Exhilarating, intense, and ruthless, rowers and air bikes are capable of delivering brutal, all-around cardio and conditioning hits. They’re the undisputed champions of the full-body workout.
But, which of the two is better? Or more importantly, which is better for you?
Both offer full-body workouts, both are low-impact and non-weight bearing, and both will leave you in a puddle of sweat at the end of your workout.
If you’re tossing up which of these two pieces of home exercise equipment deserves a spot in your home or garage gym, then our handy guide is here to help you decide.
Assault Bikes: What Are They and What Are They Typically Used For?
Air bikes (a.k.a assault bikes, fan bikes, or air resistance bikes) are versatile pieces of exercise equipment that have exploded in popularity due to their use in CrossFit. Nicknamed “Satan’s Tricycle”, an air bike will leave you utterly exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure.
The ominous moving handlebars and huge fan at the front mean they stand out against other stationary exercise bikes. They look daunting but are uncomplicated and simple to use, which makes them a favorite amongst garage/home gym owners.
Assault bikes have many benefits beyond forcing a sudden and crushing realization that you’re nowhere near as in-shape as you thought you were. You can use them to build and strengthen muscles, burn calories and fat, and massively increase your aerobic capacity. They’re also uniquely well-suited for metabolic conditioning/training, which is why they’re used extensively in CrossFit competitions and training.
Pros and Cons of Air Bikes
- Straightforward to use: Easy to use and suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels
- Versatile: Air bikes can be used to build cardiovascular endurance via traditional steady-state cardio, or short and sharp high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions. You can also choose to target only the upper body or lower body by using just the handlebars or pedals.
- Lots of muscles worked: They work variety of muscles throughout the upper and lower body. The pedals work the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, whilst the handlebars ensure your core, shoulders, upper back, and arms receive their fair share of the pain as well.
- Recovery and rehab: Assault bikes are low-impact by nature, making them effective tools if you’re suffering from an injury or strain. The safe, gentle, and whole-body movement also makes them great for active recovery.
- Infinite resistance: The air resistance mechanism means fan bikes have unlimited levels of resistance. The harder you work, the more resistance you experience.
- Cost: A decent air bike can leave a big hole in your wallet.
- Maintenance: After a while, an air bike can become both time-consuming and costly to keep going. In fairness, the recent increase in belt-driven machines is making them considerably more durable.
- Boring intensity: Air bike workouts can be incredibly tough, and repetitive. Compared to complex skill needed to use a rower properly and the rhythmic nature of the rowing stroke, air bikes are downright boring.
Rowing Machines: What Are They and What Are They Typically Used For?
You’ll often see an army of rower machines lined up next to each other in the gym, often with users stumbling off them covered in sweat and tears. Using a variety of resistance mechanisms, they force the user to work hard and efficiently to maximize their workout and achieve good numbers (such as calories burned, watts, time/500m).
For maximum efficiency, rowers require a specific and rather difficult-to-master technique. The best way to think of rowing is as a kind of horizontal deadlift. Relaxed shoulders, braced core, and engaged lats are vital as you drive through your legs.
Delivering what can only be described as the ultimate full-body workout, rowers are much like air bikes in that they’re great for burning calories, toning and building muscles, and causing lots of (the good kind of) pain. They work your muscles hard but also get your heart and lungs pumping, meaning you can get a serious, balanced workout.
Pros and Cons of Rowers
- Full-body workout: They can strengthen and tone all the major muscle groups including back, chest, abs, and legs.
- Low Impact: There is no impact on joints or muscles and the movement is non-weight-bearing, making rowers suitable for all age groups and those recovering from muscle injuries.
- Foldable: Most modern rowers can be folded or hung to save space when not in use.
- Versatility: You can go for a long slog on a rower to build endurance or do short, sharp intervals for a cardio blast.
- Power output: A rower can give you accurate readings of your power output, calories burned, and time over 500m intervals. This means you have a target to beat the next time you step on it, helping measure your progress over time.
- Difficult technique: The most efficient technique on a rower requires practice, leading some people to give up, injure themselves, or not achieve the numbers they desire or are capable of.
- Cost: They’re an expensive piece of equipment, making your wallet significantly lighter.
- Footprint: When in use, a rower can take up a significant amount of space. Make sure you have a big enough space to use it comfortably.
Air Bikes vs Rowers: Similarities & Differences
These two machines look very different, and they are different. But they share a lot of similarities too. Let’s take a look:
Both machines can benefit users in similar ways. They’re both versatile machines so can be used to build endurance by grinding away for a drawn-out period, or you can do short intervals, going flat out with short rests in between.
Whilst both are great, I find the rower suits the long slogs more than the air bike. You can find a rhythm much easier. The smooth, gliding motion on the best rowers helps too, creating an almost calm, meditative state as you go into autopilot through the phases of motion.
The brutality of the air bike makes it slightly better for those hard and fast interval workouts. There’s nothing like the feeling of exhaustion as you flop off the air bike after a 40-second sprint. Legs burning, arms aching, sweat pouring, you’ll love and hate how the air bike is a perfect HIIT machine.
Rowers and air bikes love calories. A short workout on either will burn through oodles of them, more so than on many other low-impact cardio machines such as recumbent exercise bikes and elliptical trainers.
In terms of total calories burned, the air bike prevails in the intensity of the work you do, and therefore the potential to burn calories. With an air bike workout, there is no respite. For the duration of the workout, you are required to pedal and push just to keep the fan moving.
The rower on the other hand gives you a mini rest in between reps as you glide back to the starting position. As such, you burn fewer calories…
|Calories burned in 15 minutes|
|130 lbs.||175 lbs.||220 lbs.|
|Air bike (moderate effort)||120||160||200|
|Rower (moderate effort)||72||96||120|
|Air bike (vigorous effort)||180||240||300|
|Rower (vigorous effort)||128||170||212|
|Metabolic equivalent (MET) values|
|Moderate effort||Vigorous effort|
*These estimates are based on values taken from the Compendium of Physical Activity for the rower (using the following metabolic equivalent (MET) values: 02071 rowing, stationary, general for moderate effort and 02073 rowing, stationary, 150 watts for vigorous effort), and the author’s own experience and testing using his air bike.
The table above shows that an air bike is significantly more demanding than a rower pound for pound. But, in my experience, you can’t (and don’t want to) ride an air bike for long. They’re much better for short, sharp HIIT sessions than long, steady rides. A 15-minute session is actually pretty hefty and will feel like forever.
However, the rhythmic and skill-based nature of using a rowing machine means that a 15-minute session will actually feel quick. The point here is that while the air bike has a higher calorie-burning potential, you can generally go for longer on a rower and so the number of calories that you actually burn will be pretty similar.
Both machines can be classed as a full-body workout, challenging both your upper and lower body. The versatility of the air bike means it can work the upper body separately by resting your feet on the footpegs. You can work the lower body only by not pushing/pulling the handlebars.
The rower lacks this versatility but probably works more muscles. Studies examining muscle activation during the two-phase rowing stroke (drive and recovery phases) have found that basically all muscles in the lower body are worked, as well as most muscles in the upper body (the main exception being the pectoral muscles and portions of the deltoids).
At different phases of the stroke, a rower can work:
- Gluteal muscles
- Calf muscles
- Core muscles (abdominals, obliques, and spinal erectors)
- Biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis muscles
- Forearm flexors and extensors
- Lats, teres muscles, traps, and rhomboids
- Posterior deltoids
The air bike can work:
- Gluteal muscles
- Calf muscles
- Core muscles
- Pectoral muscles
- Biceps and triceps
- Posterior and anterior deltoids
Specs and pricing
The below table shows the specs and prices of THFF’s number 1 air bike, the Rogue Echo, and favorite rower, the Concept2 Model D.
|Rogue Echo Bike||Concept2 Model D Rower|
|Footprint||58″ L x 30″ W||96″ L x 24″ W|
|Resistance||Air resistance||Air resistance|
|Max user weight||300lbs||500lbs|
|Where to Buy?||Rogue Fitness||Rogue Fitness|
Limitations (when not to use them)
- If you suffer from back pain, then the hunched nature of an air bike may make it worse. The difficult technique on a rower may be difficult to master, or you could make your pain worse if using the wrong technique.
- Both machines can be loud with the air rushing over the fans. If you live in a small house or apartment with others, the persistent rushing of air could be quite aggravating.
- They have a large footprint so if you only have limited space, consider if you could fit an air bike or rower in your home.
Air Bikes vs Rowers: THFF Top Picks
Since arriving on the scene, the Rogue Echo Bike has conquered the air bike market. With a stream of positive reviews and outstanding sales, it has proven a real threat to the dominance of both Schwinn and Assault.
Its sturdy build, stiff handlebars, and huge 27″ fan make the Echo a formidable machine. It can produce more resistance than your standard air bike to thanks to the 10 steel blades on the fan.
It’s stable on those high-intensity sprints thanks to a sizable metal frame. If you fancy a long endurance session then its belt-driven system makes for a smooth and durable ride.
At a reasonable price compared to competitors, it’s incredibly well-built, high performing, and suitable for athletes at any level. The Rogue Echo air bike will wear out even the toughest users and is a definite best buy if looking for a new air bike.
Concept2 has been around for ages, dominating the rowing erg market. Their relatively new BikeErg (bikeergs are similar to traditional air bikes, just without moving arms) has only increased sales, with many left choosing a side in the Concept2 bike vs rower debate.
Their latest rowers are undoubtedly their best yet and have got home-gym users and Olympic rowers alike excited to jump on the machine and row to glory.
They have a sleek design and impeccable build quality. The aluminum legs and steel track give the Concept2s exceptional durability. The difference between the two models is that the model E sits higher than the model D, making it a better option for people with mobility issues.
Along with the infinite resistance found in all air rowers, the models D & E have a damper that modifies the amount of air allowed into the fan housing. It provides 10 different levels of resistance and allows you to customize your power output. The higher the level, the more air allowed into the fan housing, and the more intense your workout. The lowest settings are relatively easy, while the higher setting is surprisingly tough. This degree of adjustability makes it suitable for beginners, seasoned rowers, and professional athletes alike.
Their smooth performance, tank-like build, and hi-tech PM5 monitor make the model D & E rowers the gold standard in the industry, and the ones chosen by professionals and teams.
Arguably the only drawback of these rowing machines is their high price tag and the fact that they’re often hard to get your hands on (especially during the pandemic).
Assault Bike vs Rower FAQs
Which is Better, Air Bike or Rower?
Both are brilliant cardio machines and neither is better than the other. Which you get will likely depend on what you will use it for.
In my opinion, the rower is slightly more versatile in that it is better for long-distance, yet very capable for short HIIT sessions too. So, to get the most from your endurance and interval training, the rower is likely to be a more effective addition to your home gym.
If, however, you are looking to do exclusively HIIT based sessions, then the sheer brutality of the air bike makes it a better option.
If you’re into CrossFit, you may need to get both as both are used in competition and training.
Are Air Bikes Worth It?
In short, yes. They provide a full-body workout and are one of the most enjoyable (and painful) methods of burning a stack of calories, trimming weight, and toning muscles.
They’re heavy-duty machines too so they’re durable and will last a long time as long as you keep up with the maintenance. There are plenty of benefits and very few cons to owning an air bike, so if you’re looking for a way to burn calories and increase muscular endurance, the air bike is well worth it.
Are Rowers Worth It?
Yes, as long as you learn and perfect the correct technique. When used correctly, rowers work more muscles than most other cardio machines. This means it can bring great value to your workout routine, whatever your age or fitness level.
It’s also worth noting that the rower is low-impact so perfect if you are injury-prone or recovering from an injury.
Can You Lose Belly Fat On A Rowing Machine?
The rower is a full-body, cardio beast, meaning you can increase your heart rate, burn loads of calories, and shed fat. Stomach fat is notoriously the hardest to lose, but with persistence and patience, you can trim it through rowing.
Try varying your workouts between HIIT and endurance sessions, as well as doing ab and mobility exercises to speed the process up.
Why Are Air Bikes So Expensive?
Because they’re sturdy and durable machines, usually made entirely of metal. For this reason, they can carry a hefty price tag. That said, they usually also last a long time, have sufficiently long warranties, and can ultimately save you money on gym memberships and other equipment over their life.
Air Bike vs Rower: Which is Right For You?
In an ideal world, you would get both, however, this would be an expensive investment and not suitable for everyone.
The rower is a better all-around machine if using it for both endurance and HIIT sessions. However, if you are looking to do mainly HIIT sessions then an air bike would be right for you.
Both machines have their pros, and unless you are a professional rower it doesn’t matter which one you get. I find the rower a better all-around machine in terms of endurance and HIIT sessions, but the air bike will certainly deliver a high-quality workout with both.