Air vs. Magnetic Rowing Machine: Which Should You Pick?

Air rower vs magnetic rower

There’s a lot to consider when buying a rowing machine. Before you start delving into makes and models, however, you need to make the most basic decision; what type of rowing machine are you going to invest in? 

There are 4 types of rowing machines: air, magnetic, hydraulic, and water. The two most popular are air and magnetic and those are the two that we’ll focus on here. 

You’re about to discover the differences and similarities between air and magnetic, why you might consider one over the other, and what type of training each is best suited for. 


Don’t have time to read this complete air vs magnetic rower comparison? No worries – here’s the key point breakdown …

  • Air rowing machines use a fan flywheel wind resistance – it’s more natural but noisier.
  • Magnetic rowers utilize magnets and a solid steel flywheel – whisper-quiet but not as realistic to the actual on-the-water experience.
  • Air rowers are variable resistance – the faster you row, the more resistance generated – great for HIIT!
  • Magnetic rowers have a manually adjusted resistance setting.
  • Air rowers have more accurate data readouts on the monitor.
  • Magnetic rowers are usually more compact.
  • If you’re an athlete or a water rower, go for an air rower.
  • If you’re a casual rower or apartment dweller, choose a magnetic rower.

Air Rowing Machine Features

Air rowing machines are identifiable by the large fan flywheel that sits at their front and by the distinctive whooshing noise that is created on every stroke. Here’s a breakdown of the key features.

Resistance Type

Air rowers make use of wind to provide the resistance of your workout. When you pull on the handle, you move the front fan flywheel. The flywheel is fitted with blades that must rotate against the resistance (or drag) of the air. The faster you move, the more drag is created and the harder it is to row. 

When you are exercising on an air rower, the faster you row, the more resistance you create. This is a form of variable resistance because it varies in accordance with the effort you put in. 

This is the biggest differentiator between an air and a magnetic rower …

Unlike a magnetic machine, there are no resistance settings on an air rower. To make your workout harder, you need to go faster. Compare this to a magnetic rower, where the resistance that you select stays the same no matter how fast or slow you are rowing. 

When you row on the water, your resistance is variable and fluid, depending on the current and wind. So, using an air rower does a better job of simulating the actual on the water rowing experience than a magnetic rower. That’s why competitive rowers prefer to use an air resistance rower than a magnetic rower. 


Some air rowers (the more expensive models) will feature a damper setting. On the side of the flywheel, you’ll find a lever that you can adjust to several settings (usually between 1 and 10). This looks very much like a resistance adjustment setting.

But it’s not. 

Remember that you can’t set the resistance level on an air rower. Rather than locking in a resistance level, the function of the damper is to adjust the amount of air that moves through the flywheel. The higher you set the damper, the more air will be allowed in. 

You might think that this would adjust the resistance level. In fact, it changes the amount of drag, which will either make the stroke feel heavier or lighter. This can be likened to changing the gears on your bicycle. 

Drag Factor

YouTube video

The fan flywheel of the air rower has a protective net covering. Over time dust particles will accumulate on this covering and this will affect the amount of air that gets into the flywheel. Less air will mean less resistance and greater effort required on your part to work at the level you desire. This is known as the drag factor

Most air rower monitors will provide you with a drag factor reading, which is usually given between 1 and 200. The higher the number, the greater the drag factor. 


While air rowing machine monitors are generally more advanced than those on magnetic rowers, this will vary according to cost. However, an air rower will give you a more accurate and precise indication of your rowing experience. Some air rowers may not even have a monitor at all.

The more expensive the air rower, the more detail the monitor will drill down for you. To get an idea of what you can expect on a mid-range air rower monitor, let’s zoom in on the Concept 2 Row Erg

Concept2 pm5 monitor

[PM5 Monitor – Support- Performance Monitors – ErgFit Limited (]

This is the PM5 RowErg monitor. It offers a variety of workout options and provides you with the following workout diagnostics:

  • Pace
  • Watts
  • Stroke Rate
  • Time
  • Calories Burned

All of this data is automatically stored for later analysis. The PM5 is also WiFi connectable via Bluetooth, allowing you to connect with a variety of training programs and apps. This is a standard feature on most air rower monitors. 

Best For …

If you are a person who rows on the water, either competitively or recreationally, you will be better off with an air rower than a magnetic version. That’s because the experience will be much closer to the real thing. 

An air rower will also allow you to more accurately monitor your training performance, so if precision is important to you, the air rower is the way to go. 

If you are into high-intensity interval training (HIIT), the air rower is a far better option than a magnetic rower. That’s because of the resistance adjustment. You’ll recall that you don’t have to stop and make any manual adjustment; you simply slow down or speed up. 

That’s perfect for HIIT, where you are transitioning between fast and slow with no interruption. 

Magnetic Rowing Machine Features

Magnetic rowing machines are popular for home use largely because they provide a quieter, more compact workout than an air rower. That makes them more amenable to limited space options and living environments where others don’t want to be disturbed. 

At the same time, a magnetic rower will provide you with a smooth, jerk-free rowing experience. 


The resistance on a magnetic rower is provided by a magnet and a solid metal flywheel. When you adjust the resistance, the magnet moves closer (high resistance) or further away (lower resistance) from the flywheel. The force of magnetic attraction then takes over to control how hard or easy your rowing stroke will be. 

So, here we see the major difference between a magnetic and an air rower. When you set the resistance level on a magnetic rower, it stays the same regardless of how fast or slow you are pulling on the handle. If you want to go faster, you’ll have to change the resistance, which will interrupt the flow of your training.

The heavier the flywheel on a magnetic rower, the greater the resistance potential and smoothness of your rowing experience. 

The actual resistance adjustment mechanism can vary between magnetic machines. It may be a dial resistance or a push button on the monitor. 


The level of complexity on the monitor on a magnetic rowing machine, like air rowers, will vary according to the price you pay. Most of them will provide you with a selection of preset workouts, which automatically vary the resistance levels through the workout, as well as a running readout of your time, distance, 500-meter split, and watts.

As with air rowers, the monitors on magnetic rowers are often WiFi compatible via Bluetooth. This allows you to hook into apps that offer training programs, games, and challenges from all over the world. Many magnetic rower manufacturers also have their own app where you can download your training diagnostics for later analysis and comparison.

The accuracy of the data collected on a magnetic rowing machine monitor will not be as accurate as of that on an air rower. However, if you are comparing your performance against yourself it will be perfectly fine. It’s only when you start comparing against others who are using a different machine that the reliability of the data will be an issue. 

Best For …

A magnetic rowing machine is best suited for people who are going to be using the machine in proximity to other people. That’s because the magnetic resistance is quiet, which cannot be said for the wind resistance generated on an air rower. Try jumping on an air rower in the living room of your apartment at 6 am and you’ll soon have pretty irate neighbors!

Because they don’t feature a large fan flywheel, magnetic rowers are generally less bulky than air rowers. That makes them more suited to compact workout environments. So, if you don’t have the luxury of a basement or garage to set up your home gym, you will probably find that a magnetic rower will better suit your requirements. 

You’ll also find that there are more foldable magnetic rowers than foldable air rowers, allowing you to store the machine in a cupboard or under a bed when you’re done. 

Air vs Magnetic Key Differences

Resistance Format

The wind resistance on the air rower more closely simulates the real on the water rowing experience. It provides variable resistance which is determined by your rowing speed. This is far more natural but may not suit people who want more control over their resistance level. 

Magnetic rowers make use of a steel flywheel and magnet system. It is controlled by manual adjustment. You will get a smooth, jerk-free resistance but will have to pause your session to adjust. 

Noise Level

When it comes to rating workout noise levels, the magnetic rower is the hands-down winner. You can’t avoid the whooshing noise that comes with air resistance and the faster you row, the louder it becomes. In contrast, magnetic resistance is usually whisper quiet. 

Accuracy of Data

The data that is collected on the monitor of an air rower will usually be more accurate than that derived from a magnetic rower. The more serious you are about your training diagnostics, the more important this will be to you. 

Air vs Magnetic: Key Similarities


The actual biomechanical movement will be the same on both the air rowing and magnetic machine. In other words, you have just as much potential of using good and bad form on either machine. Keep in mind, though, that to adjust the resistance level on a magnetic machine you’ll have to pause momentarily (unless you’re using a preset program). 

Varied Resistance

You do have the ability to vary the resistance on both types of rowers. 

Smooth Resistance

The rowing action on both machines is usually smooth and jerk-free, allowing for continuous, natural action. This is what you might expect, but may not be the case if you are using a hydraulic rower. 

Monitor Detail

Both air and magnetic rowing machines may feature monitors that are simple or data-heavy. Though air rowers will be more precise in their readouts, the more pricey magnetic rowers such as the Hydrow can be on par with similarly priced air rowers in terms of the amount of data displayed. 


Both air rowers and magnetic rowers have a flywheel. The type of flywheel, of course, is very different, with that on an air rower being larger and featuring spoke-like blades. In contrast, the magnetic rower has a solid steel flywheel. The heavier the flywheel on a magnetic rower, the greater the resistance potential. 


Both air and magnetic rowers can provide you with an excellent cardiovascular and muscular workout. They are both available at budget, moderate and expensive price points. 

In general, magnetic rowers are better suited for people who are exercising to lose weight, get fit, and training to complement a resistance training program. But, if you’re an athlete or a person who actually rows on the water, your best bet is to go for an air rower. 

Steve Theunissen


Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner, personal trainer, and school teacher and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness, and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.