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5 Types of Indoor Rowing Machines – Which Should You Choose?

  • By Kate Moore
  • on 
  • This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Please read my full disclosure.

With various types of rowing machines available on the market, it’s hard to know which is the best one to buy.

There are 5 main categories of rowing machines – air, magnetic, water, hydraulic, and electromagnetic.

These machines all have different ways of working and offer a slightly different experience (although ultimately they all help you achieve the same goals). Whether you’re buying a rower for fitness, weight loss, rehabilitation or competitive training, you’ll find there’s a machine to suit you.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of rowers, their advantages and disadvantages, and who they’re most appropriate for:

Air Rowing Machine

The air rowing machine is very popular and is used in many home and commercial gyms. This design has been around since the start of the 1980s. And these machines are often called “ergs”, short for ergometers, a standard model which is very popular for indoor rowing work-outs.

man doing an easy warm up or cool down on an indoor rowing machine before a crossfit workout

How Does This Machine Work?

All air rowing machines produce resistance from the internal flywheel, located at the front end of the machine. When you pull on the chain which is attached to the flywheel it starts to spin and rotate.

The resistance is controlled by how hard you pull – the harder you row, the more resistance you feel (just like rowing on the water).


Most air rowers have a folding mechanism and are fitted with transport wheels so can be stowed away with ease.


It would depend on the model you choose, you can buy one without overstretching your balance. A basic air rower like the Stamina Air Rower 1399 can be found for under $500. The top rated model, the Concept2, costs nearly $1000. Although it is popular for home use, it is also used by most competitive rowers in preparation for rowing competitions.


Air Rowers can generate quite a bit of noise as the flywheel is working with air force and your pulling ability. It’s not the quietest machine on the market so might not be the best choice for those who need to be mindful of other household members (or neighbors if you’re living in an apartment).

Floor Space

The Air rower models do come in various sizes. The cheaper models are reasonably compact, and can be easily stored in small living spaces. More expensive models will usually be bigger and take up a larger amount space.

Advantages of Air Rowers

  • You can dictate and set your own resistance levels by how fast and hard you row. There are also damper settings that can make the rowing action harder or easier depending on the level you choose.
  • They have a very smooth stroke action
  • Very little damage or wear is actually caused to your air rower when you use it – so an air rower should be able to withstand a lifetime of use.

Disadvantages of Air Rowers

  • Noise can be an issue with the flywheel air mechanism. This isn’t something that will bother most people, particularly those who usually work out with music or TV in the background, or use headphones. However, if you share a relatively small living space with others, the noise level is something you might want to take into consideration.

Who will this suit?

The air rower is useful for all types of fitness levels. From top athletes using them in training (Olympic rowers use the Concept2) to beginners using a more basic model at home, there is a suitable air rowing machine for everyone.

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rower
  • Adjustable, magnetic resistance rower
  • Extra-long, 48" slide rail
  • Large LCD console displays time, count, calories, total reps, and scan

Magnetic Rowing Machines

A magnetic rowing machine is often considered the most suitable for home use, mainly because it’s easily the quietest compared to air and water rowers. Most have a relatively compact design which take up the minimum amount of space when used at home.

Like the other rowers, a magnetic rowing machine will give you a terrific cardiovascular and all over body work out, helping you to reach your fitness goals.

How Does A Magnetic Rowing Machine Work

This machine contains a series of strong magnets which change in distance and a flywheel with the handle attached by a chain. Your resistance levels alter due to the mechanical sliders or can be digitally adjusted using the console controls. With magnetic rowers you get smooth and controlled movements, while noise levels stay at a minimum.


Many are priced in the $200-$300 range which is very affordable for those on a budget, or someone looking for a first home exercise machine.

Advantages of Magnetic Rowers

  • Generates very little noise, this is the quietest of all the rowing machines, even at high resistance levels. Perfect if you’re sharing a living space and need to keep noise levels to a minimum.
  • Wide range of resistance levels for challenging workouts
  • Does not require much maintenance

Disadvantages of Magnetic Rowers

  • Magnetic rowers do not give a natural feel that simulates rowing on the water. Every stroke is the same, regardless of how hard you pull. Resistance is manually adjusted using a button or knob (with water or air rowers the resistance is automatically increased with effort).
SNODE Water Rower
  • Water resistance rower
  • Bluetooth supported including interactive personal training with FITLOG App
  • LCD monitor displays time, calories, reps, total count, and distance

The Water Rower

The water rower has massively increased in popularity after the Netflix series “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey (his character, Frank Underwood, regularly uses a water rowing machine).

Water rowers are the most elegant of fitness machines, some made with solid high quality wood that almost makes it look like a piece of furniture. The resistance levels are produced from the water paddling wheel located at the front.

Water rowers provide an experience that simulates real outdoor rowing more than any other rower. Many people enjoy the calmness of strokes and the “swooshing” sound of water swirling around.

How Does the Water Rower Work?

The WaterRower brands work with a water flywheel system, its a water tank with paddles attached to a chain with handles to row. Once you start rowing pulling back on the chain, the water wheel paddles, spinning the wheel in circular motions.

The mass of the swirling water creates a drag against the paddles and this supplies resistance to your work-out. You control the resistance level with the speed you want to row at, the faster the rowing the harder the resistance.

Water rowers can simulate actual outdoor water experience, the strokes are very controlled and they never break momentum (unlike air rowers). The water rower ensures you do not hit a “flat spot” (when strokes nose dive).


Water rowing machines start at about $400 but if you’re looking for a genuine wooden WaterRower you’ll be looking at an outlay of about 4 figures (typically in the range of $1200 or more)


Once the machine is in motion it’s not as loud as the air rower, you just hear the sound of the water swirling. It’s not as quiet as the magnetic rower though.


Most of these rowers are quite sizeable machines so you’ll need quite a bit of space to house one comfortably.

Advantages Of Water Rowers

  • Operate very quietly
  • The smoothness of strokes is consistent throughout the resistance
  • Some people enjoy the water “whoosh” effect

Disadvantages of Water Rowers

  • The machine is not small, you will need a reasonable amount of space
  • Not cheap, quite costly when compared to magnetic and air rowers (this depends on the brand though)

Who is the water rower most suited to?

If you’re looking for types of rowing machine that look good, the WaterRower brand of wooden rowing machine is great for those looking for an exercise machine that’s aesthetically pleasing.

There are different woods available that will suit your furnishings. A water rowing machine is most like the actual outdoor rowing experience. If you can’t afford the Waterrower brand there are cheaper water rowers on the market that work similarly but might not be quite as stylish looking.

Stamina 35-1215 Rowing Machine
  • Compact hydraulic resistance rower
  • Smooth resistance dial
  • LCD monitor displays time, distance, speed, calories burned and stroke count
  • Supported by müüv, the all-in-one workout app that offers personalized training

Hydraulic Rowing Machines

These machines are easily the cheapest of all the rowing machines on the market. They’re not as popular as the other three because they are considered to lack the technology and performance prowess of other rowers. Of course, the price and relatively small design often appeal to rowing beginners or those who just want a very basic machine.

How Does It work

The clue is in the “hydraulic” bit – it has two pistons either side of the rowing handles. These get pumped up when you start your rowing motion. They can become heated though (from the friction of pulling back and forth) so do not touch them!


Small and compact so can be stowed with ease


Very cheap because they lack major features and not as high quality as the other models. They’re often priced in the $100-200 range, however, there are a few that cost even less than $100.

Advantages Of Hydraulic Machines

  • Price is going to be the biggest advantage for a hydraulic rower. Many people new to working out or just looking for a basic machine will probably like the affordability of these models.
  • They’re relatively compact so they’re good for apartment dwellers or those with only a small space to spare
  • Depending on the model, most are fairly quiet. You should get a smooth, quiet stroke.

Disadvantages of Hydraulic Machines

  • The pistons become very hot quickly, which makes the workout easier the longer you row (the tension loosens up and isn’t consistent). You can adjust the resistance up though as necessary to make it more difficult.
  • Not a gym quality machine (however it’s still functional and practical for cardio and muscle toning)

Who will a hydraulic rower suit?

Beginners, or those looking for an affordable machine that will still give a good cardio workout at home. It’s also small and quiet enough for apartment living.

Hydrow Rower
  • 22” touchscreen display
  • Electromagnetic drag mechanism
  • Additional workouts – including yoga, Pilates, and strength training
  • Daily live workouts
  • 4,000+ on-demand workouts

Electromagnetic Resistance

One of the newest types of rowers on the market uses electromagnetic resistance to achieve the most natural and water-like feel.

This is similar to magnetic resistance, but it uses an internet connection and real-time feedback to continuously adjust your pacing.

An example of this can be found in the Hydrow rowing machine.

How Does It work

This uses a computer controlled, electromagnetic drag mechanism that automatically adjusts up to 240 times per second.

The computer emulates the feeling of real rowing on the water, helping you to achieve smooth, efficient strokes. The resistance can easily be changed mid workout using a touch-screen interaction.


These machines are designed to look like a beautiful display piece, not packed away. They do not easily fold-down. Although the Hydrow can be stored vertically using an upright storage kit.


The Hyrow is one of the most expensive rowers on the market, starting at nearly $2,500. It also requires a monthly membership fee similar to the Peloton. This type of rower is designed to get your hooked into their eco-system, and continue to workout for years to come.

Advantages of Electromagnetic Machines

  • The electromagnetic design makes this machine nearly silent, which is perfect for those in a small apartment.
  • A streamlined design makes this one of the best looking rowers on the market
  • The computer-controlled drag mechanism realistically stimulates working out in the outdoors and mimics the real-world.

Disadvantages of Electromagnetic Machines

  • These are some of the most expensive rowing machines you can buy.
  • An internet connection is required to operate the rower.
  • A power connection is required while in-use.
  • They are large and do not store easily.


What is the cheapest indoor rowing machine?

Hydraulic rowing machines are the cheapest options because they have very few parts and use friction to create resistance.

What is the quietest indoor rowing machine?

Magnetic rowing machines are some of the quietest on the market so they are perfect for small apartments or home gyms.

What is the best indoor rowing machine for beginners?

Beginners who are not serious about high-intensity rowing can benefit from budget-friendly rowers like Hydraulic machines and magnetic resistance rowers.

What is the smallest indoor rowing machine?

Hydraulic rowing machines have the smallest footprint and can be stored easily in a closet or small apartment.

What is the most realistic indoor rowing machine?

Air rowers like the Concept 2 are the most popular machines for high-level athletes and competitive rowers. They realistically stimulate rowing in the water and work comparable muscle groups like you would in a boat.

Wrapping it up

As you can see, there are different types of rowing machine to suit any user. If you’re a competitive rower (either on or off the water) then there’s no question that an air rower will probably be the best option for your indoor training – most likely the top of the range model, the Concept2.

It’s not just for competitors though. Many people choose this rower for home use because of its quality construction, highly accurate monitor, and the ability to compete with other people around the world of the same height, weight and age.

If you’re in a shared living space and need an exercise machine that’s both compact and quiet, a budget friendly magnetic rower like the Sunny Health & Fitness SF-RW5515 will probably be your best bet.

If your rowing machine is for a living room and you’d like something that’s aesthetically pleasing, you’ll definitely want to check out the Water Rower range. These will also give you an authentic rowing experience that will make you feel like you’re rowing on the water (if you close your eyes!).

As you can see, there are many types of rowing machines so you’ll be able to find one that will suit your budget, living space, and fitness goals.