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Elliptical vs Rowing: Which workout is the best?

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

Trying to figure out the best form of cardio to do? We always recommend choosing something you enjoy. But you might be limited by the equipment at the gym, or you might want to switch between machines to avoid boredom.

So let’s consider two of the most popular cardio machines: elliptical vs rowing machines. Both are commonplace in gyms and are effective cardio options. But does one type of machine win over the other? Let’s find out.

a man trying Elliptical vs Rowing
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Quick Overview of Elliptical & Rowing Machines

Just in case you’re a newbie, let’s do a quick run through the elliptical vs rowing machines.


Elliptical trainers consist of two steps, two handles, and a flywheel, that’s located at the back, at the front, or in the center. It’s powered entirely by the user, so the motor just facilitates the machine’s movement.

It’s quite intuitive to use. You stand on the steppers, grab the handles, and start “running”. It’s worth noting that some machines have two sets of handles—one stationary and one moveable.

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Rowing Machine

Ever watched competitive rowing? That same motion is what you’ll do on this machine. It consists of a seat that slides back and forth on rails, stationary foot pedals, a handle on a cable, and a flywheel.

It’s also easy to use. Sit on the seat, strap your feet into the pedals, grab the handle, push back with your feet and pull the handle towards you. It’s a little more detailed than that, but that’s the gist of it! 

Similarities Between Elliptical and Rowing Machines

a man is training on elliptical
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Comparing the elliptical machine vs rowing machine shows many similarities between the two. Both of these machines can give you an excellent workout! Here are some benefits you’ll get regardless of which machine you use.

Full-Body Workout

Whether you choose the elliptical or rowing machine, you’re working both upper and lower body, assuming you use the handles on the elliptical.

When you row, you’re pushing with your legs and pulling with your arms. To keep your form, your core and back are also involved. On the elliptical, you’re stepping with your legs and boxing with your arms. Full-body workouts typically burn more calories, so that’s a bonus!

Low-Impact Exercise 

Both machines are a low-impact form of exercise. You can use them even if you’ve got ankle or knee joint problems, because there’s no actual impact on your feet. On both, your feet never leave the platform, which significantly reduces the impact on joints. 

You can get a serious, calorie-burning workout without any strain on your joints. This makes them both a great choice for people with achy joints.


Want to do a light, easy cardio session to cool down after a brutal box session? Or would you prefer an all-out, lungs-burning, muscles-aching intense workout? Whether you choose the rower vs elliptical, you can do your cardio any way you like.

Both machines are versatile enough to do gentle recovery workouts or high-intensity aerobic workouts. Whether LISS or HIIT is your favorite way to train, both can handle your level of intensity.

Great for All Fitness Levels

Another great feature of both elliptical trainers and rowers is that they have adjustable levels of resistance to suit your level of fitness. If it starts feeling too easy, simply up the resistance to get a more robust workout. On the other hand, if you’re feeling tired, lower the resistance and you’ll still get a good workout.

So no matter how you feel on the day, you can get on the elliptical or the rowing machine and still have a decent workout.

a woman trains on elliptical
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Differences Between Elliptical and Rowing Machines

Despite having similar benefits, the differences between using an elliptical vs rowing machine could be the deciding factor.

Muscle Activation

While both work the entire body, the muscle activation happens a little differently on each. Here’s what the elliptical works:

  • Glutes
  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Calf muscles 
  • Bis & tris
  • Chest muscles 
  • Back & core

It has a stronger effect on the lower body, as the majority of the driving force comes from the legs. But if you’re using the handles too, you’ll get some arm, chest, back, and core activation.

And here’s what a rowing workout activates:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calf muscles 
  • Spinal erectors
  • Quads
  • Lats
  • Upper back muscles 
  • Forearms
  • Shoulders
  • Core muscles 

The rowing motion happens in two movements: the drive and the pull. Driving is the push with your legs, and pulling is the pull with your upper body. For this reason, the rowing machine benefits both the upper and lower body muscles equally. 

Learning Curve

Using the elliptical is quite intuitive, and it’s hard to get your form wrong. But rowing is a little more tricky. And using improper form on the rower can cause injury.

If you’ve never used the elliptical before, you can hop onto it and have a great workout right there and then. But it takes a bit more of a learning curve to perfect the correct rowing technique so you aren’t at risk of hurting yourself.

Calories Burned 

Research indicates that an elliptical training workout burns more calories than the rowing machine in the same amount of time. But this is a very general estimation, and multiple different things need to be taken into account.

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For example, a 185-pound person will burn more calories per hour, at the same intensity than a 125-pound person does. High-intensity sessions will burn fewer calories than exercising at low intensity in the same time frame.

So either way, it’s hard to say whether rowing vs elliptical burns more calories. What we do know is that they both offer a highly effective workout. 

Entertainment Factor

Enjoy catching up on your favorite series or scrolling through the news while doing cardio? Most elliptical machines have an integrated screen or a tablet holder. However, many rowing machines only have a small LCD to display metrics. 

a woman is rowing at the gym
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Which Is Better for Weight Loss?

Both provide a great cardiovascular exercise and have been proven to show real weight loss results. The number of calories you burn depends on your intensity, duration, and current weight. Whether you use the elliptical vs rowing machine, you’ll be burning calories. As long as you’re in a calorie deficit, you’ll lose weight over time.

Which Is Better for the Joints?

Both the elliptical and the rowing machine are great for the joints. They’re both a low-impact workout and can easily be used by those with joint pain without causing worse injury over time. 

Which Is Better for a Home Gym?

Ellipticals take up more vertical space, while rowing machines take up more floor space. But, most rowing machines can fold into an upright position, whereas ellipticals usually don’t fold at all. Both are also fairly quiet, so they should be good choices for apartment use.

Which Is Better for Rehabilitation Training?

Those with back injuries should stick to the elliptical. Having incorrect form on the rowing machine can reinjure the back. If you’re struggling with joint injuries, both are suitable. 

Choose the elliptical if your sore joints are in the lower body, and the rowing machine if they’re in the upper body. Either way, make sure you’re using the proper technique and opt for lower intensity.

How Much Do Ellipticals and Rowing Machines Cost?

Ellipticals tend to be slightly more expensive than rowing machines. They range from $150 for an entry-level machine to around $10,000 for high-end options. A mid-level elliptical will cost between $700 and $1,500.

Rowing machines range from around $130 for an entry-level one to $3,000 or so for a top-quality one. You’re likely to get a better quality rowing machine than an elliptical for your budget.

Elliptical vs Rowing: The Final Verdict

What’s the verdict? Which comes out top in the elliptical vs rowing machine debate? There’s no clear answer after comparing the two. Both are an effective, low-impact cardio workout, burn a ton of calories, and give you a great full-body exercise. 

So which one should you choose? Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. Unless you have an existing back injury, in which case the elliptical is your best bet.

You can always alternate between the two in your weekly workout routine to prevent boredom and to work your muscles in a different way! They’ll both improve your cardiovascular fitness, so try both and see how you feel. 

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