Case Study: How do rowing and cycling workouts compare?

Kelly Johnson

Written in conjunction with Kristin Haraldsdottir, PhD

Hydrow Case Studies Series

There are plenty of options when it comes to choosing your workout routine, and there are even more myths out there about the benefits of each type. When you’re dedicating valuable time in your day to exercising, you’ll want to know that the workout you choose is the best use of your time. To help, our Former Director of Exercise Research and Engagement Dr. Kristin Haraldsdottir created a study to  compare two of the most popular and accessible at-home workout options: rowing and cycling. 

Rowing and cycling are both low-impact workouts that combine aerobic (lower intensity that relies on oxygen for the main source of energy) and anaerobic (higher intensity that relies more on glucose for energy) elements. And that’s where the similarities end. Rowing is a whole-body workout that actively engages 86% of the body’s major muscle groups, whereas cycling is predominantly a lower-body workout. Both rowing and cycling are great endurance and strength workouts, but are they equal in terms of calorie expenditure during - and after - a 20 minute workout?

How to compare rowing and cycling

For this study, we recruited Jess Bechhofer, a 30 year old marathon runner and recreational Hydrow user. “In the heart of marathon training, I'm generally putting between 40-50 miles of road running on my legs every week. In the past, injuries have set me back from the results I was looking for. This past year, I realized just how important cross-training is, specifically on a low-impact machine, and how diversifying my workouts with Hydrow could help me reach my ambitious goals,” says Bechhofer. 

What is metabolic testing?

In order to compare the internal effect of rowing and cycling, Jess completed both a rowing and a cycling workout at the same intensity, on different days. During these workouts, we measured her metabolic output, which measures her metabolic rate (​​the amount of calories you burn doing regular day-to-day activities) and aerobic capacity (the  maximum volume of oxygen your body can use per minute). The Hydrow Exercise Research Lab uses a COSMED Quark metabolic cart that measures oxygen and carbon dioxide breath by breath and the volume of these breaths in order to accurately determine the energy expenditure (or calories burned) and the cardiovascular fitness load of a workout. 

The test

In order to ensure she rowed and cycled at equal intensities, Jess completed Hydrow’s 5 minute baseline assessment to determine her Sprint pace, which determined the pace for each workout. She then completed one 20 minute row on Hydrow and one 20 minute ride on a stationary bike, at 75% of her baseline wattage on separate days. 

What did we look at?

In this study, we set out to evaluate three key metrics: 1)  the amount of oxygen consumed for each workout type, 2) the calorie expenditure during 20 minutes of each workout type, and 3) the excess post-workout oxygen consumption, also called EPOC or “afterburn,” which is the amount of calories you burn after your workout has ended.

What we looked at: - Average heart rate - Average VO2 (volume of oxygen consumed during the workout) - Calories burned during the 20 minute workout - Calories burned in 30 minutes of rest post-workout

Day 1: Baseline assessment day Jess completed the baseline assessment with an average split of 1:59.9, and average watts of 210. We calculated 75% of her average wattage from the baseline assessment (158 watts), and were ready for Jess to do her next two workouts over the next couple of days. We chose 75% of her average watts during the baseline assessment so that it was a sub-maximal intensity and below her anaerobic threshold and she could continue working out comfortably for 20 minutes.

Day 2: 20 minute cycling steady state workout at 158 watts After a 5-minute light warmup on the bike, we hooked Jess up to the metabolic cart (COSMED) and she cycled at a comfortable rpm for 20 minutes at 158 watts. After her workout, she sat in a chair and rested quietly for 30 minutes while still attached to the metabolic system.

Day 3: 20 minute rowing steady state workout at 158 watts After a 5-minute light warmup on the Hydrow, Jess rowed at a comfortable rhythm for 20 minutes at 158 watts while attached to the Quark CPET system. After her workout, she sat in a chair and rested quietly for 30 minutes while still attached to the metabolic system.

Rowing vs. Cycling

Big takeaways

The results from Jess’ two workouts (rowing and cycling at matched intensities) suggest that rowing on Hydrow burns more calories both during and after your workout. Because of the larger volume of muscle mass engaged during rowing, your heart rate is higher, and your VO2 during the workout is also higher, which means you’re getting a more intense cardio fitness benefit. 

When asked how she felt about rowing versus cycling as a complement to running, Jess said “it was clear from the start that I was getting a more full-body workout on the rower. Rather than having fatigue set in quickly in my legs as it did on the bike, I was able to hold my wattage and feel consistency on the rowing machine. As a runner, my legs regularly feel tired. If given the choice between the two, I would pick the rower as my secondary exercise activity because I feel like it allows the rest of my body to build that strength (in my core, shoulders and hips) that will help with better breathing and gait during my longer runs.”

If you want to do a cardio workout like Jess did on Hydrow, try a 20-minute Breathe “Steady State Row” in the library (filter for 20 minutes in Workout Duration and Breathe in Workout Category). The team releases Steady State Rows regularly since these have great cardio benefits! 

Photo credit: Aisha McAdams