Fitness Equipment Reviews

Rower Comparison: Water vs Air vs Magnetic

Since the first patent was taken out in 1872, the rowing machine has undergone a steady series of innovations and improvements. One of the most profound occurred in 1988 with the introduction of the waterfly wheel design. Since then manufacturers have refined the concept so that we now have a whole new class of rower; one that promises to provide the most realistic rowing experience you can get without launching on a lake. But does it really? In this article, we put the water rower head to head with the traditional air rower to find out.

Magnetic Rowing Machines

Magnetic rowing machines make use of magnetism to provide their resistance. The two magnets do not actually touch each other, which means that there is no friction. As a result, you get a smooth rowing experience that is quiet and jerk free. Magnetic rowers also feature a flywheel which is connected to the handle via a chain. The bigger the flywheel, the more smooth your rowing experience will be.
Magnetic rowing machines provide you with up to 32 resistance levels. The digital console is usually quite basic.
Even though the forward and back movement is consistent, a magnetic rower will not provide you with the same feel as you’d experience rowing on the water or with an air rower.
Magnetic rowing machines are the least expensive of the three options. You can purchase an entry level model for around $300, which is less than half of what you’d pay for an air rower. Magnetic rowers are usually more compact than air or water rowers and are often foldable for storage under a bed or in a cupboard. They are also virtually maintenance free.

Air Rowing Machines

The air rowing machine is the most popular type of rower sold to both gyms and home users. Resistance is provided by air which activates the flywheel. You control the amount of air resistance by the intensity of your rowing. A damper also allows you to regulate the air flow by toggling the damper control. This allows you to control the feel of the rowing stroke. The chain belt drive mechanism used on air rowers provides a more natural rowing experience than you’ll get on a magnetic rower.
You can get air rowers that combine air and magnetic resistance to provide a linear resistance. You will experience a slight lag at the beginning of each stroke before the air resistance kicks in, which makes the air rower a less than perfect replica of the real on the water version.
The biggest negative with the air rower is that it is a noisy machine.
Depending on the model you buy, air rowers can have quite advanced and accurate monitors. They are more accurate than water rowers, which have to contend with the variable of the water resistance inside the tank, making your training diagnostics more likely to be inaccurate.
Air rowing machines are not as heavy as water rowers and are more portable. You can store an air rower standing up for a small horizontal footprint.

Water Rower Machines

The whole point of using a rowing machine is to simulate the rowing through water experience. The water rower doesn’t simulate rowing on water – it involves actually rowing through water. Water rowers feature a water tank fitted with resistance blades. You are able to adjust the resistance level by changing the water level in the tank and adjusting the blade angle or propeller speed.
The resistance that you get on a water rowing machine is the smoothest and most natural of any of the three rowing machine types. As with the air rower, there are no settable resistance levels on a water rower. The harder your row, the more resistance you will experience. However, it is not possible to quantify the amount of resistance.
Changing the water level in the tank does not make the cable harder or easier to pull. Instead, it adjusts the amount of weight that you are pulling. So, the more weight in the tank, the more of a strength type workout you will achieve.
Water rowing machines may feature quite advanced monitors. However, as already noted, they are not as accurate as those on air rowers due to the impossibility of getting quantifiable data from water resistance.

How to Decide Between Water, Magnetic and Air Rowers

Now that we have clearly in mind the difference between the 3 versions of the rowing machine, let’s look at some key criteria in choosing between them:
Your Workout Goal
A water rower will provide you with the closest to rowing on an actual body of water as you can get. If that is the most important thing to you, then it is an obvious choice. The feel of a magnetic rower does not compare to the water rower, feeling too artificial. The air rower comes closer but still lacks the experience of pushing a paddle through water. Ait rowers also have a slight lag at the beginning of every rowing stroke.
If you are more concerned with getting an effective cardio workout than replicating the on the water experience, then the air rower will still do an excellent job for you.
Accurate Data Feedback
If getting the most accurate training feedback through the monitor and any associated app is important to you, then an air rower will provide you with the best option. Some air rowers will even come with a chest strap pulse monitor for the most accurate training heart rate monitoring.
Portability & Storage
The most portable rowing machine is the magnetic rower. Between the other two options, the air rower is more portable and able to be stored. Water rowers are designed to stay in one position while air rowers can generally be stored in an upright position.They are also much lighter than water rowers.


All three rower types can give you a smooth, jerk free rowing action. The air rower, however, is more natural and continuous than the magnetic rower. In turn, the water rower will provide the best on the water rowing simulation. In terms of accuracy of data collections and storage, the air rower wins out. In the end, the choice you make will depend on what you value the most.

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