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Rowing Machine Vs. Bike: How Do They Compare?

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Rowing and cycling are two of the most popular forms of cardio exercise. They both do an effective job working the muscles, burning calories, and improving heart health. But which one does those things better?

In this article, I put rowing and cycling head-to-head to answer that question. 

As a gym owner and personal trainer, I’ve been using both rowing and cycling as part of my client programming for the last 35 years. This experience has given me a lot of insight into the relative merit of each of them. 

In the paragraphs to come, I’ll cover the following points …

  • What to consider when choosing between a rowing machine and a cycle.
  • Similarities and differences between rowing and cycling.
  • Types of rowing and cycling machines.
  • Final verdict on which is better; rowing or cycling.

Things To Consider When Choosing Between A Rowing Machine And Cycling

Most of us don’t have the space or the budget for both a rowing machine and an exercise bike in our home gym. The following factors will help you to decide between them.  

Decide On Your Fitness Goals

Both the rowing machine and the cycle are better suited for different goals. In terms of straight-out calorie burn, you will get a slightly better result with a rowing machine. Working out on a cycle will also allow you to more effectively overload your quadriceps and calf muscles. 

The rowing machine will provide more of an overall body workout. If you want to tone and sculpt your upper and or body muscles while losing weight at the same time, the rowing machine is a better choice than a cycle. 

Rowing Machines Require Greater Technique

It is easier to learn the proper technique on an exercise bike than on a rowing machine. Cycling is something that most of us learn to do as a kid. Rowing, however, requires the learning of a number of steps. It is more likely that beginners will perform the rowing action incorrectly than they would while cycling. 

So, if you are a person who is very uncoordinated or wants an easy entry exercise, you may be better off with a cycle. 

Personal Preference 

At the end of the day, the best exercise option for you is the one that you enjoy the most. The key to exercise success, after all, is regularity. The things we prefer are the ones that we will be more likely to stick with. 

So, there is little point in choosing rowing because it burns a few more calories if you absolutely love cycling. The differences between rowing and cycling are not so great that they should override your personal preference. 

Rowing

Woman Exercising on Rowing Machine

Pros

  • Provides a full-body workout, involving more than 80 percent of the skeletal muscles
  • Strengthens and stabilizes the core
  • Helps to improve posture
  • Burns a lot of calories
  • Joint-friendly

Cons

  • Technique can be difficult to perfect

Cycling

Men Riding a Stationary Bike at the Gym

Pros

  • Easy to learn proper technique
  • Strengthens the quadriceps and calves
  • Burns a lot of calories
  • Joint friendly

Cons

  • Only works the lower body muscles

Rowing vs Cycling Comparison

Lets compare the machine types head to head.

How Are Rowing and Cycling Similar?

Both rowing and cycling are closed-chain exercises. A closed chain exercise is one that does not involve lifting your feet off the floor. That makes them much better for your joints than open chain exercises such as running on a  treadmill. Both rowing and cycling are good options to minimize strain on the ankle, knee, and hip joints.

Both cycling and rowing do a good job of burning calories. They’ll both quickly challenge your heart and lungs, too, providing cardiovascular benefits. Rowing and cycling will both work the muscles of the lower body, especially the quads and glutes. Cycling, however, will allow you to more directly train your quadriceps and calf muscles. 

How Do Rowing and Cycling Differ?

A key difference between rowing and cycling is with regard to the muscles worked. Cycling, as is typical of most cardio exercises, provides a lower body-centric workout. Your quads and calves are doing most of the work. The upper body is essentially getting a free ride on an exercise bike.

Rowing, in contrast, works the entire body.  The rowing action involves the latissimus dorsi, deltoid, bicep, trapezius, and core muscles of the upper body. At the same time, it is engaging the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves of the lower body.

So, if you want to work your entire body, rowing is the better option for you.

Another notable difference between rowing and cycling is that rowing requires quite a learning curve before you are doing it with proper form. There are four steps that you need to get to grips with …

  • Catch
  • Drive
  • Finish
  • Recovery

Which One Burns More Calories?

According to a study done by Harvard Health Research, rowing and cycling will burn the same number of calories at a moderate pace. Here is a comparison of calories burned in 30 minutes at three different body weights …

125 lbs155 lbs185 lbs
Rowing210252294
Cycling210252294

My personal experience, based on 35 years of training clients for weight loss, has been that rowing burns more calories. This seems to make sense when you consider that rowing burns more calories is that it activates more of the body’s muscles. By engaging the upper body muscles that are not utilized in cycling, rowing places greater energy demand on the body. As a result, it needs to burn more calories to meet that demand. 

Which One Is Better For Weight Loss?

Rowing wins out when it comes to weight loss. That follows on from my observation that it burns more calories than cycling. 

Weight loss essentially boils down to daily caloric balance. In order to lose weight, you need to end the day with a negative caloric balance where you have consumed more calories than you have taken in. That is achieved through a combination of eating less and exercising. So the calorie burn of an exercise is directly related to its ability to help you lose weight. 

Which Is Better For Muscle Activation?

Rowing is the best option for muscle activation. That is because the rowing action engages more than 80 percent of the muscles of your body. This includes the following …

  • Core
  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Biceps
  • Deltoids

Cycling focuses on working the muscles of the lower body. It will allow for more intense muscle activation of the quadriceps, glutes, and calves. However, when you’re cycling indoors the upper body is not really involved in the exercise.

When you cycle outdoors, your body is brought into the movement more than in an indoor setting. You need to use your core muscles for balancing on the bike and to handle changes in the terrain and weather conditions. However, outdoor cycling will still not match rowing, either indoor or outdoor, in terms of overall muscle activation. 

Which Is Better For Rehabilitation And Recovery?

Cycling wins out over rowing when it comes to rehab and recovery but just by a nudge. Both forms of exercise are good choices for rehab. However, cycling allows you to better protect the knee joint if you are coming back from an injury in that part of the body. 

Cycling allows you to very gently pedal to provide a light movement rehab session for the knees. When you are rowing, however, your knees need to flex and contract with each stroke and it is harder to do this gently than when you are on a cycle. 

Rowing can also be tough on a person’s back, especially if they are coming back from an injury. Unless you maintain proper form, you may make a back problem worse on a rowing machine. A cycle allows you to better protect your lower back.

Which Is Better If You Have Knee Or Back Pain?

The cycle is the better option if you have knee or back pain. As mentioned in the previous section on rehab, cycling allows you to better protect your knees and lower back. 

When you’re rowing, you need to fully extend the knee with every stroke. That is not the case when you’re cycling. You can also pedal gently far more easily than you can row gently. 

The cycle allows you to sit in an upright position with your legs below your torso which protects the lower back better than the upright position with legs in front of you on a rowing machine. 

The best protection for your lower back is to use a recumbent exercise bike. This type of cycle places your legs in front of the body like a rowing machine but includes back support that you can lean against. This provides maximum lower back protection.

Which Takes Up More Space?

A rowing machine will take up more space than an exercise cycle. That is because the rowing movement requires that your body moves along the rail to move from knee bent to a fully extended leg position.

On the exercise cycle, you are straightening your legs under the body rather than out horizontally. As a result, the cycle is more compact than a rowing machine. A rowing machine will usually require two and a half times the length of an exercise cycle. 

An average rowing machine is 2.5 meters long and 60 cm wide. This compares with the average bike length of a meter in length and 50 cm in width. 

Which Provides The Best Workout?

There are a lot of factors that combine to make a great workout. These include the degree to which the workout helps you achieve your training goals, calorie burn, muscle activation, safety, ability to scale the workout, user-friendliness, and level of enjoyment and engagement.

We have already considered some of these variables. When it comes to calorie burn and muscle activation, the rowing machine will give you a better workout. However, for user-friendliness, and safety, cycling is the better option. 

Both cycling and rowing are scalable. They both allow you to adjust the intensity of your workout to make it more or less intense. You can buy exercise cycles and rowing machines that have built-in training programs to provide variety to your workout. 

Rowing and cycling are also good options for High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This involves quickly transitioning between very intense bursts and short recovery periods for repeated bouts. 

From all of this, we can see that rowing and cycling are pretty equal in terms of providing a great workout. My personal preference, and the one I tend to recommend most, though, is rowing. The main reason is that it activates nearly all of the muscles of the body and allows for a greater calorie burn. 

Which Is The Most Enjoyable?

There’s an old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is enjoyment. So, all I can tell you is which of these two forms of exercise is the most enjoyable for me. And that is rowing.

I find the full-body extension that I get in each rowing stroke to be more rewarding than the more restricted movement that you achieve with the pedaling movement. I also love the challenge of rowing against others when my display is in competition mode. When I get off the rowing machine, my whole body feels like it’s had a workout, rather than just my legs.

With all that said, however, I also really enjoy the mega-pumped feeling in the quads I feel when I do a HIIT cycle session directly after my leg workout. 

Types Of Rowing Machines

There are four types of rowing machines. Here’s an overview …

Air Rowers

Air rowers feature a large fan-type flywheel that generates air resistance when you pull on the handle. The intensity of your rowing pull depends on how fast you are moving up and down the rail. 

Air rowers are an example of self-generated variable resistance. Theoretically, there is no limit to how much intensity you can generate on these machines. Air rowers are generally acknowledged as providing the most realistic rowing experience. However, they are also the noisiest of the four rower types.

Water Rowers

A water rower features a water tank at the front of the machine. That tank contains a paddle with rudders on it that churn through the water when you pull the handle. This creates a water resistance that simulates what you would actually get in the water. 

A water rower is much quieter than an air rower. It does have a water-churning sound that many people find very soothing. Water rowers tend to be more expensive than other machines that provide similar features. They also require quite a bit of maintenance as well as the need to fill the tank.

Magnetic Rowers

A magnetic rowing machine has a metal flywheel with magnets on either side. A tension level allows you to move the magnets closer or further away from the flywheel. When they get closer the tension will increase and when they get further away it will decrease.

Magnetic rowers are much quieter to use than both air and water rowers. These types of machines also allow you to more precisely set the tension level that you will be working at. This may make a magnetic rower better for beginners who want to control the degree to which they progressively increase the intensity of their workouts.

Hydraulic Rowers

Rather than a flywheel, a hydraulic rowing machine provides you with a pair of hydraulic pistons that are attached to rowing arms. These pistons are either filled with air or liquid. 

Some hydraulic machines have moveable seats, while many of the seats are fixed. This means that you are unable to move along a rail. As a result, these types of hydraulic rowers are mainly working the upper body.

Hydraulic rowing machines generally do not provide as good a rowing workout as the other three types. Often the movement is stuttery and inconsistent. 

Types of Cycle Machines

Stationary Bikes

Stationary bikes are exercise cycles that are designed for working out in an upright seated position. The seat is positioned lower than you would find it on an outdoor cycle. It is also larger than a standard bike seat.

Stationary bikes are easier to pedal than outdoor bikes. They also allow you to stop faster than if you were riding an outdoor bike. 

Spin Bikes

Spin bikes are exercise bikes that are designed to more closely replicate an outdoor racing bike than the standard stationary bike. The seat is more like an outdoor cycle seat and is fully adjustable both vertically and horizontally. The bike frame is also designed to allow you to stand up while exercising.

Spin bikes have more gears than stationary bikes. They also feature reinforced pedals and minimal padding on the seat. Spin cycles are harder to operate. As a result, they will burn more calories than a stationary bike.

Air Bikes

Air bikes are the cycling equivalent of the air rower machine. Just like the rower, they feature a large front fan wheel with blades attached to it. Air resistance is generated by the air flowing through the fan.

Just as with the air rower, the air bike generates resistance according to the speed at which you pedal. 

Verdict

Having done a pretty deep dive into the respective merits and disadvantages of rowing machines and exercise cycles, what can we conclude?

My verdict is that the rowing machine provides a better overall workout than an exercise bike or cycle machine. Here are the reasons that I prefer the rowing machine …

  • Rowing is a better calorie burner
  • Rowing engages more of the body’s muscles
  • Rowing provides me with a greater sense of workout accomplishment
  • Rowing is best for weight loss

Buy a rowing machine if:

  • You want to work all of the muscles of your body
  • You want to focus in weight loss and muscle toning
  • You are prepared to take the time to learn proper technique
  • You don’t have inherent back or knee problems

Buy a bike or cycling machine if:

  • You want a lower body-centric workout
  • You have inherent knee or back problems

Final Thoughts

Both the rowing machine and the exercise cycle provide very good cardio workout options. In this article, we have been looking at the finer points to determine which is the better of the two. 

The first point that needs repeating is that the differences between rowing and cycling are pretty minor. So, the most important determiner would be the one that you most enjoy and feel the most comfortable doing.

Rowing comes out on top in terms of providing a better overall workout because it works the whole body, rather than just the legs, and burns more calories. 

Now that you know which is best, it’s time to do something with that knowledge. Go here to check out the ideal beginner’s rowing workout

FAQs

Is Rowing Better Than Cycling

Yes, rowing is better than cycling if your goal is to lose weight and tone your muscles. Rowing will burn about 10 percent more calories than cycling. At the same time, it will engage both the muscles of your upper and lower body. In contrast, cycling really only engages the legs. 

Which Is Better Spinning Or Rowing

Rowing is better than spinning in terms of weight loss, muscle activation, and overall benefit. Both forms of exercise allow for a very intense workout. However, rowing at high intensity will burn more calories because it is engaging both the upper and lower body muscles. While spinning does engage more of the upper body and core than stationary cycling, it still does not match the engagement that you get on the rowing machine.

Is Rowing Harder than Cycling?

Rowing can be considered harder than cycling because the technique required to do it properly takes more effort than cycling. There are four steps to the rowing action that should be mastered – catch, drive, finish, and recovery. Rowing also works more muscles in the body and burns more calories than when you are on an exercise cycle. As a result, it takes more effort and energy to complete a rowing workout than one done on an exercise bike. 

Steve Theunissen

AUTHOR

Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner, personal trainer, and school teacher and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness, and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.