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Rowing Machines vs Ellipticals – A Detailed Comparison

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Performing cardiovascular exercise is a great way to improve your health and fitness, burn calories, and reduce the risk of a range of cardiovascular diseases. When it comes to choosing a cardio machine, you have a huge variety to choose from, including rowing machines, treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes.

I’ve compared the rowing machine vs elliptical, looking at the most important factors, so you’re able to make the right choice next time you’re in a gym.

Rowing Machine vs Elliptical? – Rowing machines combine cardio with light resistance training, whilst ellipticals provide a low-impact joint-friendly cardio-based workout. Both can be used with success, with the correct choice coming down to personal preference and current workout goals.

Rowing Machines vs Ellipticals Main

What Is a Rowing Machine?

A rowing machine combines cardio with light resistance training to provide a full-body workout that’s both fun and challenging. It consists of a sliding seat, a handle attached to a cable, fixed foot pedals, and a central resistance mechanism.

A rowing machine is designed to simulate the action of rowing a boat through the water. Whilst grasping a bar, you sit on a sliding seat and start the movement by pushing your legs away from the machine. As you push, you pull with your core and arms. Once you’ve fully extended the bar, reverse the movement and bring the cable back in.

female rowing training

What Is an Elliptical?

An elliptical, also referred to as a cross trainer, is a cardiovascular machine that combines walking and stair climbing movements. It uses a set of handles and foot pedals fixed onto an axis that rotates around as you use your arms and legs to push. Ellipticals consist of foot pedals, handles, a frame, and a resistance mechanism at the back.

As your feet stay on the pedals at all times, ellipticals provide a joint-friendly low-impact way to exercise and allow you to work both your upper and lower body depending on how you use it.

female training on elliptical in the gym

Rowing Machine vs Elliptical

Whilst both machines offer whole-body workouts with lower impact, the main differences relate to the movement pattern and exercise practicality. Let’s look at the elliptical vs rowing machine differences in more detail:

1. Muscles Worked

Both the elliptical and rowing machines target major muscle groups but have different movement patterns, meaning they work different muscles.

Ellipticals primarily engage the quadriceps, calves, and deltoid muscles in a forward motion, and the hamstrings, and glutes more, if using a reverse motion. Rowing machines primarily target the upper back muscles (Trapezius and Latissimus Dorsi), hamstrings, and glutes.

trapezius anatomy

2. Exercise Movements

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two machines is the type of movement and plane of motion used. Ellipticals are upright, meaning you need to exercise in a standing position. You move on the sagittal plane in an upright position, with your arms moving in punching motions whilst your legs move in strides.

Rowing machines are performed as a seated exercise, where you row through the sagittal plane but in a horizontal movement pattern. Your upper body performs a rowing movement, whilst your legs go into a squat-like position.

female workout with rower

3. Space Requirements

Both machines have a fairly large surface area, meaning they take up a decent portion of your home gym. Ellipticals take up a lot of vertical space, meaning you may need to measure the height of your home gym to check if it will fit with you on it. Rowing machines tend to be slightly longer, with some having foldable designs allowing you to store them away if needed.

elliptical in the gym

4. Workout Goals

Whatever your working goals, both an elliptical or rowing machine can likely cater to them. Rowing machines combine light resistance with cardio, with a push using the legs and pull using the core and arms. They involve using your strength to pull the bar back, followed by a brief recovery period.

If you’re looking to gain muscular endurance and strength whilst burning some calories, the rowing machine is probably a better option.

Ellipticals use more of a circular cardio-based movement, with continuous stepping-type motions that don’t start or stop like a rower. This allows your muscles to feel a progressive burn as you exercise, and makes the elliptical more suited to cardio-based movements.

Ellipticals are also more versatile, allowing you to choose between your lower body and upper body based on the movement you perform.

5. Price

In terms of price, entry-level machines for the elliptical and rower can cost anywhere from $200-$800 depending on the chosen brand. If you’re looking for more expensive models, a commercial-grade elliptical can be considerably more expensive at around $2000-3000.

Rowing Machine vs Elliptical – Summary

If you’re looking for an effective cardio workout, both the elliptical and rowing machine are great options. The rowing machine targets the upper body more, whilst the elliptical targets the quads and calves. Both use different movement patterns, with the rowing machine combining light resistance with cardio.

athlete training on elliptical machine

Pros and Cons of a Rowing Machine

Positives:

  • Rowing machines combine light resistance and cardio to provide a great muscle strength and endurance-building workout for your upper body, hamstrings, glutes, and core.
  • The repetitive rowing movement allows you to get into a workout routine, with the resistance wheel allowing you to customize the tension as you need.
  • Alongside the resistance wheel adjustment, rowing machines offer intuitive feedback depending on the pressure applied. You can choose the speed and motion depending on how you move your body.

Could be better:

  • The main downside of using a rowing machine as a beginner can be the hard seat that allows you to move along the rail when rowing. Over time, this can cause numbness or rubbing, especially if you’re a beginner.
  • The grip on the rower might be too hard for some people, causing irritation and blisters on your hands. This will go over time, meaning you may need to wear gloves to start.

Pros and Cons of an Elliptical:

Positives:

  • Ellipticals offer a range of versatile cardiovascular uses. If you want to work just your upper body, push and pull the handles whilst minimizing your leg drive. If you want to work just your lower body, take your hands off the handles and let your legs do the work.
  • Ellipticals use a movement pattern requiring you to keep your hands and feet in contact at all times. This low-impact movement makes them well-suited for older populations or people with joint issues and injuries.
  • One of the benefits of using ellipticals is that it’s easy to get used to the movement pattern, even if you’re a beginner. The long handles provide support and allow you to keep your balance whilst learning.

Could be better:

  • Whilst ellipticals offer excellent cardio-based movements, they don’t help to develop muscular strength or endurance as they are so low impact.
  • Compared to other cardio machines, ellipticals don’t burn as many calories. Whilst this is mainly due to the low-impact movement, this makes them less suited to people who are looking to lose weight quickly.

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Rowing Machine vs Elliptical – When to Use Each?

With the pros and cons of both machines discussed above, in what situation should you use the rowing machine or elliptical and why?

The right choice mainly depends on your workout goals and physical health. If you’re in good physical health, and you want to build more muscular strength and endurance whilst burning more calories, a rowing machine is probably the best option. Rowing machines are also great for fitness-style workouts.

If you’re looking for a normal low-impact cardio workout that’s joint-friendly and well-suited for beginners, the elliptical is probably the better option. Ellipticals often have built-in device holders, allowing you to watch your favorite movie or read whilst exercising over a longer period.

When looking for the right rowing machine or elliptical, the options below offer great choices that are well-designed:

Rowing Machine We Recommend

Concept2 Indoor Rowing Machine

Concept2 Indoor Rowing Machine
  • Item Dimensions: 96 L x 24 W x 14/20 H (depending on model) inches
  • Item Weight: 57 lbs/68 lbs
  • Resistance Type: Air Resistance
  • Display: Advanced PM5 Performance Monitor
  • Drive Mechanism: Flywheel
  • Weight Capacity: 500 lbs
  • Warranty: 5-year frame, 2-year parts
  • Materials: Aluminum Monorail, Stainless Steel Track, Plastic
  • Additional Features: Device Holder, Adjustable Monitor Arm, Caster Wheel, Flex foot Footrests Housings

The Concept2 Indoor Rowing Machine is a high-quality piece of gym equipment that’s made from stainless steel and aluminum that’s designed to hold up to 500 lbs. It measures 24″ D x 96″ W x 14″ H and separates into 2 pieces for easy storage. It also comes with carry wheels on the front for easy portability.

concept2 rower monitor in the gym
photo by @bigphil90

With a 14″ seat height, adjustable footrests, and an ergonomic handle, the Concept2 suits most users’ comfort and size requirements. At the front of the Concept2, the performance monitor measures time distance and intervals, with an easy-to-use configuration.

The wireless Bluetooth compatibility allows you to monitor your heart rate and connect to various apps.

Budget Version Rowing Machine We Recommend

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rower

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rower
  • Product Dimensions: 89” L x 18.9” W x 23.6” H
  • Product Weight: 60.9 lb
  • Tension System: Magnetic
  • Foldable: Yes
  • Digital Monitor: Calories, count, time, total count, scan
  • Resistance Levels: 8
  • Floor Stabilizers: Yes
  • Max User Weight: 250 lb
  • Pedal Type: Non-slip w/ adjustable strap
  • Warranty: 3 year structural frame, 180 days other parts and components

If you’re on a budget and need something that offers great value for money, the Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rower is a great option. It’s made from alloy steel, supports up to 250 lbs, and measures 89″ D x 18.9″ W x 23.6″ H.

It has built-in transportation wheels, offers 8 magnetic resistance levels, and features a centrally located LCD console that monitors time, count, and calories burnt.

Elliptical We Recommend

Sunny Health & Fitness Essentials Interactive Series Elliptical

Sunny Health & Fitness Essentials Interactive Series Elliptical
  • Product Dimensions: 39.4” L x 26.4” W x 59.8” H
  • Product Weight: 60.8 lb
  • Tension System: Magnetic
  • Max User Weight: 220 lb
  • Pedal Type: Non-slip
  • Digital Monitor: Calories, distance, odometer, pulse, speed, time, scan
  • Additional Features: Bluetooth, device holder, pulse sensor
  • Resistance Levels: 8
  • Warranty: 3 year structural frame, 180 days other parts and components

If you’re looking for a well-designed elliptical, Sunny Health & Fitness has produced the Essentials Interactive Series Elliptical. It’s made from steel, supports up to 220 lbs of user weight and measures ‎26.4″ D x 39.4″ W x 59.8″ H.

It features 2 pairs of handles, with one pair of stationary handles with pulse sensors sitting around the centrally located LCD. The monitor measures calories, distance, speed, time, and heart rate.

The handy device holder allows you to connect to the Sunny Health & Fitness App that links up to the console using Bluetooth. If you’re looking to change your workout intensity, twist the black knob to choose from 8 levels of resistance. The frame also features transportation wheels for easy portability.

FAQ

Is a rowing machine better than an elliptical?

Rowing machines and ellipticals both provide suitable cardio options with a few key differences. Rowing machines burn more calories, making them better for people who want to lose weight, whilst ellipticals provide a more joint-friendly exercise option.

Are ellipticals and rowing machines the same?

When comparing the rower vs elliptical, they are both classed as cardio machines, but use different movement patterns and therefore different muscles. They are both versatile pieces of equipment that are suitable for beginners and provide a whole-body workout.

Conclusion

So, which is better an elliptical or a rowing machine? Both machines provide excellent cardiovascular workout options, with the different movement patterns determining the more suitable uses of each.

Ellipticals are low-impact, joint-friendly cardio machines that are well-suited for beginners and those looking to relax a little more when working out. Rowing machines are better suited if you’re looking to build muscular endurance and strength alongside burning more calories, albeit at a higher intensity than ellipticals.

Which machine do you prefer? Have you tried both of them? Let me know!

Also read:

Referenses:

  1. Aerobic exercise // Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerobic_exercise
  2. A List of 14 Types of Cardio Exercises to Get You Moving // Health Line: https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/cardio-exercises-list#The-Takeaway
  3. How to Use a Rowing Machine // WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/how-to-use-rowing-machine
  4. Health Benefits of Elliptical Machine Workouts // WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/health-benefits-of-elliptical-machine-workouts
  5. 11 major muscle groups // YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=4lXnrckRKPA
  6. Photos made by Torokhtiy Media Team

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Ihor Shymechko

Author: Ihor Shymechko
Pro Olympic Weightlifter, Coach

Experience: 26 years
Best Results: Snatch – 208 kg,
C&J – 240 kg

Ihor has been a professional weightlifter since 1996, boasting over two decades of competition experience. His notable achievements include clinching the European Championship in 2009 and securing a silver medal in the 105kg division at the Senior World Championships in 2011. Ihor represented his country in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Summer Olympics. After retiring from competitive weightlifting, he transitioned to coaching, leveraging his vast experience to guide athletes who now compete on both national and international stages.

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