Rower Machine vs. Elliptical vs. Treadmill: Which One Should Pick?

Rower Machine vs. Elliptical vs. Treadmill

A comprehensive workout regimen should include a balance of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. Cardio is fantastic for improving the heart and lungs, burning calories to help weight loss, and keeping the body healthy.  

As a consumer, gathering information about benefits, features, similarities, and differences between cardio machines can help guide your buying decision. This article compares aspects of rowing and elliptical machines to determine which one is best for at-home workouts. 

The Different Benefits Between Ellipticals vs. Rowing Machines

Rowers and ellipticals are two popular cardio machines with different learning curves, caloric expenditure, weight-bearing features, and cost-to-own.  Both machines can help improve cardiovascular performance and have overlap with the muscles used.  

Let’s take a closer look at the similarities and differences between these two machines.  

Muscles Used

Ellipticals and rowing machines both strengthen the upper and lower body. Rowing loads the muscles to a greater degree and is superior for building muscle.  Because rowing incorporates a motion similar to horizontal deadlifts, you’re also challenging core musculature better than an elliptical.

Rowing machines work nine different muscle groups and over 85% of the muscles in the body. During each rowing stroke, you're activating the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, deltoids, lats, spinal erectors, and abdominal muscles.  Ellipticals primarily use lower body muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, quads, with very little stimulus for the upper body. 

Rowing works the musculature harder than ellipticals.  A common complaint with ellipticals machines is that the exertion feels too easy.  Rarely, if ever, do you hear the same with rowing machines.  Even at a lower stroke rate, rowing will challenge your mind and body for the workout duration. 

The one knock against rowing is that it doesn’t challenge the anterior muscles of the upper body (pecs, triceps, etc.).  Push-ups can be added to a steady rowing regimen to develop these muscles.  

Pricing Differences

Rowing machines win in the price category.  A quality water rowing machine like GoRowinGo’s water rowercosts $599 and includes features of a rower 2-3x that price point.  A low-quality elliptical will cost around $1,200.  You'll get limited features, and the materials are going to be cheap.  Higher quality ellipticals can cost $2500 or more.  

Side note:  Elliptical machines are BIG, which means they’re difficult to move and impossible to store.  Wherever you park an elliptical, it’s likely going to live there.  

Weight Bearing

Weight-bearing exercise has been shown to slow mineral loss in the bones of our legs, hips, and lower spine.   An elliptical workout is performed in a standing position with the feet in contact with the pedals, which means you're bearing weight on each step.  

Rowing is performed in a seated position, which means it is not technically a weight-bearing form of exercise. Here is some interesting research supporting indoor rowing’s influence on building bone density.  Rowing works the entire nearly the entire body on every stroke.  Rowing, when done correctly, can strengthen back muscles to lower back injuries.  

Many people who own rowing machines supplement their row training with consistent walking and running. Walking and running are low-cost weight-bearing exercises.  

Avid runners find that rowing is the perfect cross-training activity for a fresh change of pace.  Compared to running, rowing works different muscles, trains a new motion pattern, and relieves the joints from impact. Those who run outside find indoor rowing machines a great solution to inclement weather and changing seasons.

Learning Curve

Elliptical training is appealing to fitness newbies because it has a low learning curve. Step on and start cranking the pedals.  If you can walk, you can use an elliptical.  The problem with elliptical training is that it's too easy for some, to the point of being monotonous and mindless.  Once the pedals are moving, your only job is to keep them turning throughout a fixed range of motion.  

You might be thinking, "Easy learning curve is a good thing!".  A low learning curve means anyone can jump on an elliptical and start exercising.  The problem with low learning curve fitness machines is they often lack the difficulty people need to get noticeable results.  

On the other hand, rowing is a skill.  Attention must be kept to every stroke.  You cannot check out during a rowing workout. You have to stay engaged and present to the task.  

Learning how to row is a significant benefit to rowing.  The ongoing practice and refinement of stroke technique, managing fatigue, and building power are critical benefits to rowing that less demanding activities like elliptical training cannot offer.   

Put, choose a strenuous physical activity and scale it to your fitness level versus trying to make an easy exercise harder.  You'll be happier with the outcome.  The process of learning new skills is an overlooked and undervalued benefit of fitness.  Rowing shines in this department. 

Calories Burned

Rowing edges ellipticals with calorie burn.  According to research from Harvard University, 30 minutes of rowing burns 440 calories (185lb person), while elliptical training burns 378 calories.  

Joint Impact Prevention

Both rowing and elliptical machines do a great job limiting impact to the joints, especially when running.  The main difference is rowing is done in a seated position while elliptical training is performed standing.  

Rowing Machine vs. Elliptical – Which Workout is Better?

Rowing is a much better workout compared to elliptical training.  Elliptical isn't necessarily a bad machine, but rowing delivers a superior workout experience—no reason to sugarcoat it.  

Put the two machines to a side-by-side test. Exercise for 15 minutes continuously on a rowing machine then on an elliptical.  The rowing machine is sure to create a more profound training effect.  

Rowing is a premier choice for training strength and cardio simultaneously.

Rowing vs. Treadmill Differences

Running is a great way to exercise, but the high-impact nature of running can be too aggressive for many people. Research out of Yale University found that 50% of runners get hurt each year.  If you need to limit impact during exercise, rowing is the best choice. 

Treadmills vary in price, but quality treadmills will cost $1,500+ and lack rowers' storage advantages.  Treadmills also have many moving parts, which can mean mechanical issues, particularly with the belt.  Rowing machines, compared to treadmills, are cost-effective and rarely experience mechanical failure with regular maintenance.  

Water rowers are a quiet machine, making them ideal for family living spaces or apartments where noise must be considered.  Treadmills are noise projectors, if not from the machine but the impact of each stride into the belt.  

From a workout perspective, rowing offers a total body strength and cardio combination training experience.  The upper and lower body are both conditioned while rowing.  Running is primarily lower-body stress, with very little strain to the upper body.   

If space and economics permitted, having an indoor rowing machine and a treadmill would provide the best opportunity to cross-train and reap the benefits of both activities.  

Learn more about the benefits of rowing at GoRowingGo


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