Rowing vs Elliptical – Which Is A More Effective Workout?


There are a number of benefits to running and no matter what your current fitness levels are, you can become a runner.

But it’s also important to include cross-training into your exercise routine to work different muscles, maintain fitness, and help prevent overuse injuries.

For cross-training, a rowing or elliptical machine is a good option and can be done at the gym or at home. But both have their advantages and disadvantages.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the differences between rowing and the elliptical machine.

Rowing vs Elliptical – Cardio

Both the rowing and elliptical machine increase your cardiovascular fitness and will provide similar cardio benefits to running.

That being said rowing machines allow you to vary the resistance levels and if you’re rowing with good form you’ll find that there’s a significant increase in stamina, endurance and can provide workouts that are more difficult than the elliptical machine.

The rowing machine also engages more muscles than the elliptical and this will get your heart pumping harder.

You can still get a great cardio workout on an elliptical machine especially if the elliptical you’re using allows for not only steady-state cardio but high-intensity interval training—HIIT— workouts.

Rowing vs Elliptical – Muscles

Both the rowing and elliptical machine engages the muscles in the upper and lower body.

Every stroke that you take on a rowing machine will work the Latissimus dorsi—Lats—the upper back muscles, deltoids, biceps, triceps, chest muscles—Pecs—abs, obliques, calves, hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps.

This is because when you row you do both the push—lower body—and pull—upper body—to complete the stroke.

When you use the elliptical machine you’re engaging both the front and back calf muscles, hamstrings, glutes, quads, pecs, biceps, triceps, core muscles, upper back and lower back muscles.

The rowing machine does work more of the core muscles, especially when your form is correct. If you increase the resistance on a rowing machine you’ll also find that your legs will work hard to push off while your upper body has to pull, making for a challenging workout.

However, rowing machines have redefined the definition of full-body workouts. Every rowing session works on the majority of the core muscles available in the body, as long as the right technique and posture are used.

Rowing vs Elliptical – Calories

If you had to do 30 minutes of moderate exercise on either the rowing or elliptical machine, you’re going to burn calories. According to a study done by Harvard Medical School, you could expect to burn the following calories.

  • Rowing machine: A person who weighs 125 pounds could burn 210 calories doing 30 minutes of moderate rowing, while a person who weighs 185 pounds could burn 294 calories.

When you row you’ll be activating 85% of the muscles in the body. This will develop lean muscle mass, develop strength and depending on the intensity of the workout, you’ll burn more calories.

If you had to row vigorously for 30 minutes the number of calories burned would be higher. A 125-pound person who rows vigorously for 30 minutes could burn 255 calories and a 185-pound person could burn 440 calories.

When we look at the number of calories you could burn on an elliptical machine you could expect the following:

  • Elliptical: If you weigh 125 pounds the number of calories burnt could be 270 calories and a person who weighs 185 pounds could burn up to 378 calories.

But there are a number of factors that need to be considered when you’re exercising and tracking calories. Your age, weight, fitness levels, heart rate, the intensity of the workout, and the amount of time spent working out all play a role in the number of calories burned.

When you’re exercising it would be better to use a heart rate monitor as both the rowing and elliptical machines can be inaccurate. They can often indicate that you’ve burned more calories than what you’ve actually burned.

To work out how many calories your body needs to either maintain or lose weight you can use a calorie calculator like this one.

Knowing how many calories you need to burn will let you adjust your workouts to achieve your fitness goals.

Rowing vs Elliptical – Cost

When we look at the cost between the rowing and elliptical machine you’ll find that the rowing machines are less expensive than elliptical machines. The price of the rowing machine will vary depending on the type that you buy as there are four different variations of rowing machines.

There are rowing machines that use water resistance, magnetic resistance, hydraulic resistance, and air resistance. The price for rowing machines ranges from $250 to over $1k depending on the brand that you decide to go with.

For lower-end elliptical machines, the prices range from $150 dollars to the higher-end elliptical machines can cost between $1,000 – $2,000.

The higher-end ellipticals do come with more features, generally offer good warranties, and are more durable. They also come packed with features like built-in training programs, LCD display, tablet holder, and heart rate monitoring capabilities.

Rowing vs Elliptical – Better for runners?

Both the rowing and elliptical machine are low-impact and provide an upper and lower body workout. But the rowing machine would provide a better cross-training workout than the elliptical machine. This is due to the pushing and pulling motion which is 2 dimensional and this motion would have a similar effect on the muscles like weight lifting.

The rowing machine will develop and strengthen the muscles in the upper body.

The motion of the elliptical is more circular and while you can increase the intensity, reverse the stride or just choose to work the lower body, it targets the muscles differently.

The muscles don’t get the same pump as they do with rowing and the movement on the elliptical mimics the motion of running

Final Conclusion – Which is better?

If we look at both the rowing machine and elliptical, they each take up about the same amount of space in your home.

But if you’re looking at developing the smaller and weaker muscles then rowing would be the better option as it increases overall body strength, develops muscles and increases midline stability.

Runners can experience tight hip flexors which often results in poor running posture which over time can weaken the glutes and lead to injury. If you’re looking to work on your posture or if you need to strengthen your hip flexors then the rowing machine would be best for you.

Elliptical machines are a great option for runners as it reduces joint pain and if you’re suffering from stress fractures you can still maintain your fitness levels without having to worry about injuring yourself further.

If you’re recovering from an injury or you want to work on increasing your balance as well as increasing your fitness levels then the Elliptical machine would be a great option.

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Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.