Should I Bike or Should I Row?

Question: How is the decision made as to whether we bike or row in a workout?

Puns on ’80s music aside (assuming some people got my joke), it’s time to tackle that age-old CrossFit question…

It Begins with Cyclical Training

When we refer to ‘cyclical’ training there are few things that meet our intent. The three most common types are running, rowing, and biking. In CrossFit, we do this often through a Concept2 Rower, an Air Bike (Schwinn AirDyne, Assault Bike, or Echo), and running. Even though during classes we routinely interchange these things, I often get the question – does it matter which we use? The answer to that is yes….and no. Let’s unpack this.

The Differences are…  

One of the main differences between rowing and biking is that there is a skill prerequisite for rowing that will determine how well you row and what pace you can hold relative to your physical ability (VO2 max/Lactate threshold/etc). You may have the physical capacity to be able to row a 1:30 500m or a sub-18-minute 5k, however if you lack skill here you will probably never hit these numbers. Efficiency on the rower plays a huge role alongside your genetic and physical ability (your height and capacity). This does not come into play as much on the Airbikes.  

Global aerobic capacity vs. localized capacity 

Think of this as your whole body versus a portion of your body. A rower is going to hit you harder on a global scale. What I mean by that is your breathing, forearms, back, lats, shoulders, hamstrings and more may all be in pain depending on what your specific limiter is and what the time frame of your effort is while rowing.  With the Airbike, most of the pain will be localized into your quads, and obviously your breathing. The Airbike simply doesn’t tax you in the same way as the rower. Because of this, your ability to clear lactate/lactate threshold can limit your pace on an Airbike more so than on the rower.

The selected equipment also plays a role in intent and time frames based on that intent. For example, an athlete’s alactic power range on a bike may be short at 4-6 seconds, but to get the same stimulus on a rower they may need considerably more time to hit that same wall (12-15 seconds).

If you are looking to include cyclical training to help enhance local muscle endurance of the anterior portion of the leg, you would likely choose the Airbike over the rower to get a higher dose. All these small things come into play when a workout is written and a cyclical piece is selected.

And the Similarities?  

In general, both modalities can be used to work the same or similar systems. If you are looking for an aerobic stimulus you can prescribe something on a rower/Airbike/run to meet these needs — albeit the pace/time domain might be SLIGHTLY different — you can make any of them meet the needs of your session. There is constant turnover no matter which is chosen.

One could argue there is constant tension on running/Airbike vs small breaks on a rower, but that is highlighted in global vs. local capacity above, and the rower still has a very constant turnover.  

The Takeaway?

Does it matter what you use? If there is a very specific intent (which oftentimes there is) then yes it could matter. However, could you substitute one for the other? As long as you understand the intent and can make minor switches to meet that, the answer is YES.