Rowing Machine vs. Elliptical – Which is the best?

Cardio machines are a great way to improve your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, burn calories and fat, control your weight, and get healthy. There are several different types of machines you can use, including stationary bikes and treadmills. Two of the best choices for home exercisers are rowing machines and ellipticals.

But which is the right for you, and which one should you choose? Let’s get into it!

Rowing Machines vs Ellipticals – Which is Best?

Brief Rowing Machine Overview

Rowing machines mimic rowing a boat on the water. They offer a full-body low impact workout that is easy on your joints. There are several different types and each one has a different source of resistance. The main types are:

  • Hydraulic rowers
  • Fan rowers
  • Electromagnetic rowers
  • Water drum rowers

Getting a good workout from a rowing machine requires proper technique. Correct rowing technique involves four steps which should, with practice, flow seamlessly together:

  1. Initial push off with your legs
  2. Pull the handle(s) with your arms and back
  3. Extend your arms to return the bar to the starting position
  4. Bend your legs to slide your body back to the starting position

Rowing with poor technique, such as rounding your lower back or using your arms more than your legs, could result in injury. Learning how to row correctly can take time. This may involve watching YouTube videos, reading guidebooks, or even getting hands-on coaching. Your efforts will be rewarded though as once you master rowing, you’ll be able to row more comfortably and efficiently.

Most rowing machines are supplied with a performance monitor that displays useful measurements such as speed, pace, distance, strokes per minute, calories, and time. Some are programmable, which makes them suitable for interval training.

They are generally light and compact, and many can be stood upright for easy storage. However, they are usually quite long, which may make them tricky to transport. You’ll also need enough space so that you can row without obstruction.

A very interesting study has also been completed about visually impaired people. The study goes on to prove that a rowing exercise program can be helpful, with a positive effect on body composition and physical fitness (1). Man on a rowing machine

Brief Elliptical Machine Overview

Elliptical trainers, often just called ellipticals or cross-trainers, are a variation of a stepping machine. They have foot pedals and arm levers, which means you can work your upper body and lower body at the same time. Most allow you to use your legs without your arms should you wish to have a more lower-body-focused workout.

Like rowers, they are low impact exercise machines that are easy on your joints. However, unlike the aforementioned rowing machine, you use an elliptical while standing, which means they involve more weight-bearing. While this might be a disadvantage for some users, it may also lead to increased bone mass and leg strength.

Because they are used standing, and some have quite high pedals, overhead space is an important consideration. While you could row in even a low basement, you’ll need to put an elliptical in a room with more head clearance.

They’re very easy to use and require no special technique. You simply climb onto the footplates, grab the handles, and push your legs around forward or backward while pumping your arms. It’s very hard to misuse an elliptical, and you should master it after just one workout.

They tend to work using electromagnetic resistance, although some cheaper models may use hydraulic resistance. Most have performance monitors that display things like workout duration, steps per minute, and calories. Some have built-in workouts that you can modify and follow instead of just making up your workout as you go along.

man and woman on two ellipticals in the gymMuscles Worked

Ellipticals and rowers are full-body workouts. They involve all of your major muscles and many minor ones too. That’s one of the reasons they are so effective for weight management. Using all those muscles at the same time burns a lot of calories.

The main difference between rowers and elliptical is that rowers tend to involve more core and lower back action, but very little chest and triceps. In contrast, the upright position features a much more upright position, which means less core involvement. However, as you can push and pull on the handles, your chest and triceps get a good workout along with the rest of your upper body muscles.

Despite these differences, each one doesn’t have to use slightly different muscles. None of the muscles involved are worked hard enough to have anything more than a gentle toning effect. If you want to strengthen or build these muscles, you’ll need to target them with calisthenics or weight training exercises.

Pros And Cons of Each

Both of these machines can deliver a safe, fun, and effective workout but each one has pros and cons that should be considered before buying.

Rowing Machine

Pros Cons
Low-impact Requires good technique
Easy on the joints May take a while to master
Good for the core Can be uncomfortable for long-workouts
May improve posture Performance monitors are often very basic
Suitable for all fitness levels – even advanced Do not normally feature pre-programmed-workouts
Some can be used for races (C2) Some users experience back pain when rowing


Pros Cons
Low-impact Tend to be large, high, and immovable
Easy on the joints Many need electricity to work
Weight-bearing for increased bone strength Weight-bearing can be a problem for heavier users
Built-in workouts to follow May not be challenging enough for advanced users
Comfortable, upright position Minimal core involvement
Ideal for beginner and intermediate users Rowers tend to burn more calorie per hour

So, Which One Should You Choose?

Rowers and ellipticals both provide a low impact, full-body workout. They can be used for a wide range of workouts, including steady-paced cardio and interval training. Both of these machines can help you get fit, lose weight, and tone up.

However, that’s where the similarities end! These machines are different enough that you need to consider the pros and cons of each one so that you end up with the right one for you.

Rowing machines have the potential to deliver a more demanding workout. While they are suitable for beginners and intermediate exercisers, they are especially useful for those who are already-fit.

Learning to use a rower can take time, but it’s crucial that you row with proper technique, otherwise you could end up injured. Even with good rowing technique, you may still experience backache, especially on long-workouts.

Ellipticals are very easy to use. There is no learning curve to navigate, and most users master this machine after just a few minutes of use. It’s very hard to use an elliptical incorrectly, and there is minimal risk of injury.

Because ellipticals are so simple, you can hop on and exercise without using your brain too much. There are no tricky techniques to learn and remember.

On the downside, ellipticals are less well suited to advanced exercisers. If you are already very fit or want to build a very high level of fitness, you may find that you outgrow your elliptical trainer.

Bottom Line

The best machine for you depends on your fitness aims and goals. Rowers take longer to master but ultimately deliver the better workout, especially for more advanced exercisers. In contrast, ellipticals are easy to use and master, but if you are very fit, you may find that they don’t offer enough of a challenge.

But, the most important thing to consider is which one will you enjoy using the most. Why is that important? Because even the best workout machine won’t produce the results you want if you don’t use it!


  1. Ka-Young Shin et al. 2015. Effects of Indoor Rowing Exercise on the Body Composition and the Scoliosis of Visually Impaired People: A Preliminary Study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4564707/

Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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