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Air vs. Magnetic Rowing Machine: What is the Difference?

Air vs. Magnetic Rowing MachineRecently many people have asked me, “What is the difference between an air vs. magnetic rowing machine?”

While many people can use their imagination to make a decent educated guess, I’m sure a lot don’t even know both exist!

Most people see a rowing machine in a gym and don’t think, “Is this an air or magnetic rower?” They just hop on and start rowing!

While both workout the same muscles, have the same functionality, and require the same technique, there are quite a few differences.

Differences like noise level, data accuracy of monitors, resistance operation, machine weights, etc..

These magnetic vs. air rower differences can help you decide between the two at the gym or which one to purchase if buying one for your home.

Below I will completely breakdown the air vs. magnetic rowing machine similarities, differences, and how both rowing machines operate.

Air Rowing Machine

Air rowing machines offer a smooth, strong rowing stroke that is excellent for all types of workouts. They are also offered in every price range, making it great for anyone looking to buy a home rowing machine.

One of the main benefits is that air rowers closely mimic the resistance felt while rowing on water (which I explain more below). This makes them very popular in the fitness community and great for training.

Air rowers are the chosen resistance type by Olympic athletes, so you know they perform well!

Resistance Operation

In this section, I explain how an air rowing machine resistance operates.

Firstly, an air rower uses “wind” or “air” to create resistance. It does this by having a user pull a handle, which spins a “fan flywheel”.  As the flywheel spins, it must move the “air” in the front and side of the flywheel.

This “air” or “air particles” around the flywheel creates drag/resistance, which requires force to move.

As a user rows faster, the flywheel spins faster and must move more “air”. The greater number of air particles means a greater drag/resistance, which requires more force to move!

Basically, the faster you row, the more resistance you will feel. More specifically, to double your speed while rowing will require 8x as much force!

Here is a good explanation of Drag vs. Power on Wikipedia.

Due to this exponential relationship of speed vs. power, we call resistance on air rowing machines “variable”. There really is an infinite amount of resistance levels you can feel.

This may sound a little confusing, but just know there are technically no resistance settings on an air rower. To feel more resistance, a user must row faster.

Below is a short video that can help explain. It also explains how “air resistance” and “water resistance” react the exact same way. This is why air rowing machines closely mimic the resistance felt while rowing in a boat on water.

Damper Setting

Some air rowing machines also have a damper setting (while others do not). A damper setting controls how much air is allowed to enter the flywheel. This control of airflow will help control the amount of drag on the flywheel.

A low damper setting of 1 will only allow a small amount of air into the flywheel housing, while a higher setting will allow a large amount of air inside.

Air Rowing Machine Damper

This control of “air” allows a user to set how “heavy” or “light” the rowing stroke will feel. The more air you let inside, the more air the flywheel must move, and the heavier the rowing stroke will feel.

While damper settings may sound like “resistance settings”, it is in fact not a resistance setting. As Concept2 says, “damper setting is similar to bicycle gearing: it affects how rowing feels but does not directly affect the resistance.”

Concept2 has a great article explaining everything about damper settings. You can read their Damper 101 article here.


Air rower monitors can be fairly basic or very advanced. This will ultimately depend on the price you pay for the rowing machine.

The great thing about some air rowers is the monitor can very accurately calculate the drag being applied to the flywheel and the deceleration rate of the flywheel as you perform your “recovery” stroke.

Simply put, their monitors can be very precise and accurately reflect distance, time, and power. This accuracy allows scores of different users on different rowing machines to be compared.

This is one of the main reasons why air rowers are the only type used by Olympic athletes, indoor rowing competitions, and world record attempts.

Air Rower Monitor

Air Rowing Machine Monitor

Advanced Air Rower Monitor

Above you will see an example of a few items an advanced air rowing machine monitor can calculate. Items such as time, 500m split, heart rate, distance, force curve, pace boat, etc.. Air rowing machine monitors are the only kind that can accurately reflect this type of data.

Other Features

Below are a few other features that are common or unique to air rowing machines.

  • Great for HIIT (high intensity interval training) due to the ability to easily increase/decrease speed/resistance.
  • Fairly lightweight due to resistance being controlled by a plastic fan.
  • The fan creates a fairly loud “whooshing” noise while being used. This doesn’t make them a good rower for people who want to watch TV.

Magnetic Rowing Machine

Magnetic rowing machines, like air rowers, offer a smooth & strong rowing stroke. They are also offered in every price range with varying levels of features and quality.

One of the main benefits of magnetic resistance is being virtually silent and having pre-programmed workouts in their performance monitors.

How Does a Magnetic Rower Work?

A magnetic rower uses a magnet in its flywheel to create resistance. Like its air rower counterpart, a magnetic rower creates resistance you will counter when pulling the handlebar connected to the fan flywheel via a strap.

While air rowers create resistance by displacing the air around the flywheel, magnetic rowers use a magnet’s eddy current to resist the flywheel’s spinning, thus creating resistance.

So, a magnetic rower features a magnet in its flywheel for braking. You will vary the resistance using a dial where you can increase (or decrease) the braking force or resistance level.

However, the resistance level variation is one area where these rowers differ from their air rower counterparts.

As you already know, air rowers have variable resistance since your rowing force dictates the resistance you will experience when rowing. But this isn’t the case with magnetic rowers since the resistance level stays the same no matter your applied force or input.

Therefore, a magnetic rower uses a magnet for resistance, and the set resistance remains the same, your applied rowing power notwithstanding!

Resistance Operation

All magnetic resistance rowing machines operate based on the same principle, but can vary slightly on how they are adjusted.

Magnetic resistance operates by moving a magnetic closer or farther from a metal flywheel. The “eddy currents” given off by the magnet interact with the flywheel causing it to slow down. The closer the magnet gets to the flywheel, the more the eddy currents slow it down.

Simply put, the closer the magnetic is to the flywheel, the more resistance. The farther away the magnet, the less resistance.

You can read a full breakdown of how eddy current brakes work in this Wikipedia article.

This differs from air rowers because once you set the resistance level on a magnetic rower it stays the same no matter how fast or slow you row. If you set the resistance to level 5, you will feel the same resistance whether you are rowing slow or very fast. In order to increase the resistance, you need to increase the resistance level.

The resistance can be controlled by manually turning a dial or pressing a button on the monitor. Below are 3 videos visually representing how magnetic resistance works in rowing machines.



The monitors on magnetic resistance rowing machines can be basic or fairly complex. They can record a ton of data points, have games, and have preset workout programs.

Many people like that some monitors come with preset workout programs. These rowing machines will need to be plugged into an outlet but the monitor will be backlit and automatically adjust the resistance as you row.

For example, you can select a “Mountain Workout” and press start. As you row, the monitor will slowly increase and decrease the resistance to mimic going up and down a mountain.

Below is an example of a monitor and some of the preset workout programs you can perform.

Magnetic Rowing Machine Monitor

Magnetic Rowing Machine Programs

The downside to monitors on magnetic rowers is they do not record data as accurately as air rowers. The data is still fairly accurate and accurate enough for personal use, but you will not be able to compare scores/times to other rowers around the world.

Other Features
  • Resistance is “virtually silent” due to magnetic braking having no “part-on-part” contact. This makes them great for using while watching TV or in small apartments.
  • Rowers can be heavy due to having heavier flywheels.
  • Some magnetic rowers need to be plugged into an outlet.

Air vs. Magnetic Rowing Machine

When comparing air vs. magnetic rowing machines you will probably notice there are more similarities than differences. I will list some of the major similarities but I will not list them all.

  • Both use a “handle & strap” attached to a flywheel as the pull mechanism.
  • The same rowing technique is used on both magnetic and air rowers.
  • The same muscles are utilized.
  • Both have similar sized footprint and can fold for storage.
  • Both can be found in high, medium, and low price ranges.

After reading the outline above you should already have an idea about some of the differences of magnetic rowers vs. air rowers.

The main differences to keep in mind are:

  1. Air rowers are noisy and magnetic rowers are virtually silent
  2. Air rower resistance operates by the faster you row, the more resistance you feel. Magnetic resistance operates by setting a level and staying the same tension no matter how fast or slow you row. To increase resistance, you must adjust the level.

Below is a chart outlining other air vs. magnetic rowing machine differences.

Air Rowing MachinesMagnetic Rowing Machines
ResistanceUses air on a fan flywheel.Uses magnets moving closer and farther from a metal flywheel.
Resistance ControlNo resistance settings (variable)- The faster you row, the more resistance you feel.Turn a dial or press a button on the monitor to increase/decrease resistance.
Resistance StrengthSmooth & strong- Must row fast to feel high resistance strength. Mimics the resistance felt while rowing on water.Strength is determined by resistance level setting. You can row slowly at a high level and feel strong resistance.
Noise LevelFan makes a fairly loud "whooshing" noise. TV volume will need to be turned up.Virtually silent- Perfect for using while watching TV.
MonitorsCan very accurately record data. Perfect for tracking data, competing, and training.Great for preset workout programs. Not ideal for training or competitions.

If you want to know a specific difference, leave a comment on this article or the rowing machine you are specifically interested in. The best way to compare two rowing machines is to read both reviews and compare each section.

Below are some photos of popular air and magnetic rowing machines. Can you tell the difference now between an air vs. magnetic rowing machine just by looking?

Concept2 Model D

Stamina Air Rower 1399

Stamina Avari Magnetic Rower

Sunny Health and Fitness SF-RW5515

How Do You Adjust the Resistance on Air and Magnetic Rower?

You will adjust the resistance of an air rower with a damper setting, but use a resistance knob to adjust the resistance of a magnetic rower.

At this point, you already know that both rowers offer resistance to train your legs, core, back, and arms. But you might not know that these two types of rowers allow you to adjust the resistance differently.

First, you have a magnetic rowing machine. It uses a magnet in its flywheel to create a magnetic resistance to restrict the spinning of the flywheel. So, that means the magnet creates a braking force that you will counter when rowing. Usually, a magnetic rower has a resistance knob that you will turn to adjust the resistance.

The resistance knob can bring the magnet closer to the flywheel, increasing resistance. Also, it can draw the magnet further from the flywheel, thus reducing the resistance. So, you will use a resistance knob to vary the resistance on a magnet-based rowing machine.

Second, you have air rowing machines. Usually, this type of rowing machine often has a damper lever on the side of the cage protecting the flywheel. The damper lever allows you to adjust it from 1 to 10, with the latter being the highest damper setting.

Setting the damper lever to 1 ensures less air enters the flywheel housing. And that means using less force to operate your air rower. However, setting the damper lever to 10 makes more air enter the flywheel housing. And this can mean more rowing power to spin the flywheel.

So, you will use a damper lever to vary the rowing load in an air rower and use a resistance knob for the same purpose on a magnetic rowing machine. Therefore, air and magnetic rowing machines offer different techniques for varying the rowing challenge.

Does More Air into the Flywheel Cage Increase the Resistance of an Air Rower?

No, allowing more air into the flywheel cage doesn’t increase resistance; it only increases the rowing difficulty.

One thing you’ve learned about air rowing machines is that they use the air around the flywheel to create resistance. So, you will use a damper setting to vary the amount of air entering the flywheel housing. When you set the damper lever to 10, you will allow maximum air into the flywheel housing.

As a result, the flywheel will have to displace more air with each rowing stroke. But setting the damper lever to 10 only increases the rowing load and does nothing on the resistance! Even though you will move more air with the damper lever set to 10, you will experience the same resistance level as when the damper setting is 1.

Usually, the applied rowing force affects the resistance; you will experience more resistance the faster you row. Also, you will experience reduced resistance or drag if you reduce the rowing force. But, how so?

The damper setting varies the load (or heaviness) of the rowing experience; it doesn’t vary the resistance on the flywheel. Specifically, the faster you row, the more wind the flywheel generates. And it is this wind that causes resistance in air rowing machines.

The harder you row, the more wind you create, and the more resistance you experience. So, that’s how air rowers create resistance. Therefore, the damper setting doesn’t alter the resistance but affects the rowing challenge.

What’s the Difference in Noise Level Between Air and Magnet Rowers?

Air rowing machines are louder than magnetic-based rowing machines. One more difference between a magnetic rowing machine and an air rower is the noise levels they produce.
Since air is a fluid like water, it creates a whooshing sound as the flywheel blades flap.

Due to this water-like sound that creates a refreshing rowing environment for indoor exercise, air rowing machines are generally louder than magnetic rowers. But how do their noise levels compare?

To begin with, Concept2, which is an air rower, produces noise levels reaching 74 decibels on maximum rowing stroke power. Compare this with the 64 decibels a Hydrow produces on a high-intensity rowing stroke, and you realize that air rowers are louder.

So, a magnet rowing machine is your best option if you want to exercise your muscle groups while watching TV. Check out this YouTube video on the noise levels each type of rowing machine produces.

Which Type of Rowing Machine Does a Competitive Rower Want?

A Competitive Rower wants a type of rowing machine with a very accurate monitor. No type of rowing machine reigns supreme over air rowers.

That’s because they allow you to monitor your workout data with unmatched accuracy.

Their accuracy comes in handy when monitoring the resistance, applied force, and deceleration during recovery. Additionally, these rowing machines accurately measure your 500m split, heart rate, and distance. Therefore, you want to opt for an air rower for a competitive rowing experience.

Does the Rowing Machine Monitor Require Electricity?

Yes, the monitor on your rowing machine needs electric power to function. Usually, this power comes from 2 AA batteries. But some rowers require you to plug them into a wall outlet to power their monitors.

So, you want to read the specifications of your preferred rowing machine before buying it. More often than not, magnetic rowers require you to plug them into a wall outlet for electric power for their monitors.

Can I Fold My Rowing Machine After an Exercise?

Yes, you can fold your rowing machine after exercising with it. Most rowing machines, such as the Concept2, fold into two for compact storage.
The Concept2 is the type of rowing machine you want if your apartment has limited space. Besides offering a compact-saving design, Concept2 features a performance monitor that displays essential workout data.

Even more impressive is that you can access the workout data in real-time. So, if you want to compare notes with another competitive rower, you can do so with the Concept2 rowing machine. When shopping for one of these home gym equipment, you want to look for a foldable one. And most importantly, you want to check if the monitor displays all workout data.

Is There a Rowing Machine That Offers the Best of Both Worlds?

Air-magnet rowers combine the resistance techniques of air and magnetic rowers, thus offering the best of both rowing machines.
So far, we’ve looked at the differences between air and magnetic rowers. But are there rowing machines that combine the functionality of both rowers? Fortunately, there are rowers with two resistance mechanisms: air and magnet.

Air-magnet rowers boast a dual resistance mechanism, offering more resistance power than magnetic resistance rowing machines. With two resistance mechanisms to work against, you will use more power, thus achieving greater workout results.

Since air-magnetic rowers use two resistance methods, they allow you to adjust the resistance level like standalone magnet-based rowers. That means they benefit you more than any of the two rowing machines.

If you’re looking for an air-magnetic rowing machine, you might want to check out the‎ Sunny Health & Fitness rower. It features a resistance knob for varying the resistance from 1 to 12. At the same time, you can pull the handlebar harder to experience greater resistance. So, if you want a greater challenger,  ‎Sunny Health & Fitness might be your best option.

Final Thoughts

When comparing magnetic vs. air rowing machines there is no right or wrong answer to which one is better. Both are extremely well respected and both have excellent models in all different price ranges.

The best rowing machine is going to be the one that aligns more closely with your preferences. For example, if you want to row while watching TV, a magnetic rower would be a great fit. If you want to race against people around the world and compare data, then an air rower is a better fit.

A good example of the best air rowing machine is the Concept2 Model D Air Rower. It has amazing resistance, damper settings, the best monitor, and is competitively priced. You can read my complete Concept2 review here.

If you are looking to buy something a little lower in price, you can check out the best air rowing machine under $500. Here is my Stamina Air Rower 1399 review.

One of the best magnetic rowing machines on the market is the Stamina Avari Programmable Magnetic Rower. It has a silent rowing stroke, preset workout programs, and comes with a heart rate monitor. You can check out my full Avari Magnetic Programmable Rower review here.

The best budget magnetic rowing machine is the Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515 Magnetic Rower. You can read my full review here.

You can also check out my Rowing Machine Comparison Chart to see a full list of air and magnetic rowing machines.

I hope you enjoyed my air vs. magnetic rowing machine article and can now fully explain the differences between the two! If you have any questions please drop them in the comment section below.

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