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Resistance Is Definitely Not Futile

Rowing is one of the most intense aerobic and anaerobic workouts that can be experienced with a single home fitness machine. Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. Surgeon General, has said that rowing “requires a greater exercise expenditure than any other aerobic activity.” According to U.S. Rowing, the sport’s national governing body, physiologists claim that rowing a 2,000-meter race (that’s roughly 1.25 miles) is equivalent to playing back-to-back basketball games.

Of course the intensity of a competitive rowing race isn’t quite the same thing as a home exercise routine—but that’s not to say it couldn’t be. An interesting aspect of how some rowing machines are designed is that the intensity of your workout increases the faster you go. It’s all a function of your rower’s resistance type. There are four primary types you should know about as you shop:

Man on magnetic rowing machine
Man on Stamina Magnetic Rowing Machine
Hydraulic Piston

This is the simplest and least expensive option for home exercise. Most piston rowers offer multiple resistance levels, so you can pre-set your desired level before your workout. Most designs in this category are sculling machines, with two long, free-motion arms rather than a single T-handle connected by a rowing cord or chain.

These machines have a lower weight capacity (usually under 300 pounds), but they’re also lighter and more portable, and some can be folded for easy storage. They’re generally smaller in size, which is advantageous if you don’t have a home gym or dedicated workout space.


Air resistance rowers feature a flywheel designed to offer increased air resistance the faster it spins. This design introduces more variability into a rowing session, allowing you to more accurately simulate the higher stroke rates and difficulty that are typical of a race’s start and finish.

Air rowers are noisier than other types, but some people enjoy the feeling of a “breeze” blowing back on them during their workout. High-end models are quieter, with more training programs and workout stats.

Stamina Piston Rowing Machine
Stamina Piston Rowing Machine

Magnetic rowing machines use electromagnets to create resistance. As with piston machines, this requires that you pre-set a resistance level before you begin. The downside of this technology is that it doesn’t offer the more lifelike simulation of an air or water rower. However, magnetic rowers are quieter than other models, providing a smooth and consistent rowing experience. This is an excellent choice if you’re just looking to get some exercise while watching TV or listening to music.


This is the category for the serious home fitness enthusiast. With water rowers, resistance is created by a flywheel within a water-filled tank. This creates not only a fluid rowing movement (no pun intended), but also a natural water sound that enhances your workout experience (and is famous for lulling babies to sleep). It’s the closest home equivalent to on-water rowing.

Water resistance rowing machines are costlier than other designs, but they’re exceptionally sturdy and durable, with higher weight capacities than most other models. Our selection at Hayneedle features high-quality WaterRower rowing machines with beautifully crafted frames made from metal and eco-friendly hardwoods, including ash and cherry. They also have a small footprint, storing upright when not in use.

Woman on Water Rower Rowing Machine
Woman on Water Rowing Machine

A few important features to consider:

  • Adjustable pedals for variable foot sizes (though you can always do a little DIY strap upgrade if necessary).
  • If you’re tall or have long legs, look for longer designs that will let you stretch full out as you row.
  • A raised LCD screen is much easier to monitor than a frame-level one.
  • If you’re a workout stats junkie, look for a rower that displays split times (usually 500 meters) so you can better track your progress.
  • For competitive rowers, a machine with a USB port would offer connectivity to software programs.
Magnetic Stamina Magnetic Rowing Machine
Man on Stamina Magnetic Rowing Machine