Elliptical vs Rowing Machine: Which Is Best?

Elliptical vs Rowing Machine: Which Is Best?
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It’s time to quit making excuses and dive into action—there’s no need to wait for the New Year to make a resolution when it comes to nurturing a healthy lifestyle. Now that you have decided that the time for making a million excuses about how you’re too busy and that the gym is too expensive is over and you are ready to commit to a regular workout schedule, what do you choose?

You really aren’t a huge fan of treadmills and cycling. You know those will just collect dust from lack of use because the thought of such a boring, mundane workout fills you with dread. That’s why you’ve decided to look into the other popular choices for a workout routine: the elliptical machine and the rowing machine.

It can truly be challenging to know what the right machine is for your needs, but that’s why we have written this comparison to help you decide between these two popular workout machines. By the end, we hope you’ll know the benefits and drawbacks of each machine and have a sense of what is best for your needs. 

Direct Comparison

Elliptical Machine

  • Learning curve: Extremely easy and intuitive
  • Impact: Low; great for arthritis and joint issues
  • Muscle toning: Versatile and customizable for target areas
  • Calories: Excellent for burning calories
  • Space requirement: Very little space required

Rowing Machine

  • Learning curve: Requires training for proper technique
  • Impact: Higher impact on the body; less gentle
  • Muscle toning: Similar to weight lifting and limited in target
  • Calories: Excellent way to burn calories
  • Space requirement: More space required

Breaking It Down

Now that we have determined which features to focus on, let’s break it down a bit and go into more detail. The shortlist offers an easy and compact calculation, but if certain features are more important for your specific needs, then you’ll want to know a little more about them.

That’s what we’re here to do now. We will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each category and pick a winner.

tips on how to engage your core during elliptical training

1. Learning Curve

When it comes to exercise equipment, things can be pretty intimidating to new users. There are a lot of different pieces of equipment that target different parts of the body.

A lot of people also use the same equipment in very different ways. This can make it pretty difficult to know exactly what to do with new equipment when it comes your way. Let’s take a look at the learning curve for each of these products and see how they compare.


These are extremely easy to use; there is no real learning curve involved. With this machine, you simply put your feet on the pedals and your arms on the handlebars and start moving.

Increasing resistance is usually controlled by pushing a button or turning a knob, and most of these machines will have intuitive displays that track your heart rate, calories burned, speed, and distance as you work out. They are so simple that even children can operate them without training as long as they’re tall enough to reach the handlebars while standing on the pedals.

If you know how to pump your arms while you walk, then you know how to use an elliptical machine.

Rowing Machines

At first glance, rowing machines seem extremely easy to use. Most people will sit down and begin pulling and pushing. The problem is that most people are also using an improper technique.

As a result, users get minimal benefit from their workout in terms of muscle strengthening and toning. While their heart rate may be elevated, it will take more effort to get to the target zone. Lastly, it can be extremely dangerous to use a bad technique because of the strain it places on your back and joints.

If you have a rowing machine, you will probably need a session or two with a personal trainer who can teach you how to use it and monitor your technique to make sure you do not fall into bad habits over time as you grow tired.

With a bar that can go up, down, and sideways, the rowing machine requires precision and control. This bar allows you to target specific muscle groups, but can easily lead to sloppy workouts.

Correct technique involves a straight and rigid back, pushing with your legs while simultaneously pulling with your arms, then relaxing all your muscles to bring the bar back into the device. If you don’t want to hire a trainer or visit a gym, then find a good training video online to show you how to avoid the scoot back-and-forth technique in favor of the right stroking movement.


The elliptical is the clear winner in this race. When it comes to the learning curve, this isn’t even a contest. One is as intuitive as walking, and the other is difficult to master, and you are prone to doing incorrect techniques.

2. Impact

When it comes to your body’s long term health, the impact is a crucial aspect of any workout. A lot of athletes have to retire very young because they have done a lot of damage to their joints and worn away all the cartilage.

As you get older, your bones become more brittle and less dense. This also becomes important since many workouts can actually begin doing more harm than good. The good news is that trainers have developed a ton of great ways to stay toned and in shape, which require much less impact and stress on your joints.

Let’s see how the elliptical vs rowing machine fare against one another. Are they as stressful as running on concrete, or are they as impact-free as swimming?


The elliptical is an extremely friendly option for people who have arthritis and joint pain. It's also a great piece of equipment for obese people who need to get in shape but whose joints are already under stress due to their weight. Since your feet never leave the pedals, it is essentially an impact-free way to exercise.

The exception to this rule is when you change positions to maximize your workout. A lot of people like to squat while working out to give their glutes and core an extra workout. If you do not use the proper squatting technique, this can hurt your knees and ankles.

Over time, this can lead to repetitive motion injuries and put some stress on your hip flexors, but that will take years to set in, and it is still much friendlier than other methods. The elliptical is an extremely low impact way to work out, and the ratio of impact to results is the best in the industry. The flip side of this is that the light workout can also help with bone density and slow mineral loss.

Rowing Machines

This machine is also friendly when you use the proper technique. It's another great way for obese people to work out without too much stress on their joints. Since you are sitting down, this is also an impact-free workout.

It is crucial that you start slow with little resistance and get used to using proper form. Otherwise, you will negate the benefits to your knees by adding unnecessary stress impact to your back.


This one is a tie. Both of them offer impact-free workouts that won’t stress your joints unless you are using bad techniques. Both of them are friendlier to obese people and those with joint problems than alternatives. Both of them are recommended for people with osteoporosis as a way to prevent bone density and mineral loss.

3. Muscle Toning

When looking for a single piece of equipment, it is imperative that you get a lot of benefits from a single machine. This means that you need to look at more than just the cardio aspect and see what muscle groups these machines can work on and tone. Both of them target very different groups, but which one has the edge?


These are incredible full body workout machines. Using the machine normally will work out your quads, your hamstrings, your glutes, your biceps, triceps, and deltoids.

The movement of the arms and legs ensures that everything is getting worked. Increasing the resistance will increase the amount of work your muscles will do.

If you want to add some intensity, then squatting is a great way to engage your core muscles and strength. This also ramps up the impact on your quads and your glutes.

To work your arms harder, increase the resistance and use your arms to power the machine instead of the pedals. Pedal backward (or turn around so that you are facing away from the machine's screen if yours won't go backward) to exercise an entirely different group of leg muscles.

The great thing about the elliptical is that it is extremely easy to create targeted workouts. Trainers recommend alternative workouts with “leg days” and “arm days”, and the elliptical allows you to do this based on your position, resistance, direction, and which limbs you use to power the machine.

Rowing Machines

Rowing machines also allow you to work out both your arms and legs, but they do a better job of engaging your core muscles. Pulling the bar to either side while maintaining proper form will crunch your ab muscles and focus the workout side to side for maximum core workouts.

The downside is that this machine will not work out your triceps as well as an elliptical. You won't be able to push against it the way you can when you use arms to power the elliptical.


The elliptical takes a slight edge in this category. Although the rowing machine offers more core training and a workout more specifically geared towards strength training, the versatility of being able to control which muscles get worked on an elliptical gives it the edge.

4. Calories Burnt

The ultimate question most people want to know in a cardio workout is how many calories they burn in each workout. These get tracked religiously and play a huge factor in overall health, especially when mixed in with a proper diet. Let’s see how these two machines compare.


While sources vary on exactly how many calories are burned, Harvard has determined that in a 30-minute long moderate workout, the average person will burn between 250 to 450 calories depending on their weight and cardiovascular health.

Rowing Machines

The same study showed that on the same 30-minute long moderate workout, the average person would burn between 200 and 350 calories on a rowing machine. As the workout time increases, the calories burned increases exponentially.

Naturally, how many calories you burn in a workout largely depends on how much effort you put into it. Keep your heart rate in a target workout zone for maximum impact.


According to the Harvard study, the official winner in this category for the elliptical vs rowing machine battle is the elliptical machine. While we give them the victory, we will add this caveat: rowing machines are designed for a more full body strengthening workout, and ellipticals are designed for cardio.

The thing that will truly determine how many calories you burn is your heart rate. If you use an elliptical but do not push yourself, then you will likely see a minimal benefit of working out at all.

5. Space Requirement

When you’re buying something for home use, this is an important factor to consider. If you don’t have enough room that is dedicated to becoming a home gym, you want to be sure your equipment is friendly to your space. This is especially true if you happen to live in an apartment instead of a larger home with a lot of options.


Elliptical machines can be extremely compact because they are built vertically for use while standing. The downside is that they typically require a power source to work, so you can’t just put them in any little corner and forget about them unless the corner is well equipped with an outlet.

Rowing Machines

Unlike ellipticals, rowing machines don’t require power outlets to function. They use pulleys to move back and forth.

Unfortunately, that’s where the convenience ends. That is because these are seated workouts that require a lot of stretching and movement; they tend to be long and take up a lot of floor space.


The elliptical wins this category easily.

Final Recount

  • Elliptical: Four out of five
  • Rowing Machine: One out of five (as a tie)

Pros and Cons



  • Low impact
  • Easy to use
  • Versatile for targeted workouts
  • Able to work full-body


  • Not as great for strength training

Rowing Machines


  • Great for strength training
  • Low impact


  • Difficult to learn proper form without training
  • Can place significant strain on lower-back
  • Putting together together machine can be difficult  

Final Verdict

While both of these machines are fantastic options for workouts, offering a combination of strength and cardio training, the elliptical is the best option. In addition to being low impact, it also offers more versatility, targeted workouts, and more calories burned per workout than the rowing machine.

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