Water rowing machines vs magnetic vs air-based models: Pros and cons

Which kind of rowing machine will you choose: air, magnetic, or water powered exercise? We weigh up the pros and cons

The best rowing machines: water, magnetic or fan-powered?
(Image credit: Lee Bell)

So, you’re here because you’re in the market for a rowing machine? Since gyms and fitness studios have had their doors bolted firmly shut since, well, what feels like forever, we can’t blame you for wanting your very own rower to drench in bum sweat while working out at home.

If you’ve just started the arduous research process of finding the best rowing machine for you, you’ve probably already discovered that this isn't so easy. Not only do you have to determine which brand might be the most reliable, or what price you’re willing to shell out, but there’s the big question of what type you should go for.

Will your future rower be the more traditional and common magnetic-driven variety, or will you opt for a slightly more fancy fan-based model? Perhaps, after deep diving into Google’s abyss of online retailers, you might find that it’s worth splurging in a top of the range water rower.

And don’t be ashamed if you weren’t already aware that there are different types of rowers available, especially if you're researching the best exercise machines to lose weight for the very first time. The pandemic has lots of people reaching for fitness kit, some for the very first time. It's important to know each has its own unique set of features, benefits and drawbacks. 

Understandably, it can be a little overwhelming to navigate the rower market, especially at first. And so this is what this article sets out to do: explain - in simple terms - how the different types vary, and the pros and cons of each to help you on your way. 

So if you’re ready to get your row on, let’s begin...

The best rowing machines: water, magnetic or fan-powered?

(Image credit: Lee Bell)

 Air-driven rowing machines

The most popular and common type of rowing machine is an air-driven, or fan-based rower. These devices provide resistance by blowing air through a flywheel. Essentially, the harder you pull, the faster the fans will spin and the more resistance you’ll get. 

Most of these machines also feature damper settings, which is essentially a lever that allows more air into the flywheel housing. The more air, the more work it takes to spin the flywheel. By lowering the damper setting, less air will be let into the flywheel housing, making it easier to spin the flywheel. It’s this mechanism that allows you to control the resistance of your workout, in the same way gears impact the feel of peddling on a bike.

Fan-based rowing machines are probably the best in terms of value and customisation, which is probably why you see them at most commercial gyms. Anyway, here are the main pros and cons of an air-driven rower:

Pros:

  • Air-based rowers are generally smooth, providing a nice balanced rowing experience 
  • Good at replicating real rowing action
  • More accessible in terms of price - generally around the £500-plus range
  • Offer a customisable and wide range of resistances

Cons:

  •  Noisy operation - as you’ve probably witnessed in the gym, air-driven rowers are super loud and will require you to SHOUT LOUDLY to someone else while you're using one!

The best rowing machines: water, magnetic or fan-powered?

(Image credit: Lee Bell)

Magnetic rowing machines 

As you probably already guessed, a magnetic rower does what an air-driven rower does, but uses magnetism instead. Mind blowing, right? These types of rowers are also very common, although probably not as much as air rowers, which you see everywhere. 

As the name suggests, two strong magnets moving past one another provide the resistance, so there’s no friction. This means that the resistance is noy only quiet, but consistently smooth throughout a workout. These machines can also be pretty cheap to get a hold of, with some budget models starting fairly cheap. This Sunny Magnetic Rowing Machine has been marked down from $399 to $228, the perfect deal to snap up if magnets are your thing.

Here are the main pros and cons of a magnetic rower:

Pros:

  • Extremely quietly, almost silent - the quietest kind of rower you can get
  • Generally smaller and more compact than other types of rower
  • Don’t require much maintenance to keep them in good nick
  • Often foldable and lightweight, making them easy to store when it not in use

Cons:

  • Don’t mimic the authentic rowing-on-water feel - those looking to close their eyes and envision rowing for gold in the olympics will be disappointed with this type of machine.

The best rowing machines: water, magnetic or fan-powered?

(Image credit: Lee Bell)

Water Rowing Machines

Water rowers are a more modern type of rowing machine, known for their minimal aesthetic and sexy design that makes them more desirable, almost as pieces of art that you can show off with on Instagram. They're just as good when it comes to rowing for weight loss as the other two kinds, but they have a unique attraction all their own.

What makes these machines unique is that they function via a transparent drum full of water that sits just under the footrests. Resistance is created by paddles and water that turn as you row. This fluid mechanism applies resistance throughout your stroke, meaning the harder you row, the more intense the resistance will be.

Here are the main pros and cons of a water rower:

Pros:

  • Unique looking and generally beautiful to look at
  • Quiet and smooth operation
  • Real-life rowing action that feels somewhat mesmerising to both watch and listen to
  • Smooth stroke action limits pressure and potential strains on joints, back, and hip flexors

Cons:

  • Price - these types of machines are by far the most expensive, and often retail in the thousands. Gulp. Still, worth it if you’re a budding rower looking for a decent, all-round machine that looks the part, too.

Verdict

There’s no “one for all” when it comes to rowing machines, it all depends on your needs. While an air-driven machine is the most common and also most all-rounded in terms of features and accessibility, a magnetic model might be a better purchase if noise (and price) is a big issue for you. 

However, if money is no object (lucky you) then it’s fair to say that water rowers are generally the best people-pleasers of the lot thanks to their ability to mimic the real feel of rowing through water, a generally more stylish appearance, and not sounding like you’ve ignited a jet engine in your living room when you’re using one. The choice is yours.

Lee Bell
Lee Bell

Lee Bell is a freelance journalist & copywriter specialising in technology and health and how the latest innovations are shaking up the fitness space.