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rowing machine vs bike - man on rower with bike in background

Rowing Machine Vs Exercise Bikes: How To Pick The Best One For Your Needs

When it comes to home workouts, you need a solid piece of cardio equipment. But you might be thinking, “I like both rowers and bikes. So what should I get?”. Well, we’re going to compare rowing machines vs bikes in this post.

We’ll show you the pros and cons of each as well as who should choose a rower vs who should choose a bike. 

If you’re in a rush, here’s the quick answer. A rowing machine is our favorite between the two. The reason being that the calorie burn is similar between a rower and a spin bike. Therefore, it comes down to which one has the most side benefits and is the most fun to use. 

With that in mind, a rower works more muscles than a spin bike. And as you know, the more muscle you build, the more fat you burn every day. On top of that, a rower can do wonders for your posture and it’s fun to use.  However, a rower isn’t the best choice for everyone.

Below, we’ll make the case for both a rower and bike so you can make the best choice for yourself.

Let’s get to it…

Rowing Machines

man and woman on rowing machine

Rowing machines are good for all fitness levels. It’s also low impact so you can burn serious calories without punishing your joints. In fact, it’s often recommended as an exercise for people with early-stage osteoarthritis. 

How a rowing machine works is easy enough to understand. It comes with a body and a flywheel that connects to a handle — it simulates the feeling of being on a rowing boat. You simply need to push your body backward using your legs and draw the handle in towards your lower rib cage.

This motion recruits the biceps, back muscles, legs, shoulders, and abdominal muscles making it a nearly perfect full-body exercise.

That being said, rowing isn’t designed to “build muscle” necessarily. It’s designed as a piece of cardio equipment first. Building and toning muscle is a side benefit and it’s no coincidence that all serious CrossFit athletes use rowers. 

Benefits of Rowing 

The benefits of rowing are undeniable. Just look at CrossFit athletes and college kids who row actual boats for their school. You won’t find anyone who’s not in shape in either of these categories. Getting in shape is just one of the benefits though. Here are a few other highlights: 

  • A rowing machine is great cardio, which is good for your heart
  • It pumps up your muscles while also firming them (like weight lifting without the weights)
  • It uses most of your body’s muscles including your thighs, glutes, legs, calves, arms, abdomen, and back
  • A rowing machine can burn around 400 to 800 kcal per hour, from low to high intensity.  
  • It’s virtually zero impact so anyone can do it 

Advantages of a Rowing Machine Vs Bike

man on rowing machine

When comparing a rowing machine and bike there are a few other factors to consider. First, the amount of space you have. I have both a spin bike and rower. The rower is in my garage gym and the spin bike is upstairs in my room.

With the rowing machine, I can simply move it out of the way and up against the wall.

With the spin bike, on the other hand, it’s basically just there. Sure, it has wheels so I could move it around but the flywheel (large metal front wheel) is very heavy and makes the spin bike awkward to carry. So I can never really move it out of the way. 

Next, the exercise experience on a rower vs a bike.

The experience of riding a spin bike vs rower is very different. With a spin bike, I usually turn on the T.V. and watch a show or two while I ride.

That makes the time go by a little faster. But the seat really gets in there if you know what I mean. It’s pretty uncomfortable. However, it’s a great workout if you push yourself. 

The experience of rowing is totally different. My rower is an air rower – so it’s loud.

Instead of watching a show, I put in headphones and listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook. You would have a hard time watching T.V. on an air rower. You could watch T.V. if you bought a magnetic rower though because these make virtually zero noise.

They’re just not as high quality as the fan/air rowers usually. And when I’m done, I’m not in pain from sitting on the seat. 

Another noticeable thing between the rower and bike is that you can kind of skate by with a bike. You can get away with pedaling on low resistance and never really getting a good workout.

With a rower, it’s harder to do that. You basically row or you don’t. Sure, you can adjust resistance and move slower but it’s ultimately still going to challenge you more so you’ll get to your goal faster. 

  • It’s harder to “skate by” on a rower so you ultimately get a better workout
  • Most models can be folded for easy storage
  • They don’t need a power supply 
  • Rowers are very effective for weight loss

Disadvantages of Rowing Machines

  • Budget models can be unreliable
  • Quality rowers are expensive
  • They can be noisy 
  • It’s hard to row for more than 20-30 minutes at a time

Spin & Recumbent Bikes 

group spin class with orange spin bikes

Like rowing, spin bikes are low impact. This means they’re a good option for people with injuries or who simply don’t enjoy cardio and want to watch a movie while they exercise.

Because this is a piece of cardio equipment, you get the same health benefits as you would on a rower – aka heart health, improved conditioning, etc. 

You can also burn just as many calories on a spin bike as you do on a rower – assuming you stay disciplined and push yourself.

Like I was saying above though, it’s easy to be tired and simply go through the motions on a spin bike. 

One advantage of the spin bike over the rower is that you’re sitting up high and in a more natural position. We’ve all ridden bikes so you basically already have a good idea of how it feels to use a spin bike.

This position might be more comfortable for you and therefore mean you’ll use the bike more often. 

Another advantage of the bike is that you can crank up or lower your resistance. So, you can put on a YouTube spin class and follow along with their workout.

Spin classes are very challenging, to say the least, so if you do them a few times a week, you’ll get results.

As far as the muscles worked, you’re only working the muscles in your legs and glutes. Granted, it’s a good workout but you’re not activating all of the different muscle groups like you do on a rower. 

Types of Exercise Bikes

Spin Bikes

Spin bikes are used for spinning group fitness classes and are often used by those who participate in cycling as a sport. These also closely mimic the body position that outdoor bikes have — the handlebar is at a lower position, so you’re more hunched over when using them. 

These are the bikes with the heavy flywheel in the front and the tiny hard seat. They’re not the most comfortable but you can get an exceptionally good workout on a spin bike. 

Recumbent & Semi-recumbent Bikes

woman on a recumbent bike in the gym

These bikes are more like sitting in a chair with your legs out in front of you. The seat is large, it has a backrest, and it’s generally more comfortable to ride. This is especially true if you’re a larger person.

They have resistance settings you can adjust and it’s easy on your joints. However, these aren’t for anyone trying to do a spin class. Generally, these bikes are used for steady-state cardio – low and slow – where you simply adjust the resistance and not the speed to increase the difficulty. 

Benefits of Cycling

As mentioned above, cycling is a low impact exercise that doesn’t require any special skills. You most likely know how to ride a bike and even if you don’t, it’s stationary so you can’t fall off. Here are the main benefits of biking: 

  • Cycling is heart-healthy and great cardio 
  • Works out your legs and glutes 
  • Many people can attest that they don’t quickly get bored with it, so you can use it for longer periods of time
  • Great for burning calories and getting rid of unwanted body fat 

Advantages of Cycling Over Rowing

  • It’s easier to stay on a bike for a 45-60 minute session. This is hard to do with a rower.
  • A good exercise bike is often cheaper than a good rowing machine 
  • Bikes are quieter than rowing machines 
  • You most likely already know how to ride a bike 
  • Also a very low impact exercise

Disadvantages

  • You might get bored – but this is true with any cardio 
  • They’re heavy and not very easy to move around 
  • The seat is often very uncomfortable 
  • You’re hunched over on a bike which isn’t good for posture 

Features Head To Head

people riding spin bikes

Space Taken

Rowers and bikes take up space when in use. A rowing machine is long and thin whereas a bike is more like a rectangle as far as the floor space used. Bikes are harder to move out of the way due to the heavy flywheel. Rowing machines, on the other hand, are easy to move up against a wall when you’re done. 

Target Muscles/Muscle Mass Involved

The rower and exercise bike are both cardio machines, which means that they work out the body’s most important organ, the heart. They also help to firm muscles and will help to strengthen the thighs, legs, and glutes. 

However, the rowing machine uses more muscles than the exercise bike. It is generally said that rowing uses 60% of our leg muscles, 30% uses pendulum movement, and 10% uses muscles from the arms. That being said, the leg muscle workout on a bike is much harder than the leg workout on a rower. 

Range of Motion

The biggest difference between these two machines is the range of motion. As previously mentioned, the exercise bike uses only the lower body, and therefore, not much movement is involved, aside from the pedaling of your legs. On the other hand, rowing is a full-body motion.

Calories Burned/Energy Expenditure

wrist watch showing calories burned

Both the bike and rower burn approximately the same amount of calories per minute. However, there are some distinct differences that need to be noted. 

With a bike, it’s easier to ride for longer periods of time, thus burning more calories. With a rower, you’re unlikely to stay on it for an hour or more which ultimately means you burned fewer calories…right? 

Not entirely. 

Rowers are often used for high-intensity exercise (HIIT Rowing). This means that you workout hard for shorter periods of time. The result? The afterburn effect. The afterburn effect is where your body continues burning calories at an accelerated pace long after you stop your actual workout. 

When you factor in the afterburn, HIIT rowing actually burns more calories than biking and you’re not stuck doing cardio for an hour a day. 

Rehabilitation Purpose

The rowing machine is demanding on your back. And while it may strengthen this part of the body, it can increase pain for those who already have back pain or problems. 

It also forces you to bend your knees completely, which can aggravate knee conditions.

Stationary bikes, on the other hand, put little strain on the back and are therefore generally suitable for rehabilitating riders (check with your doctor first though). 

In addition, exercise bikes make it possible to work the knees gently by pedaling with moderate or low resistance, making it a good choice for both the prevention and rehabilitation of knee injuries. 

Noise

Both indoor bikes and rowing machines operate with less noise compared to other fitness equipment such as treadmills and elliptical trainers. Bikes, however, are even quieter than rowers, so the bike wins this round. 

Resistance

Both stationary bikes and rowing machines give you the freedom to adjust the resistance levels, so you can work at your own pace. 

User Suitability

This may come as a surprise to some but stationary bikes can offer you more exercise choices, and higher-end models can also come with tools for strength and stamina training. Rowing machines actually have limited options when it comes to workouts and can only be used in a specific way. While it does provide us with an intense workout, bikes ultimately win when it comes to variations and options for losing weight. 

Also, if safety is a concern, exercise bikes are the best choice because you know how to ride a bike, it’s stationary, and fewer parts of your body are moving. 

Conclusion

As you can see, both pieces of equipment are excellent. They each have distinct advantages and disadvantages as well. So when it comes to picking the best option, it’s all about your personal preference. Yes, I prefer the rowing machine – but I also have a bike. I like that I can use the rower for a quick HIIT workout and then get back to business. That being said, I also ride the bike and I could do HIIT on there as well. It’s just my preference to use the rower. 

With that, if you can’t get both, here is the criteria I would use:  

A rowing machine is your best bet if…

  • You want to work your whole body
  • You enjoy rowing 
  • You like HIIT exercise 
  • You’re larger / more overweight 
  • You don’t love cardio and just want to get it done while still getting all the benefits of a longer session

An exercise bike is for you if…

  • You live in an apartment (they’re quiet)
  • You have a limited budget
  • You’re recovering from an injury
  • You want to follow along with online spin classes
  • You enjoy longer cardio sessions and want the ability to watch a movie or show while you ride 

There you have it! I hope this comparison of the rowing machine vs bike has helped you make a decision on what to get. If you’re ready to make a decision, check out our posts for the best rowing machine and the best spin bikes

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