Are you looking for the best at-home workout but only have space for one machine and time for one workout a day?
If so, you’ve come to the right place!
Below, we’re going to take a deep dive into these two workout types and thoroughly dissect the rowing machine vs. elliptical.
We’ll look at everything from comparing rowing vs. elliptical calories burned, muscles worked, and their effect on your joints.
You’ll learn everything you need to know about both types of training, how they impact your body (both positively and negatively), and, ultimately, decide which is better: an elliptical or a rowing machine!?
Rowing Machine vs. Elliptical: Quick Guide
Don’t have time to read the whole article but want a quick breakdown?
Here’s what you need to know:
Let’s be clear: both types of workouts are pretty great options if you’re trying to get fit, lose weight, and burn calories at home. I’ve spent many hours engaged in both types of exercise and each holds a special place in my heart – and my workout routine.
But you’re here to find out which is better, so it’s time to dissect every aspect of the training regimens to learn once and for all whether rowing or elliptical training is the champion.
Ultimate Comparison: Rowing vs. Elliptical Training
Below I’ll breakdown some of the top questions and topics when people look to compare different pieces of fitness equipment.
Which Burns More Calories: Rowing Machine or Elliptical?
Calorie-burning is the first factor most people look at when considering a workout program. They want to find a workout that burns the most amount of calories in the least amount of time. That’s how you maximize your fitness on a busy schedule!
The intensity of the workout will determine how many calories you burn. Let’s take a closer look.
For Moderate Intensity
According to Harvard Medical School, in a 30-minute workout:
Elliptical Training, general
125-pound person will burn 270 calories
155-pound person will burn 324 calories
185-pound person will burn 378 calories
Rowing, Stationary: moderate intensity
125-pound person will burn 210 calories
155-pound person will burn 252 calories
185-pound person will burn 294 calories
That’s quite a difference, isn’t it? You can see that elliptical training has the edge when it comes to a more moderate-intensity workout.
But what happens when you increase the intensity and go for broke?
For Vigorous Intensity
In this section, the Harvard Medical School chart fails us. They provide no data on a vigorous training session using the elliptical trainer.
Below is the data from the rowing study:
Rowing, Stationary: vigorous intensity
125-pound person will burn 255 calories
155-pound person will burn 369 calories
185-pound person will burn 440 calories
My guess would be that if an elliptical burns more calories at a moderate intensity, it probably burns more at a vigorous intensity. However, the gap could be smaller based on muscle activation, which I talk about next.
Verdict: Overall, it appears elliptical training has the slight edge on caloric expenditure. While rowing is an excellent calorie-burning workout (especially at a vigorous pace), elliptical training burns more calories by a slight margin.
My guess would be that during the “recovery” phase of a rowing stroke you do get a small “break”, whereas on an elliptical, you are constantly “in motion”.
Rowing Machine or Elliptical Training for Weight Loss?
There are a lot of people who say weight loss can be boiled down to a simple formula, which is “calories consumed minus calories expended = weight loss”. Basically, as long as you burn more calories than you eat, you should see weight loss.
This is a good rule of thumb to follow, but it’s not the most precise method for determining the weight loss results of any workout. I like to dive deeper and factor in two components critical for weight loss:
Factor #1: Duration of Training
Think about it: the longer the workout session, the more calories you’ll burn.
Yes, workout intensity does play a factor in your calorie burning. As you can see by the tables above, a vigorous workout (both elliptical and rowing) will burn many more calories than a moderate or light-intensity workout.
But how long can you sustain that max-intensity training session? If you’re rowing with everything you’ve got, you won’t be able to keep up the workout for more than 15-25 minutes. Moderate intensity is much more sustainable, but you burn fewer calories per minute, so you have to keep working out for longer to see the same results.
Basically, you want to find an exercise that you can perform at moderate-to-high intensity for the longest possible period of time. That way, you burn significantly more calories than a short or low-intensity training session.
Now, let’s compare the two workouts:
- The average rowing session is typically between 20 and 30 minutes, though there are those—like professional athletes or more “hardcore” rowers—who will push it to an hour or more.
- The average elliptical training workout is anywhere from 5 to 60 minutes. The elliptical machine makes for a great warm-up, a good cardio workout after strength training, or a low-intensity, steady-state cardio workout in itself.
If your only workout is either with the rowing or elliptical machine, it’s often easier to sustain the pace of the elliptical training for longer because it feels more natural (like walking with poles) and less demanding than the full-body motion of rowing.
Factor #2: Muscles Activated
This is, in my opinion, the more important of the two. Activating your muscles through your training will burn significantly more calories than merely pushing your cardiovascular system (with low-intensity exercise). That’s why a resistance training workout session burns more calories than a cardio workout.
But the difference isn’t only visible during the training session. Cardio workouts will boost your metabolism while you’re exercising, and for a short (30 to 60-minute) window afterward. Resistance training that activates your muscles, however, will maintain an elevated metabolic rate for 4-5 hours after your workout. You’ll end up burning more calories—and especially more fat calories—with a workout that activates muscles as well as pushing your cardiovascular system.
Rowing and elliptical training both activate your muscles in different ways.
Rowing focuses more on the “pull” muscles for upper-body: your biceps, posterior deltoids, upper back, lower back, abs, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. The “push” muscles (including your chest, anterior deltoids, triceps, and quads) don’t get an effective workout during your rowing session. The “push” comes more from your legs.
With elliptical training, on the other hand, the focus is much more on the “push” muscles. There is some pulling action involved in your elliptical workout, but the majority of the effort goes into the push. Far less effort is also required for the push and pull actions of the elliptical. Though your arms, shoulders, chest, and back are engaged, your legs do much of the work by pushing the pedals.
Verdict: Both workouts are equally good for fat loss. While elliptical workouts typically last longer, rowing leads to better muscular activation, meaning it has the potential to maintain your metabolic rate (slightly) better once the workout is over.
Is a Rowing Machine Better than Elliptical for Building Muscle?
We spent a lot of the previous section talking about the workouts’ abilities to activate your muscles, so of course we need to talk about the rowing machine vs. elliptical muscles worked.
- Rowing is a (mostly) full-body workout, targeting your upper back, shoulders, biceps, forearms (for grip), lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and even your calves.
- Elliptical training is also a full-body workout, engaging your chest, upper back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, abs, lower back, obliques, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and, to a minor extent, your calves.
Pay close attention to those lists, and you’ll notice that elliptical training activates more muscles overall than rowing. So, on the face of it, elliptical training appears to be better for your muscles than rowing.
However, there is one thing to note: muscular engagement during rowing is significantly higher than on the elliptical.
Remember, your legs are doing a lot of the work of pedaling on the elliptical trainer, so your upper body has to only do a small amount of work to push and pull the handles. Your core is engaged throughout the twisting motion (left foot and right hand forward, right foot and left hand back), including the obliques (side muscles) that work with your back and abs to maintain solid core strength.
When rowing, all of your power is concentrated on the push & pull motion. Your legs propel you backward, but your core, upper back, shoulders, and arms have to work to pull the handle toward your abdomen to complete the rowing stroke. More muscular force is generated in each rowing stroke than in each step on the elliptical. Over time, rowing will lead to marginally better muscle-building than elliptical training.
Strength vs. Endurance
That being said, neither workout is focused on muscular strength, but instead on muscular and cardiovascular endurance.
- Muscular endurance is defined as , “the ability to continue contracting a muscle, or group of muscles, against resistance, such as weights or body weight, over a period of time.”
- Cardiovascular endurance is  “a measure of how well you can do exercises that involve your whole body at moderate to high intensity for an extended time.”
Aerobic exercise (like rowing and elliptical training) targets cardiovascular endurance primarily, but by virtue of the fact that your muscles do so much work, you also increase muscular endurance.
I want to make one thing clear: neither exercise will help you develop large, visible musculature. That’s what resistance training does (CrossFit, weightlifting, bodyweight training, etc.). But both workouts will increase your muscular and cardiovascular endurance significantly.
Verdict: Elliptical training targets more muscles than rowing, but rowing generates more muscular force per stroke. Rowing will build some lean muscle but both will increase muscular and cardiovascular endurance in roughly equal measure.
Is Rowing Better than an Elliptical for Back Pain?
Rowing is definitely not the best exercise for people who are dealing with existing back injuries, mobility limitations, or back pain.
In order to effectively transition through the full stroke, your lower back muscles are engaged and there is some pressure placed on your spinal column. There is a chance you will exacerbate an injury or make your pain worse.
Note: If you’re experiencing back pain during (or because of) your rowing workout, stop immediately!
Elliptical training, on the other hand, is much gentler on your lower back.
There may be some discomfort caused by the elliptical’s twisting movement, but that can be mitigated simply by releasing your grip on the handles and using the machine as sort of a hybrid treadmill/Stairmaster. Or, use the handles to maintain your balance, but reduce your muscular exertion to push/pull the handles.
Verdict: Rowing is a great form of PT for other injuries (such as your knees, shoulders, hips, or elbows), but it’s not ideal for lower back problems. Elliptical training is safer and easier on your spinal muscles.
Rowing Machine or Elliptical Training for Knee Pain?
When rowing, your knees are engaged throughout the entire range of movement—pulling your body forward, then pushing it backward. However, there is no direct impact on your knees because there is no load resting on them.
Your muscles are activated but the absence of weight directly on your knee joints means that rowing is actually fairly safe for training with knee problems.
With elliptical training, on the other hand, there is a load (your full body weight) resting directly on your knees. However, the fact that you never lift your feet off the pedals means that it’s much lower-impact than running or jogging.
In fact, it’s on par with walking. Even experts like the MayoClinic recommend using the elliptical trainer as a safe workout for those with arthritis and joint pain.
Verdict: Both rowing and elliptical training will engage the muscles around your knees, but are fairly low-impact forms of exercise that shouldn’t increase knee pain or cause injuries. On the contrary, they can both serve as excellent forms of physical therapy.
Rowing vs. Elliptical for Upper-Body Joint Problems?
Rowing is an excellent form of exercise for those who are suffering from upper body joint problems—such as in the shoulders or elbows. It’s low-impact but engages the muscles surrounding the joints, helping to strengthen them and increase movement in stiff or less-mobile joints.
However, be warned: rowing can increase your risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, especially if you grip the bar incorrectly. Check out my article on proper grip and hand position.
The same is true with elliptical training. You are gripping the handles, pushing and pulling through the full exercise. Over time, people with existing wrist injuries may find the workout exacerbates them or makes carpal tunnel syndrome worse.
As for your shoulders and elbows, elliptical training demands less generation of muscular force through the full range of motion. If you feel any discomfort in your upper body joints, you can either ease off on pushing/pulling the handles or simply remove your hands altogether. There is no need for upper body joint engagement because your legs can do all the work of pedaling for you.
Verdict: Rowing is great PT to recovery from injuries to your shoulders or elbows. Elliptical training makes it easy to remove your upper body from the equation completely, or reduce the strain on your joints and muscles.
Which is More Boring: Rowing Machine or Elliptical?
Workout boredom is one of the greatest threats to your fitness regimen! You can tell you’re bored if you:
- Feel stuck in a rut
- Keep making excuses not to work out
- Aren’t noticing any changes in your body or fitness
- Go through the motions and put in the lowest amount of effort when you work out
- Get distracted easily
No matter what exercise you do, you’re going to get bored unless you change it up, keep it fresh, and keep yourself engaged.
How does that apply here?
Both elliptical training and rowing are equally monotonous and repetitive. You go through the same motions over and over with your phone or TV being your forms of entertainment.
This is where the machines differ slightly.
Some rowing machines include a holder for your tablet or smartphone, allowing you to watch TV or movies while you train. However, that is only some. The majority of rowers don’t have this feature. Louder machines (like air rowers) may be too noisy to allow you to watch TV/movies, so you’re limited to listening to music, podcasts, or audiobooks. Quieter machines (like water rowers or magnetic rowers) won’t have this problem.
Elliptical machines, on the other hand, typically have built-in screens or built-in holders for your tablet or smartphone. They’re designed with the understanding that the person on the machine will need some other form of entertainment beyond their repetitive workout. They make it easy for you to entertain yourself while you train.
Verdict: Both workouts are equally repetitive/monotonous, and have equal potential to lead to boredom. Elliptical machines, however, typically include built-in entertainment options (such as an integrated screen or tablet/phone holder).
Final Tally: Rowing vs. Elliptical
To sum up the list above:
Elliptical Training is:
- The calorie-burning champ at lower intensities
- Better at activating all the muscles in your body (both push and pull)
- Gentler on your lower back
- Better-built for entertainment during your training session
- The calorie-burning champ at higher intensities / HIIT training
- Better for promoting weight loss and boosting your metabolism after the workout is over
- Better for developing full-body muscular and cardiovascular endurance
- Gentler on your knees and upper body joints
I like both forms of exercise equally, so I can’t decide which is the better choice. Overall, I believe that either one will give you an excellent workout that you can enjoy from the comfort of your home. Putting in the time on these machines every day will help you burn fat, increase muscular and cardiovascular endurance, and see real weight loss results for your effort invested.
I would give the rowing machine the upper-hand when it comes to muscle activation and building lean muscle. It’s also one of the best full-body workouts, which is why it was so heavily adopted in Crossfit. Check out the best Crossfit rowing machine here or visit the best home rowers page.
You can check out some other articles we’ve wrote comparing the rowing machine to different pieces of fitness equipment:
If you found this article on rowing vs. elliptical workouts useful, feel free to leave feedback, questions, or thoughts in a comment below!