Is A Rowing Machine Good For Swimmers? (Explained)

It is not always possible to get to the swimming pool for a swim, particularly these days as there is an international chlorine shortage and local pools (my own included) have cut their opening hours in order to reduce costs and prolong their chlorine supplies.

If you cannot go swimming as much as you would like, there are some fantastic gym exercises that can help you stay in shape while out of the water.

One of the most overlooked pieces of gym equipment that can be a fantastic tool for swimmers is the rowing machine.

Rowing is a great workout for swimmers. A rowing machine can help you work on your “catch” and continue to build the leg and arm muscles needed for swimming while maintaining a high cardiovascular and rhythmic workout.

In this article I want to take a deep look at rowing machines and why they are good for swimmers, covering:

  • What is a rowing machine?
  • Does rowing work the same muscles as swimming?
  • Can rowing help me swim faster?
  • Is a rowing machine better than swimming?
  • How many calories are burned while rowing?
  • Which burns more calories, rowing or swimming?
  • What is a good rowing machine to buy?

What Is A Rowing Machine?

Before explaining how a rowing machine can be great for swimmers, I just want to explain what a rowing machine is for anyone who has never used or heard of this piece of gym gear.

To be honest, even if you know what a rowing machine is, I have found that it is one of the most overlooked pieces of gym equipment. For example, in my local gym, I can guarantee that the rowing machines are always free for use, even at peak times.

In a nutshell, a rowing machine is a piece of exercise equipment that allows you to simulate the action of rowing a boat. They are typically found in every well-equipped gym and can also be purchased to use at home.

One of the most respected brands in rowing machine manufacture is Concept2. This is what a Concept2 rowing machine looks like.

Does Rowing Work The Same Muscles As Swimming?

If you cannot get access to your local pool, or cannot swim, the rowing machine is one of the best alternative workouts as it uses most of the same muscles as swimming.

Here is a list of the muscles worked by a rowing machine and how these muscles overlap with swimming:

Rowing Machine – Muscles UsedSwimming – Muscles Used
QuadsThe quads are dominant in swimming and are used particularly in the breaststroke or when kicking down.
HamstringsThe hamstrings are another strong leg muscle group used for swimming and used when kicking up.
GlutesThe glutes are predominately engaged when swimming the front crawl or strong kicking strokes.
Latissimus DorsiKnown as the “swimmer’s muscle” since this muscle group is associated with all the swim strokes, pulling water towards you will work the lats or lower back muscles.
CoreThe ‘core’ refers to a group of major muscles in your torso region, including the abs. All swimming strokes work the core.
ShouldersThe shoulders make up a group of eight muscles. Nearly all swim strokes use a combination of shoulder muscles.
TricepsThe triceps, which are found on the back of your arm, are used to finish the pull section of the following swim strokes: front crawl, backstroke and butterfly.
BicepsAll the swim strokes use the biceps, which are the muscles found on the front of your arm. They are worked as you pull through the water.
BackMany back muscles are engaged in all the swim strokes. The back is a general name for a group of muscles, nearly all of which are used in swimming. The latissimus dorsi, which has already been mentioned, is part of the upper back muscles and is commonly known as the swimmer’s muscles.
This Table Shows The Rowing Vs Swimming Muscles Used

Can Rowing Help Me Swim Faster?

Rowing can help you swim faster by improving your arm and back muscle strength, improve your kicking endurance, and help with your catch timing while also improving ankle flexibility, which will result in a more efficient kick.

Swimming is a very technical sport, but when you break down the art of rowing, you will find a lot of technical overlap.

Here are some ways training on a rowing machine can help improve your swimming speeds.

1. Improved Strength

The primary muscles targeted by a rowing machine are the latissimus dorsi. These are the main back muscles and are also known as the swimmer’s muscles.

This muscle group is needed for all the major four swim strokes, namely, the breaststroke, the front crawl, the backstroke and the butterfly.

Building strength in the latissimus dorsi will increase your overall swimming strength, which will result in greater pulling power.

2. Improved Breaststroke Pull

The secondary muscles targeted by the rowing machine are the scapular retractors. This muscle is fundamental to the final pulling phase of the breaststroke.

To target the scapular retractors, set a lighter weight. This will shift the focus from the latissimus dorsi to the scapular retractors.

3. Improved Catch Timing

Good swimming technique has a lot to do with rhythm and timing; the same can be said for rowing.

Just like with swimming, there is a “catch” phase of a rowing stroke where you pull at the right time.

This catch timing workout can help with coordination and can translate to improved catch timing in your swim.

4. Improved Ankle Flexibility

This is an area of rowing that very few (if any) talk about. However, improved ankle flexibility is something I have found from using a rowing machine.

On a rowing machine, the first movement is to move your torso forward and over your feet in order to begin.

For many, your feet will be securely strapped in position for optimum support.

I have found that this phase of the rowing movement helps me to work on my ankle flexibility as I am flexing my ankles.

Good ankle flexibility has been proven to be essential for improved swim speeds. [source]

I have covered ankle flexibility in greater depth in this article, Is Ankle Flexibility The Secret To Swimming Faster?”

Is A Rowing Machine Better Than Swimming?

As someone who loves to swim, I will always pick swimming over rowing if given the choice. However, let’s take an objective look at both swimming and rowing side by side and describe the pros and cons of both activities.

Exercise Pros & ConsSwimming Vs Rowing
CostA very good rowing machine will cost around $800.

Swimming membership for a pool can cost around $600 per year.

Alternatively, you could join a gym with a pool for $600 per year.

Either way, you could argue that there is not a significant difference in cost unless you buy a cheap rowing machine.
Difficulty LevelSwimming is harder than rowing.

After 15 minutes on a rowing machine and with some instruction you will be able to row all day.

Learning to swim, or refining swim technique, is much harder and takes a lot more skill.
Injury RiskSwimming has a lower injury risk than rowing.

As you are only pulling your body weight through the water, and even that is buoyant, swimming is a low-impact sport.

With heavier weight options and poor rowing technique, we see a higher risk of injury with rowing.
Heart Rate WorkoutThis is a tough one as it depends on the swimmer.

I can get my heart rate working much harder on a rowing machine as I can go full pelt.

Often, I have to share a lane when I swim and never get my heart rate working to a high level.
LogisticsIt can be a hassle for many to get to a pool unless they have one in their backyard.

Rowing machines are compact enough to have at home.

Travelling to a pool and changing clothes is a much harder logistics challenge than just getting on a rowing machine.
Fun LevelThis is subjective, but I find swimming so much more fun!

Although it is possible to watch TV while rowing, I love getting away from it all in the pool and just playing in the water.
This Table Shows Swimming Vs Rowing – Which Is Better?

Which Burns More Calories Rowing Or Swimming?

There is a lot of debate about which activity burns more calories.

As a general rule, rowing burns slightly more calories per hour than swimming however, many factors will affect this, such as the weight of the individual, the ambient temperature and the level of intensity of the exercise.

In the interest of a direct comparison between swimming and rowing, I am going to use a calorie calculator.

Assuming an adult with a weight of 80kg (176lbs) completes a 30-minute workout at a moderate pace, here are the total calories burned by swimming and rowing. [source]

ActivityLength Of ActivityIntensity LevelTotal Calories
Swimming (Front Crawl)30 MinutesModerate232 kcals
Rowing (100W Machine)30 MinutesModerate280 kcals
This Table Compares Calories Burned From Rowing And Swimming

What Is A Good Rowing Machine To Buy?

The best rowing machine brand on the market is the Concept2.

There are many options available from Concept2 which can be found through their official website or on their Amazon Store.

This rowing machine brand is used extensively by swimmers (Cody Miller has a Concept2 in his home gym and he is one of the best breaststroke swimmers in the world).

Final Thoughts

Rowing and swimming are both great exercises that provide a lot of benefits.

Swimming is harder than rowing, but it has a lower injury risk.

Using a rowing machine can be a great dryland exercise for swimmers, as it can help work the key muscles used in swimming, particularly the latissimus dorsi. (Main back muscles)

During these times, when many public pools are reducing opening hours because of chlorine shortages or cutting their hours due to high energy costs, it is possible to keep in good swimming shape by using a rowing machine.

Happy rowing!

Emma Moore

Hi, I am Emma, and I am obsessed with all watersports, from swimming to surfing and everything in between. I spend my free time in the water or preparing for my next water travel adventure.

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