Rowing Machine Resistance Types

Rowing Machine Resistance Types

Rowing machines are the perfect blend of strength training and cardio.

If you know how to use them properly, you can improve the muscles in your back, create better posture, and improve your physical fitness in numerous areas of your body.

Many full body workouts include a lot of dynamic movements that you can perfectly replicate on a rowing machine, allowing you to reap the rewards in a moderate intensity workout method.

It all depends on what type of rowing machine resistance types you’re using, and if you’re using them right.

We’re going to go over every type of rowing machine resistance, what makes them useful, and when you should be using them.


fit man on air rowing machine

Air resistance works by using the kinetic energy that you’re using by pulling on the handle to generate air resistance within the flywheel.

The tension and resistance here feels entirely natural, since you’re not relying on metal and machinery to provide the resistance for you.

Basically, the faster and harder you pull on the handle when you pull back, the more resistance you’re going to get.

There are near-infinite resistance possibilities that solely depend on your input.

If you want a moderate-intensity workout, you can focus and pull with a good deal of strength to rev up the flywheel.

These can be more expensive than other types, but it’s also one of the most flexible resistance types around.


  • Your resistance matches the amount of physical force and energy that you’re willing to give it
  • Emulates real rowing (oars in a boat) thanks to the variable resistance that you will receive
  • Low-maintenance design doesn’t require a lot of intervention to take care of


  • Air resistance rowers can be surprisingly loud because of the way it applies additional resistance; it’s not friction-based, but it does whir up pretty good
  • Most air rowing machines are more expensive than magnetic or water/fluid rowing machines
  • If you pull to the point that you’re in a rough or otherwise difficult rowing situation, it can hurt your shoulders to hold your ground and slow it down


rowing machine with water resistance

You might be surprised to find that this is a very literal name: you actually use water in a tank to create resistance.

Every water rowing machine will have a large water tank towards the front of the machine, and in most cases, the seats sit on a very long track (usually longer than magnetic or air rowers).

The inclusion of water in the tank will change how you feel while rowing, which will change your workout from start to finish.

More water in the tank means more resistance, so you’ll feel a bit more push and pull while using it.

Water rowing machines can be a little difficult to set up in your home gym, but provide as true-to-form representation of actually rowing in the water while being on a boar. More so than air rowers do.


  • Water rowing machines give you an authentic experience to what it feels like to row in the water of the great outdoors
  • Changing your resistance level is straightforward; it would be very difficult to mess up adding or subtracting water from a tank
  • You have no plugs or expensive magnetic machinery to repair; it’s just the rower, the seat, and the water tank


  • Water rowers tend to be very expensive, which can really put a damper in how you set up your home gym
  • Filling up the water tank is easy enough, but it’s very inconvenient to subtract water from the tank to change the resistance level
  • You run the risk of water damage on your floor if this were to tip over; it’s a little more volatile to use than an all-metal rower


hydraulic type of rowing machine

Most hydraulic rowing machines use a single or dual hydraulic piston movement system.

These are actual pistons, like you would find in other pieces of machinery, with hydraulic fluid in them.

When you use the rowing handle, you’re manually pumping hydraulic fluid through the pistons to achieve movement.

One of the odd things about these types of rowing machines is that manufacturers aren’t really listing technical specifications.

You only get information related to the number of resistance levels, but not the amount of pressure in that resistance. It feels like you’re manually making a car move.

Hydraulic rowing machines are definitely a very different type of rower: you feel absolutely everything that happens to the rower, and with enough time spent, you can actually feel how the hydraulic fluid moves inside of the pistons.


  • Training methods can range from super light to extremely heavy and nearly impossible to pull, giving you a wide range of motions to choose from
  • Very rarely do these ever need to be serviced thanks to the airtight tough design
  • Hydraulic fluid doesn’t need to be replaced in these machines since they don’t undergo the same level of use that other hydraulic pumps use


  • Hydraulic pump repairs can be extremely expensive
  • You don’t actually know how much weight you’re pulling, so it’s hard to improve when you don’t know your starting point
  • These types of rowing machines are generally more expensive right from the start
  • Hydraulic movements might not feel as smooth as air or magnetic rowers for first-time users


magnetic rowing machine

Last but not least, magnetic rowers are the most common in practice today.

You’ve probably already seen a good amount of them on our rowing machine buying guide.

These are the most common because of their combined attributes of being easy to use, and being silent.

Magnetic resistance rowing machines are always the best bet for home gyms and any in-home use because of how silently they operate.

Inside of the flywheel, you have one magnet strip that’s in a stretched quarter-circle design.

When you alter the resistance, whether it’s through pre programmed settings on the screen or a dial, that magnet moves closer to the central magnet.

The central magnet has a polarizing magnet pull, so once you apply pressure from the other magnetic, these opposites push farther apart, leaving you with greater resistance.

Since the flywheel itself is what provides resistance, adding that small magnet and inching it closer just makes it harder to move, and improves your workout.

Because of the abundance of magnets, magnetic rowing machines are generally the most inexpensive machines to get started with.

There are minimal issues to account for, and most magnets take about three-hundred years to demagnetize.

They would take about fifty years just to lose 10% efficiency (even though there are some magnets that will never demagnetize, which is pretty cool).


  • Very inexpensive to get started with
  • Low maintenance cost; magnet flywheels can be bought from third-party providers if you ever need to replace them
  • Generally speaking, magnetic rowing machines come with far more resistance settings and customization options
  • You can set consistent rowing difficulty levels and it will not stray from it until you alter the magnet’s relative position


  • They’re built extremely heavy, so even if your rowing machine comes with wheels built into the foot axles, you’re going to have a difficult time moving them around
  • Magnets controlled by electrical panels/LED screens cannot be manually controlled if the screen fails
  • External items, such as other magnets, can affect the longevity of these magnets and their ability to continually magnetize to one another; you should always have a dedicated spot for a magnetic rowing machine ahead of time before purchasing one

Which is the Best?

which rowing machine fits you best

In most instances, you’re going to see magnetic resistance rowing machines, or water rowing machines.

The benefit here is that you have so many ways to change up the resistance levels and improve the intensity of your workout, if that’s what you’re setting out to do.

Magnetic rowing machines are the most common, primarily because it’s cheaper to make these than it is to make water tanks for water resistance-based rowing machines.

There’s a tank to build, waterproof and airtight spots to ensure, and a lot more to it. For price and convenience, magnetic resistance is often the best one to go with.

Choose a Resistance That Works for You

At the end of the day, you should choose a rowing machine resistance type that benefits your personal fitness goals and lifestyle.

It’s a choice you should seriously consider before going for any rowing machine.

Everyone uses rowing machines a little bit differently, whether they’re sticking to leg isolations, or doing hybrid moves in multiple sets that give a better upper body workout.

However you use your rowing machine, be sure that it benefits your personal fitness goals.

Rowing Machine Resistance Types 1

Trond Nyland

Trond Nyland started weightlifting in high school, where he went to the wrestling team. In college, it was all about cycling and signing up for marathons. Nowadays, he continues to keep his health in tip-top shape with advanced cardio moves, and uses Weston Fit as a method to teach you about the best at-home gym equipment that you can possibly get. From a lifetime of fitness and healthy living, Stanley is here to show you a thing or two.

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