Choosing A Rowing Machine Resistance | Full Guide

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.

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 a 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 water rowers because I don’t have space issue 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 with 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 air rower is the 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 water. Magnetic rowers are purely for the 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, magnetic rower is ideal for you. They are lightweight and take 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. 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 neighbors 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.

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.