If you’re interested in using a rowing machine for focused training — whether for outdoor rowing, an indoor competition, or as part of a larger fitness program — you’ll want air resistance. If you’re drawn to rowers for the enjoyability (alongside the full-body, cardio-plus-strength training efficacy) of a rowing workout, consider a machine with water resistance.

Outside of resistance type, we found the number-one arbiter of ride feel to be cord quality. Water ergometers tend to employ nylon cords, while air ergometers feature metal chains — a durability factor we anticipated would result in our favoring air. But while all three water rowers aced our expectation of smooth, high-tension strokes, perfecting the chain seems to be more difficult: Some tug with just a slight rumble, others feature bouncy, grinding chains that are incredibly loud, something akin to angry snoring. As for nylon, the best wind and unwind like elastic silk — no slack, no sound, no catching, just perfectly even tension throughout the stroke.
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