Are Kettlebell Swings Better Than Rowing Machine?


Kettlebell swings and rowing machines belong to the same family. They are both hip hinge movements. Which means they work on the same muscle groups. But at the same time, they are two radically different exercises. On the surface, an ergometer rower is a cardio equipment. And the kettlebell swing is a resistant training. So let’s see which one would give you the best results.

Are kettlebell swings better than rowing machine? Kettlebell swings are proven to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. However, they are not as effective as a rowing machine. On the other hand, to develop strength and power, kettlebell swings will outperform rowing machine training.

So, if you’re in are sitting on the fence were you considering getting one or another, I will cover all the angles of how to get the most of each, and hopefully, by the end of this article, you will be able to make the right choice.

Kettlebell swing or rowing machine?

This article is structured in a way were I’ll show you some evidence from the studies and chip in my own personal and professional experience. At the same time I want to be totally transparent with you. I’ve developed great relationship with a kettlebells over the last years. Just because I needed to do a good workout at home. But here’s the thing.

I live in a flat. So I didn’t have an option for a full gym set up. That’s why the rowing machine was out of my possibility, just because of the shortage of space. But I know for fact, that if I would live in the house with a garage, then I would shoot for both.

Related article: Are Kettlebell Swings Better Than Squats?

Rowing Machine 101

Indoor rowing, also called “ergometer”, was initially designed to allow professionals to keep up with their conditioning training when the weather conditions didn’t allow for training on the water. And after years, it just got live on its own. That’s why today rowing machines are the main part of many health clubs and gyms world wide. There are even international indoor rowing championships. So you are more likely to find a rower in the gym rather than a kettlebell.

Concept 2 Rowing Machine

One of the most popular rowing machines is Concept2. This is literally the industry gold standard, one most successful and well‐known indoor rowing machine. It’s got a sliding seat, footplate to strap your feet, and a handle on the chain to pull. The nickel-plated steel chain is accelerating the flywheel during the pull. During the pull, the air is pumped through the flywheel, which creates resistance.

The harder you pull, the more air gets in, the more tension and resistance you feel.

That is all connected to the monitor with wires. Each stroke is recorded and gives you specific data about your performance. So this brings us to our first benefit.

Benefit #1 Performance Monitor

You can monitor your performance during the training. It’s got some very useful information that you can use to evaluate your progress. Here are some of the most helpful readings you can get.

  • How many calories you’ve burned.
    So if you are tracking your calories for a body composition goal, this tool can show you exactly how many kcal you’ve burned. Remember that this is the average number, and it’s not specific for every individual. It just gives you the estimate.
  • How many meters you row.
    This is a very powerful tool. If you’re doing high-intensity interval training, not only you can see how good you did. You can also use that data to beat your previous time. If let’s say you’ve completed 300m row in 3-minute, you may want to break your record next time.
  • How many strokes per minute you did.
    It saves you the data in history, so you can easily track your progress. Doesn’t matter if you are training for an event or for health. You can pull out the numbers from the last workouts. We have this mantra in PT that you can’t measure something, you are just guessing. You don’t wanna be guessing.
  • How hard you working (work output).
    This information shows you how hard you actually work. And it shows based on each stroke you do, and the force you apply to that stroke. So you can see that the harder you row, the more force you put in, the higher the numbers go.

But it also got some more advanced features like force curve, estimated 3minute distance, average power for 500m, and much more. So if you’re a data-driven that will just show you black and white how effective is your training.

Benefit #2 Types of Training

Let’s move on to the actual training methods. You can use indoor rowing in multiple ways. This can be part of your regular workout, or it can be the training on its own. Even if you have just a few minutes a day, it will work your whole body.

  • Long, Slow Distance.
    This is a traditional endurance type of workout. Here you keep the pace low, and you take your time. Your goal is to do 30-minute plus with low intensity. This way you increase your fat utilization (using fat for energy).
  • Pace/Tempo Training.
    This is where you increase your intensity, but you stay consistent with your pace. It’s a much more advanced type of training, usually just below the lactate threshold.

    The lactate threshold is the moment when the rate of lactic acid production exceeds the rate of lactic acid elimination. You literally burn out. Tempo training is the work done just under this threshold.
  • Interval Training.
    This type of training is divided into two phases. Phase one is a short boost of high-intensity work, followed by the rest of the recovery time. Work time can vary depending on your fitness level.

    For example, you can go all-out for 10-seconds and rest for a 50-seconds. Rest time can be either you just row at minimum pace, or if you went hard enough, you may even completely pause and wait until you ready to do it again.
  • Fartlek Training.
    This is a combination of all of the above. Here you pick up the pace at random intervals. For example. You go hard for the 10-seconds, then you rest for 50-seconds, then you do slow tempo for another 3-4 minutes.

    There are no set rules, you just change the intensity as you row. Fartlek training keeps the workout less monotonous.

Related article: How To Use Kettlebell Swings For Boxing

Benefit #3 Knee Friendly Cardiovascular Workout

Here I will share with you my professional story. One of my clients, Amanda, who was having a torn meniscus due to her knee injury, worked with me for a couple of years. Every time when she was doing squats or lunges, her pain was 8 out of 10. Not good.

Obviously, she wasn’t able to run. So we used an ergometer as the cardio equipment. This way, she was able not only to train her upper body but also the lower body, without having knee pain. Because it’s a hip hinge movement, most of the force is generated by the hips, and pull from the shoulder.

Conclusion

Indoor rowing is an excellent way to work on cardiovascular fitness. With having a wide range of training types to choose from, regardless of your fitness level, every one can clearly benefit from it.

Related article: How To Use Kettlebell Swings For Better Climbing

Kettlebell Swings 101

Kettlebell training is becoming more and more popular. They have been around since the 18th century, but only recently they started to receive some attention from scientists. This means, there is much more data available from studies for indoor rowing comparing to the kettlebells.

That’s why most of the data is based on practical knowledge, anecdotal reports, and common sense, rather than on scientific evidence. That being said, let’s dive into the benefits of the kettlebell swings, based on what we got to date.

Related article: Can I Only Do Kettlebell Swings?

Benefit #1 Cardiovascular Fitness

Despite being classified as a “weight”, research shows that kettlebell swings can be one of the most powerful ways to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness. Plus, there benefits can be seen from as little as 12-minutes session over the 7 days time (source).

That’s because kettlebell swing is a dynamic, repetitive movement. It requires constant ballistic force to perform the swing, under the heavy load from the moment you pick up the weight to the finish.

Another study shows that doing a 30-minute of moderate-intensity kettlebell swings workout had similar cardiorespiratory effects, comparing to brisk walking on the graded treadmill (source).

Remember that those studies compare only the cardiorespiratory benefits.

So on the surface, it may look like kettlebell swings and treadmill walking give the same results. But obviously, during the swing, we have greater muscle activation.

Therefore, the long-term effect will be totally different.

Related article: How To Use Kettlebell Swings For Hypertrophy

Benefit #2 Muscle Strength

In another study done by William H. Otto from California State University, they compared the effects of kettlebell workout versus traditional weightlifting. The goal of the study was to assess changes in the vertical jump, strength, and body composition. Here is the interesting part.

The kettlebell group was doing the kettlebell swings.
The weightlifting group was doing goblet squats and back squats.

The test was done before and after the study. To assess strength, participants were doing back squats, and to assess power, they were doing the vertical jump.

6-weeks later…

The results show that traditional weightlifting (squats) and kettlebell training had similar effects in developing short-term strength and power (source).

After 6-weeks…

The only difference that happened after the period of 6-week time were traditional weightlifting outperformed kettlebell training.

Which makes sense because they used a squat to assess the results in strength gain. And you cannot expect that hip hinge will lead to better results in squat, than squat itself.

Another study, this time from Matthew R. Maulit from the department of kinesiology at California State University compared two hip hinge movements – kettlebell swing and deadlift – and their effect on strength and power, with similar results (source).

This time the test was performed by doing deadlifts before and after a 4-week training protocol. His conclusion was that both kettlebell swings and deadlifts will increase deadlift strength and vertical jump.

In conclusion

Comparing kettlebell swings to rowing machine may feel like comparing apples to oranges, even if they are in the same hip hinge movement group. The rowing machine is very powerful method to develop cardio conditioning.

From the cardio perspective, the rowing machine is much more effective than kettlebell swings.

From the strength training perspective, the kettlebell swings will deliver much greater benefits than ergometer training.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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