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What Is the Best Resistance for a Rowing Machine

What Is the Best Resistance for a Rowing Machine

You probably know that rowing is one of the best forms of all-over body exercise and cardio workout all in one, and if you’re in the market for an indoor rowing machine, you might be unsure about picking the right one. Should it be air resistance rowers? Magnetic resistance rowers? Water resistance rowers? Let’s not forget hydraulic resistance rowing machines. How do you pick the right resistance rower?

The best resistance type to choose depends on who will use the rowing machine. Air and water resistance types are for people who want infinite resistance, while magnetic rowers are for people who prefer a quiet rowing machine that offers adjustable resistance.

In today’s article, I’m going to explain the difference between resistance types so you can make a more informed decision. Keep reading, and join the resistance! Rowing machine resistance, I mean! 

Why Is Resistance Type Important?

While all types of resistance are designed to improve your fitness level by giving you something to work against, some resistance types work better than others. Each type has unique qualities and pros and cons, so it’s important to choose the one that matches your needs and preferences best.

In many instances, people prefer one type over another for no apparent reason, much the same way you might prefer Ked tennis shoes over Vans tennis shoes. Both are basically the same shoe, but for you, one just feels better than the other.

In a Hurry?  Here Are Our Top Picks for Each Resistance:


Hydrow Rower




LIT Method


Teeter Power 10 Elliptical Rower

Teeter Power10 Elliptical Rower

*We review fitness products impartially and may earn a commission from affiliate links. For details see our disclosure page.

What Is the Best Resistance Type for You?

To effectively choose which type of resistance might be best for you, you should start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you want to feel like you’re really rowing on water? (or as close as possible)
  • What surface will your rower be sitting on?
  • What is your budget?
  • How much space do you have for the rower?
  • What are your living arrangements? Will noise be an issue for a baby or will the apartment next door complain about noise levels?
  • What is your fitness level?

Answer some of these and you will be a few steps closer to choosing the right resistance type.  Side Note:  Make sure you also have the correct form when rowing, for more details read our full article by our expert trainer Laura on how to have the correct rowing machine techniques for beginners.

Different Resistance Types of Rowing Machines

Find out for yourself how these resistance mechanisms differ from each other.

Air Resistance Machines

Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine with PM5 Performance Monitor, Black

As the name implies, these rowers use air as their main way of providing resistance. As you can imagine, there is no limit to the amount of air around us, so this air rower produces resistance using your own force. The faster or harder you row, the more air you generate, so the more resistance there is.

Stamina Air Rower Rowing Machine

Most air rowers, sometimes called fan rowers, have some way to control the amount of air that the fan receives.

Pros of Air Rowers

Stamina Air Rower Rowing Machine

There’s a lot of good reasons why air resistance rowers are so popular. Here are some advantages of an air rowing machine:

  • Relatively lightweight (compared to other types)
  • Often inexpensive
  • Offers unlimited amount of air resistance, so no matter how fit you might be, you can still get a challenging workout from this type of rower

Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine with PM5 Performance Monitor, Black

Cons of Air Resistance Rowers

An air resistance rower has a few issues, which you should factor into your decision. Here are the most significant considerations:

  • They are noisy. REALLY noisy. SUPER noisy. I think you get the picture. Worse yet, the harder you row, the more noise they generate
  • Most models do not have an exact setting. For example, you can’t set the air rower on 3 today and then try to set the machine on 4 for a harder workout. YOU are the only control over the amount of air resistance during your workouts

Learn more with our full video of the Concept2 Rower by Rowing YouTube Influencer Max Secunda:


The Best Air Resistance Rowers

Most highly-competitive and self-motivated athletes would have nothing but air rowers because, frankly, air resistance rowing gives the most challenging workouts. Some of the best air rowers are:

ATS Air Rower

Stamina Air Rower Rowing Machine


Concept 2 Model D

Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine with PM5 Performance Monitor, Black

Water Resistance Machines


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Both water and air resistance types of rowing machines are called flywheel rowers. Water rowers also use a fan but in a different way. They have the fan blades encased in a round tank filled with water. The harder you work, the harder the fan must work to push itself through the water.

Some models are designed with electric pumps, so you can add or remove water. More water in the tank will increase the resistance, less water means less resistance. Other models make you manually add or remove water, so check to see if the model you’re considering includes an electric pump.


Water rowers, like air rowers, are generally in the same price range and are less expensive than other indoor rowers, but they can be very heavy and must have a flat surface to work properly. Most water rowers are made of wood, such as the elegant WaterRower models, but there are also other options made of steel and aluminum.

Get the Best Deal at LIT Compare on Amazon

You need lots of space for a water rower, but if you have the room, these rowers give you the closest real-life rowing experience you will get outside of a lake.

Pros of Water Rowing Machines

There are a lot of things to like about these beautiful rowers, such as:

  • They are very quiet. All you hear is the soft swoosh sound of moving water
  • Most are inexpensive
  • Water rowers offer the closest feeling to real life that you can get from an indoor rower
  • Most of the models can handle users up to 350 pounds or more

Ergatta Wooden Water Rower Upright Storage Options

Cons of Water Rowers

Read the following before you purchase this type to be sure you get the perfect rower for your space. Some of the drawbacks of water rowers are:

  • They can be difficult to adjust. Adding and removing water is time-consuming
  • These types of rowers must have a completely flat surface to operate
  • Most of these rowing machines are very heavy and cannot fold so you need lots of room

The Best Water Resistance Rowing Machines

There are some outstanding water resistance machines out there, including these great machines:

If you want to know which is better, a water rower or an air rower, you can read more about the in-depth comparison we did in this article: water rower vs air rower.

Magnetic Resistance Rowing Machines 

HYDROW Side view

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These are also very popular machines but for a different reason than air or water resistance types.

This type of machine uses a metal flywheel that is surrounded by magnets. While the magnets aren’t actually rubbing on the flywheel, they create resistance from the other magnets. The closer the magnets get to another, the more resistance they create.  FYI: Read more about the Hydrow Magnetic Rower Here

Magnetic resistance type rowing models have a means of controlling the amount of resistance. Each manufacturer and model will vary, but nearly all magnetic rowing machines can create enough resistance so that you can get a real workout.

lady working out on hydrow home rowing machine

Magnetic resistance rowers are newer than water or air rowers, but the main reason they are so popular is that they are incredibly quiet.

You can use a magnetic resistance rowing machine in your living room and not bother your sleeping baby, or the neighbors downstairs or in the apartment next door.


There are a few other terrific things about magnetic rowing machines that you should know before you buy.

Learn more with our full video by Olympic Silver Medalist Rachael Taylor:


Pros of Magnetic Rowing Machines

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rowing Machine Rower with LCD Monitor

These machines are popular because they have a great many benefits that people want in a rowing machine, including:

  • Nearly silent operation
  • Many models fold or can be easily moved
  • Prices vary considerably, but there are many budget-friendly models
  • You can set resistance levels easily

The Cons of a Magnetic Rowing Machine

Keep these in mind before you buy a magnetic rowing machine for your home gym.

  • There is a less “natural” rowing experience. You make the same rowing motion, but it doesn’t feel the same
  • Some models can be very expensive

The Best Magnetic Rowing Machines

People know what is important to them and what their wallet will allow, but generally speaking, some of the very best magnetic resistance rowers would be:

Hydrow Rower


Teeter Power 10 Elliptical Rower

Teeter Power10 Elliptical Rower

Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515


If you’re interested in a comparison between water rowing machines and magnetic ones, you should read this article –  are water rowers better than magnetic rowers.

Hydraulic Rowing Machines

No water tank, no flywheel, but hydraulic machines have been around for decades.

Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW1205 Rowing Machine Rower with 12 Level Adjustable Resistance, Digital Monitor and 220 LB Max Weight

Hydraulic rowing machines use a piston-type mechanism similar to the shock absorbers on your car. You push and pull against the pressure of the hydraulic fluid or air that is inside the tube.

Most hydraulic rowing machines have one piston for the legs and one for each arm. Unlike most water, air, or magnetic rowing machines, these use separate arm pieces, which simulate a more realistic type of rowing feeling.

Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5639 Full Motion Rowing Machine Rower w/ 350 lb Weight Capacity and LCD Monitor

While hydraulic machines have been used for a long time, they are not very common in today’s market. Most people are looking for a more real feeling of being on open water, or they want to be able to have more control over resistance levels, as they workout.


The Pros of a Hydraulic Rowing Machine

Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine

You can still find hydraulic machines because they do have some good points, such as:

  • Very inexpensive
  • They have a small footprint and are great for smaller spaces
  • They can be easily moved

Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine

The Cons of Hydraulic Rowing Machines

Remember these points before you buy:

  • No real rowing action
  • Limited resistance options
  • The majority of models don’t last long


The Best Hydraulic Rowing Machines

If you are interested in a hydraulic machine, you can find some great deals. We like the following hydraulic machines:

Sunny Health and Fitness Hydraulic Rower

Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW1205 Rowing Machine Rower with 12 Level Adjustable Resistance, Digital Monitor and 220 LB Max Weight


Stamina Body Trac Glider

Stamina Body Trac Glider 1050 Rowing Machine

Sunny Health and Fitness Full Motion Rower

Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5639 Full Motion Rowing Machine Rower w/ 350 lb Weight Capacity and LCD Monitor

Rowing Machine Resistance Levels

Most rowing machines use resistance levels, which are represented by numbers to indicate how hard you need to work. The higher the number, the more resistance and the harder your workout will be.

However, these numbers are not uniform for all rowers. For example, a level two on one machine might be a level 4 on another.


Final Thoughts

I hope this article has helped you understand the differences between the types of resistance that rowing machines use so that when you start searching and browsing online, you won’t feel lost or confused.

At the end of the day, the best resistance type for you depends on your personal exercise needs, priorities, and preferences. If you want limitless resistance, then nothing beats the flywheel rowers. You generate more resistance by rowing harder. Between the water and air, water rowers are quieter and feel closest to rowing on water, complete with swooshing sound. However, if you prefer to adjust the resistance to a setting and work out on a smooth and really quiet machine, then you should get a magnetic rower.

Still wondering should I get a rowing machine? Click Here!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What resistance should I use on a rowing machine?

A: This will depend on the type of resistance your machine has, as well as your current fitness level. Beginners should start at a level 2 or 3 and see how it feels. Intermediate users should start at level 3 or 4, and more advanced users can start at level 5, then adjust accordingly.

Q: What is the best type of rowing machine to buy?

A: I always think the answer to this question should be “the one you will use!” If you need a quiet machine, choose one with magnetic resistance. If you love the sound of water, choose a water rower. If you are on a really tight budget ( see Yosuda Rowing Machine review ) and/or don’t have much space, a hydraulic rower is a good choice for you.

Q: What drag factor should I row at?

A: Like resistance, the drag factor is subjective, depending on your fitness level and the type of workout you are looking for. If you are a beginner, start with 100-130 and adjust accordingly.