At first glance, all rowing machines seem that they work in the same way, with a wheel at the front end giving resistance to the user as they pull back and forth. However, although the exercise and motion is virtually identical between types of rowing machines, how they work does differ and that also alters the suitability for different types of users and environments.

Rowing machines come in four distinct and different build formats. The most common is air resistance, closely followed by Hydraulic machines.  Higher up on the price and capability scale you’ll find magnetic resistance, and finally water resistance rowing machines and the top of the scale.

All of these types work in slightly different ways, however, the exercise motion usually see’s a handlebar attached to a chain, which wraps around a wheel when the rower is at the beginning of a pull. As the rower pulls, the chain unwraps and the user moves back on the seat, which is mounted on a rail that allows the movement to occur. The user’s feet are positioned within the foot wells or pedals, which give the legs purchase and aid the pull back of the chain and the revolution of the wheel. When the pull is released, the seat moves forward, the chain rewraps and the next pull is ready. Simple really!

The four most common types of rowing machine offer this same type of motion and exercise, however, they do work in different ways. Air resistance rowing machines operate with an adjustable fan wheel or similar fly or air wheel mechanism that controls the resistance that the unit offers to the user. The chain wraps around the inner wheel and the resistance is created with the resulting air being channelled via the fly wheel as the pull movement occurs. This system is usually a little noisy in operation, as the air resistance can become quite loud.

Smaller and usually more portable or lightweight, Hydraulic machines offer the same motion but by use of hydraulic pumps, usually fitted with shock absorbers to help resistance. The pull is controlled through hydraulic resistance and the return eased by the shocks. Simple but effective engineering, that also produces a fairly loud noise during operation.

Magnetic resistance rowing machines on the other hand offer virtually silent operation. This is due to the way the resistance is achieved, which see’s two sets of revolving plates, one negatively charged and the other positively charged, moving in tandem with one another in a wheel position which is usually horizontal rather than vertical. The resistance of the magnetic forces within the unit offer the row resistance and the wheel turns to encompass the chain and create the stroke motion.

Water resistance rowing machine models offer the most realistic operation and resistance (outside of a rowing boat on the water) because they use a water-based wheel mechanism, often mounted horizontally rather and virtually like most of the magnetic resistance machines. What is essentially a large water vessel sits at the head of the unit, providing resistance with a reel, which in turn allows the chain to coil around a wheel to create the rowing motion. The sound of the water adds to the realism but the exercise is much the same as the other rowing machine types.

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