Rowing Machine Resistance Types

Rowing Machine Resistance TypesThe process of finding the right rowing machine can be downright difficult!

Choosing from so many different brands, price ranges, features, and warranties can really give you a headache.

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

The resistance type can usually determine the cost, monitor functionality, build quality, and size of the rowing machine.

Determining which rowing machine resistance type you like best will also help narrow down your options the most!

Basically, choosing a resistance type is one of the most important decisions when choosing a rower.

While choosing which rowing machine to buy can be difficult, just know choosing to buy a rowing machine in the first place is the right choice!

Rowing machines provide the best full-body workouts and burn more calories than any other piece of exercise equipment. They are also low impact and can be used by virtually anyone!

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, price, 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 much easier and more efficient. You can rule out all other rowers that aren’t in your resistance category and vastly narrow 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!

You can go a step further and choose a price range, which may only leave you with 1 or 2 options.

Rowing Machine Resistance Types

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

There is now a new type of resistance, which is a combination of air and magnetic.

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 5 rowing machine resistance types:

Air Resistance

Air Resistance Rowing Machine

Air-resistance rowing machines get their resistance from a spinning fan 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 created, the more difficult it gets to pull the handle, and the more resistance the user feels.

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

This is what makes this resistance type “variable”. 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 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: 


Magnetic Resistnace Rowing Machine

Magnetic 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 rowers.

Sort of a “best of both worlds” scenario.

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

As of recently, magnetic rowers have become very popular in the lower price ranges. People really enjoy rowing while watching TV but still feel they can get a good quality rower with strong resistance.

Read my ‘Final Thoughts’ section for a full breakdown on the comparison of resistance-types.


Price Range:  ~$200 – $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. Can adjust by turning a knob or pressing a button on higher priced models.

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:

Air/Magnetic Resistance

Air Magnetic Rowing Machine Resistance

After describing both air and magnetic rowing machines, I figured it would be fitting to outline the air/magnetic combination rowers.

Combination air/magnetic rowers are truly a blend of both air and magnetic resistance.

Rowers will have the ability to adjust magnetic tension by moving a magnetic closer or farther from a metal flywheel. They will also have the ability to row faster and feel more resistance from the added “air” resistance.

Users will enjoy the benefit of having the low-end power of magnetic resistance and the high-end power of air resistance.

Combination rowers are usually in the higher price ranges and have fairly advanced monitors. They also have good build quality and higher weight & height capacities.

The resistance on combination rowing machines is usually the strongest due to having two resistance mechanisms working at the same time.

This is great for some people, but it doesn’t closely mimic the resistance felt from “on the water” rowing, which is a downside for others.


Price Range: $300 – $1,500

Size:  Large footprint due to a longer seat rail.

Storage:  Most can be folded for storage.

Adjustability:  Has low-end power of ‘adjustable’ magnetic resistance, combine with high-end power of ‘variable’ air resistance.

Noise-level:  Quieter than an air-only rower but louder than magnetic-only rower. Fan will not spin as fast as air-only rower which makes it slightly quieter.

Rowing Motion:  Closely resembles outdoor rowing but resistance will feel heavier.

Ideal for:  People of all fitness levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced). Rowers looking to have strong resistance. Ability to have adjustable resistance and pre-set workout programs on high-end models.

Misc: Some model have ability to control resistance in handle

Popular Brands: LifeCore, Sole

Most Popular Rower: LifeCore R100 Rowing Machine

Water  Resistance

Water Resistance Rowing Machine

Water 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 description 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 “air” to create resistance.

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

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 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.

The noise falls somewhere between an air rower and magnetic rower.

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

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 considered ‘variable’, 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 to have in their living room.

Misc: Possibly the closest experience to rowing on water.

Popular Brands: WaterRower, First Degree Fitness

Most Popular Rower:    WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine

WaterRower makes a full line up of rowing machines that all function exactly alike. The major difference between models is the wood they are constructed from, which changes the price.

Check out the full WaterRower lineup here.

Hydraulic Piston Resistance

Hydraulic 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.

2 Piston Hydraulic-Piston Rower

Hydraulic Piston Resistance

1 Piston Hydraulic-Piston Rower

Single Piston Hydraulic Piston Rower

These rowers have ‘adjustable’ resistance that is controlled by turning a knob on the piston.

Levels usually range from 1-8 and control the amount of fluid allowed to move in-and-out of the piston. Thus, controlling the resistance.

Hydraulic-piston resistance is the only type that allows an independent workout for each arm. Meaning each arm works out independently of the other (on 2-piston rowers)

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. Hydraulic-piston 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 build quality on hydraulic-piston rowers can also be a bit lower than other models.

One result of this lower build quality is the pistons can get hot while working out for long periods of time. This can cause them to overheat and sometime leak oil.

While this is rare, it can happen and I recommend keeping a mat underneath the rower like the Fold-to-Fit Folding Exercise Equipment Mat.

Due to the pistons overheating, it is also recommended to only use hydraulic-piston rowers for about 20 minutes at a time.

So if you are looking for some serious cardio, you may want to look into other rowing machine resistance types.


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 a beginner 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

Next Step/ Final Thoughts

Now that you are familiar with all the resistance types, you can narrow down which types you like and which you don’t.

The more you can rule out, the easier you final decision will be.

If you are having trouble deciding between two different resistance types you can read my comparison articles. They will further break down each type and help compare between the two.

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

Visit the Rowing Machine King Comparison Chart and also filter by characteristics such as price and size.

If you really can’t decide which rowing machine you want and you feel like your head is going to explode, then let me choose a model for you!

Yes, just fill out my rowing machine questionnaire and I will select which model fits you best. I call it “The Personal Rowing Machine Concierge“.

I hope you enjoyed my overview of the different rowing machine resistance types. If you have any questions please leave them in the comment section below.

Real Athletes Row

Best Rowing Gifts

Top 10 Best Rowing Gifts

Whether it’s for the holidays, a birthday, or another special occasion, finding great rowing gifts can be difficult! Luckily, I’ve broken down the different gift...

Read More