5 Cardio Exercises to Improve Your Indoor Rowing

The rowing machine is just one of many pieces of cardio kit which are available to you. Knowing which one you should choose and which of the exercise is going to benefit your rowing goals can be a tricky question to answer. Below, I’ve run through a number of different kinds of cardio, how they compare with rowing and some of the things you should be thinking about when choosing your next, sweaty workout that will improve your rowing and overall fitness!


Boat Race A mix of rowing and running

Whilst rowers often supplement their training with running, runners view rowing as a refreshing twist to break up a relentless running training regime and a fun element to getting fit. Whilst getting the basic technique right can be tricky at first – trying not to hit your knees for instance – once grasped, it can be a great way of building up muscle and core integrity that can improve your running ability without risk of causing injury through lifting weights.

Whilst one of the benefits of being a ‘sitting down sport’ is that there is very little risk of impact injuries to muscles and joints that recur in sports such as rugby and hockey, rowing can sometimes lead to inflammation in the lower back muscles; as they can be put under tremendous pressure in racing environments. To prevent these injuries from happening, coaches often supplement training on the ergo with running. Typically, the ratio of effort between rowing and running is normally acknowledged as being 1:1. Meaning that rowers will typically run between 40-120 minutes a workout to mirror training that would be done on the rowing machine.


Swimming exercise

Both swimming and rowing offer a low-impact, cardio-intensive workout that targets every muscle group in your body. If you’re looking for a workout to nurse a pulled or strained area, swimming offers one of the lowest-impact workouts plus high resistance so you won’t accidentally jerk or jar the injured muscle.

However, where swimming works mostly the arms and legs, rowing impacts almost the entire body—a total of nine muscle groups: quads, hamstrings, glutes, lats, core, shoulders, triceps, back and biceps. You can’t go wrong with either workout, but if saving time and getting an all-around sweat-inducing, calorie-burning, muscle-toning workout is your goal for the day, find a rowing class or rowing machine. And drive, two, three!

Swimming is often substituted as a workout for people recovering from surgery or pulled muscles, and it makes sense once you break down its benefits. It’s one of the lowest-impact workouts on the market. In water, your body is 90 percent buoyant, so moves aren’t as jarring as they would be when practised on land. In addition, water offers resistance, which holds back muscles from making sudden movements—ideal for taking care of strains or building muscular strength and flexibility.

Elliptical Exercise


First, there is definitely more of a technique involved with rowing than with the elliptical machine. The elliptical machine can be hard to grasp at first but after a few sessions you easily pick up the knack. It’s essentially running with more resistance and a fixed range of motion – unlike treadmills – working your entire body with more emphasis.

If you look at the people who actually use the rowing machine in the gym then you’ll notice that a lot of them are doing it incorrectly. They’ll violently pull with their back, not pull enough or complete the steps in the wrong order. Learning how to use the rowing machine correctly requires one or two lessons from a certified trainer to teach you how to complete the exercise properly therefore presenting you with a barrier. If you’re shy or simply want to dive in straight away, the rowing machine can be a real obstacle.

You should not let this stop you, though, as once you have learned the proper technique then the rowing machine can provide many advantages that are not included with exercise on the elliptical machine.

For instance, the rowing machine heavily trains the back and arms which tend to be weak areas for many people. As we spend most of our time hunched over a desk then our chests become tight, are lower back becomes weak and develop a very curved posture. The rowing machine trains all of the muscles that help counter these issues. The motions that you go through on the rowing machine are very similar to that of a dead lift (picking up a heavy weight from the floor) yet it trains the muscles of the upper back – the traps, rhomboid and posterior deltoids – much more.

This will strengthen the areas around your spine and, if completed correctly, help with functional movement in your everyday life and prevent injuries common as we grow older. The advantages to the core found in rowing are far superior to that found on the elliptical machine. There are many times that we complete a motion similar to the movements needed for rowing but little times we move similar to that on the cross trainer/elliptical machine.

Jump Rope Exercise

Jumping rope exercise

A rowing machine and jump rope are about as different as you can get in terms of exercise equipment. While they both can provide an effective cardio workout, each comes with its own unique benefits. Which piece of equipment is best depends entirely upon your personal needs, resources and fitness goals.

Expense and space requirements are a top concern when considering the benefits of a rowing machine versus a jump rope. While rowing machines are a very useful workout tool, they take up considerable space, even the folding models, and can cost several hundred to over one thousand dollars. Jump ropes, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive and can be coiled up and stored in a small drawer.

If you’re going to put the time in for a workout, you want to make sure you’re spending your time wisely. Rowing machines and jump ropes both offer an effective means for improving your cardio. Rowing machines, however, go one step further and develop muscular strength and endurance in your arms, shoulders, back, hips and legs. The muscular benefits of jumping rope are primarily limited to the muscles of your lower body.

Using a rowing machine consists of simply performing the rowing motion over and over again. The only variation you can add to your workout is to alter the resistance you’re using or the speed at which you’re pulling. Jumping rope may also seem like a mundane activity but there are a few different ways you can add a little variety to your workout. Working with a weighted jump rope will up the challenge for your upper body. Aside from the basic hop, there are several other ways to jump rope, including double unders, boxer step, jog step or any other way you can dream up to move your body while making it over the rope with each swing.

Water and air rowing machines, though they offer more benefits for the musculature, do not offer the same benefits for your bones/skeletal system. If you suffer from osteoporosis then light, weight bearing activity on the elliptical machine can really help. It can slow down the rate of mineral loss in your legs, lower back and hips. The rowing machine, as there is more weight involved, can be dangerous in old age for some people. That doesn’t mean avoid rowing, it simply means that you should check with your doctor before jumping into such exercises.

Also, as the rowing machine places a lot of emphasis on the upper back and biceps (fronts of the arm), it unfortunately means that there is no stimulus to the chest and triceps (backs of the arm). The cross trainer does not train these areas very much but it does place equal emphasis across all of the muscles used.

Air Bike Exercise

Air bike exercise

An air bike has one main difference from a standard bicycle, and that is the handlebars move. Other differences are obviously no wheels and gears, but apart from that, an air fan bike is just like any other bike but with a twist.

Air resistance bikes offer one of the most challenging and comprehensive full-body workouts there is, and the best part, you don’t need hours and hours like on a road bike. In less than 30 minutes, you can be dripping in sweat and completely exhausted. The air bike works all the major muscles you’d expect on a bike, plus the added benefit of hitting the upper body.

There is quite a big market for air bikes, but no doubt the three most popular are the Schwinn AirDyne, the Assault Bike, and the Rogue Echo. These bikes have an excellent pedigree and are made of much more durable and well-designed build quality, featuring ergonomic designs.

A rower, quite surprisingly, works in much the same way a bike does, especially when it comes to the specific movements and the primary muscles used. There is more emphasis on upper bodywork when rowing, but let’s not forget that your legs are activating and getting a thorough workout every time you take one stroke.

Depending on who you ask, whether it be a fitness trainer, a cycling or rowing coach, or a sports scientist, which exercise benefits you more is intensely debated. Some say rowing has a high level of skill attached to it, while others say cycling is much more complex and skillful.

Both sports require a high level of technical expertise, which may seem foreign and almost comical to most people; I mean, riding a bike cant be that technical, but in reality, it is, especially at the professional levels. Hitting your maximum levels requires more than just brute power in both cycling and rowing.

The truth is they are both exceptionally physically challenging sports that put enormous demands on the cardiovascular system. FTP or Functional Threshold Power, along with other metrics such as VO2 max and lactate threshold, also play a critical role in determining fitness levels.

As mentioned earlier, muscles used on the AirDyne, the Assault Bike, and the Rogue Echo and rowing are very similar, with one significant difference: the use of the upper body. However, with an air bike, this problem is taken care of due to the movement of the handlebars allowing you to smash out a great full-body workout.

In rowing, having a strong lower back and core are critical components in achieving an excellent technical stroke, while at the same time it helps to prevent injury. Obviously, there is much more emphasis on the upper body in rowing, but again with the invention of the air bike, those who love to ride can also get a workout similar to that of the rowing machine.

When it comes to getting the most of your time in the gym, choosing the machine that’s right for you is critical, but how do you know which is best for you? Strength, skill levels, time, and availability all play an essential role in getting the most effective, efficient, challenging, and demanding workout you can possibly get. Both machines, the air bike, and the rower, in my opinion, are two the absolute best movements out there when it comes to transforming your body.

Sayed Hamed Hosseiny
Sayed Hamed Hosseiny

Hi, my name is Sayed Hamed Hosseiny. I am a professional health and fitness trainer with nearly 20 years of experience using ellipticals, rowing machines, and spin bikes. I also have my own EU-based Rock Fitness Pro fitness brand where I design, import and sell exercise equipment such as rowing machines and spin bikes. I and writers on my team also often receive fitness equipment to review and evaluate their functionalities and performance from tens of different exercise machines manufacturers. Fitness equipment tips, guides, reviews, and comparisons on this website are my opinion (and opinions of my fitness expert colleagues) based on tens of criteria. I never accept payment to write reviews of products or say positive things about fitness equipment products. If brands are interested to have me review their rowers, ellipticals, or spin bikes, they can get in touch with me via email provided on the contact page and send a sample of their product.