Rowing vs. Running: Benefits, Muscles Worked, Impact, and Calorie Burn

When you want to boost your heart rate, rowing and running are two popular cardio choices — but is one better than the other? Here's what experts have to say.

Pursuing the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, as suggested by the CDC, can be an enjoyable quest thanks to a plethora of fitness classes and gym equipment available. Cardio workouts not only enhance mood but also fortify the heart, though some exercises offer particular benefits over others. For those with limited space at home, a jump rope can be your go-to fitness tool. If you prefer outdoor exercise and wish to include your pet, intensified #hotgirlwalks are an option. Among the numerous cardio workout alternatives, rowing and running are considered classic favorites. Despite both being effective in ensuring you meet your weekly cardio targets, there exist differences concerning impact, the muscle groups each exercise targets, and potential for injuries. To assist you in making an informed decision between rowing and running, experts have shared their insights on their respective benefits. This piece will help you determine the optimal cardio routine tailored to your needs.

Benefits of Running

Engaging in running as a form of cardio exercise offers numerous benefits to individuals. As stated by April Gatlin, a certified personal trainer at STRIDE Fitness, running is an efficient way to burn calories and improve cardiovascular health. Regular engagement in this physical activity can result in lowered cholesterol levels and resting heart rate, while also increasing lung capacity. Moreover, the good news is that you don't have to run for extended periods to reap these benefits. As indicated in research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, running for just 10 to 5 minutes every day at speeds under six miles per hour (i.e., slower than a 12-minute mile) significantly reduces the risk of death from all causes, including heart disease. If you're still not convinced, there are several other compelling reasons why running should be your chosen cardio exercise.

Works Lower-Body Muscles and Core

Regardless of whether your running routine consists of hill intervals or a leisurely, steady-pace jog, it's a given that this activity works your lower body. This includes large muscle groups like the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. An interesting point to note is the role your core plays during your run, as highlighted by Gatlin. Since your core contributes to stabilizing your body while running, it stands to reason that it is actively engaged during this exercise.

This is further supported by the fact that running involves consecutive steps from one foot to the other, necessitating significant balance. In simpler terms, running inadvertently provides a comprehensive workout for your core, more than what you might have initially realized.

Offers Convenience

Running is a cardio activity that offers both functionality and affordability. No need for complex, pricey apparatus - just tie your running shoes and start increasing your heartbeat rate right from your doorstep. Economically speaking, running is an excellent choice for cardio as this exercise demands no equipment (although regularly replacing your running shoes every 300 to 600 miles is advisable, according to experts). Its convenience makes it simple to keep up with your running regimen, even when you are on business trips, holidays, or facing other potential workout hindrances. Not based in a region where outdoor running is viable? Fret not, almost all mainstream gyms provide treadmills, including the most budget-friendly hotel fitness centers. Due to its widespread availability and adaptability, incorporating running into your cardio routine is a breeze.

Strengthens Bones

Engaging in running as a form of exercise provides a high-impact workout, where there's constant contact and departure from the ground by your feet. This motion can potentially stress your joints, however, it also has the advantage of fortifying your bones due to the recurrent impact. Each stride during a run puts pressure on your bones and cartilage, prompting them to bounce back stronger. An exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta, Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., affirms this.

The repetitive impact from running over time enhances bone density, reducing susceptibility to fractures. A study in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal reinforces this, revealing that runners have half the risk of knee osteoarthritis (colloquially known as "wear and tear" arthritis), compared to walkers.

Benefits of Rowing

Formerly viewed as merely a cardio workout tool for athletes, rowing has now become a common activity in many fitness centers, gyms, and homes. This can largely be attributed to the rise of rowing machines. Statistics suggest that there has been an approximate 20% increase in indoor rowing since 2014. The following content elucidates why rowing is deemed a highly effective cardiovascular exercise.

Protects Joints and Is Low-Impact


One of the key advantages of rowing is its capacity to enhance your cardiovascular health without placing a significant strain on your joints," states Josh Honore, an NASM certified coach and trainer at Row House. As rowing is a non-weight bearing activity done in a seated position, it doesn't apply much pressure on the joints, he further explains. "This characteristic of being low-impact makes rowing an excellent choice for individuals with joint issues or those recovering from injuries." However, it's crucial to get approval from your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise regimen, particularly if you're healing from an injury.


Offers a Full-Body Workout

Engaging in rowing activities provides an all-encompassing workout. As pointed out by Honore, rowing engages almost every muscle in your body. This is supported by research conducted by the English Institute of Sport which indicates that rowing utilizes 86 percent of your muscles. "In addition to conditioning the cardiovascular system, the resistance provided by the damper and the force exerted by the rower helps to condition nearly every muscle in your body," further explains Honore. It's worth noting that the damper refers to the lever located on the side of the rowing wheel. This tool allows you to adjust airflow and modify resistance levels. Therefore, if your aim is to stimulate as many muscle groups as possible during your cardio session, rowing with added resistance from the damper offers a more comprehensive workout than running.

Improves Posture

Utilizing rowing as a primary form of exercise utilizes about 60 percent of the leg muscles, 30 percent of the core, and 10 percent of the arms, according to Joseph Ilustrisimo, a trainer certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. He further explains that your core should be dynamically engaged throughout the activity, resulting in a noticeable burn in your abs. Furthermore, Honore points out that rowing can strengthen your posterior chain muscles, which are the muscle groups located at the back of your body such as the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, shoulders, and core. Poor posture often results from a weak posterior chain, as your back muscles lack the strength to pull back your shoulder blades and help you maintain an upright position. Hence, having a robust posterior chain can mitigate the detrimental effects of "tech neck," making rowing an optimal choice for enhancing posture. The practice supports posture rectification, primarily when it counteracts the impacts of excessive sitting, as rowing strengthens the muscles in the posterior chain.

How to Choose Between Running vs. Rowing

<p>The good news is, there's no wrong choice when it comes to deciding between running and rowing as both are effective cardio workouts. The best option depends on your personal needs and lifestyle.</p> <p>"Firstly, you need to decide which exercise you can perform safely and without discomfort," suggests Honore. For instance, if you suffer from foot or knee pain, running might not be the best choice for you. Similarly, if you have lower back pain, rowing might exacerbate it. It's critical to consult with your doctor prior to starting any new exercise regimen to ensure it's safe for you.</p> <p>Accessibility can also play a role in your decision-making process. If you're a member of a large gym that offers multiple cardio options, you may have access to both treadmills and rowing machines, though high-quality rowing machines are often less common than treadmills, according to Honore. However, if home workouts are more your style but space is limited, outdoor running might be your preferred form of cardio.</p> <p>Lastly, choose the cardio workout that brings you the most joy. If you look forward to an early morning run or enjoy the full-body workout a rower provides, then incorporate that into your routine. "Consistency is key in fitness, so choosing a workout you enjoy will likely lead to greater adherence," states Honore.</p> <p>If you're still unsure about whether to choose running or rowing, here are some important distinctions to consider that can help inform your decision.</p>

Rowing vs. Running: Injury Recovery

Undeniably, rowing's gentle and low-impact nature makes it an ideal cardio alternative for individuals recovering from injuries. "It's crucial to consider any past injuries causing orthopedic issues leading to discomfort or constraint when deciding between running and rowing," Gatlin suggests. "For instance, rowing would be a suitable option for someone who has undergone hip replacement." Besides, rowing could also be beneficial to those experiencing knee pain, as it provides a means to enhance strength and stamina without imposing additional strain on the afflicted joint (ensure to consult your physician before starting).

Rowing vs. Running: Calorie Burn

The debate continues on whether running or rowing burns more calories. Rowing, being a comprehensive workout, engages more muscle groups than running. Moreover, the damper and resistance of the rowing machine exert more pressure on the cardiovascular system, possibly leading to a significant metabolic response in a shorter duration of time," says Honore. "In addition, the low-impact nature of rowing allows for longer training durations with lesser potential for discomfort." However, as running is a weight-bearing exercise, it could potentially lead to higher calorie burn compared to rowing, states Gatlin. According to calculations from the American Council on Exercise's Physical Activity Calorie Counter, both moderate-intensity running and rowing burn approximately the same amount of calories per hour. Therefore, when choosing between running and rowing, it's recommended to prioritize personal enjoyment of the activity over the number of calories burned.

Rowing vs. Running: Balance and Stability

Rowing and running are both excellent workouts, but they emphasize different aspects of physical fitness. While rowing, a seated exercise, doesn't demand balance as it's a bilateral movement that involves both sides of your body working together simultaneously. In contrast, running requires an intricate balancing act, with limbs moving in counterpoint and the body essentially hopping from one foot to another. This need for balance helps improve core stability and prevents injuries, making it critical for aging bodies. So if you're looking to enhance your balance and stability through your fitness routine, running would be a better choice over rowing.

Rowing vs. Running: For Beginners

Embarking on your fitness expedition? Rowing could have a slight advantage over running. As many experts suggest, rowing can be an excellent cardio exercise for beginners due to its lower impact and adjustable resistance. Also, it is relatively easier to get along with from the start compared to running. Moreover, beginners often face orthopedic issues or risk of injuries at initial stages; in such cases, rowing offers a secure, painless workout method. "For individuals with orthopedic problems and unable to opt for walking, rowing can be the most suitable choice," Gatlin elaborates. "It exerts less stress on joints as it is non-weight bearing, and additionally, it involves more muscle groups than running." In short, newbies in fitness might find rowing more appealing than running.

So, Which Is Better — Rowing vs. Running?

Whether you're mending from an injury or dealing with joint discomfort, rowing could be a better cardio choice than running. It provides a comprehensive workout by targeting most of your key muscle groups. However, if you value the ease and outdoor exercise opportunities, it's time to gear up with your running shoes. Gatlin suggests that enjoyment should also play a significant role in choosing between rowing and running. Provided there are no bone-related issues, one should opt for the activity they find more enjoyable as individuals tend to engage more in activities they love.

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