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

Water vs. Air Rowing MachineOnce 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.

WaterRower-Rowing-Machine-Resistance

Resistance Operation

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.”

Water Rower Rule of Cubes

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.

Monitors

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.

Water Rower S4 Monitor

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.

Other Features

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 Operation

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.

Damper Setting

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.

Air Rowing Machine Damper

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.

Monitors

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.

Air Rower Monitor

Air Rowing Machine Monitor

Advanced Air Rower Monitor

 

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.

Other Features

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.

Similarities
  • 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.
Differences

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.

Price

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

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.

Monitor

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.

Stroke Feel

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 MachineAir Rowing Machine
PriceFound in higher-end price range: $700 - $1,100+Found in every price range: $300 - $1000+
Noise LevelRelatively quiet- Water makes a splashing noise inside the tank.Fairly loud- Fan makes a loud "whooshing" noise while rowing.
MonitorsAdvanced but not equal to the best air rower monitor.Ranges from basic to highly advanced- Has the #1 rowing machine monitor.
Stroke FeelStrong "catch" to easier "finish".Lighter "catch" to stronger "finish".
AestheticsWood rowing machines can be placed in a nice living room setting.Looks more like a piece of gym exercise equipment.
StorageUpright storage with wheels.Foldable seat rail with wheels.
WeightHeavier 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?

Concept2 Model D

Newport Challenge AR Water Rowing Machine

WaterRower Natural Rowing Machine

Stamina Air Rower 1399

What Should You Look for When Choosing a Water Resistance Rowing Machine?

You want to consider resistance adjustability and ergonomics for the most part. But you also want to check for performance tracking, ease of use, portability, and the price range.

You want to consider the factors below when choosing the best water rowing machine for your home gym:

Ease of Adjusting the Resistance on the Suspended Paddles

Adjusting the training difficulty of a water rowing machine is adding more water to the tank in front of the rowing machine or removing some of this water. The more water you add, the more effort you will use to row your machine.

As you already know, a water resistance rowing machine uses water as a medium to generate the resistance that requires a force to counter. Basically, the water contained in a tank ensures the suspended paddles spin only after applying force to the handlebar attached to the rowing strap.

While a water rowing machine uses water to create resistance for training your muscles, an air rowing machine uses air to create the same resistance.

Once your athletic ability has improved, you might want to add more load to work your muscles excellently. But adjusting the workload for working your muscles relies on adjusting the water level in the main tank on the water resistance rowing machine.

So, that means you want to check for ease of adjusting the water level when shopping for one of these home gym equipment. Adding or removing water from the main tank doesn’t alter the resistance created when rowing.

Instead, it alters the load for training your muscles. For example, adding more water to the front tank increases the workload, meaning you will require more force to paddle your rowing machine.

At the same time, removing some water from this tank means you have less load for training your muscle groups.

So, you want to choose water rowing machines allowing for an easy adjustment to the water in the tank.

Although more advanced water rowers allow you to vary the workload with a switch (or a dial), they usually boast a premium cost.

But you can choose basic models even though they only allow for a manual water level adjustment. So, choose one that’s more convenient for you and meets your budget.

The Ergonomics

Ergonomics is how comfortable your rowing experience is. Since there are many types of machines to choose from, you want to take the time to choose the best one. And the best water and air rowers have one thing in common: they are both ergonomic.

But ergonomics come from the seat and the handlebar. So, you want to check these two components out for a better rowing experience.

First, you want to check if the seat has sufficient padding for ergonomics and unmatched comfort. Also, you want to ensure the handlebar feels comfortable in your grip. And most importantly, it should accommodate the size of your hands.

You can also choose a water rower with two handles if you feel this will improve your rowing experience.

Performance Tracking

This is following your workout data closely. When choosing the best water rowing machine, you also want to check for exceptional performance tracking.

Since the monitor is the console to display all essential workout data from the rowing action, you want to check it to ensure it displays the crucial data.

Most essential data your chosen water rowing machine should display include the rowing session (time), the split, calories burned, and the watts.

Additionally, some monitors connect fitness apps via Bluetooth to track your performance in real-time; they are the best option for you if you love to use third-party mobile apps.

Ease of Using Your Rower

There is not much to look at here except for the ease of adjusting the water level. Adjusting the water level in the front tank allows you to vary the “heaviness” of the load for customized rowing. To some extent, adding more water increases the resistance levels, giving you more load to train your muscles.

Therefore, check for a water rowing machine that allows for easy water level adjustability.

Portability and Compactness

After using your rowing machine, you will need to store it. Even if you intend to leave it in your living room (or home gym), you want to ensure it takes little space. But this is possible if your chosen water rowing machine is compact.

Also, you want to ensure it is lightweight enough for easy transportation. Some water rowing machines even feature transportation wheels that enhance portability.

If you’re likely to move your rowing machine from room to room, you want to ensure it is lightweight and features transportation wheels.

The Price

Whichever type of rowing machine you intend to buy, you want to check its price first. And that’s because the price dictates the features you get in your trainer.

For example, you will get advanced features if you pay the top dollar. But basic water rowing machines aren’t as expensive.

If you’re a beginner, you might find basic types of rowers very effective at achieving your set workout goals. However, as your workout training advances, you will upgrade your water rowing machine.

So, consider starting with a basic model before looking for a more advanced rowing machine.

How Does an Air Rowing Machine Work?

An air rowing machine uses air to create resistance on the fan flywheel, which is how it works. Generally, it uses the same working mechanisms as a water rowing machine, only that it uses air to create resistance.

These rowing machines also create resistance that you must counter by applying a force to row the machine. While water rowing machines use water in a tank to create drag (or resistance), air rowing machines use air.

Of course, an air rowing machine uses a flywheel to move air, thus creating resistance to counter. The flywheel has blades like a fan, and the blades move the air.

Generally speaking, the faster you row, the more air resistance you create and the more force you apply to spin the flywheel and use your air rower.

Therefore, the amount of air you move is directly proportional to the force you apply to the flywheel when pulling the handlebar. So, you will pull the handlebar connected to the fan flywheel to use your air rowing machine. And this is how it works!

How Do You Vary the Workout Load on an Air Rowing Machine?

You vary the workout load on an air rowing machine using a damper setting. If there is one benefit of rowing machines, it is a full body workout.

What’s even more impressive is you can vary the training load to achieve an incredible feat after advancing the challenge.

But adjusting the training load in an air rowing machine is different from the same adjustments in a water rowing machine.

Usually, air rowing machines have a damper setting at the side of the flywheel. You can adjust the damper setting to 10, which is usually the highest setting for maximum air resistance.

Switching the damper setting up results in more air getting into the flywheel.

And you will apply enormous force to move this air out of the flywheel.

So, you will increase the damper setting to achieve greater workout challenges. At the same time, you will lower this damper setting if you want to work your muscles will less load.

Therefore, consider adjusting this setting to vary the workout load.

How Much Noise Do Air Rower Water Rowers Produce?

Air rowers produce 70 decibels, while water rowers produce 63 decibels of noise. You already know that water rowing machines and their air-resistance counterparts differ in the noise they produce.

Generally speaking, water rowing machines are usually the quieter ones. But what noise levels do these two types of machines produce?

The water rower uses water for resistance, producing 63 decibels of noise. But this is lower than the 70 decibels that air rowers such as the Concept2 produce while rowing.

So, if you’re looking for a quieter model, you might find the whooshing noise from a water rowing machine quieter.

You can check out this YouTube video called “How LOUD Are Rowing Machines?” if you need more information on the sound made by magnetic rowing machines.

Final Thoughts

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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