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Rowing vs Cycling: which is best for you?

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November 28, 2022

The modern world is all about speed. We’re impatient people. Next day parcel deliveries, binge-watching season after season of our favourite shows… you know the drill.

It extends to our fitness.

We want life-changing results and we want them quickly. So with that in mind, let’s run a head-to-head comparison of two common cardio approaches… Rowing vs Cycling. We’ll look at them across different aspects. Including (but not limited to), calorie burn, impact on the body, how easy they are to program, injury risk etc.

By the end we’ll have the answers you’re looking for.

Rowing vs Cycling – a quick head to head

How do the two approaches stack up? Here’s a tale of the tape…

Calorie burn

Calorie burn depends on a range of factors… age, weight, gender, workout intensity, temperature etc. You could make either one harder than the other. To find a winner then, we have to look at the science.

There’s evidence from a 1988 study titled…A comparison of energy expenditure during rowing and cycling ergometry. The study assessed rowing and cycling at comparative intensities. It measured a range of outputs, including energy expenditure (calorie burn, in English).

The study concluded that…

Results indicated that energy costs for rowing ergometry was significantly higher than cycle ergometry at all comparative power outputs including maximum levels.

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Winner: Rowing. 

Joint impact

This one is an easy tie. There’s no obvious joint impact from either approach. You could argue that outdoors there’s more impact on the joints when cycling, but for ergometers, it’s level. Neither machine impacts the joints particularly.

Both are a low-impact workout. This doesn’t change even when you increase the workout intensity.

Winner: Tie. (Unless cycling is done outdoors… on a bumpy track… on a bike with no suspension!)

Muscles worked

This is an easy one. The bike is a lower body only workout. The rowing machine trains both the upper and lower body. Being a full body workout, the clear winner is rowing.

In 1988, Dr Thomas Mazzone compiled a research study titled Kinesiology of the Rowing Stroke. He concluded that the rowing stroke used 86% of the available muscle in the body.

A nifty stat that Concept2 like to use in their marketing…

Winner: Rowing. 

Injury risks of both

This is a really tough category to call, because of the nature of both activities. Do we factor in outdoor cycling and rowing, or just the indoor on an ergometer? To level the playing field, I’m going with indoors – it removes many of the variabilities.

In indoor cycling, most of the injuries are an overuse issue. This stems from poor technique and an inefficient bike set up.

Rowing is somewhat different. The technique requires a large hinge at the lower back. The elbows, shoulders and wrists are moving throughout the stroke. The knees and ankles work throughout. The injury frequency is stated as 1.5–3.7 per 1000 h of rowing and associated training according to this study.

Lower back injuries are most common in rowing. They account for around 53% of all rowing related injuries.

All things considered, rowing carries the higher injury risk than cycling. This is on account of the technique and use of more of the body. It’s worth noting though that although the injury risk in rowing is higher, it’s still low.

Winner: Cycling

Rowing Machine Benefits

Time to dig a little deeper into each…

Full body workout

With the 86% of the muscles in the body being used in the rowing stroke, it’s pretty obvious why it’s such a high calorie burner. It also makes for an efficient training session. Using a rowing machine is a true whole-body workout. In a single rowing stroke the legs, back, core, shoulders and arms are all used extensively.

Great for scapular retraction and shoulder health

There’s a common shoulder issue in active people known as ‘shoulder impingement’. One of the causes is frequent internal rotation of the shoulder. This is often causes by poor posture (sitting hunched over a laptop, at the wheel of a car etc). One of the treatments is exercise that retracts the scapula.

Scapular retraction squeezes the shoulder blades together when performing a horizontal pulling exercise. Rowing encourages this movement with every stroke, so can helps to prevent (and sometimes treat) shoulder issues.

Home workout friendly

A rowing machine doesn’t need much in the way of set up. It’s easy to store. It doesn’t take up much room. You hop on, set up and start rowing. You can’t get much more home workout friendly.

All you need is a bit of floor space and somewhere to store the machine afterwards, and away you go! 

Incredible global community

Maintaining motivation is often a factor with exercise. The rowing world has an effective strategy for this. There are interactive rowing machines on the market, where you can subscribe to a Peloton-style community and classes for a monthly fee. 

If you don’t want to do that, Concept2 has an incredible global community that helps to motivate each other. They also track and keep records via their online logbook and app. It has millions of members worldwide, ranging from the hardcore rowers to the ones looking to burn a few calories by rowing. 

Even if you want to get a few minutes of exercise each week, you’re welcome. 

Benefits of Cycling

It’s not all about rowing – cycling has its benefits too…!

Lower body focus

Sure, rowing is a great full body workout, but that’s not always what you want from your cardio exercise. If you’re hitting the gym hard with a split routine, sometimes you may want to give your upper body a rest. Cycling is perfect for that.

Your upper body is resting, yet you can still get your workout in on the exercise bike without compromising your recovery. 

Cycling can be an excellent rehab tool for lower limb injuries

One of the early approaches to regaining function and movement in the lower limbs after an injury or knee surgery is through cycling. 

Thanks to a combination of indoor exercise bikes offering a joint-friendly range of movement (only slight knee bending), low impact exercise and the ability to perform a few hours of exercise at a low intensity, cycling training is the perfect re-introduction to fitness after an injury. 

Even moderate intensity cycling burns calories and maintains a level of aerobic fitness. You’ll be able to stay fit and healthy when other forms of training aren’t appropriate.

Cycling is beginner friendly

Almost all of us can ride a bike outside. When it comes to indoor cycling, EVERY one of us can ride a bike! There’s no technique to learn, which can be a reason some people are put off training. 

By removing the barriers to entry and being such an accessible form of exercise, cycling allows more people to enjoy the cardiovascular health, mental health and improvements in fitness we get from exercise. This activity over time builds up, improves confidence and in lots of cases serves as a gateway to other forms of exercise.

In my gym, we have lots of people who are now into cross training and other forms of strength training having started with cycling outside.

Cycling can be an ‘accidental’ workout

If you’re not a ‘gym person’, cycling can be a perfect solution. By commuting on your bike every day, you’re getting a great workout (not to mention saving money every day!)

Even if you only commute a couple of days per week, this duration of training over the year is potentially massive (if the ride is long enough), and the difference in calorie burn between cycling and driving is, well, huge. Not to mention the regular cycling will be great for both your cardiovascular health and your mental health.

Rowing vs Cycling – which is better for weight loss?

You’d think this’d be an easy one to answer, because I showed you the science that rowing burns more calories than cycling at the same intensity.

However, like all things fitness there’s a world of caveats…

How often would you be training? What’s the average workout time? Would you be cycling indoors or outdoors, where conditions would play a role?

All things being equal, the edge would go to rowing in the weight loss battle.

If you were managing to hop on the bike for more days per week, you’d burn more calories cycling and that would make it better for weight loss. Likewise for rowing The minutes of activity add up to more calories burned. 

The clearest answer is the best one for weight loss is the one you’ll burn more calories on over the long term.

Rowing workout examples

The beauty of the rowing machine is the workout versatility available to you. In this section I’m going to share a few different workout routines for you to try…

Steady state rowing machine workout

Like any cardiovascular workout, you can hit the steady state approach… 2km, 5km, 10km etc. 

These are great for cardiovascular health and muscular endurance. They also present a range of different challenges.

The 2km is the ‘Regatta style’ high intensity sprint. There’s no intervals as such – this is the Olympic distance. It’s generally approached in a fashion of ‘set a solid pace and hold on’ by the average gym goer.

The 5000 and 10000 meter workouts are a more traditional steady state cardio workout. Expect to be training for 20-30 minutes (5KM) and 40-50 minutes (10KM). 

Rowing machine HIIT workout

This is where you can get creative. The rowing machines lend themselves to High Intensity Interval Training workouts. You can set them for intervals of time, distance or calories. You can set a pace boat to keep up with.

One HIIT workout I like to do is 100m intervals, followed by 20 seconds rest. It’s literally as simple as it sounds…

  1. Set the work interval on the Concept2 for 100m
  2. Set the rest period to 20 seconds
  3. Repeat as many times as you want to/can do.

You’ll struggle to find a more simple workout, but it’s super tough! You’ll burn a LOT of calories doing this, and you’ll give your cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance a high boost. It’ll also fire up your metabolic rate and prevent workout boredom… you’ll be too exhausted to be bored!

Cycling workout examples

Cycling is another great way of mixing up your workout type. Whether you’ve got 10 minutes or 5 hours, here’s a few cycling workout examples…

Steady state workout

When it comes to a steady state workout on the bike, you have a few options…

A TT (time trial) style where you set a distance and go for it in the shortest time possible.

You could also do a version where you set a time and try to cover the most distance you can in that period. This is great if you have a given amount of time for say, a 30 minute workout etc.

Cycling HIIT workouts

The three common ways you can perform HIIT workouts on the bike are…

Sprint intervals – whether that’s a 20 seconds fast/40 seconds slow (or variations thereof) pattern. Basically, go hard and follow that up with a period of recovery at a lower intensity.

Hill intervals – either done outside on actual hills or by adjusting resistance on an exercise bike, followed by an easier rest spell.

Distance intervals – a fast mile, followed by a slower recovery mile etc.

Any of these examples are a great way to get the leg muscles working hard and they can be done on a real bike or stationary bikes. They’re all excellent lower body workouts and they’ll burn a lot of calories per hour!

Rowing vs Cycling – which is the best overall?

It’s always tough to confidently proclaim a ‘best’ option when it comes to exercise, because it’s so subjective. To give you the best summary I can,  I’ll leave you with the following…

If you want to lose weight… rowing is better. It burns more calories per hour than cycling.

If you want to train your entire body… rowing is better. It’s a full body workout.

If you want to make sure you’re getting a full body workout and the health benefits that come with it… rowing is better.

If you want access to a large online community… rowing is better.

If you want more workout variety from your machine… rowing is better.

BUT…

If you want to combine your training with a commute… cycling is better.

If you want to reduce your injury risk even further (neither are dangerous)… cycling is better.

If you want the lowest barrier to entry, with no technique to learn… cycling is better.

If you want to rest your upper body, or rehab your lower body… cycling is better.

The point is that there’s horses for courses. They’re both excellent training tools in their own right. 

There’s benefits of rowing and there’s benefits of cycling. They’re both an excellent form of aerobic workout, and can adapt to suit different goals.

If you follow the advice in this article, you won’t go wrong.

Our Top Pick
Sunny Health & Fitness Obsidian Surge
Based on our testing, this is the best rower for beginners. For less than 500$, this silent water rower will last you for years. It also comes with a 12-year warranty.
About Steve Hoyles