Rowing Machine vs Elliptical vs Treadmill - Question Answered!

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Rowing Machine vs. Elliptical vs. Treadmill – Which One is Right for You?

Rowing machine vs. elliptical vs. treadmill?

Has the great cardio machine debate left you scratching your head trying to decide which of these cardio options will help the most with fat loss?

Which is the best for improving cardiovascular endurance?

What is the answer to these questions?

It depends who you ask.

A CrossFit athlete may say that rowers are the best cardio because they engage so many muscles and blast tons of calories in just a few short minutes.

A gym manager might say the elliptical trainer is the best because they are so safe, have a low injury risk, are super easy to use and gym members seem to gravitate to them.

A busy go getter might like the treadmill best because they can multitask and get work done while squeezing in a heart pumping workout.

All three make viable and “good” cardio options.

The truth is:

The best cardio machine for you depends on your goals and which machine you like using best.

After all, a machine you hate using will not be a valuable tool in your quest for weight loss, no matter how much others like it.

With that in mind, I present to you the good, the bad, and the differences between each of these three cardio machines and you decide which one lines up the best with your fitness goals and likes.

woman doing cardio workout on rowing machine

Which is Better for Weight Loss, Rowing Machine vs. Elliptical?

Both rowing machine and elliptical trainer are capable of burning fat and helping in your weight loss journey.

Both use upper and lower body, and offer a “complete” cardio workout, which I like.

I will talk more about that in a minute.


Since we are discussing weight loss I feel like I must say:

Weight loss happens in the kitchen!

80 percent of weight loss success depends on what you put in your mouth. Your diet matters more than the cardio machine you decide is best for your home gym.

Only 20 percent depends on the exercise you get!

Of that 20 percent, the difference between rowing machine vs. elliptical is small. They will both give you a great workout if you put the effort in.

What is the Difference Between Rowing Machine, Elliptical Bike and Treadmill?

Two young sportsmen training on rowing machines

The Rowing Machine

The rower, or erg machine, uses the most muscles and can really get your heart pumping. It is a fast and fat burning cardio option.

Muscles used by the rower are:

  • Pecs
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Abdominals
  • Hip flexors
  • Quads
  • Calf muscles

FAST fat burning

Using all these muscles on each stroke makes it easy to see why this cardio machine is able to annihilate many calories in just a few minutes.

The rower uses all the major muscle groups, and is a butt kicking full body resistance cardio workout.

A rowing session can often take as little as 20 minutes or less to complete, so if you are short on time, the rower may be right for you.

A challenge to learn to use correctly

You must use the rower with proper form!

If you jump on, crank the resistance and just go you are risking strain, pain or even injury to you back.

If you use improper form or the wrong resistance setting, you will miss out on many rowing benefits.

Improper forms can cause you to miss some of the muscles that you should be engaging in the stroke, making the workout less effective.

Cranking the resistance too high, like up you 10, will give you an anaerobic workout and encourage or even cause poor form.

No Bueno!

TIP: Set the resistance somewhere between 4 and 6 if you are just getting started to get the cardio workout and give your body the best chance to use proper form.

Rower Takeaway:

Burns the most calories in the shortest amount of time, uses the whole body, but is also the hardest to use properly.

The Treadmill

Fitness girl running on treadmill

The treadmill is a pretty straightforward cardio machine. It is easier to use than a rower, but there is still room for error and possibly injury if you don’t use it right.

The good news:

A treadmill is pretty easy to learn how to use.

Tip: Don’t lean on or hang on the handles- if you need to do this, its time to take the settings down a notch. The handles are there for balance, plus you burn less calories hanging on.

The Treadmill uses these muscles:

  • Glutes
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves


Many busy people like the treadmill because you can read, reply to email, watch the news on TV or play on your tablet while on the treadmill.

The treadmill is a lower body workout, so your hands are free to use for multitasking.

Variable intensity

Most treadmills have incline and resistance settings allowing you to control how hard you want to go. Most even have built in programs to change up the intensity, incline and speed for you.

You can set a high incline using a low speed and really target your glutes. Or you can use a low incline at high speed and get your heart pumping.

You can also use a low to moderate speed and incline and watch a few episodes of your favorite show for an easy workout that allows you to unwind a little.

Treadmill takeaway:

Variable, potentially intense, and allows you to multitask, with the downside being it only works the lower body.

The Elliptical

The elliptical trainer is the easiest to use of the three: rowing machine vs. elliptical vs. treadmill.

Most elliptical trainers you encounter also have arm resistance bars, so you get a bit of an upper body workout along with working the lower body.

Muscles used on the elliptical trainer:

  • Hamstrings
  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Biceps
  • Triceps

Negligible learning curve

There is a reason so many people you see at the gym use elliptical trainers. They are easy to use and not at all intimidating.

Just hop on and you have no choice but to follow the machines movement.

It’s hard to move incorrectly on the elliptical trainer. The hardest part may be learning how to program the console and change resistance.

Easy on the body

Elliptical trainers are very low impact, so they won’t strain knee joints or any other body area. They won’t aggravate a bad back like rowing might, and they don’t cause foot injury, which is a possibility with running.

Elliptical Trainer Takeaway:

Elliptical trainers are the safe bet. Low risk of injury, easy to use and works both upper and lower body.

Workout Difference Between Rowing Machine vs. Elliptical vs. Treadmill? The Good and the Bad!

Woman athlete exercising on rowing machine at home gym

Rowing Machines

The Good:

  • Low Impact, if used correctly.
  • Engages the highest percentage of muscles in the body.
  • Complete-works both upper and lower body.
  • Efficient-Blasts the most amount of calories in the shortest time.

The Neutral but notable:

  • Rowing takes focus, you must stay engaged in the activity. No spacing out or multitasking.

The Bad:

  • Rowing takes practice to learn correct form.
  • Incorrect form may cause back injury.

Elliptical Bikes and Elliptical Trainers

The Good:

  • Really easy to use, virtually no learning curve.
  • Very little risk of injury, hard to misuse.
  • Low impact, very easy on the joints.
  • Both upper and lower body if you use the arm resistance bars.

The Bad:

  • Does not burn fat as fast as the rower.
  • Some say the rigid repetitive motion “feels weird”.
  • Too easy to hop on without pushing and challenging yourself.


The Good:

  • You can multitask, watch TV, read a book, check email while working out.
  • Well built treadmills reduce impact on the joints.
  • You can vary intensity and incline to level up fat burning.

The Bad:

  • Engages far less muscle groups than the rower.
  • The movement of the treadmill causes less muscle resistance than regular running.
  • If used incorrectly you may end up on a treadmill fail compilation video.

I want to hear what you think!

What is your choice between Rowing machine vs. elliptical vs. Treadmill?

Let me know in the comments below.

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