The 5 Different Types of Rowing Machines and How They Work

Aisyah Rafaee
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If you’re looking for a rowing machine for home, congratulations on making the decision to pick up a new sport or kick-start your fitness journey with a rower! As you’ve conducted your research, you’ve likely realized that not all rowers are created equal, and there are some pretty big differences in the different types of rowing machines on the market and how they work. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore five of the different types of rowing machines available so you can make an informed decision about which one is best for you, including: 

  1. Air resistance rowing machines

  2. Magnetic rowing machines

  3. Water-based rowing machines

  4. Hydraulic rowing machines

  5. Hybrid rowing machines with screens

Let’s dive in! 

Types of rowing machines: Factors to consider

Here are some of the major factors that we’ll use to compare the different types of rowing machines out there: 

1. Resistance mechanism 

There are multiple ways that rowing machines can create the resistance needed for your workouts. You might want to consider how much resistance you can feel when you use the machine in order to get the type of workout you’re looking for. 

2. Noise level 

If you’re researching the different rowing machines out there, you’re likely looking to buy one for your own personal use in the comfort of your own home. In this case, it’s important to consider how quiet the rowing machine is when someone is using it. You don’t want your workouts to wake up your family members (or your neighbors!). 

3. Comparable feeling as rowing on water

Not everyone has access to a local boat club to enjoy the benefits of rowing on water, so a rowing machine at home is a good alternative. If you have no background in rowing on the water, how the machine feels as compared to an outdoor row might not matter as much to you. 

On the other hand, if you’re an avid on-water rower looking for on-land alternatives when conditions are unfavorable, you want something that feels as close to your experience on the water as possible. 

Your guide to the different types of rowing machines

These are the common types of rowing machines available in the market right now:

1. Air resistance rowing machines

Air resistance rowing machines use a flywheel attached to the handle you pull when you perform a rowing stroke. When the flywheel moves, it moves the air around it, which is determined by the damper setting the air resistance rowing machine has. 

If you place the damper setting low, there is less air around the flywheel (and therefore less drag on the flywheel), making the stroke feel light. At a higher damper setting, on the other hand, the flywheel needs to move more air, causing each stroke to feel heavier. 

The great thing about air resistance rowing machines is that their resistance can be adjusted and they offer a smooth feeling that’s similar to rowing on the water. However, it’s important to note that these types of rowing machines are often noisy and require a lot of maintenance. For example, you will have to occasionally clean the dust off the flywheel, which requires taking some parts apart. 

2. Magnetic rowing machines

With magnetic rowing machines, there is a magnet that creates resistance on the flywheel. When a user pulls the handle, the flywheel spins and displaces air around the flywheel, similar to the movement of air in an air resistance rowing machine. However, in this case, the resistance is created by the magnet in the flywheel instead of the amount of air around it. 

Magnetic rowing machines’ resistance remains constant regardless of whether you row slow or fast (unlike the air rowing machine, where you will feel more resistance the faster you row). 

Magnetic rowing machines are usually quiet, their resistance can be adjusted, and they feel smooth, similar to rowing on the water. 

3. Water-based rowing machines

Water-based rowing machines have fan blades in a tank filled with water. Pulling the handles will move the fan blades as they move through the water, creating resistance. Your resistance can change based on how fast you row and how much water is in the tank. 

Some users enjoy the sound of water moving in the tank, which can be quite therapeutic. However, if you’re a rower, you’ll likely find the water-based rower really doesn’t feel like rowing on the water. Rowing outdoors through a moving body of water feels very different from rowing through water in a tank. 

4. Hydraulic rowing machines

This type of rowing machine is very basic. Resistance is created from hydraulic cylinders attached to the handles. There is either air or fluid in the hydraulic cylinders, and pulling the handles means you are pulling against the air or fluid. 

Hydraulic rowing machines are known for being very minimal and compact, which means they’ll probably take up the least amount of space among all the rowing machine types described here. They’re also very quiet. 

On the cons side, hydraulic rowing machines don’t really replicate rowing on water, but rather more leg presses in the gym. Rowing at its core is not a pulling motion, but this machine requires the effort of pulling the handles. 

5. Hybrid rowing machines with screens

If you are new to rowing, you might want to consider getting a rowing machine that has a screen to guide you on how to row effectively and perform the proper rowing technique. This will help you in the long run by minimizing the possibility of incurring any injuries due to improper technique. 

These rowing machines usually come with a screen that displays programs with coaches to guide you on proper form. These coaches may also lead workouts that you can follow, helping you to stay motivated before and during your workout. 

Do note that these machines may require an electrical outlet and possibly an internet connection to operate. 

Interested in investing in a rowing machine? 

If you’re looking to add a rowing machine to your home gym, be sure to check out Hydrow! Our patented electromagnetic drag technology brings the on-water rowing workout experience directly to your home, while a Hydrow membership gives you access to over 4,000 workout classes, all led by world-class Athletes and filmed in beautiful locations around the world.

Learn more about the benefits of a Hydrow rowing machine today! 

Aisyah Rafaee

Aisyah is a trailblazer — as Singapore’s first Olympian in rowing, she’s got serious drive. As an athletic counselor, she approaches fitness with compassion so you can reach your own goals too. The result? Dynamic workouts that make you feel great, inside and out.