Best Rowing Machine Resistance: Air, Water, or Magnetic

When looking for a new indoor rowing machine, one of the first choices you will have to make is what type of resistance you will want. But what exactly does resistance mean when it comes to rowing machines? Resistance is the heart and soul of the rower, and is the driving force behind getting the best workout possible.

Indoor rowing machines are meant to replicate the feel and motion of rowing an actual boat. The mechanical resistance is trying to best simulate what it feels like to row against the water, which is what provides the tension you need to strengthen your muscle groups.

Choosing the right type of resistance is the first step towards being able to choose the right indoor rowing machine that will suit your needs. Here is a comparison chart to help you decide which is the best rowing machine resistance for you.

Air vs Water vs Magnetic RowerEpic battle when choosing rower resistance
NoiseWhich one is quieter
TechnologyWhich one has more technology
SizeWhich is more compact
FoldingWhich rowing machine is usually foldable
MaintenanceWhich rower requires less maintenance
WeightWhich rowing machine is lighter in weight
PriceWhich rower is normally less expensive
Rowing feelWhich rower feels more natural and fan
ProfessionalsWhich rower is preferred by professionals

Why is Choosing the Right Resistance Important?

Choosing the right type of resistance is like choosing the right transmission for a car: they all feel and act differently. There are technically five different types of rowing machine resistance, although hydraulic machines are almost non-existent these days, and the fifth type is air and magnetic resistance combined.

Each type of resistance has its own pros and cons, so ultimately it is up to each individual user and their preferences. We’ll cover the main differences between each type of resistance below, but it is always important to do your own research and know exactly what you are looking for.

Indoor rowing machines can be a big financial investment, and if you plan on using the machine regularly you won’t want any buyer’s remorse. Luckily for you, we have you covered when it comes to indoor rowing machine resistance!

Water Resistance Rowing Machines

water resistance rowers

Water resistance rowing machines are loved by rowing purists as the flywheel in the water tank provides the most realistic resistance feel. The sound of the water sloshing in the tank is also reminiscent of being out in the actual water.

In terms of difficulty, I prefer water resistance to air resistance, as there is continuous inertia created within the tank so the resistance does not drop off unless you stop rowing.

There are some cons with water resistance rowers though. First, the machines are usually heavier because of the extra weight of the water tank. Second, the water does need to be replaced and cleaned so as not to produce grime inside of the tank.

Finally, the only way to change the resistance level is to add or remove water, which isn’t ideal when you want to get into a good rhythm when working out.

Notes to keep in mind:

  • You will have to change the water every 6-12 months
  • Overall there is more maintenance to this resistance compared to air and magnetic
  • Water rowers are often heavier than other types of indoor rowers
  • Indoor water rowers make more noise than magnetic but less noise than air rowers
  • Most water rowers are not foldable and considered dangerous to store them standing

For me, the best type of rowing machine is a water rower because I don’t have space issues and I don’t mind changing water from time to time but that may not be the case for you. So, you might have to pick different types of rowing machines that meet your needs.

Air Resistance Rowing Machines

air rowers

Air resistance rowing machines are the most popular form of resistance on the market. Popular models like the Concept 2 are always in high demand, so make sure you act quickly if you have decided on an air resistance machine.

Like water resistance machines, the air resistance rowers have a flywheel that is connected from the rowing handle to the fan. As you row faster, so too does the flywheel, creating more resistance with every spin.

The biggest problem with air resistance rowers is that they are usually quite loud. Imagine a large turbine stuck onto the end of your rower, and you’ll understand why noise is an issue. Air rowers do usually have dampers that allow you to manually adjust the resistance levels on the fly in the middle of your workout.

Notes to keep in mind:

  • Air Rowers are the loudest type of rowing machines on the market
  • Often air rowers have a bulkier drive-system than magnetic and water rowers

If you are a pro rower and wondering what type of rowing machine is best for you, I would say an air rower is an answer. They feel more natural and offer good resistance but unfortunately, they make more noise than water and magnetic rowers.

Magnetic Resistance Rowing Machines


Magnetic resistance rowing machines are growing in popularity, especially for those who want to use the machine at home. Strong magnets can strengthen or weaken the resistance levels around the flywheel. Magnetic rowers are usually the most easily adjustable and are often equipped with computer controlled resistance levels.

The best thing about magnetic resistance? The flywheel is extremely quiet and offers the best all around adjustable experience which comes in handy if you have different members of a household using the same machine.

The major flaw with magnetic resistance rowers is that the magnetic feel is too smooth and you lose the sensation of rowing in the water. Magnetic rowers are purely for exercise, so if you are looking for a realistic rowing experience, you are better off going with a water or air resistance rower.

Notes to keep in mind:

  • The exercise on a magnetic resistance rower is not as engaging as water or air rowers (less natural)
  • Generally speaking, they are less durable and not ideal for pro rowers or intense rowing exercise

If you have a small apartment and wondering what is the best type of rowing machine to buy for your home, a magnetic rower is ideal for you. They are lightweight and take up less space, plus, they are usually foldable.

Which Rowing Machine Resistance is Right For You?

Like with anything in life, each option has different benefits and drawbacks that I already explained in the tablet above. There are going to be some things you’ll want to consider before making a decision. How much space in your home do you have for the rowing machine? Do you have neighbours or young children at home that may be bothered by noise? How serious are you about rowing and do you put more weight on the rowing sensation or ease of use of the machine?

Personally, I love the feel of water-resistance machines but I also like the flexibility and ease of use of the magnetic rowers. I definitely appreciate the rowing experience that comes with water and air rowers though, as magnetic rowers feel more like just going through the motions that doing a dynamic workout.

Again, everyone will have their own preference and needs. Ultimately in order for me to answer what is the best type of rowing machine for you, I should know your needs and floor space because what kind of rowing machine is best for me may not be best for you.

Is auto-resistance important for rowing machine?

Auto-resistance is not suitable for WaterRower/SmartRow setups, Concept2 rowers, or other rowing machines that utilize air or water resistance. This feature is primarily applicable to certain electronically adjustable magnetic rowing machines like Echelon, Peloton, Hydrow, and Nordictrack, as they may not naturally respond to a person’s effort.

In rowing, auto-resistance is not beneficial if it cannot adjust according to the applied force during the drive. While there might be an attempt to implement this feature for the benefit of users with cheaper magnetic machines, it can lead to confusion among individuals who do not fully grasp the dynamics of power and pace.

In the context of rowing on a Concept2 or WaterRower, using the term “resistance” does not make sense when describing one’s effort. Instead, the focus is on cadence (strokes per minute), which is comparable to cadence (revolutions per minute) in cycling. Some individuals transitioning from indoor cycling might expect an equivalent to the resistance knob, but this expectation is problematic. Ultimately, you are the one who determines the resistance by engaging your muscles.

The “drag factor” or water level in rowing simulates the type of boat you are rowing, ranging from a lighter to a heavier boat. In cycling terms, this can be compared to the type of bike you ride, such as a dirt bike for gravel or an aerodynamic bike for smooth roads. However, it is essential to note that the drag factor or water level is not intended to function as a resistance knob. Professional rowers generally do not use high drag factors. The key emphasis is on engaging the leg muscles during the drive, which accounts for approximately 60% of the effort, while the core and arms contribute 20% each. Greater muscle engagement leads to higher wattage, which translates to pace.

For example, achieving a 200-watt effort corresponds to a 2:00/500m pace. This can be achieved at different stroke rates, such as 20spm or 30spm. Different rowers may reach the same power output using different techniques. Therefore, it is crucial to consider cadence and either pace or power (preferably both), without concerning yourself with the concept of a specific percentage of resistance.

The term “resistance” is primarily useful in describing the mechanism employed by your rowing machine, which typically falls into three categories: air resistance (Concept2), water resistance (WaterRower), and magnetic resistance, with some rowers using a combination of air and magnetic mechanisms. It is not a measurement or a specific value to be adjusted.

Sayed Hamed Hosseiny
Sayed Hamed Hosseiny

Hi, my name is Sayed Hamed Hosseiny. I am a professional health and fitness trainer with nearly 20 years of experience using ellipticals, rowing machines, and spin bikes. I also have my own EU-based Rock Fitness Pro fitness brand where I design, import and sell exercise equipment such as rowing machines and spin bikes. I and writers on my team also often receive fitness equipment to review and evaluate their functionalities and performance from tens of different exercise machines manufacturers. Fitness equipment tips, guides, reviews, and comparisons on this website are my opinion (and opinions of my fitness expert colleagues) based on tens of criteria. I never accept payment to write reviews of products or say positive things about fitness equipment products. If brands are interested to have me review their rowers, ellipticals, or spin bikes, they can get in touch with me via email provided on the contact page and send a sample of their product.