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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.

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

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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