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Cycling vs Rowing: Which is Better?

By Jiri Kaloc

Are rowing machines better than stationary bikes? Cycling and rowing might seem like two completely different sports, but they have one thing in common – they are great tools for building aerobic fitness. What are their pros and cons? Should you go spinning or rowing? Let’s dig into it.

Which one burns more calories?

With spinning and rowing machines, the calories you burn depend a lot on the intensity of your training session. Both of them allow you to vary the intensity by increasing the resistance. But the numbers of calories you burn are quite different. For a 70kg athlete, this is an approximate amount of calories burned during 60 minutes of activity:

Moderate intensity rowing burns 504 kcal
Vigorous intensity rowing burns 738 kcal
Moderate intensity cycling burns 504 kcal
Vigorous intensity cycling burns 556 kcal

Rowing is a full body workout; it uses all the main muscle groups, whereas cycling is heavily leg focused. That’s why, at higher intensities, rowing burns much more calories than cycling on a stationary bike.

Which one is better for weight loss?

When it comes to weight loss, you always have to consider all aspects of your lifestyle. Eating habits have the biggest impact, but sleep quality, how sedentary you are, and what exercise you do play a role too. As you saw above, rowing burns more calories per hour at higher intensities. This would suggest it will be more helpful for creating the calorie deficit needed for weight loss. But keep in mind that a 20-minute rowing session can feel totally exhausting, while you can easily do 60 minutes of spinning, and more.

Stationary bike
All depends on the length of your training sessions. © Profimedia

Both of these activities can help with weight loss, but it always depends on how long your training session lasts and how intense you make it. Rowing might be better for those who can only spare 20 minutes, while cycling may be better suited to those who have a bit more time and don’t want to always redline.

Which one hits more muscle groups?

Cycling outdoors engages the whole body, you have to maintain balance and accommodate changes in terrain using your core and upper body as well as your legs. Indoor cycling is different, the work is done nearly 100% by your legs, and the upper body is mostly passive.

Both outdoor and indoor rowing, on the other hand, are definitely a full body workout. It requires active use of the arms, shoulders, back and abdomen. Each rowing stroke is roughly 60% lower body, 20% core, and 20% upper body. This makes rowing a more complex workout and much better at keeping a healthy range of motion.

Injury risk

Both types of exercise are generally quite safe, but you need to learn proper technique for rowing to keep it safe. Rowing is quite demanding on the back muscles and if done without the proper technique, it could cause an overuse injury to the back. The stationary bike puts very little strain on the back and is gentle on the joints overall. It’s even often used as a rehabilitation tool after injuries. So, cycling is the winner in this category.

Rowing machine
Rowing without mastering proper technique can cause back injury. © Profimedia

Rowing machine vs stationary bike: Which one takes up more space?

Even though a stationary bike is not a small thing, rowers tend to be much larger. A typical rower is 2.5 metres long, sometimes even more and around 60 cm wide. Most stationary bikes and turbo trainers tend to be only around 1-1.5 metres long and 50 cm wide. Cycling is the winner in this regard. Plus, if you’re a cyclist, you might already have space for your bike at home, so adding a turbo trainer won’t take up much extra space at all.

So, what is the final verdict on the rowing vs cycling question?

Even though rowing burns more calories per hour, both rowing and cycling can be helpful when trying to lose weight. Rowing also hits more muscle groups and makes for a more complete workout. But cycling on a stationary bike doesn’t require learning proper technique and poses a smaller injury risk. And if you’re considering to do one of these at home, cycling will also take up less space.

To sum up, both exercises have a few advantages and disadvantages but overall, they are great options for improving cardiovascular fitness. Choose the one that is more enjoyable for you to do or the one that is more accessible.