The air bike and the rower — two cardio machines that are both beloved and dreaded. They’re beloved because they’re quick and dirty ways to push yourself to the limit while getting stronger and better conditioned. Using either of these machines will make you a better athlete.
But say you’ve only got a limited amount of time. Or you’ve got a home gym budget or space consideration that only allows you to buy one of your dream machines. Alternatively, you might be a minimalist who wants to get in and out of the gym only performing the best, most effective exercises for your goals and your body.
Here’s how to choose between the air bike and the rower, depending on your goals, your strength sport, and your experience level.
Is the Air Bike or Rower Better for:
Air Bike Vs. Rower
That really loud beast in the corner of the gym that you’ve definitely seen at the CrossFit Games is likely an air bike. It roars when you use it because it uses a fan to create wind resistance — the harder you pedal, the more resistance the air bike will give you.
Sometimes referred to as an Echo Bike or Assault Bike (depending on which manufacturer one is thinking of), the air bike requires you to pedal with your legs while pushing and pulling handles with your arms. Even if the pace is relatively slow, even the strongest of athletes will often get winded within 10 or 15 seconds on this machine.
The rowing machine is a bit tamer than the air bike. Yes, you can get an incredibly hard workout on a rower, which has you push off with your legs and then finish the pull with your arms. But it’s typically easier to perform a low-intensity session with the rower because you’re not working your arms and legs at the exact same time.
On the rower, your legs get a moment of recovery while your arms take over, and vice versa. There’s no break time on an air bike. This is great news if you have the baseline capacity to take it to the next level, but not so great if you’re looking for a slower, steady session.
The basic differences between the rower and the air bike have big consequences in terms of training. Here’s what the science says about what each machine is good for.
There aren’t a significant number of studies examining the effectiveness of the air bike for muscle-building. But research does suggest that air bikes require athletes to use a great deal of muscle mass. (1)(2) This is due to the constant pushing and pulling with the upper limbs and pedaling with the lower limbs. (1)(2)
This may also create a large capacity to generate power with the air bike, which is a good muscle-building recipe. (1) On the other hand, a rowing machine primarily draws power from the legs and core, but only involves upper-body pulling up top. But just because it’s pulling only with your upper body (as opposed to also pushing with your upper body) doesn’t mean rowing doesn’t build muscle.
Studies suggest that rowing machines engage muscles throughout your entire body — from your elbows, shoulders, and knee joints all the way through your back and related muscle groups. (3) With all those muscles being activated, it’s a good bet that you’ll be building a bunch of muscle.
The air bike isn’t only going to get you out of breath. It’s also going to get you strong. Performing a 10-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session twice a week with 15 to 45-second work intervals on an air bike has been shown to produce significant strength increases. (4)
Overall, the air bike might have an edge in the strength department because you can get stronger more quickly without as much need to do extra resistance training. So the air bike might be a superior option here, especially if you want to get stronger in a hurry.
Research suggests that the air bike is a very effective tool for high-intensity interval training. (4) Because you’re pushing and pulling with your upper body while pedaling with your limbs, the air bike tends to spike your heart rate to a high degree. (2) Performing HIIT sessions on an air bike also significantly boosts your anaerobic and aerobic endurance. (4)(6)
For athletes who favor high-intensity training that isn’t quite as intense as air bike sprints, the rowing machine might be better suited for improving cardio performance and VO2 max. Rowing will have you able to sustain longer intervals and steady-state cardio. So if you’re looking for a low-impact alternative to running that will allow you to have longer cardio sessions, rowing is going to be your best bet. (7)(5)
Rowing machines may be excellent for a lot of things, but there are likely more effective ways to spur fat loss. If you’re thinking about fat loss as a rate of calories burned during exercise — which can help you out when you’re trying to create a small deficit each day — running may be more effective than rowing. (8)
This seems to set the air bike up for a potential win here. Air bikes are also relatively low-impact, as your limbs will be working hard but not pounding on anything (as with running). That said, intensive air bike intervals seem to be very effective at burning calories. (2)
A training protocol including 15 minutes on an air bike with 10-second bursts of sprints can burn more calories than a more traditional 2:1 work-to-rest ratio HIIT session. (2) This might give air bikes the advantage over rowers in the realm of fat loss.
You know what the air bike and rower can do for you based on your goals. But goals aren’t the only factor to consider.
Building muscle has a different meaning for a competitive bodybuilder than for the average gymgoer or for a powerlifter. Muscle mass is a bodybuilder’s centerpiece, whereas muscle mass for a powerlifter is potentially helpful at adding some strength to the big three lifts. It’s also an aesthetic addition that some strive for — but it’s not essential for your sport.
Here’s how to know which is best for you when you combine your goal with your specific strength sport.
If you’re new to the gym, choosing between the air bike and the rower puts you in quite a pickle. Rowing technique is much harder to master than the air bike. On the other hand, even 10 seconds on an air bike can leave even a well-conditioned athlete wheezing.
As a beginner, it’s really going to be about balancing how well you can learn rowing technique and how much patience you have with yourself on an air bike. If you can resist the urge to push too hard and too fast — until you drop or throw up, which can happen absurdly fast on an air bike — the air bike might be easier to learn than the rowing machine.
Ultimately, it might also just come down to what you enjoy. Many beginners hop on the air bike for 15 seconds and swear never to do it again. Others love the challenge of the air bike but might find rowing boring. Still other athletes may want to alternate between these tools to keep their training engaging.
Whichever you choose, make sure you’re starting slowly. Hammer down your technique and build a strong base of aerobic fitness with steady-state training before diving into hard and fast intervals.
The most experienced competitive athletes can get intimidated by the sheer intensity of a bout of air bike training. This may be even more true of experienced recreational athletes, who may be more confident in their conditioning than a beginner and therefore push too hard on the air bike.
As a recreational gymgoer, choose your training tools wisely. You want to challenge yourself — that’s how you’re going to get better — but you also want to set yourself up for success rather than burnout. If you find rowing more sustainable, that might be a better choice for you.
That said, if you’re working on getting stronger with your big barbell lifts, the air bike can help you improve your one-rep maxes. And while you can perform effective training intervals on either piece of equipment, air bike workouts might get you where you want to go in an even more timely fashion.
It’s rare that you’ll find a well-equipped CrossFit box or home gym without an air bike. That’s because competitive CrossFitters need this implement for maximizing their work capacity and ability to push through intense mental and physical exhaustion. They also need it for competition, since the air bike is a key feature in many WODs (workouts of the day).
The same is true of rowers, however. Rowing machines are classic staples of CrossFit training sessions and competitions. So if you’re a CrossFitter, the answer is very straightforwardly both.
If you’re into weightlifting, everything about your training is centered around mastering two barbell lifts: the snatch and the clean & jerk. Beyond these two lifts, everything else is the gravy that exists in service of getting you better at these two moves.
Short intervals on the air bike and rower are both great additions to a weightlifter’s conditioning routine. With the air bike, this might involve 15-second sprints interspersed with dumbbell snatches. You can incorporate 200-meter rows into conditioning-oriented barbell complexes.
Similar to weightlifters, powerlifters train for maximum strength in a limited number of lifts. In this case, it’s the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Despite the name of the sport, these moves are a lot less dynamic and power-based than weightlifting moves. Because of this, powerlifters may overlook the need for conditioning work.
But using a rower is a great way to help powerlifters recover from tough workouts while also providing a good training stimulus. Intense sprints on the air bike may not be ideal if you’re going to lift heavy the next day, since the air bike is an extremely taxing machine.
But if you can arrange it in your program to avoid eating into your recovery time — after a heavy deadlift session and before a rest day, for example — air bike intervals may help you improve your one-rep maxes. It’ll also help you train the anaerobic efficiency you need to push through those intense sets.
Lower-intensity rowing can help powerlifters, too. You’ll need the added cardiovascular stamina to recover from and power through those high-rep sets. Volume, after all, is one of the big keys to refining your technique to bust out those max efforts efficiently.
Generally speaking, bodybuilders need to be both bulky and shredded. Both of these machines are great for both of these goals. They both have the capacity to be intense enough to fuel particular aesthetic goals while utilizing a whole lot of muscle mass.
The air bike might have an edge here because it requires you to pull and push with your upper body while also constantly peddling. Rowing, in contrast, is comparatively less intense. In terms of the potential for calorie burn and total muscle mass used, air bikes might hold an advantage for bodybuilders.
Strongwomen and Strongmen
Strongman athletes of any gender need to be well-conditioned. Sure, strongman athletes aren’t necessarily likely to break out gymnastics-oriented movements like pull-ups or run a marathon. But conditioning is still key for strongman athletes to perform well in medleys, yoke walks, and heavy lifts for max reps.
Both the rower and the air bike are relatively low-impact on the joints. This is important for athletes who tend to be on the heavier side. This makes them both decent candidates for supplemental conditioning training. Because the air bike is more closely associated with getting stronger, this machine might have an edge.
Air Bike or Rower — Who Wins?
In the battle between air bikes and rowers, there’s not necessarily a clear winner. Both machines spare your joints a lot of banging around. They also both recruit a whole lot of muscle mass and increase your conditioning and work capacity.
When you’re looking to up your one-rep maxes with rapid-fire intensity, the air bike might be better for you. On the other hand, the rower is more conducive to longer training sessions with a more steady-state vibe. If you have access to both machines, you’re in luck. Either choice you make is likely to be a good one.
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