Elliptical vs Rowing Machine – Which is Better? 

Rowing machines and ellipticals are both popular choices for people looking to boost their cardio fitness, burn fat, and work up a healthy sweat without putting too much strain on the lower limbs. Both machines have established themselves as recognisable fixtures of gyms across the world. But which one is going to best suit your own personal fitness goals?

Which is better an elliptical or rowing machine? Rowing machines are better at working upper body and back muscles, whilst also providing a good cardio workout that can shred calories. Elliptical machines offer a general-purpose cardio workout which can be good for people with joint pain, whilst still holding plenty of fat burning potential. Ellipticals are less likely to build muscle than their rowing machine counterparts, but also tend to hold a lower risk of injury.  

There are numerous other factors to consider when deciding on whether to introduce a rowing machine or an elliptical into your home gym set-up. Today, we’re going to be taking a closer look at these two stalwarts of the international fitness scene. 

We’ll be thinking about some of the pros and cons of each, as well as different ways they can help you get into shape. By the end, you’ll have the confidence to decide which is best placed to meet your own personalised fitness goals. 

What Are The Main Differences Between an Elliptical and a Rowing Machine?

Let’s start with the basics – how do each of these machines work and how is that going to influence the type of workout you get from them? 

Rowing machines pretty much do what they say on the tin – they mimic, as closely as possible, the repeated motion of competitive rowing. 

Here is my favourite rowing machine that I recommend my clients:

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rowing Machine Rower with 8-Level Resistance, Extended Slide Rail & Digital LCD Display – SF-RW5515
  • (Total Body Workout) Full-body Workout with Extended Slide Rails. Engage & strengthen legs, glutes, core, back, arms & shoulders. Rowing activates multiple muscles, promoting balanced development & strength. Unlock your potential.
  • (Extended Slide Rail) At 48 inches in slide rail length, and 44 inches in inseam length, the SF-RW5515 can accommodate rowers up to 6 feet 8 inches tall.
  • (Supreme Comfort) Unmatched comfort awaits with our Rowing Machine. The ergonomically designed cushioned seat ensures support and coziness, enabling longer rows without discomfort. Don’t let strain hinder your goals. Stay focused and distraction-free with this exceptional machine.

Last update on 2024-04-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Users of stationary rowers remain seated throughout their workout. They then bend and extend their knees, allowing them to slide back and forth on a moveable seat, whilst using their back, upper arms and core to work a set of retracting handlebars attached to a flywheel. 

Elliptical machines involve more vertical weight-bearing than their rowing machine counterparts, as the user will be standing up during the workout. By using a combination of arm levers and moveable foot pedals, the users legs and feet will drive through an ‘elliptical’ motion that roughly mimics that of running or stepping, though without the repeated impact caused by feet leaving then hitting the floor. 

A cursory glance at someone operating each machine and it’s clear that they are likely to feel entirely different when being used. However, there are some similarities between the two.

Both are designed to work a range of muscles throughout the body, rather than targeting very specific muscles in isolation. Rowing machines and cross trainers are also designed primarily for aerobic workouts that elevate the heart rate, burn calories, and help the user boost their cardio-vascular fitness. 

Neither rowing machines nor ellipticals are designed specifically for muscle building, although they do carry muscle toning capacity to varying degrees, something we will be discussing in more detail shortly. 

People who find that high-impact exercises such as running or team sports may discover that rowing machines and ellipticals both offer a comparatively low-impact, comfortable, and controlled workout.

When used correctly and with proper medical supervision, these machines can be used as part of effective injury rehabilitation, although this will depend primarily on the nature and location of your particular injury. 

comparing cross trainer and rowing machine

Finally, good quality rowing machines and ellipticals should both allow you to vary the intensity of your workouts via variable resistance. This can be a crucial feature allowing you to perform High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), a method of exercise that can be very effective at burning fat and boosting cardio fitness. 

Is Rowing or Elliptical Better For Weight Loss? 

There are competing schools of thought as to which of these machines is going to be better suited to meeting your weight loss goals. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to fat burning capacity. 

However, achievable and maintainable weight loss is about consistency in exercise and dietary routines. Both elliptical machines and rowing machines can be capable and effective tools at helping you shed calories and lose weight, but the most effective piece of kit will be the one that you’re likely to use most often.

Elliptical vs Rowing Machine - Which is Better? 

For this reason, the elliptical can be a preferential option for anyone suffering from chronic back or joint pain. The elliptical is often a popular choice for people looking for a functional and demanding cardio workout which doesn’t put too much strain on the lower limbs or the back. 

Rowing machines are still capable of helping you burn fat and lose weight, although may not be so well suited for people experiencing back or general  joint discomfort. The strain placed on the muscles of the upper and lower back, though controlled when done correctly, can be problematic for people experiencing pre-existing issues in these areas. 

Some people also find the back and forth motion of the rowing machine to be more generally jarring on the limbs than the comparatively smooth, continuous motion of the elliptical.

The comparatively low impact of the elliptical may also mean that rest periods required between workouts may be reduced. If you are trying to lose weight, exercising as regularly and consistently as possible can be a helpful method of keeping your calorie count down. 

Here is my favourite elliptical that I recommend:

Schwinn Fitness 430 Elliptical, Black
  • Goal Track capability enables users to set individual exercise goals by tracking time, distance and calories to compare with previous workouts
  • 20 inch stride with Precision Path foot motion technology simulates a natural running motion
  • High speed, high inertia drive system offers easy start-up and smooth, quiet workouts

Last update on 2024-04-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Some have noted that rest and recovery times between intense rowing sessions need to be longer, which over weeks and months can significantly reduce the amount of time spent on the machine overall. Others have also commented on how longer sessions on rowing machines can be uncomfortable due to the seated position you are forced to take. 

There is also far more torsion of the knee involved with the motion of the rowing machine. A full extension involves a tight flexing of the knee joint, not dissimilar to certain squats, which could prove painful for anyone suffering from knee injuries.

However, if pre-existing injuries or discomfort don’t disbar you from operating the rowing machine safely, you may find it holds certain advantages when it comes to weight loss and fat burning. 

Rowing machines tend to include certain elements of resistance training which can help build and strengthen muscle, particularly muscles of the upper back and arms.

Although the elliptical can also work a range of muscles, including those of the upper body via the arm handles, it is unlikely to provide you with the same muscle strengthening potential. 

Higher muscle mass can assist with weight loss and fat burning over time, as it can help boost your resting metabolic rate. This is why personal trainers often advise people looking to lose weight to incorporate some form of weights or resistance-based training into their routine.  

Finally, High Intensity Interval Training can be an effective tool in helping you to lose weight. This method of working out involves interspersing periods of extremely high exertion with short intervals of comparative rest. 

Although both machines can be used for HIIT workouts, many people find that the rowing machine offers a more seamless transition between periods of high intensity and moderate exertion.

On the elliptical, users may find that they have to manually switch resistance levels in order to really vary their exertion rate. This can feel less smooth than merely ‘rowing harder’ for a brief interval before going back to regular strokes. 

Is Rowing a Better Workout Than Elliptical?

Some people prefer rowing machines to ellipticals for the muscle strengthening capacity they possess. Although ellipticals nominally work muscles of the upper body via operation of the arm handles, rowing machines are generally perceived to be far more effective at giving users an upper body workout. 

This can also make rowing machines a good option for people looking to improve their posture. Strengthening of the upper back, something which ellipticals are not particularly well placed to do, can in turn help to reduce hunching and other forms of poor vertical posture. 

Those looking to engage their abdominal and oblique muscles more fully may also prefer the rowing machine. Proper rowing machine form targets the core muscles more intensely than the elliptical which, although providing some workout of the core, is unlikely to cause you to feel much ‘burn’ in this area. 

Overall, therefore, the rowing machine is likely to be a clear favourite if one of your priorities is general sculpting and toning of the upper body.

Although it may not hold the same muscle building capacity as scaled weight lifting routines, it does include some elements of resistance training that can help strengthen and tone muscles whilst simultaneously giving you a good cardio workout. 

We should, however, turn our attention to another important feature distinguishing these machines from each other – it’s time to talk about technique. 

Although proper technique is important on both ellipticals and rowing machines, the latter demand particular attention to proper form. Users who do not operate the rowing machine properly not only risk reducing the efficacy of their workouts but, more seriously, they risk various forms of injury. 

Proper rowing form is something best taught by a certified instructor in a gym setting. It may take several supervised sessions for a user to get used to the correct technique.

Conversely, although elliptical machines may look unnatural and ungainly at first glance, you are likely to find yourself adjusting to the range of motion relatively quickly. 

Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Elliptical Trainer Machine w/Device Holder, Programmable Monitor and Heart Rate Monitoring, 330 LB Max Weight - SF-E3912

It is, of course, still possible to injure yourself on an elliptical machine. No piece of gym equipment can be used risk-free. However, poor form on an elliptical is more likely to leave you with unsatisfying or ineffective workouts than it is a sprained back or injured muscle. 

But aside from leaving you potentially less injury prone, is there any way in which an elliptical workout can be said to be better than a good rowing session? 

Well, another way that the elliptical differs from its rowing counterpart is the fact that it is a weight bearing exercise, albeit a low-impact one when compared to running, jumping, or skipping. 

Some studies have indicated that moderate, weight bearing exercise can be a good way of helping to boost bone mineral density in sufferers of osteoporosis. Indeed, elderly people or those requiring exercises that help strengthen and maintain bone structure may find the gentle, weight-bearing resistance afforded by the elliptical preferable to the non-weight bearing but potentially still uncomfortable motion of the rowing machine. 

It should be noted, however, that there are also studies indicating that rowing can help strengthen bones. It has also been suggested that exercises improving back and core strength can help relieve symptoms of osteoporosis, potentially by in turn helping to stabilise the body, aid with balance, and encourage healthy posture. 

Does a Rowing Machine Burn More Calories than an Elliptical?

As with weight loss, the machine most likely to burn more calories for you over an extended period is likely to be the one that you use most frequently. The intensity and duration of your workouts will also be strong determining factors in the number of calories burned during any single session.

However, there are rough estimates out there indicating the number of calories burned during sessions of equal perceived intensity on each machine. 

A commonly cited study is one carried out by Harvard Medical School, comparing different calorie counts for different forms of exercise. 

According to this study, an individual weighing 185 pounds will shed 294 calories over half an hour of moderate intensity rowing. 

Conversely, the same person is deemed capable of burning 378 calories over half an hour on the elliptical.

Some have ascribed this difference in ‘moderate intensity’ calorie burn to the fact that the elliptical appears to engage a broader range of muscles than the rowing machine overall, therefore requiring more energy expenditure.

However, the same study found that a 185 pound person rowing vigorously for half an hour could in fact burn 440 calories. This suggests that an intense session of rowing is likely to ‘beat’ the elliptical when it comes to calories day-by-day.

Is it realistic, though, to expect to row vigorously for each and every workout, and to maintain the same frequency and duration of sessions? 

When it comes to calculating calorie burn over time, a prime factor to consider is consistency. After all, sprinting for half an hour is always going to burn more calories than a half hour jog, but you don’t tend to see people going for half hour sprints four times a week! 

Many users report finding regular elliptical workouts a more achievable goal than regular bursts of intense rowing. This can be particularly true for those looking to go easy on their limbs and maintain a smoother, more accessible flow of motion. 

Another factor to consider, however, is that rowing machines are commonly seen as being more effective at boosting muscle mass over time. Increased muscle mass can increase your resting metabolic rate. 

If you are able to incorporate rowing into your routine in a way that is enjoyable and achievable, you may find that it helps turn your body into a better ‘passive’ burner of calories, all of which can add up in the long run. For those looking for a smoother, more accessible method of burning calories right now, the elliptical may be the better option. 

Rowing Machines vs Elliptical Muscles Worked

It’s not uncommon to see manufacturers of both machines billing their models as providing ‘total body’ workouts. There is some truth in this, since both machines do engage a wide range of upper and lower body muscles when used correctly.

However, rowing machines and cross trainers engage different muscle groups to different extents. 

The main difference is the rowing machine’s engagement of the biceps, deltoids, upper back, abdominals and obliques. Although these are all engaged to a certain extent on the elliptical, these muscle groups are not going to receive the same targeted workout on a cross trainer as they will during an energetic rowing session. 

At the same time, the cross trainer will likely prove more effective at targeting the quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. The glutes can also be targeted even more specifically by increasing the incline of your elliptical machine or shifting your balance slightly.

Other factors to consider when choosing between a rowing machine and a cross trainer

There are always practical and financial considerations to bear in mind when choosing new gym equipment for the home. 

In terms of space taken up, rowing machines often require a greater amount of horizontal room in order to function. A fully extended rowing machine can be up to 10 feet long. 

Circuit Fitness Deluxe Foldable Magnetic Rowing Machine with 8 Resistance Settings and LCD Monitor

However, many rowing machines will fold away relatively easily once your workout session is over. This can make them an attractive option if you’re looking for something that doesn’t take up too much of the house when it’s not actively being used.

Ellipticals, on the other hand, are likely to come with a smaller general footprint than a rowing machine, but are less likely to fold away. There are ellipticals on the market with fold-away capacity, but higher-end models don’t necessarily prioritise this feature. 

It’s also worth bearing in mind that elliptical machines are going to take up more vertical room than rowing machines, which are almost invariably close to the floor. Vertical room is not always an issue when planning gym space, but if you have particularly low ceilings or are particularly tall yourself it’s important to keep it in mind. 

In terms of price, rowing machines are generally considered to be marginally more affordable. This is likely due to the fact that they are mechanically less complex than cross trainers, which require a greater number of moving parts and components. 

A good quality, mid-range rowing machine is likely to cost you between $300 and $700. Elliptical machines of a similar, reliable build quality may come in at slightly more than that, tending to average between $500 and $800. 

As with most forms of gym equipment, you can opt to pay more than this for both rowing and elliptical machines in order to secure yourself high-end, professional gym-standard kit. 

Final thoughts

There is no simple answer to which of these machines is ‘best’ overall, as rowing machines and ellipticals suit different needs for different people at different times.

As a general guide, however, ellipticals may offer a lower-risk, lower-impact cardio option that can be attractive for people experiencing joint pain or general discomfort. They can provide a popular and accessible aerobic workout, effective at burning calories and also increasing your general cardio-vascular fitness.

Rowing machines also provide a good cardio workout, with the added benefit of helping to strengthen and tone some of the upper body and back muscles. They can also be seen by some as offering the possibility of more ‘intense’ workouts in which users can push themselves to their physical limits. 

However, they also require proper technique and form in order to reduce the risk of injury and to maximise their effectiveness. This can make them, initially at least, a less accessible option to those unfamiliar with gym settings or starting out on their personal fitness journey. They are also less likely to be suited to those experiencing back problems or general joint pain. 

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An ex-triathlete, fitness coach and writer with a Masters in Sports Physiology. Fitness is my passion and I've had my fair share of home fitness equipment tried and tested!