Rowing Machine Resistance TypesThe process of finding the right rowing machine can be difficult with so many different brands, price-ranges, and features to choose from.

One of the most important things to consider when looking for a rowing machine are the different rowing machine resistance types.

Whether it’s addition to your home gym or a new piece of exercise equipment, a rowing machine is the right choice no matter what!

It provides the best full-body workout out of any exercise equipment without placing much stress on your joints. 

Why Resistance Type is Important?

Each type of resistance provides the user with a different rowing experience and usually has a list of unique characteristics tied to them.

These characteristics can range from noise level, to price, to size, and storage capabilities.

Some characteristics you want may match up to a particular rowing machine resistance type.

Once you figure out your preferred resistance type your search becomes more efficient. You can then rule out all other rowers that aren’t in your resistance category and thus vastly narrowing down the search field.

For example, a search on Amazon for “rowing machine” returns 169 results (not all rowing machines). If I were to decide I want an air rowing machine it would narrow the field down to less than 10 options!

This makes managing your search a heck of a lot easier!

Then you can go a step further and choose a price range and be left with 1 or 2 options.

Rowing Machine Resistance Types

Rowing machines try to simulate outdoor rowing. The different indoor machines provides resistance using 4 different resistance types:  air, hydraulic-piston, magnetic, and water.

I’ll go into each resistance type below and cover key characteristics.

Keep in mind, the information is a broad overview of each resistance-type and the characteristics may vary depending on manufacturer, price, etc..

To get the best information it’s best to select a rowing machine and read the full review.

So without further ado, here are your 4 rowing machine resistance types:

Air  Resistance

Air Resistance Rowing MachineAir-resistance rowing machines get their resistance from a spinning flywheel.

When a rower pulls on the handle it causes the flywheel to spin and create wind.

The harder the handle is pulled the more wind is created.

The more wind there is, the more difficult it gets to pull the handle, giving the user more resistance.

Thus, the resistance level is directly related to how hard/ fast you row by pulling the handle.

This is what makes this resistance type “adjustable”. Due to the fact that the user controls the resistance level by how hard they row.

On a treadmill you set the speed at “x” and keep running at that speed until you either change the speed on the monitor or you turn it off. An air rower allows you to slow down or speed up your rowing pace in the middle of your workout without touching anythings. The resistance will adjust accordingly.

For this reason air resistance rowing machines are very popular for HIIT (high intensity interval training) and Crossfit workouts. They allow users to row intensely for one set and then easy the next, without stopping or changing any settings.

Air resistance typically has a large footprint due to its long seat rail. This plays a vital role in providing a smooth rowing motion.

It is the chosen resistance type for Olympic athletes to use when rowing off the water. Mainly due to their strong resistance levels, smooth motion, and realistic feel.

The rower simulates rowing outdoors very well and is not as costly as a water-resistance rower.

The only downside to air resistance rowers are they make a bit of noise. The spinning flywheel creates a ‘whooshing’ noise every time you pull the handle. This is irritating to some people who want to row while watching TV at a normal volume.


Price Range: ~$300 – $1,300

Size:   Usually has larger footprint relative to the other resistance-types due to a longer seat rail.

Storage:  Most have an option to take the unit apart/ fold the unit in half for storage.

Adjustability:  Resistance is ‘variable’ based on the users rowing intensity.  Higher-priced models usually have an option to further adjust air-flow settings into the flywheel.

Noise-level:  Loudest of all resistance-types due to the constant spinning of the flywheel.

Rowing Motion:  Resembles outdoor rowing. Smooth and strong. Recommended by Olympic athletes.

Ideal for:  People of all fitness levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced). Rowers looking for an off-season training tool.  All people looking to get a total body workout.

Misc:  The longer rails make it suitable for taller rowers with long legs.  Concept2 also sells longer seat rails to accommodate very tall users.

Popular Brands:  Concept2, Stamina

Most Popular Rower:  Concept2 Model D

Hydraulic Piston Resistance

Hydraulic Piston ResistanceHydraulic piston rowing machines get their resistance from… you guessed it, hydraulic pistons!

Most rowers have 2 pistons, 1 is attached to each arm of the handlebar. Others have 1 center piston.

These rowers have adjustable resistance and this resistance-type is the only one that allows an independent workout for each arm. Meaning each arm works out independently of the other.

This can be great for rehab and correcting muscle imbalances.

The main benefits of hydraulic-piston rowing machines are they are very quiet and extremely affordable. These rowers dominate the low-price range market.

The pistons make very little noise and can be used while watching TV. The rowers are also compact making them great for use in small areas and is easy to store. However, being compact doesn’t make them a good choice for very tall and heavy users.

The pistons can get hot while working out, but this usually isn’t an issue as they are out of the way.

On rare occasions, the pistons can leak oil so it’s best to keep a mat underneath the rower like the Rowing Machine Supermat.


Price Range:  ~$100 – $600

Size:  Smallest footprint out of all the resistance-types.

Storage:  Smaller footprint makes it easy to store.  Some models have the option to fold up which saves even more space and provides more storing options. Very light weight.

Adjustability:  The pistons usually have a resistance-level setting.

Noise-level:  Quiet

Rowing Motion:  Rowing motion provides a good full-body workout, but the motion is typically the least similar to rowing outdoors. Not as smooth as other resistance types.

Ideal for:  People with beginner and intermediate fitness levels. People looking for an introductory rowing machine. Elderly rowers. Not recommended for athletes.

Misc:  Not the best option for taller users due to the smaller seat rail.

Popular Brands:  Stamina, Kettler

Most Popular Rower:  Stamina 1215 Orbital Rower


Magnetic Resistnace Rowing MachineMagnetic resistance rowing machines use a magnetic brake system to create resistance.

As a metal flywheel spins, a magnet can be moved closer or farther away to create more or less resistance.

Magnetic resistance produces no friction and is virtually silent.

Resistance is adjustable and the footprint is fairly large due to a long seat rail.  The size is similar to an air-resistance rower.

These rowers can vary in price and quality and are found in each category. Many users love these rowers because they provide the same smooth rowing motion as air rowers but are quiet like hydraulic piston. Sort of a best of both worlds scenario.

When comparing the two, on the plus side a magnetic rower is much quieter but on the minus side the rowing motion isn’t as smooth as an air rower.

I also feel the resistance is weaker on magnetic rowers and you can get a better overall workout on air or water resistance rowers.


Price Range:  ~$225 – $1,400

Size:  Usually has a bigger footprint due to a longer seat rail.

Storage:  Most have an option to take the unit apart/ fold the unit in half for storage.

Adjustability:  Usually has a resistance-level setting.

Noise-level:  Quiet

Rowing Motion:  Similar to air-resistance but not as smooth or strong.

Ideal for:  People of all fitness levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced). People who want great workout without the noise of air or water rowers.

Misc:  Its size is similar to an air-rower but it isn’t noisy. Cost is usually mid-range.

Popular Brands:  Stamina, Velocity, Lifespan, LifeCore

Most Popular Rower:  Stamina Avari Magnetic Exercise Rower

Water  Resistance

Water Resistance Rowing MachineWater resistance rowing machines use paddles suspended in a tank of water to create resistance.

When the handle of the rower is pulled, the paddles spin in the water creating resistance that feels very similar to rowing in a boat.

The harder the handle is pulled the faster the paddles spin. The faster the paddles spin, the more difficult it gets to pull the handle and the user feels more resistance.

Thus, the resistance level is directly related to how hard/ fast you row by pulling the handle.

If you’re wondering why this story sounds so familiar, it’s because this rower functions very similarly to an air-resistance rower. The main difference being water is being used instead of wind to create resistance.

Like an air-rower, resistance-level is determined by rowing intensity making the resistance “adjustable”.

In addition, the rowing experience can be further adjusted by managing how much water is in the tank. The more water, the “heavier” the rowing will feel (like rowing with passengers in a boat). The less water, the “lighter” the rowing will feel (like rowing by yourself).

Water rowers usually have a large footprint and are heavy mainly due to the water tank.

They make a fair amount of noise but users consider the sound of the water to be soothing and relaxing. They are also considered to be quieter than air rowers.

There are some claims that water resistance rowers provide the smoothest rowing motion out of all the resistance types. They do feel incredible!

The brand WaterRower also made them very popular by handcrafting the rowers out of beautiful wood that can look like a piece of home decor.

Water resistance rowers are also notoriously expensive. Maybe you’ve seen one in use on ‘House of Cards’!?


Price Range: ~$700 – $2,000

Size:  Large footprint due to a longer seat rail.  Fairly heavy due to the water tank. 

Storage:  A lot of the rowers can be stored standing upright. The footprint becomes the same as a dining room chair.

Adjustability:  Resistance-type is naturally adjustable based on the resistance being directly related to the rowing intensity.  Rowing experience can be further adjusted by managing the amount of water you put in the water tank.

Noise-level:  You will hear the paddles splashing in the water, but it’s not as loud as an air-rower.

Rowing Motion:  Closely resembles outdoor rowing.

Ideal for:  People of all fitness levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced). Rowers looking for an indoor training machine. People who want aesthetically pleasing rower.

Misc: Possibly the closest experience to rowing on water.

Popular Brands: WaterRower, First Degree Fitness

Most Popular Rower:    WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine

Next Step

Now that you have decided which rowing machine resistance type best fits you, check out the machines!

You can review rowers by resistance type below or visit the Rowing Machine King Comparison Chart and also filter by characteristics such as price and size.

Air Rowing Machine Reviews
Hydraulic Piston Rowing Machine Reviews
> Magnetic Rowing Machine Reviews
> Water Rowing Machine Reviews


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