Rowing vs Swimming: Which one is the better exercise for you?

Last updated March 17, 2022
Rowing vs Swimming

Rowing vs. swimming can be a tough decision to make if you are looking at which one is the better exercise for you. This may depend on your exercise background and if you have swum or rowed before. It may also depend on which is easier for you to access - a rowing machine or a swimming pool.

Both have great benefits and are low injury risk exercises that can burn a similar amount of calories. Rowing can be easier to pick up and learn the correct technique with than swimming.

Benefits of Indoor Rowing

  • Rowing uses 9 major muscle groups
  • Rowing is a low impact exercise
  • Rowing is a low injury risk exercise
  • Rowing can be easier to learn than swimming
  • Rowing can be pretty quick and easy to learn

Benefits of Swimming

  • Swimming uses many of your major muscle groups
  • Swimming is a low impact exercise
  • Swimming is a low injury risk exercise
  • Swimming can improve your breathing technique
  • You won’t sweat as much as in another type of exercise, as the water can cool you off

Is rowing harder to start than swimming?

Rowing can be an easier form of exercise to begin than swimming. Although both rowing and swimming require something for you to get started - for rowing, this is a rowing machine or a boat, and with swimming, you would need access to a pool. The techniques you may need to learn to swim as an exercise routine could require a swimming course. Whereas the techniques required for rowing can be easier to pick up.

If you know how to swim, and are competent to swim as an exercise program, but want to know which one will be easier to implement into your weekly exercise routine, then the best option would be the one you enjoy the most. Both rowing and swimming result in a full-body workout and will boost your cardio as well. It is possible to get a perfect workout in a short space of time, both with rowing and swimming.

How to start swimming as an exercise routine?

With swimming, you will need to be comfortable in the water and, if you’ve never swum before, you may require some time to get used to being in the water, with your head under the water, as well as learning how to swim.

If you know how to swim, you may not be comfortable doing swimming as an exercise. There are many swimming courses and classes that you could join to help improve your swimming so that you can feel competent to make it a form of exercise. The classes can help you learn different strokes in swimming as well as help to improve your strokes to make them more efficient.

How to start rowing as an exercise routine?

Rowing can be started quite quickly. However, to improve your technique and reduce the risk of injury, it is probably best to either ask for help in a gym environment or watch some videos on proper rowing techniques. As with any exercise, when it is performed correctly, you will get the most out of the exercise and reduce any chance of injury.

Risk of injury

The risk of injury in rowing vs swimming is something to consider when taking up a new sport. An injury can impact your whole exercise schedule, and it is something to be mindful of, especially when starting a new exercise routine.

Swimming has one of the lowest risks of injury as it is a low-impact exercise. With the proper technique, Rowing also has a very low injury risk as it is also a low-impact exercise. Both swimming and rowing rely on good form when performing the activity. 

The risk of injury would then be less for the exercise that you can perform better, with the best form, for rowing vs swimming.

Which one is better for building muscles?

Swimming and rowing both target almost all of your major muscle groups, as well as your diaphragm and heart. Rowing will use more of the major muscle groups than swimming, as swimming tends to use your arms, legs, and gluteal muscles.

Muscle groups used while rowing


Muscle groups used while rowing

List of muscles used while rowing:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Gluteals
  • Core and abdominals
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Deep back muscles
  • Deltoid
  • Shoulders and rotator cuff
  • Triceps
  • Biceps


Muscle groups used while swimming


Muscle groups used while swimming

List of muscles used while swimming:

  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Calves
  • Gluteals
  • Shoulder rotator cuff
  • Deltoid
  • Biceps
  • Triceps


Which one is better for losing fat?

Calories burned are often the “standard” by which fat burning is measured. Rowing vs swimming with calorie burn is very similar, and different sources have one burning slightly more than the other. However, the difference between the two is minimal, and both are good low risk-injury, high-calorie burn types of exercise.

Calories burned: Rowing vs. Swimming

Based on 30 minutes of rowing

Activity and intensity 125 pound (56kg) person 155 pound (70 kg) person 185 pound (83 kg) person 215 pound (97kg) person

Rowing 50 W

103 calories

128 calories

153 calories

178 calories

Rowing 100W

207 calories

256 calories

372 calories

356 calories

Rowing 150 W

251 calories

311 calories

372 calories

432 calories

Based on 30 minutes of swimming

Activity and intensity 125 pound (56kg) person
155 pound (70 kg) person 185 pound (83 kg) person 215 pound (97kg) person

Backstroke or crawl (50 yards/min)

236 calories

293 calories

350 calories

406 calories


295 calories

366 calories

437 calories

508 calories

Crawl (75 yards/min)

325 calories

403 calories

481 calories

559 calories

If you are unsure how to work out your calorie output while using a rowing machine, then this calorie calculator can help you to work this out based on your body weight and the intensity of your workout.

Which sport is better for people with back pain?

Both rowing and swimming can put pressure on your lower back and increase lower back pain if performed incorrectly. It is so important for both rowing and swimming to pay attention to your technique of how you are doing the exercise.

If you can take the time to learn the correct technique for rowing or the correct technique for swimming, both can be good exercises for lower back pain and for strengthening your back and gluteal muscles.

If you experience back pain while rowing or swimming, it would be best to consult someone to check your form and find ways to improve it.

Conclusion: Which one is better for you?

With any exercise, consistency is most important. Rowing vs. swimming in terms of what is best for you would be the exercise you enjoy the most and the exercise you have the next access to. If you enjoy a certain type of exercise and have easy access to it, you are more likely to commit to it and make it a part of your everyday life.

About Sarah Engelbrecht
Sarah Engelbrecht is a practicing physiotherapist with over 18 years of experience in healthcare and helping patients with their health, fitness, and wellness. She works in private practice in the UK. Her writing has been featured on various websites in the UK and the US.
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