Rowing On Water Versus Indoor Machines – Pros And Cons

Whether you’re just getting started with rowing or you’re someone who’s been rowing for years, one thing that you may ask yourself is should you row on the water or should you row on a machine?

What are the clear differences? What are the pros and cons? Which will help you go that extra mile with your fitness level and performance?

There are many things to consider when answering this question and as you are about to see, it’s not so black and white. What you should be doing will heavily depend on your unique situation and what your strongest preferences happen to be.

Some people are much better suited to rowing on water while others are better suited to rowing inside.

Let’s contrast these two styles so that you can better determine which is the right fit for you.

Injury Risk

First consider your injury risk. You’ll find that you have a much lower risk of injury rowing indoor than you do in the open water. This is because in the open water, your canoe could tip over, which would then leave you with potential injury depending on how you fall out and whether or not you get hit.

While the risk of this may be low, it still definitely poses a risk. Indoors, you have zero risk of this happening, so that threat just isn’t there at all.

Partner Interest

Also think about whether you have partner interest. While you can row alone, most often when rowing outside in water, you are rowing with a partner. This can be good or bad depending on how you look at it.

It’s good because if you are someone who enjoys working out with a partner, you are going to greatly benefit from having that other person there. They will inspire you and motivate you to push harder, which may keep you more consistent overall with your workout session.

It’s bad however because if that partner is a lot stronger than you, they may overpower you, thus you may not get the exact workout in that you were hoping for.

Secondly, you are going to be relying on them to show up. If you have a boat that requires two people to row in, if they don’t show up, you can’t workout.

Generally speaking, it’s never a good idea to put the fate of your workout in someone else’s hands. Unless you know they are decided and will show up no matter what, relying only on yourself is best.

Desire To Get Wet

It may seem self explanatory but don’t forget this factor. In a water rowing canoe, you are going to get wet. No questions asked. Not everyone likes that. So even though you may prefer a workout in the great outdoors, if you don’t want to have to towel off after your workout session, the outdoor route may not be the best for you.

When you are on an indoor rowing machine, you aren’t going to be facing the elements like you are in open water.

And, don’t let yourself think that if it’s not raining and you are careful, you can avoid getting wet. Getting wet is almost inevitable as water will splash each time the oar comes out and goes into the water. This splash will eventually end up on you.


Also consider accessibility. Do you have a river or a lake close by that you can easily access when needed? Or do you need to drive at least 30 minutes to get to one? Factor that in. It might seem like no big deal at the moment, but if you find yourself devoting more time to driving to your workouts than you do actually doing your workout, that may be short lived.

Most people are pressed for time in today’s world so any time they spend driving is time they are giving up that they could be doing something else.

One huge benefit of an at home rowing machine is you can hop on any time it’s convenient for you. All you need to do is walk into your living room and you’ll be ready to go.

Seasonal Variability

Another factor to consider is the seasons. If you are rowing outside, you will have certain seasons you can do this in and others, you will need to take a break. For instance, few people will go out rowing in the middle of winter unless you live somewhere exceptionally warm where the temperature is not dipping down.

Seasonal variability can be devastating to any workout program so unless you have plans to go inside when the weather changes, it really could mean a huge dent in your fitness routine.

Ability To Change Resistance

Another important benefit to consider when looking at the difference between indoor and outdoor rowing is the ability to change resistance. With outdoor rowing, the only real control you have in how fast you row. Beyond that, the water is going to be the primary determinant of how much resistance you are facing. The water may give you too much or too little resistance, making it hard to get in the workout session that you truly wanted.

On the other hand, indoors, you control the resistance level. You can change the resistance as needed to get the actual workout that you are going for.

This makes it far easier to customize the program to you and also will help you progress over time. One of the key factors of normal progression in a workout session is constant overload. This means you are doing more with each workout over time than you were doing before. With outdoor rowing, you only have control over so many factors, so it can be a lot more challenging to achieve this.

Lower Body Workout

One unique thing about the indoor rowing machine that gives it a huge advantage over the outdoor rower is that you can call your lower body into play. Your legs are a huge muscle group so it’s a shame to completely eliminate them. With outdoor rowing, it’s only your upper body doing the work. The legs may act for stabilization purposes, but they aren’t being worked to nearly the same degree as they do on an indoor rowing machine.

This means you get a full body workout while using the indoor rowing machine but only a half body workout in the outdoor rowing setup. Because the legs are such a huge component of the body, this then means you will have to perform additional exercise to get the legs into shape as well.

Because the legs are such giant muscles as well, this may also lower your total minute by minute calorie burn. While your upper body will be working doubly as hard during outdoor rowing since you don’t have the legs helping power you along, you may not burn as many calories since the arms don’t posses quite the same degree of total muscle mass.

Total Amount Of Work Performed

Another thing to consider is the fact that if you are rowing on water, depending on where you are, there may be an undercurrent that is either helping you along or working against you.

If it’s working against you, you are essentially adding more resistance to your workout session and will develop better strength because of it. If it’s working with you on the other hand, then you will have an easier time with that rowing session because now you have the added current carrying you along.

The total amount of work performed on an indoor rowing machine is strictly based on what you put in. There are no external factors that are either helping or hindering your performance, so many people consider this to be a big pro. You can control the exact workout you get in.

Out in the open water, you have very little control. If the water does one thing, you are following suit.

The Boredom Factor

Finally, consider the boredom factor. This is where outdoor rowing shines. You’ll get to be in the great outdoors and will see sights all around you, not to mention you are actually going somewhere.

With indoor rowing, you aren’t moving and will be seeing the same thing the entire way through. So you may find that you get more bored on an indoor rowing machine. This said, this can quite easily be overcome by simply watching TV while doing your indoor rowing if you need that much more stimulation.

So keep these points in mind and remember, rowing is a fantastic exercise no matter how you do it. But you do need to stop and think about what’s most important for you in your own workout routine to determine whether it’s indoor or outdoor rowing you want to be doing. Nothing says you can’t do both either, which would then give you the best of both worlds.

Photo credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock; Microgen/Shutterstock; ESB Professional/Shutterstock

1 Comment
  1. Reply Bill Miller January 25, 2019 at 1:45 am
    Hi there, I’m really interested to know who wrote this review about indoor versus outdoor rowing.

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