There are 4 different types of rowing machines — what’s the difference?

Man on concept 2 rowing machine

Intense cardio is a great way to burn calories and improve your stamina in your everyday life.

But when deciding between a treadmill, elliptical, and other options, how do you know which one is right for you?

Well, if you want a low-impact option that’s easy on your legs and knees, you should definitely consider hopping on a rowing machine.

Not only will you find these at most gyms, but they come with benefits you just don’t get with other machines.

For starters, you receive a full-body workout with the machine targeting your arms, pecs, upper back, calves, glutes, and so much more. It’s a great workout for your heart and lungs. Plus, it’s recommended for people at any fitness level. 

But not all rowing machines are the same. If you’re looking to buy one for your home or use one at the gym, you should know about the different varieties.

The main types of rowing machines are:

  1. Water rowing machines
  2. Air rowing machines
  3. Magnetic rowing machines
  4. Hydraulic rowing machines

They’re all similar in functionality, but with distinct pros and cons you should consider.

Let’s take a closer look, with some help from Caley Crawford, NASM CPT and Director of Education at Row House.

Water rowing machines

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Water rowers consist of a water-filled flywheel.

This is a tank connected to the chain and handles. When you pull on it, the paddles revolve in the water, providing you with resistance.

This most closely gives you the sensation of rowing in the water, and it’s one of the more popular options for people who are training for real-life, competitive rowing — in addition to getting in fantastic shape.

They give you all the excellent upper and lower-body benefits you’ll find in other varieties of rowing machines.

However, water rowers offer advantages you may not get with other variations. For starters, water machines tend to be a lot quieter.

All you hear is the gentle “whoosh” of water as you pull toward you. As a result, this gives your workouts a gentle meditative quality. It gives you a chance to unwind from all of the stress of the day and focus on your breathing and personal health.

In fact, one study from Rutgers University found that combining meditation with aerobic exercises, like rowing, can help decrease symptoms of depression by as much as 40 percent.

Working out on a water rowing machine can be more than good for your muscles. It can be good for your mind and soul.

Buyer beware though: Water rowers are quite expensive compared to other models, so it’s not feasible for everyone to own one in their home. They can also be finicky to maintain since the water tank must be kept clean.

They also don’t offer the smoothest rowing experience, according to Crawford:

“The water tends to slow down quicker, so each stroke taken can feel heavy and like you have to go from 0 to 100 on every stroke.”

Work out with a WaterRower if you want the closest thing to rowing on real water.

Air rowing machines

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In contrast, an air rowing machine provides the simulation of rowing on water without actually using any H2O.

This device utilizes a flywheel to create resistance from the air itself as you pull away.

When the user pulls on the handle, it spins a “fan flywheel.”

As the flywheel moves, it moves air both to the side and in front of the component. The air particles around the flywheel create the resistance necessary for you to create force to move it.

The way you increase or decrease tension comes down to how hard you want to work out. You control the strength and speed of your pulls. The faster and harder you row, the greater the resistance increases.

Crawford calls this style of rowing machine resistance, just like on the water rower, “self-generated.”

She adds that it’s often a more challenging cardio workout when compared to the fixed resistance of a magnetic rower (explained below).

While an air rowing machine works out many of the same muscles as a water-based one, these devices are typically recommended for taller users.

The reason for this is that they provide a fuller range of movement. They offer more space than what you’d generally find with a water rower.

However, one downside of this variation is that they tend to be noisier.

They generate more more noise, which may disturb some users. But if you like to listen to music anyway when you work out, then you may not notice it as much.

Exercise with an air rower for a killer, full-range of motion workout. Just watch out — they can be noisy!

Magnetic rowing machines

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Magnetic rowers use intricate scientific principles to give you a full-body workout.

First, you need to manually adjust the level of resistance you want.

From there, the magnetic rower creates resistance through the basis of “eddy currents.” This occurs where the magnet radiates and exerts a significant force on the metal flywheel. This forces the flywheel to either accelerate or slow down.

You feel a greater resistance based on how close the magnet is to the flywheel.

To adjust, you’ll either use a button or dial on the machine.

This differs from the air rower because how hard and fast you row has no impact on the overall resistance.

One major benefit you receive with magnetic rowers is that you have a lot more options when it comes to the kind of workout you want.

Since you can adjust the resistance as well as the seat, you choose what muscle groups you want to focus on. With a wide range of resistance available, you can start out light if you’re a beginner and gradually work your way up.

The fixed resistance style may provide less of a cardio workout, but according to Crawford “the magnetic rower has been known to feel a little ‘heavier’ so the strength component might be slightly better on that machine.”

This particular rower is also extremely quiet. You barely hear anything, so you can focus on your own thoughts and meditation.

One downside is that they tend to be a bit harder to find. Many gyms may not have this variety. Plus, they can be large and are sometimes expensive.

However, if you can find one, then I highly recommended taking one for a spin.

Go with a magnetic rower for a killer resistance workout, just make sure you have the room in your house before you buy one.

Hydraulic rowing machines

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Hydraulic rowing machines are a little different than the 3 previous types.

They don’t have a traditional flywheel — instead, you’ll find two pistons filled with either air or fluid, which can then be calibrated to create resistance.

Some models have sliding or adjustable seats so you can incorporate aerobic work into your rowing, but many are stationary.

Hydraulic rowers are great for people who only want to focus on upper-body strength. This is due to the fact hydraulic rowing machines do very little to engage your legs, so you miss out on the full-body workout you normally expect from other rowers.

It’s hard to get an intense, full-body workout with a hydraulic rower. They’re extremely light on features and mostly used for upper body conditioning.

However, they do have some advantages.

Hydraulic rowing machines are the quietest rowers around — they’re virtually silent! They’re also extremely affordable and compact, often folding away for easy storage.

You sacrifice a lot of features opting for a hydraulic rower, which is why Crawford says you won’t often see them in a commercial setting like a gym or a studio. But for a lot of people they’re the most practical type to own.

Go with a hydraulic rower to save money and space vs the other types available.

Wrapping up

Water, air, and magnetic rowers give you excellent workouts for the entire body.

You work out muscles in your legs, back, and arms, so your exercise is far more efficient than using a treadmill or elliptical.

Hydraulic rowing machines are affordable and compact, but have far fewer features and won’t build your legs the same way the other types of rowing machines will.

To sum it up, Crawford says “If you’re a beginner and looking to incorporate rowing into a workout, I suggest going with the air rower or water rower since the resistance is self-generated,” adding that air rowers are the easiest to buy and maintain for most people.

What’s your favorite type of rower? Which one gives you the best workout?

Before you go, don’t miss some of my other rowing guides like:

And for more basic gym equipment guides check out the types of dumbbells and the types of resistance bands.

Good luck!