It’s amazing how often people ask “Which is a better exercise: rowing machine or bike?”
And it should get asked. After all, you want a workout that will deliver maximum results for your effort!
With so little free time in your busy day, if you’re going to spend it exercising—either rowing or biking—you want that work to pay off.
In truth, there’s no single straightforward answer to the question of rowing vs. cycling. Both offer excellent exercise options that you would do well to consider for your home gym/workout setup.
But there are a few differences between the two—enough that I believe it’s worth taking the time to evaluate both workouts to help you understand the pros and cons of each.
At the end of this article, I’ll share which of the two I think is ultimately better, but first I’ll walk you through all the research I’ve done with both rowing and cycling. By the time you reach the end, you’ll have a much clearer idea of why I prefer one over the other.
Don’t have time to read the whole article but want a quick answer to the question?
Here’s what you need to know:
Both have a LOT of very visible pros and only a few small cons. Pretty clear that cycling and rowing are excellent workouts.
But if you still want to know which of the two is better, keep reading, because we’ve put together the ultimate comparison between the workouts.
Get ready to take a deep dive into every fitness-related aspect of the two forms of training!
The Ultimate Comparison Between Rowing and Cycling
Below I’ll dive into a lot of questions that get asked when comparing a Rowing Machine vs. Bike. I also try to give my honest opinion about which one is better.
I understand a rowing machine can’t win every category!
What burns more calories: Rowing or Cycling?
This is the one that everyone wants to know—will you burn more calories by rowing or cycling?
Well, the answer depends a great deal on the intensity of your rowing or cycling training.
For Moderate Intensity
According to Harvard Medical School, in a 30-minute workout:
Bicycling, Stationary: moderate intensity
125-pound person will burn 210 calories
155-pound person will burn 252 calories
185-pound person will burn 294 calories
Rowing, Stationary: moderate intensity
125-pound person will burn 210 calories
155-pound person will burn 252 calories
185-pound person will burn 294 calories
Both have the exact same amount of calories burned for a moderate-intensity workout.
But what happens if you increase the intensity? You’ll obviously burn more calories, but HOW MUCH more?
For Vigorous Intensity
Bicycling, Stationary: vigorous intensity
125-pound person will burn 278 calories
155-pound person will burn 315 calories
185-pound person will burn 441 calories
Rowing, Stationary: vigorous intensity
125-pound person will burn 255 calories
155-pound person will burn 369 calories
185-pound person will burn 440 calories
Ahh, the difference increases! A smaller, lighter trainee will burn more calories cycling, while larger trainees will burn more (or the same amount) rowing.
That’s just one source, too. Let’s look elsewhere, at the NutriStrategy website, for a more detailed breakdown of both workouts.
Activity, Exercise or Sport (1 hour)
Stationary cycling, very light
Stationary cycling, light
Stationary cycling, moderate
Stationary cycling, vigorous
Stationary cycling, very vigorous
Rowing machine, light
Rowing machine, moderate
Rowing machine, vigorous
Rowing machine, very vigorous
You can see that again the differences increase as you raise the intensity of the workout.
Based on both of these sources, it appears that on low intensity, rowing burns the same or slightly more than an exercise bike. However, when you increase the intensity to very high, you actually burn slightly more through cycling.
Verdict: Rowing wins in low-intensity workouts, but high-intensity cycling ultimately burns more calories.
Check out my article about burning calories on a rowing machine.
Is Rowing or Cycling better for weight loss?
Obviously, this is another very important question to have answered, because a major goal of exercising is to lose weight.
For weight loss, there is a simple formula to follow: “calories burned > calories consumed = weight loss”. As long as you’re burning more calories (both your natural metabolic rate (BMI) and your exercise) than you eat, you’ll see weight loss.
But that’s just the first step in analyzing the weight loss results of these different types of exercise. You can’t just look at calories burned; I think there are two additional factors critical to overall weight loss results:
Factor #1: Duration of Training
The more time you spend training, the more calories you burn. Longer training sessions at higher intensity lead to better weight loss than shorter, lower-intensity sessions. So, it stands to reason that any exercise that you can sustain at a higher intensity for longer periods will ultimately lead to better weight loss results.
Compare the average workout times of the two training methods, and you’ll notice that cycling has a slight edge here.
- Most rowing workouts last 20-30 minutes, though some hardcore rowers (or professional athletes) will push for 45-60 minutes.
- Cycling workouts, on the other hand, tend to be lower intensity overall, at a pace that is more easily sustained for 30-45 minutes. However, some cyclists will work for 1-2 hours before calling it quits for the day.
That’s not to say that you can’t row for longer, but the average rowing workout duration tends to be slightly shorter than cycling workouts.
There could be a number of factors contributing to this but one thing I do notice at the gym is that when people use a rowing machine, they row hard! This leads them to burn out quicker. This could be due to them not understanding that it’s ok to row slowly. It’s also a very unique technique which can cause some muscles to fatigue quickly and causes users to stop early.
Factor #2: Muscles Activated
This is what determines not only how many calories you burn during the workout, but afterward, too.
You see, most cardio is low-intensity, steady-state exercise that will only burn calories for the duration of the training.
Once you cool down, your metabolism returns to its normal resting state.
To learn more about the benefits of using a rower for cardio, take a look at this article I wrote called “Is the Rowing Machine Good for Cardio?“.
However, resistance training (such as weight-lifting) and high-intensity exercise will keep your metabolism burning for up to 4 hours after your workout ends. Though you may burn the same amount of calories during the training session, it’s the long-term effects of the workout that make muscle-building and high-intensity training ultimately more effective for weight loss.
Compare the muscles worked in a rowing session to a cycling session, and it’s pretty clear which workout has the edge. Rowing works all of your muscles—from your shoulders and arms all the way down to your legs—while cycling just focuses on your legs. Thanks to this muscle activation, you’ll see better long-term metabolic effects after a rowing session.
Verdict: While the duration of training is a very important factor, it’s not as important for weight loss as muscle activation. By activating more muscles, rowing leads to longer-term metabolic and calorie-burning gains.
Rowing Machine vs. Exercise Bike for Building Muscle?
Is a rowing machine or exercise bike better for building muscle? Let’s be clear: neither rowing nor cycling is going to get you “jacked” or whatever the cool term for “buff” is these days.
It’s just not the way your body works. To build muscle, you need something heavy (your own body weight or actual weights) that strains your muscles so much that microscopic tears form.
This damage forces your body to repair your muscles with new and larger tissue capable of storing more energy—which means more energy (in the form of muscular force) is available next time you’re lifting something heavy.
Cardio workouts like rowing, cycling, running, walking, and swimming won’t inflict that amount of muscular damage necessary for growth. Instead, they will burn through all of the energy in your muscles and bloodstream through sustained, prolonged exertion. What this does is teaches your body that it needs to store more energy not to generate a large amount of force at once to lift heavy objects, but energy that will be available for sustained exertion. This is called “muscular endurance”.
However, if you are going from “couch to rowing” (meaning no previous weight lifting), then rowing can/will add some lean muscle to your body!
It’s All About Endurance!
Rowing and cycling both increase muscular endurance, as well as cardiovascular endurance. Cardiovascular endurance is defined as, “how well you can do exercises that involve your whole body at moderate to high intensity for an extended time.”
These are both critical metrics for fitness, but neither will lead to huge, visible musculature. In fact, look closely at most rowers and cyclists, and you’ll find they have a lot of lean, long muscle with high endurance rather than serious strength.
But there is one important difference to note between rowing and cycling. Specifically:
- Rowing is a full-body workout, targeting your upper back, shoulders, arms, forearms (for grip) lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and even your calves.
- Cycling is a lower-body workout, targeting your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. However, your upper body gets no workout at all, so no muscular growth.
Verdict: Rowing leads to better full-body muscular endurance, but neither rowing nor cycling will help you pack on pounds of muscle.
Rowing Machine vs. Bike for Back Pain?
When thinking about a rowing machine vs. bike for back pain you might think the answer to this question is clear. After all, rowing engages your lower back, but cycling doesn’t.
Well, you might want to rethink that answer…
Yes, rowing engages your lower back to move through the full stroke. If you’re suffering from lower back pain—or recovering from an injury—you’ll feel the twinge (or even serious pain) every time you bend forward and lean back on the stroke.
But cycling also engages your lower back muscles and runs the risk of exacerbating an existing injury.
You see, when you’re cycling (on a standard exercise bike), your upper body leans forward and you support yourself on the bicycle handles. This is not a natural position for your lower back; in fact, you’ll find that when you stand up after a long workout, your back can feel achy or stiff.
And your lower back muscles also work in tandem with your leg muscles to cycle. Your core muscles (which includes your lower back) are involved in the “up-and-down” cycling movement. They work with your glutes, hamstrings, and pelvic muscles to pull and push through the cycling stroke.
Ultimately, however, cycling is easier on your lower back than rowing because there is less direct muscle engagement.
Verdict: Cycling is a gentler workout for those with lower back pain. However, you can check out my rowing back pain article to learn how to prevent back pain from occurring!
Exercise Bike vs. Rowing Machine for Knee Pain?
Both rowing and cycling involve the knee joint. For rowing, your knees bend and extend as you slide forward and backward with the stroke. For cycling, your knees are driving downward to press on the pedals through the cycling motion.
It might surprise you to learn that rowing is actually gentler on your knees than cycling. Why is that?
With cycling, you’re pushing directly downward. If you’re cycling standing up, that means your knees are bearing all of your body weight. Even if you’re cycling from a seated position, your leg muscles (working with your knee joints) have to drive downward against the pedals to spin the wheels. This generates a lot of vertical force.
With rowing, on the other hand, you’re pushing forward, and pushing a lot less weight. After all, your body is supported by the seat, which slides easily. Your legs/knees only generate enough force to move some of your body weight, generating horizontal force. Horizontal means less gravity, so less force needs to be generated.
It would take a much smarter, more math-inclined brain than mine to figure out the exact differences in muscular force generation between the two workouts.
But suffice it to say, rowing is marginally easier on your knees than cycling because of the angle of force.
Verdict: If you’ve got knee problems, consider rowing to take a bit of the strain off your knees.
Rowing vs. Biking for Upper-Body Joint Problems?
What workout is better if you’ve got an injured shoulder, tennis elbow, or carpal tunnel syndrome? The answer to this one is pretty clear…
Cycling only works your lower body. If you’re suffering from upper-body injuries, you don’t even have to lean forward and support your weight on the handles as you cycle. You can sit upright and let your legs do all the work.
Rowing, on the other hand, involves a lot of upper body joint engagement. If you’re dealing with injuries to your shoulders, elbows, or wrists, it can exacerbate the injury.
Verdict: Cycling is the better option for those with upper-body joint problems.
Will I Get Bored of Rowing or Cycling Faster?
There is a VERY real danger of getting bored with your workout.
Studies have proven that our bodies grow tired of a certain reward, reinforcement, or activity over time. The more we perform the same workout, the more likely we are to get bored with it.
What happens when you get bored with your workout?
- Feel like you’re stuck in a rut
- Form/posture slips
- Start making excuses not to work out
- Quit the workout before it’s done
- Stop noticing positive changes in your body/fitness
- Feel demotivated with your workout
All of these things lead you to ultimately walk away from whatever workout you’re bored with. That’s not at all ideal!
Cycling vs. Rowing to Combat Boredom
Unfortunately, rowers (in the past) found that they grew bored more quickly. Unless your rowing machine comes with a stand for your tablet or smartphone, or you have a TV set up in your home gym, there’s not much more you can do than just row. Over time, the repetition of the movement could cause you to get bored.
Cycling does give you a bit more flexibility in terms of entertainment. Most exercise bikes come with a stand for your tablet or smartphone, or even a built-in TV. Because only your legs are working, you can even hold a book in your hands to read while you work out.
However, more and more rowing machines are incorporating “Peleton” like programs into their monitors and apps. Feedback from rowers has been these apps make rowing longer so much easier and more entertaining! The latest model with a bunch of hype is the Hydrow Rowing Machine & App.
There are also ways you can combat workout boredom – such as tackling a new challenge, trying a shorter-but-more-intense HITT session, or listening to audiobooks or podcasts while you row. But you need to be aware that “workout boredom” is a very real problem that faces all trainees in every form of exercise.
Verdict: In the past, cycling gave you more entertainment options to keep you from getting bored. However, rowing is catching up fast!
Final Tally: Rowing vs. Cycling – Which is Better?
To sum up the list above:
- Great at burning calories at high intensities
- Gentler on your lower back and upper body joints
- Less likely to lead to workout boredom (less head movement so easier to watch or read)
- The calorie-burning champ at lower intensities
- Better for promoting weight loss and boosting your metabolism after the workout is over
- Better for developing full-body muscular and cardiovascular endurance
- Gentler on your knees
While both are excellent forms of workout, I’ve got to give the overall edge to rowing. And it’s not just because I prefer it, either. The fact that you can build more muscular endurance, increase weight loss, and maintain metabolic activation for longer means you’re going to see better long-term results with a daily rowing session.
Plus, more and more entertainment options are coming out to help keep you engaged and rowing longer!
I hope you enjoyed this article and found the information on rowing vs. cycling workouts helpful. If you have any feedback, questions, or thoughts, please leave a comment below.