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Rowing vs Running: Which One to Choose?

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Are you looking to improve heart health and shed off a few pounds? Then you need to keep yourself healthy through cardio exercises, and luckily, you’re not short of options! Rowing and running are two extremely popular cardio workouts for most exercise enthusiasts. However, if you’re relatively unfamiliar with both, you might be unaware of their differences, which makes choosing the most suitable exercise difficult.

Both rowing and running are full-body workouts that can help you achieve your daily cardio milestone and improve heart health. But they differ in terms of benefits, muscles worked, calories burned, and learning curve. So what should you choose when you’re looking to get the best cardio workout? Let’s find out!

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When to choose rowing?

rowing vs running
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Whether it’s at the gym on a rowing machine or out on the water in a boat, rowing is undoubtedly one of the most gratifying forms of exercises around. This type of workout is more suitable for you when you want:

A low-impact workout

Although rowing is physically demanding, it is considered a relatively low-impact exercise. This is because rowing is done in a seated position, so your feet do not hit the ground with great force, reducing the likelihood of developing joint pain.

It also means you are less likely to injure yourself or exacerbate an existing injury. With rowing, you get all the benefits of a full-body workout without straining your joints and minimizing the risk of injury.

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To improve posture

This low-impact workout might be more suitable if you’re looking for an exercise to help improve your posture. Rowing strengthens the back muscles and improves spinal mechanics, all of which help to improve your posture. Since you must consistently maintain your posture and balance on the rowing machine, your back muscles also develop more quickly.

But, you must ensure that you are rowing with the proper form to benefit from the workout fully. For example, if you row with rounded shoulders and a hunched back, your posture may not improve much, despite your muscles getting stronger.

To focus on your core

Another benefit of rowing is that it strengthens your core. The repetitive motion of sliding forward and pushing back engages your entire core and works to build muscles in the abdominal region. The sliding forward motion acts as a sit-up to build ab muscles, whereas the pushing back motion strengthens the lower back. This way, you can quickly build a strengthened core and abdominal muscles regardless of your fitness level.

Build your upper body

If you want to focus on building your upper body, rowing is a far more suitable physical activity than running. This is because each stroke you take while rowing works all the major muscle groups in your body. 

So, in addition to building your lower muscles, such as the hamstrings, rowing also works on your abdominal muscles, back, and biceps. These muscles are less worked when you’re running. For this reason, rowing is incredibly efficient in helping you build muscle mass in your upper body.

When to choose running?

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Running is a great form of exercise, especially for cardiovascular health. This form of cardio is popular amongst most people, but is especially suited for anyone who wants:

An intense lower-body workout

There are only a few forms of exercise as intense and cardio heavy as running. Whether you’re going for a light jog or a full-on sprint, you can be sure to work all your lower body muscles, such as the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. 

You also work your core during running as you use it to maintain balance and build muscular endurance. In contrast, rowing builds less muscle strength in your lower body since you don’t put your body weight on your legs.

To strengthen your bones

Unlike rowing, running is a high-impact activity. This means that your feet leave the ground and come back into contact with it with great force. Although this can put you at risk of knee pain or joint issues, it is also highly beneficial for your bones. The constant compression and expansion in the bones and cartilage as you run help build denser bone over time. Dense bones improve your running ability and are more resistant to fractures.

A convenient workout

Although most people use a treadmill for running at the gym, you don’t necessarily need any equipment or machines for this exercise. Running is convenient for everyone because you can do it anywhere and anytime. 

Whether you’re at the gym, at the park, or simply jogging in your neighbourhood, the effect of this total-body workout will be the same. You will work the same muscles and burn the same calories, whether running outdoors or on a treadmill. In contrast, rowing typically requires having the suitable exercise equipment.

Build endurance

Running is one of the best ways to build endurance. Running helps to improve cardiovascular health, lung capacity, the number of capillaries, and red blood cells in your body. This will help improve your performance over time and run faster or longer. You can also set your own pace with running, and since it is slightly less strenuous than rowing, it is easier to build your endurance.

Which is better for weight loss: running or rowing?

Running may be slightly more helpful than rowing when it comes to reducing weight. Both exercises can help you burn a significant number of calories if done correctly. Since rowing and running are both moderate-intensity cardio workouts, they help burn calories and lose weight.

Rowing involves working more muscles than running, and it is a low-intensity exercise, so you can work out for longer. On the other hand, running is a weight-bearing exercise, and it is relatively high impact, so you can burn a significant number of calories even with a short workout. Although both exercises can help you lose weight, running can help you burn more calories in a shorter time period.

Which is better for reducing belly fat: running or rowing?

Rowing is more efficient when it comes to reducing belly fat for the simple reason that the abdominal muscles are worked more with this cardio-based exercise. Belly fat is more easily reduced with exercises that work on your core.

Rowing works directly on the muscles in your abdomen with each stroke. This will help you strengthen your core and reduce belly fat from around the area. While running also engages your core to keep your balance, it is more focused on your lower body. So, while running can also help you lose weight and reduce belly fat, the results are more pronounced with rowing.

Which is harder: running or rowing?

Running is said to be slightly harder than rowing. Moderate-intensity cardio exercises are challenging. They engage major muscles in the body and produce significant movement. It is difficult to row or run for long as both are full-body workouts.

Rowing is challenging as you need to maintain the correct posture throughout the exercise and engage a more significant number of muscles. But, since running is a high-impact, weight-bearing exercise, it is not too easy either. With running, you also work against gravity and engage some of the largest muscle groups of your body, including your core – making it slightly more difficult.

Which is better for physical stress: running or rowing?

If you’re looking for an extensive workout that induces a significant amount of physical stress on the body, then rowing would be a better option. Although running is quite intense and a high-impact activity, it does not work all the body muscles as extensively as rowing.

Rowing works your upper body and core and engages your lower body muscles, such as hamstrings and quads. Additionally, the repetitive pushing and pulling motion produces a significant amount of strain on your body, making rowing an extensive workout. For this reason, rowing is better for physical stress compared to running.

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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.

  • Affordable
  • Quiet
  • Amazing warranty
See latest price See all Rowers below 500$

Should I choose running or rowing?

Now that you have a general idea of rowing and running and how they affect your body and muscle groups, you can make a more informed choice of which exercise suits you best. Running and rowing work large groups of muscles in the body and have plenty of benefits. For example, rowing would be a better option if you want to build your upper body and improve posture while ensuring minimising pressure on your joints.

On the contrary, if your main focus is weight loss, and you want to focus on your lower body, running would be more suitable. If you still can’t choose which type of exercise to do, you can always vary your workout to include both types of exercises. This way, you can reap both of their benefits.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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