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Rowing On Water Versus Indoor Machines – Pros And Cons

Rowing Team in Blue Waters

If you’re thinking about rowing as a new addition to your general fitness routine, there’s one major question to consider; should I row on the water or on a machine? There are many things to consider when answering this question and as you are about to see, it’s not so black and white. Some people are much better suited to rowing on water while others are better suited to rowing inside. Read on to compare these two rowing styles so that you can better determine which is the right fit for you.



This is an obvious question right out of the gates. Do you have a river or a lake close by that you can easily access when needed? Would you need to drive at least 30 minutes to get to one? Factor that in to your decision when it comes to your venture into the sport of rowing. It might not seem like a big deal, but if you find yourself devoting more time to driving to your workouts than you do actually working out, your rowing journey may be short lived. 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’re rowing outside, you will have certain seasons you can do this in and others, you will need to take a break. Those in warmer climates will be less impacted, obviously, but in many states (and countries), you’re looking at losing at least 3 or 4 months of ability to get out on the water. 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.


Who to Row With?

Also think about whether you have a partner or friend(s) who want to join in this adventure with you. While you can row alone, most often when rowing outside in water, you are rowing with a partner or team. This can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. It’s good for those who enjoy fitness activity that has a social component to it, and having others along for the ride will inspire you and motivate you to push harder, which may keep your workout sessions more consistent. As a downside, if your cohort is stronger than you, they may overpower you, thus you may not get the exact workout in that you were hoping for. There’s also the matter of relying on them to show up. Generally speaking, it’s less ideal to put the fate of your workout in someone else’s hands, unless you’re teaming up with people more familiar with the sport than yourself. As a compromise, thanks to the modernization of fitness equipment and software,  you can find rowing machines which connect to virtual races or online videos which simulate team training.


Facing the Elements

It may seem obvious, but don’t forget to consider that in real-world rowing you’re going to get wet. This is inevitable, as water will splash each time the oar comes out and goes into the water. The splash will eventually end up on you, and not everyone likes that. So even though you may prefer a workout in the great outdoors, if you don’t want to towel off after your workout session, the outdoor route may not be your best option. On an indoor rowing machine, you don’t have to face the elements like you do on the open water.


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. The biggest factor here, especially for novices, is safety. On the open water you’re at the mercy of the elements, as well as other boats on the water, floating logs, debris, etc. Generally speaking, rowing on calm waters is perfectly safe, but there are more risks that could land you in the water in one way or another, and how you get there/how long you’re out of the boat can lead to injury. Indoors, you have zero risk of this happening, so that threat just isn’t there at all.


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 is 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 indoor rowing machines, you control the resistance level. You can change the resistance as needed throughout your session to get the workout you desire. 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.


Group of people rowing on indoor rowers


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. That said, this can easily be overcome by watching TV while rowing indoors or by using your tablet to try a rowing race or virtual rowing route 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.


  • Jim May 22, 2020 at 5:28 am
    Need to qustion the author's level of knowledge about the sport of rowing. First clue was "canoe" which in either canoe or kayak form is a completely unrelated sport to rowing. "rowing" as a sport created the development of the machines as training aids, so its reasonable to assume that the biodynamics are similar, ask a rower about their lack of lower body workout. (the photo at the header is a sliding seat rowing boat by the way, uses lower body). Injury risk is incorrect too, I have rowed and used machines for 40 years, never capsized and picked up more injuries on the machine than on the water as the resistance application is different on the machine.
    • FitRated Editorial Team May 22, 2020 at 9:53 am
      Hey Jim! Thanks for your feedback, and you're entirely right on nearly all fronts. This was a much older piece of content that we needed to update, and we apologize for the inaccuracies. Our goal with Fitrated is always to provide the most accurate information possible. I will note that because the focus is on the novice rower and not one with as much experience as yourself, there's some validity to the injury risk observation. If a novice joins crew with rowing veterans, not a problem at all. If a novice talks another novice or 3 to row together and none of them have open water experience, there are more risks that could lead to an injury when compared to the three of them lining up on indoor machines.
  • Jane Kennedy February 7, 2020 at 7:41 am
    Is this comparing rowing and erging, or canoeing and erging. Because if it's actually about rowing than this person doesn't know much about it and might want to do some more research next time. But if it's about canoeing, how are they two even comparable? Has anyone ever gotten a decent workout from canoeing? or even broken a sweat for that matter. Sorry i just had to say something, I don't mean any hate I just thought this article was funny to read as a rower myself. btw erging is a lot better than canoeing, and rowing on the water is better than erging.
    • FitRated Editorial Team May 22, 2020 at 10:18 am
      Hello Jane! I can entirely appreciate the comment here. This was a much older piece of content that we 'adopted' so to speak, and part of a batch that (clearly) needed updating for accuracy. We strive to provide valuable and accurate information to our readers, and the post has since been updated accordingly. The base here is very much about rowing vs. erging, with a focus on the absolute novice who's interested in either activity as a way to supplement their overall fitness strategy. In an ideal world (perfect climate, access to a calm and low traffic waterway, and budget/time not being a factor), we're with you regarding rowing on the water, but our intent was to break this down to ensure that all the little considerations are kept in mind by those exploring the activity for the first time. Best regards, Justin Mastine-Frost EIC,
  • 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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