There’s good reason to consider rowing vs. cycling as platforms to get you fit. The first and most obvious is that most gyms will give you the opportunity to get on one of the best rowing machines (opens in new tab) or best exercise bike (opens in new tab).
The second, less obvious reason is that unlike running, neither activity is strenuous, meaning they pose a lower risk of injury, so you can probably do both more often and for longer.
But that’s rowing versus cycling, not rowing and Cycling, so what should you choose for your own fitness and physique goals? Is one better than the other for fitness, fat loss, functional strength, health, or your wallet? Let’s find out…
Rowing vs Cycling: What’s the Difference?
One of the first things everyone looks at when comparing fitness activities is the calories burned. While this is a blunt instrument, it’s worth considering.
According to Cycling Weekly, (opens in new tab) A person weighing 55 kg who cycles outdoors at 29 km/h for one hour burns 660 kcal. Meanwhile, the same person sits on a rowing machine (according to the algorithm that powers the popular online calorie calculators based on the Compendium of Physical Activities (opens in new tab)), a 150 watt clock burns about 490 kcal, or if you really push it to 200 watts, it burns about 690 kcal. However, you would have a hard time keeping that up for a full hour. (The figures for a 75 kg person are 900 kcal and 670 kcl/945 kcl respectively.)
The calorie counts tell you that cycling beats this, which is interesting considering rowing activates around 85% of your muscles, while road cycling tends to primarily activate your lower body.
Rowing and cycling are excellent ways to build cardiovascular fitness and also increase your anaerobic capacity through HIIT training while burning fat. Where they start to differ is in the effect on your muscles, but this also depends on the setting.
Looking at the row first, the exercise engages the entire posterior chain in the propulsion phase, from heels, calves, hamstrings, glutes, core, erector spinae, to neck. During the pull phase, it also hits the quads, forearms, biceps, and lats.
It activates 85% of your muscles and also moves many of those muscles throughout their range of motion, especially in the legs and back. That means rowing in a gym is likely to make you functionally stronger than cycling in a gym. Cycling in a gym doesn’t activate as many muscles (unless you’re getting off the saddle) because the upper body is less engaged.
Where this picture changes is in downhill mountain biking and other types of cycling, where you spend a lot of time out of the saddle, using your core to build a bridge and working your upper body as a human suspension unit.
Other Health Benefits
In terms of overall health, many high-quality studies have been conducted on the health benefits of cycling. One such study published in the BMJ (opens in new tab), showed that regular commuting by bike reduces the risk of death from cancer and heart disease. And another UK study published in Neuroimage (opens in new tab) found that after six weeks of cycling for 30 minutes a day, five times a week, a group of sedentary adults showed an increase in brain volume in the hippocampus, where new brain cells are formed, which returned to its previous level after six weeks of rest.
There are fewer studies on rowing because it’s a less universal sport, but because it’s also highly aerobic, you can expect similar health benefits.
Once you take rowing and cycling out of the gym and into the outdoors, the practical and lifestyle differences become apparent. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes, as do bicycles. There is a wide range of road bikes, mountain bikes, commuter bikes and bike subgenres to choose from. And new ones are constantly being added, from gravel biking to e-bikes.
You can join a cycling club just as easily as you can be a solo cyclist, and there’s hardly a landscape on earth that someone hasn’t tried cycling across, riding old bone-shakers to multi-thousand-dollar carbon-fiber machines.
Outdoor rowing, on the other hand, is a different beast. To get the same fitness and strength training benefits of a Concept 2 rower outdoors, you need to be in a rowboat designed for racing. The first thing you have to do is join a rowing club, both to gain access to these boats and to join a crew in a row of eights, fours or pairs. (You can row solo, but that’s something rowers tend to do later.)
Once you join a club and sign up for a training and racing schedule, you need to be prepared for rowing to become a big part of your life. Because it’s a team sport, you’ll need to show up for training sessions on the water and work on your fitness on land using Concept 2-like rowing machines. It’s undoubtedly fun and engaging, but it’s also a commitment.
Rowing vs. cycling: the costs
If you’re comparing rowing and indoor cycling, then you’re either looking for a gym membership for both, or a rowing machine or stationary bike (or turbo machine) for your home. Stationary bikes are similarly expensive to rowing machines (around $2,500 for a good model, or around $300 for something very basic), although turbo trainers can be significantly cheaper if you already have an outdoor bike you can use with it (starting at around $250 $).
Once you get outdoors, the cost increases, although an entry-level road bike can be had for a few hundred dollars. On the other hand, top-of-the-line rides cost upwards of $10,000. In terms of annual running costs, you’ll need to replace the chain every few months to avoid wear and tear on the chainset and chainrings (which eventually need to be replaced as well). Other wearing parts are brake pads, tires and hoses, and gearshift cables. You can pay for an annual service to pick up all of these things, and all in all you’re looking at at least $200 a year. And you need to budget for essential accessories like a bike helmet.
A rowing club membership is likely to cost $60 a month or $670 a year, but you don’t have to buy the boat so the upfront cost of taking up the sport is lower, so there’s not much in it for the first year or so.
Rowing vs. Cycling: The Verdict
Ultimately, rowing and cycling are great engines for improving fitness, overall health, body composition, and life satisfaction. Rowing might outperform cycling for functional strength improvements if you never get off the bike, but if you’re a mountain biker or even a gravel rider then the difference is marginal. And as discussed above, cycling seems to burn more calories when you’re at a gym.
The activities are also similar in terms of costs. If you opt for the outdoor versions and are short on time, outdoor cycling might be a better choice than outdoor rowing.
Wherever you are when it comes to rowing or cycling, rest assured that neither is a bad choice and both could ignite the changes you want to make in your body and life, so go for it!
https://www.livescience.com/rowing-vs-cycling Rowing vs cycling | Live Science