Once a week I get asked, “What is the difference between a water vs. air rowing machine?”
I usually write a long-winded response, so I’ve decided to answer the question once and for all.
Most people can look at a water rower or air rower and describe the basic differences.
However, they won’t be able to describe some of the key similarities and differences that I breakdown in this article.
Both resistance types will be similar in regards to functionality, rowing technique, muscles used, and footprint. They will be different in regards to price, storage, noise level, monitors, etc..
Many people have trouble deciding between a water vs. air rowing machine when buying a home rower. This article will hopefully help make that decision easier.
Below I completely breakdown how both air and water rowing machines operate and their differences. See what type most closely aligns with your preferences.
Water Rowing Machine
Water rowing machines provide a strong, quiet resistance that is said to be the smoothest of any resistance type.
All water rowing machines have a large water tank at the front of the machine with a fairly long seat rail. Most people picture them as being made from wood due to the most popular and expensive water rowing machine brand, “WaterRower”.
However, there are new water rowing machine models coming out every year that offer different styles and more affordable prices.
One would think a water rowing machine would be the #1 choice for home rowing machines, considering rowing is a sport performed on water.
While there are a lot of really good reasons to buy a water rowing machines, there are also very good reasons to buy other resistance types like air rowing machines.
My goal of this article is to breakdown the water vs. air rowing machine differences so you can choose which type is right for you.
The resistance on water rowing machines, as you may have guessed, is provided by water.
Each rowing machine has paddles suspended in a tank of water at the front of the machine. A user must pull a handle attached to a “rowing strap” that spins the paddles in the tank.
As the paddles spin, they must move the water, which is creating drag/resistance. To move these paddles requires a “force” by the user.
As a user rows faster, the paddles must move more water, which is creating more drag/resistance. This faster pace requires more and more force!
Simply, the harder you row, the more resistance you feel and the more force you must apply.
WaterRower states this is directly related to the “Rule of Cubes“, which is defined as “a doubling of the speed of the boat will require an eight-fold increase in resistance.”
This exponential relationship of speed vs. resistance means there is an infinite amount of resistance levels you can experience on a water rowing machine.
This is why we call water rowing resistance “variable”.
If this is a little confusing, just know there are technically no resistance settings on a water rowing machine. To feel more resistance, you just need to row faster.
I have a video below explaining the relationship of drag vs. resistance vs. velocity.
Water Level Adjustment
Each water rowing machine will have the ability to add or subtract water from the main tank. The water level will change how the rowing stroke feels.
Each water rowing machine manual should have instructions for where to fill the tank depending on your age or athletic abilities.
Many people think adding more water to the tank will “increase resistance”. This statement is actually false.
Drag/resistance is related to speed, such as “the faster a boat travels, the greater the drag and the harder the crew must work” (taken from WaterRower Manual).
The tank’s water level actually simulates the weight of the boat and the person inside. Changing the water level doesn’t change the resistance but instead changes the “weight” the user is trying to move.
More water in the tank simulates a heavier boat, while less water simulates a lighter boat.
This does translate into a full tank being more of a strength based workout due to the “heavier” stroke.
Water rowing machine monitors are neither really great or really bad. They seem to hover somewhere in the middle.
How advanced a monitor is depends on the price you pay for a rowing machine. Unfortunately, even when paying a high price for a water rowing machine, you don’t get the best monitor like you do on an air rower.
The best monitor you can get on a water rowing machine is the Series 4 (S4) monitor on the WaterRower brand machines.
This monitor has many advanced features such as stroke rate, 500m split, watts, distance, heart rate, etc.. It can also connect to a PC to play different games and race against users from around the world.
These features are excellent for a home rowing machine and are usually enough for the average user. However, the features pale in comparison to the PM5 monitor on the best air rowing machine.
If you don’t care a ton about comparing data to other rowing athletes or competing in indoor rowing competitions, then a water rowing machine monitor will be more than enough. If any of these items do interest you, then continue reading below under the air rowing machine monitors.
While resistance is the main difference between a water rowing machine vs. air rowing machine, there are a few more feature that are unique to water rowers.
One of the main features people love is the noise level. While not completely silent, a water rowing machine makes a quaint splashing noise that is oddly “zen-like”. People find the noise to be soothing and sometimes meditative.
It is louder than a magnetic rowing machine but quieter than an air rower. Users can easily enjoy watching TV while rowing or not have to worry about disturbing someone in an adjacent room.
Many of the most popular water rowing machines are also aesthetically pleasing. Hand-crafted from wood, these rowing machines look more like a piece of living room furniture than exercise equipment.
People looking to store a rowing machine in their living room choose a water rower for this reason.
Below are some other unique features of water rowing machines:
- Upright storage with the water tank acting as a ballast for stability.
- Use of a “rowing strap” and not a “chain” to reduce noise.
- Wood frames look great, absorb sound & vibration, and increase build quality.
- A full water tank makes the rowing machine heavy and more difficult to move far.
Air Rowing Machine
Air rowing machines offer a smooth, strong rowing stroke in a wide variety of price ranges. Being sold for high, medium, and low prices makes them great for at-home rowing machines.
Like water rowers, they too closely mimic the resistance felt while rowing on water. Unlike water rowers, air rower monitors can very accurately record speed, distance, power, etc..
These advanced monitors are what makes them very popular in the fitness community. It is also the reason why air rowers are the chosen resistance type among Olympic athletes.
Resistance on an air rowing machine is as you guessed, controlled by “air”. Air rowers operate very similar to water rowers in that both follow the laws of “fluid dynamics”, with one fluid being air and the other water.
Air rowing machines operate by a user pulling a handle that is attached to a fan flywheel. As the user performs a rowing stroke they spin the flywheel. As the flywheel spins it must move the air particles which cause resistance/drag against the fan. Thus, spinning the flywheel requires a “force” from the user.
As a user begins to row faster, they spin the flywheel faster. As the flywheel spins faster it must move more air particles that are creating a greater resistance/drag. This in return requires a greater and greater force by the user.
Does this sound familiar? Well it should because when comparing a water vs. air rowing machine, the resistance operation is almost exactly the same.
The faster you row, the more resistance you feel! The “Rule of Cubes” described above also applies here as well, so there is an exponential relationship between speed and resistance.
Like water rowing resistance, we also call air rowers a “variable” resistance machine. There are an infinite number of resistance levels you can achieve by simply rowing faster or slower.
You can view the video below for a good explanation of air & water resistance vs. velocity.
The benefit of some air rowing machines is the ability to control airflow to the flywheel with a “damper”.
Dampers can have various settings that allow different amounts of air to interact with the flywheel as you are rowing. This is very similar to changing the water levels in a water rowing machine tank.
A low damper setting of 1 will allow only a small amount of air to interact with the spinning flywheel. This means there are less “air particles” to interact with the flywheel. In return, this allows for a “lighter” feeling rowing stroke.
A high damper setting of 10 allows large amounts of air to enter the flywheel. This creates more air interacting with the flywheel and a “heavier” feeling stroke.
Again, this may sound like resistance but it really changes the feeling of the stroke. High damper settings feel like a heavy rowing boat, while low damper settings feel like a light rowing boat.
Concept2 states, “damper setting is similar to bicycle gearing: it affects how rowing feels but does not directly affect the resistance. A lower damper setting on the indoor rower is comparable to easier gears on a bike.” You can read their full damper breakdown here.
What really interests a lot of people are the monitors on air rowing machines. While monitors on budget air rowers are basic and inaccurate, monitors on high-end air rowers are advanced and highly accurate.
The Concept2 Model D PM5 monitor is the best monitor on the market. It can very accurately record items like distance, 500m split times, watts, pace boat and force curve. Below are photos of a few screens the PM5 can display.
This monitor has the ability to accurately record these data points because it can constantly record the “drag factor” in real time. This means it calculates the deceleration of your flywheel every stroke and determines the true amount of “work” a user is performing.
This constant drag calculation means humidity, dust build up, elevation, and all other factors won’t effect the data displayed and recorded on the monitor.
When using a monitor like the PM5, users around the world can compare times and race against each other. It is the main reason why air rowing machines (specifically Concept2 currently) are used by Olympic rowers, indoor rowing competitions, and world records.
Below are some other features that are unique to air rowing machines when compared to water rowing machines.
- Seat rail can fold for easy storage and reduce overall footprint.
- A plastic flywheel resistance allows for a fairly lightweight machine.
- Fan makes a loud “whooshing” noise while in use. TV volume will need to be turned up and people may be able to hear the rowing machine in an adjacent room.
Water vs. Air Rowing Machine
When comparing a water vs. air rowing machine you will notice there are a lot of similarities. Probably more similarities than differences.
I will list the main similarities below and then breakdown the major differences if you haven’t already caught them from the outline above.
- Both have fairly long frames and large footprints.
- Long frames make both rowing machines good for tall users.
- Heavy users (300+ lbs.) can find rowing machines to match their weight capacity.
- Both utilize “variable” resistance- the faster you row, the more resistance you feel.
- Variable resistance makes each great for HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts.
- Both mimic the resistance felt while rowing on water.
- You can change the “feel” of the rowing stroke on both machines- add/subtract water from water rower or change damper on air rower.
- The same rowing technique is used on both rowing machines.
- Each utilize a “handle” pull mechanism that is attached via a rowing strap or chain.
- The same muscles are targeted on both rowing machines.
- Both are highly respected rowing machines in the rowing industry.
After reading the outlines above you should have a good idea of the differences between a water rower vs. air rower. I will highlight some of the major differences below.
One of the major deciding factors between water and air rowers is price. Water rowing machines are often found in higher price ranges with the lowest model going for $700 and the best models starting around $1,100. Air rowers are found in every price range starting at $300 and going as high as $1,000+. The affordability of air rowing machines makes them very popular.
Noise level is another large factor that tips the scale more towards water rowers. Air rowers make a fairly loud “whooshing” noise every stroke, which makes them bad for people who like watching TV, have sleeping children, live in apartments, or like working out early in the AM. Water rowers do make some noise but the splashing of water in the tank is a lot quieter and more soothing than the fan noise produced by air rowers.
Another difference that I covered above is monitor performance. While both types can have high and low quality monitors depending on the price you pay, you can get the best monitor on an air rower. If tracking data, comparing times, and racing are exciting to you, then I suggest looking into an air rowing machine with an advanced monitor.
The “stroke feel” of each resistance type is something I haven’t mentioned yet. It is difficult to determine because it really depends on what model of air or water rowing machines you are comparing. However, there does seem to be a trend.
Water rowing machines seem to have a stronger “catch” that lightens as you reach the “finish”. Air rowers seem to have a lighter “catch” that increases as you accelerate to the “finish”.
Both rowing machines provide an excellent “stroke feel” and the difference is something only advanced rowers will notice. You will have needed to row a lot on both resistance types to notice the difference.
Below is an easy to read chart comparing water vs air rowing machines with a few additional differences.
|Water Rowing Machine||Air Rowing Machine|
|Price||Found in higher-end price range: $700 - $1,100+||Found in every price range: $300 - $1000+|
|Noise Level||Relatively quiet- Water makes a splashing noise inside the tank.||Fairly loud- Fan makes a loud "whooshing" noise while rowing.|
|Monitors||Advanced but not equal to the best air rower monitor.||Ranges from basic to highly advanced- Has the #1 rowing machine monitor.|
|Stroke Feel||Strong "catch" to easier "finish".||Lighter "catch" to stronger "finish".|
|Aesthetics||Wood rowing machines can be placed in a nice living room setting.||Looks more like a piece of gym exercise equipment.|
|Storage||Upright storage with wheels.||Foldable seat rail with wheels.|
|Weight||Heavier due to filled water tank.||Fairly lightweight depending on amount of steel or plastic used in the design.|
If you have any specific questions about differences between the two resistance types or two models, please leave them in the comment section below.
Below are a few photos of some of the most popular water and air rowing machines. Is it easier now to tell the difference between a water vs. air rowing machine?
Both water and air rowing machines are highly respected in the industry and there is no right or wrong answer to which type is better. When comparing a water vs. air rowing machine, the best resistance type is the one that fits your preferences.
If you are looking to race, train, compare data, maximize your workout, and don’t care about noise, then I would choose an air rowing machine. If you need a lower noise level, enjoy the sound of water, or want a wooden design, then I would choose a water rowing machine.
The #1 bestselling rowing machine with the #1 monitor is the Concept2 Model D Air Rower w/ PM5. You can read my full review of this rowing machine here.
If you are looking for the best budget air rowing machine, check out my Stamina Air Rower 1399 review here.
There are a lot of different WaterRower models that all function exactly the same. The difference is the type of wood they are made from which changes their price. A popular seller is the WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine. You can read that WaterRower review here.
You can also visit my comparison chart to compare different water and air rowing machines.
I hope you enjoyed my water vs. air rowing machine article! Please leave any questions or comments below.
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