth, with the exception being at the cheaper end when the resistance can be over-tight.Hydraulic rowers aren’t the most comfortable - they don’t have a particularly smooth action and it can change as the oil heats up through use.
MaintenanceAir rowers don’t really need much in the way of maintenance - basically keep the flywheel clean and the chain oiled.Water rowers are almost maintenance free. Once the water is in place, it’s just a question of keeping the container tight to prevent leaks. Clean the water tank occasionally.Magnetic rowers are generally low maintenance because the moving parts are protected. Occasional cleaning to prevent dust build up will be sufficient.Hydraulic rowers need their pistons cleaning and lubricating to keep them working well. You also have to check for leaks.
Pricing$250 - $1000+$250 - $2500+$250 - $2500+$100 - $1000

Air Rowing Machines

How does it work?

Air rowing machines work by each pull of the handles turning a fan. The harder and faster you pull the handles, the greater the increase in air resistance. This can be further manipulated by adjusting the ‘damper’.

The damper on the side of the flywheel adjusts the airflow in and out of the flywheel on each stroke. On a higher setting, like 10, more air is allowed into the flywheel and will need to be pushed out on each stroke. On a lower setting, less air is exchanged on each stroke.

Advantages

  • Smooth, consistent action
  • Unlimited possible resistance 
  • Easy maintenance
  • Great quality rowing experience
  • Reliable and well built

Disadvantages

  • Loudest of the rowers
  • Moves a lot of air around when being used at a high intensity

Who should go for an Air Rowing Machine?

An air rowing machine is best for someone who is interested in their data, or those who are going to be pushing themselves hard. The air resistance machines are well built and there's limited opportunity for them to break. They’re perfect for big, powerful guys who want to row hard! In particular, the Concept 2 RowErg is trusted in studies and world championships because of their build quality

Water Rowing Machines

How does it work?

Water rowers have a natural resistance provided by the water. Each pull of the cable drives a fan through the water, the weight of which provides resistance. The harder you pull the faster the water moves and therefore the resistance goes up.

The water tank contains a fixed amount of water so the resistance is largely set in place - the increase in intensity comes from the speed and force of the rowing you do.

Advantages

  • Natural feel to the resistance
  • Quiet operation, so great for houses with other residents in close proximity
  • Easy maintenance - basically just clean the tank every now and then
  • Consistent action throughout the rowing stroke

Disadvantages

  • There’s a limit to how much resistance water will offer - it’s much less than magnets and air
  • Water rowers are heavier because of the water content
  • There’s a risk of leaks

Who should go for a Water Rowing Machine?

A water rower is an excellent machine for the general rower - someone who wants a smooth, consistent action from their rowing machine. They’re not the cheapest and they won’t offer huge resistance for the real powerhouse athletes, but if you want a great quality rower to keep you fit at home, it’s a fantastic option. 

Magnetic Rowing Machines

How does it work?

Magnetic rowing machines by a mechanism moving a strong magnet closer and further away from a metal flywheel. As the magnet moves closer to the flywheel, it exerts a greater force on it, making it harder for the rower to pull. As the magnet is moved further away, the force is weaker and the belt is easier to pull.

A lot of people like a magnet system because it’s low maintenance and the magnet offers a stable level of resistance, which helps with monitoring training because forces stay consistent.

Advantages

  • Stable resistance - the magnet moves a set distance to and from the flywheel each time
  • Easy maintenance - the moving parts are often protected from damage
  • Smooth action
  • Quiet operation so great for home gyms
  • No movement of air like with the air rower

Disadvantages

  • Resistance can change over time as the mechanisms wear out
  • It’s not a ‘natural’ feel to the rowing stroke

Who should go for a Magnetic Rowing Machine?

A magnetic rowing machine is a great option for people who need a quiet machine because of where they live. It’s also a solid beginner option because the consistency of the magnetic resistance means that they can develop a smooth, consistent rowing stroke. It’s generally better suited to the general user rather than the rowing purist, because of the action afforded by the resistance.

Hydraulic Rowing Machines

How does it work?

Hydraulic rowing machines work by pistons compressing air, liquid, or oil with each stroke. As the rower pulls the handles, the pressure increases within the piston, and the resistance of the pull goes up. A harder, faster rowing stroke increases the pressure faster and makes the workout more difficult.

Hydraulic rowers are often smaller because of the lack of a flywheel or water tank. This makes them easier to store, so great for smaller spaces. It is the oldest rowing machine technology of them all, but it has been largely surpassed.

Advantages

  • Usually the cheapest of the rower's
  • Simple mechanism - hydraulic rowers are usually entry-level, basic technology
  • Often unilateral operation, so good for rehab because both sides work independently
  • Smaller rowers so easier to store

Disadvantages

  • Mechanism more likely to break than the others
  • Possibility of leaks
  • Unnatural feel to the rowing action

Who should go for a Hydraulic Rowing Machine?

Hydraulic rowers are an entry-level option, best for people on tighter budgets. The action doesn’t feel like the real thing so you have to consider how seriously you’ll be taking your rowing. If you want to make progress and see it being a significant part of your training, go for an alternative. If you want/need something very basic, a hydraulic machine will tick a box.

Conclusion

All rowers have their advantages and disadvantages, so it depends on your use case…

If you want something that feels natural, has an unlimited upside in terms of intensity, requires very little maintenance, and is able to take a bit of beating, an air rower is a great option for you. Just beware it’s loud and moves a lot of air around because of the flywheel.

A water rower feels natural, isn’t too loud, and can provide you with an excellent workout. They’re well-built, don’t need much maintenance, and will last you a long time. Bear in mind they’re heavier than others and not as easy to store. 

A magnetic rower is another home-friendly machine. It’s quiet, has a consistent resistance, and is useful for helping people to establish a good technique. It doesn’t feel as natural as air or water though. Over time the resistance mechanism wears out, but that will take a good few years.

Finally, the hydraulic rower is an option for those who don’t need a top-level machine. It doesn’t feel natural, there’s a higher chance of them breaking and they’re not built for the person looking for the best rowing experience. Despite that, they’re the cheapest option of the lot, they’re quiet and easy to store, so if that’s what you need it could be a good option.

A rower is a fantastic addition to a home gym, so hopefully this guide has taught you a thing or two about what you need and what to consider before you make your purchase.

About Steve Hoyles
Steve Hoyles is a personal trainer and weightlifting coach with two decades in the industry. He is the owner of MyGym, a strength and conditioning facility in the UK. His fitness copywriting has been featured in magazines and websites all over the world.
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