Woman rows, rowing vs swimming

Rowing vs. Swimming: Which Low-Impact Workout Should You Choose?

The experts break these two modalities down.

By Colleen TraversFebruary 20, 2024


If you crave the intensity of a HIIT class, you may tend to avoid (or even skip) low-impact workouts. But this type of training is essential to becoming a well-rounded athlete. 

“Low-impact exercises are beneficial because they are joint-friendly (less hard on the knees, hips, vertebrae, etc., when compared to running), still engage the whole body, and can be less likely to cause injury,” says Alex Karwoski, a Peloton instructor. “Additionally, they are potentially more sustainable options for long-term fitness because of the lower physical stress they put on the body while still providing a cardiovascular benefit.”

Both rowing and swimming are great low-impact options that can complement each other. Read on to learn the differences, benefits, and when you should incorporate each into your training. 

Rowing vs. Swimming: Key Similarities

Aside from the low-impact approach, these two modalities help you improve your cardiovascular endurance. Here are some other similarities to be mindful of. 

They Focus on Resistance 

If you’re swimming in a pool or rowing in open water, moving through the H2O will create resistance. “There is a gradual application of force when it comes to water,” says Ben Fung, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “You get to ease into each rep because, essentially, [the] water pushes back as hard as you want to push it forward.” 

When it comes to indoor rowing, the same principle is true. “With a…rower, there is a graduated load applied,” Fung says. “How hard you work depends on how hard you row with a full range of motion.”

Both Require the Coordination of Multiple Muscle Groups

“Rowing is a leg-dominated motion (with an emphasis on quads and glutes) and swimming, especially in the kicking, is a leg-dominant motion,” Alex says. These two modalities also activate your core through the stroke, he adds. 

Rowing and Swimming Require Efficiency

Whether you swim or row, it’s all about the mechanics—your stroke. This will determine how efficiently you work and, ultimately, how far you go.

“There is an element of 'connection' to the motion,” Alex says. “In the water, as you swim, your goal is to move your body as efficiently (and effortlessly) as possible to cover as much distance per stroke. In rowing, your goal is to drive the boat through the water using the connection of your blade. On the machine, this is ‘felt’ via the connection at the catch as you work to move the flywheel as powerfully as possible, mimicking the boat’s motion through the water.” Both of these goals require an efficient stroke. 

Rowing vs. Swimming: Which Should You Choose?

Sure, there are some obvious differences when it comes to rowing and swimming. (To start, one requires a bathing suit and for you to get wet.) Here, Alex and Fung break down a few of the other distinctions. 

If You Want to Build Muscle

“Rowing will build more muscle because you get more intense resistance training per repetition as well as per workout,” Fung says. “You’ll get a lot more force resistance, and we know that through force resistance, the more you experience it, the more you get muscle growth.”

It also may be easier to build strength with rowing since it takes less coordination and, thus, there’s a higher likelihood of you executing a stroke correctly and activating the right muscles. “The coordination required to row on the rowing machine is less complex than learning a new swimming technique,” Alex says. “Rowing also provides easier workout variability. Sitting down for a 15-, 20-, or 30-minute intervals row is a lot more straightforward than putting together a swim workout that will achieve the same result.”

If You Want to Burn Calories

If burning calories is a goal for you, rowing will come out on top. Fung says that rowing can burn anywhere from 800 to 1,000 calories per hour, while an hour of vigorous swimming clocks in at approximately 600 to 800 calories.

If You Want to Recover

If you want to really prioritize recovery, swimming may be the best option for your body.

Swimming is easy on your joints and gives you a weightless sensation, Fung says. If you’re a runner or a cyclist, you likely put a lot of stress on your lower body muscles, such as your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Swimming can help you still squeeze in an effective workout, while also placing less impact on those muscles and joints. 

If you don’t have access to a pool or open water—or aren’t the strongest swimmer—rowing is still a beneficial recovery workout. Fung recommends rowing with less vigorous intensity to give your muscles and joints that much-needed break. 

If You Want a Beginner-Friendly Workout

If you’re a beginner, either of these modalities can be accessible to you—as long you put in the work and pay attention to your form. 

“Both sports rely on proper technique at the fundamental level before progressing to more intense workouts,” Alex says. “Starting with basic workouts, such as continuous 10-minute laps or time periods, could be the way to go.” 

If you’re interested in swimming, Alex says a coach can check your technique—and help you move from beginner workouts to more advanced swims. A row instructor can do the same. Get started with the Welcome to Peloton Row Collection for tips on how to perfect your form.

How to Combine These Workouts in Your Fitness Regimen

Struggling to choose between swimming and rowing? You don’t necessarily have to. In some cases, combining the two could be beneficial. 

“I would suggest a one-for-one, plus one cross train approach,” Alex says. “If you row on Monday, then swimming on Tuesday, and cross training on Wednesday (with either a weights session or body circuit and light cardio) would be a good approach. All of this depends on your skill level and comfort with each sport.” (If you want to combine your row session with strength training work, consider trying a Row Bootcamp class.)

When you introduce these workouts to your regimen, start off by doing them just a few times a week. As you continue testing these activities out, Fung says you can increase your weekly volume—just make sure to keep them in even distribution. Like Alex, he suggests alternating between a row day and a swim day with some cross training sprinkled in. 

If you’re using rowing and swimming as your recovery for strength training work, try to choose the option that will work the opposite muscle groups. “If I had a big leg day with deadlifts and squats, I’m going to swim versus row for a recovery,” says Fung. “For a chest day with bench presses, push-ups, and burpees, my next-day recovery would be a row.”


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