Elliptical vs Rowing Machine: Which is Best?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 23, 2022

Out of all the various aerobic exercise machines available, you would be hard-pressed to find a gym that does not feature an elliptical trainer or rowing machine, as these two pieces of equipment have earned a reputation for being quite effective at their respective purposes.

Due to the fact that they share the same basic aerobic training stimulus and machine-based nature, many exercisers find that picking one over the other is quite difficult - especially for gym newbies, who have yet to see the minute differences between each cardio machine.

To put it in a nutshell, the main differences between the elliptical and rowing machine lie in the muscle groups recruited by either machine, as well as the biomechanics employed by the movements associated with their usage.

What is the Elliptical?

The elliptical machine and its namesake exercise are a form of compound aerobic training with a moderate level of intensity and a movement pattern quite similar to power walking in terms of mechanics.

elliptical machine

The elliptical machine is usually chosen over other types of aerobic exercise machines for its low-impact nature and the ease at which it may be used, with even novice gym goers and those of more advanced age having little issue with using the elliptical.

How to Use the Elliptical

Using the elliptical machine is quite simple. 

The exerciser steps into the machine with both feet in their respective footrests. Then, they will grip the handles in both of their hands, and pull one handle towards their torso while pressing the foot on the opposite side of the body in a downward motion, as if pedaling on a bicycle.

elliptical muscles

One should note that not all elliptical machines feature swinging handles, and as such a more forward tilt of the torso will be required in order to achieve the optimal angle for pedaling the footrests of the machine.

Furthermore, it is advised that exercisers avoid fully extending their knees during any portion of the elliptical movement pattern, and that they adjust the machine so as to avoid this from occurring.

Muscles Worked by the Elliptical

The elliptical recruits the muscles of the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings to a minor degree - but otherwise is not actually performed for the purposes of training the musculature of the body.

elliptical muscles

At certain inclines and resistance levels, the exertion required to perform the elliptical exercise can indeed result in muscular fatigue, but the level of resistance is generally not enough to cause any development beyond muscular endurance or minor hypertrophy.

Benefits of the Elliptical

Low Impact

The most significant benefit and the main reason why the elliptical machine is chosen over other aerobic exercise machines is in its low impact on the bones and joints of the exerciser, making it particularly useful for individuals with a history of injury or poor connective tissue strength.

Furthermore, individuals without the prerequisite conditioning to perform other forms of cardiovascular exercise can also train their aerobic endurance through the elliptical machine, all without worry of potentially injuring themselves.

Fixed Range of Motion

Though this particular benefit could also be a detriment in certain cases, the nature of the elliptical machine itself results in a rather fixed range of motion and movement pattern as the exerciser uses it - resulting in a significantly reduced risk of injury, and otherwise ensuring that the machine is used with no deviation from proper form.

Having a fixed range of motion means that individuals with poor stability or bodily coordination will have less trouble performing the exercise, as the machine will take much of the required stability and coordination work out of their hands.

Low Risk of Injury

As a result of the fixed range of motion and low impact of the elliptical machine, the relative risk of injury is far lower than any other form of machine-assisted aerobic exercise, making the elliptical exercise an excellent choice for individuals who wish to avoid such an occurrence.

What is the Rowing Machine?

The rowing machine is an aerobic exercise machine that makes use of resistance and the motion of rowing a boat to induce training stimulus on the cardiovascular system and muscles of the upper body.

rowing machine

Unlike the elliptical which is primarily performed for its aerobic benefits, the rowing machine can be considered a form of light resistance exercise with a particular focus on taxing the body through aerobic stimulus as a secondary objective as well.

How to Use the Rowing Machine

Performing the rowing machine exercise is somewhat more complicated than the movement of the elliptical machine, as it begins with the exerciser bracing their feet against the machine as they grip the handle in both hands.

how to row

Then, the exerciser will pull through their arms and back as they push against the machine with their legs, stopping once their knees are fully extended and the bar has come into contact with their chest or stomach.

Once the elbows have been retracted sufficiently far back and the legs have fully extended, the exerciser will then reverse the motion in a slow and controlled manner, allowing the tension of the handle to pull them back to their starting point.

Throughout the entirety of this movement, the exerciser’s core should remain braced, and their spine should remain at a neutral curvature by keeping the head and upper back facing forward.

Muscles Worked by the Rowing Machine

The rowing machine recruits much the same muscles as any other rowing motion; those of the upper back, the biceps brachii and the posterior deltoid head, with the muscles of the core being recruited in a stabilizing capacity as well.

muscles used for rowing

At the higher levels of resistance, this equates to a low level of hypertrophy and strength development being achieved in the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid heads and biceps - while also improving the aerobic endurance of the exerciser.

Benefits of the Rowing Machine

Low Impact

Much like the elliptical machine, the rowing machine is also considerably low impact, making it an excellent choice for individuals without proper connective tissue conditioning or exercisers whose heavy bodyweight could potentially result in chronic injury.

Certain brands of rowing machine even have additional safety features so as to ensure that the exerciser does not receive any sort of impact throughout its usage, ensuring that injuries related to such levels of impact are avoided.

Upper Body Muscular Recruitment

Unlike most other forms of aerobic exercise, the rowing machine is a type of training somewhere between resistance exercise and cardio, making it effective for athletes and individuals that wish to focus on multiple aspects of athleticism in a single cross-training exercise.

Furthermore - apart from the musculature of the upper body - the muscles of the core are also recruited quite significantly throughout the movement pattern of the rowing machine exercise, resulting in excellent abdominal muscle training and improving general core muscular endurance.

Adjustable Resistance

Though both the elliptical and rowing machines have adjustable resistance settings, it is an especially important benefit of the latter exercise machine due to the greater muscular recruitment that takes place throughout the exercise.

Being able to adjust the resistance of the machine directly translates through the handle that the exerciser will row, resulting in greater muscular exertion being required in order to perform the movement. 

This can lead to a more significant level of muscular hypertrophy, though it can also act as a limiting factor if long-term aerobic exertion is the goal of the exerciser.

Elliptical vs Rowing Machine for Fat Burning

Though the capacity of a certain exercise to expend calories depends on many factors, it is in fact the elliptical machine that is (on average) marginally more effective at burning your fat stores.

This is not a result of the machine’s direct effects on the body, but instead simply because of the fact that the elliptical may be used at a higher tempo and for a longer period than the rowing machine, as the latter exercise requires the usage of upper body musculature, of which acts as a limiting factor in multiple ways.

During the usage of the rowing machine, the exerciser’s upper body musculature is particularly prone to being fatigued as they are exerted against the resistance of the machine. Furthermore, this also equates to the rowing motion being performed at a somewhat slower maximum tempo than the motion of the elliptical trainer.

As such, when measuring the caloric expenditure of either machine within the same time frame, we can see that the exerciser both moves more frequently and at a greater pace with the elliptical. This, in turn, translates to a greater fat burning potential.

Elliptical vs Rowing Machine for Building Muscle Mass

In terms of inducing muscular hypertrophy and strength adaptations, the rowing machine is far superior in practically every aspect that feeds into such biological mechanisms. 

Not only does the hand position and angle of resistance of the rowing machine result in muscular recruitment, but it does so at an intensity that is sufficient enough to result in noticeable results - unlike the elliptical machine, which only truly places resistance at an angle unlikely to recruit any muscle in its full range of motion.

Furthermore, the motion of rowing is in fact used quite frequently as a staple of many back muscle workouts, meaning that the rowing machine can essentially function as a stepping stone to heavier back muscle exercises like the barbell row or deadlift.

Elliptical vs Rowing Machine for Cardiovascular Endurance

For endurance athletes or those purely seeking improvements in the function of their cardiovascular system, there is no definitive answer as to which machine is better. 

Both the elliptical and rowing machine are equally intensive aerobic exercises with a reputation for being low impact and generally safe to perform.

Despite this, it is generally advised that individuals stick with the elliptical for cardiovascular endurance training, as the musculature of the exerciser is less likely to fatigue after a short duration, unlike with the rowing machine which can easily tire out the muscles of the upper body.

This muscular fatigue can cut an aerobic workout short, ending the training session before the cardiovascular system has been sufficiently stimulated enough to develop further.

As such, it is the elliptical machine that is better for developing cardiovascular endurance - unless one wishes to partake in cross-training, wherein the rowing machine is the better choice.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is a Rowing Machine Good for Losing Belly Fat?

Yes, both the rowing machine and the elliptical are excellent methods of inducing caloric expenditure - or what is otherwise known as fat loss when combined with a caloric deficit. 

While the rowing machine does not burn as many calories as more intense aerobic exercises like running or swimming, it is nonetheless an excellent and low-risk form of cardio that will doubtless melt the fat off your belly, alongside every other part of your body.

Can You Get in Shape by Just Rowing?

While rowing is doubtless an excellent exercise that can train both the musculature of the exerciser and their cardiovascular fitness, using it as the sole source of training can easily lead to a muscular imbalance or chronic overuse injury.

As such, the majority of athletic coaches suggest that exercisers (even rowing athletes) also perform a mixture of different resistance exercises and aerobic exercises instead of only using the rowing machine itself.

Is 30 Minutes on the Elliptical Good Enough?

Yes - 30 minutes of any form of aerobic exercise is often enough to induce the many physiological benefits associated with proper cardio workouts. 

The elliptical is an excellent way to ensure that one remains safe and uninjured as they get their workout in - and can result in quite a few positive effects, like a longer lifespan, lower resting heart rate and a reduction in body fat.

Final Words

Both the elliptical trainer and the rowing machine are highly effective forms of aerobic exercise with their own respective purposes. 

For the elliptical trainer, fat burning and cardiovascular training are the sole objective, whereas the rowing machine is most useful for cross-training or similar athletic benefits instead.

If you’re still unsure of which machine to pick, it is best to evaluate your current fitness goals and training level so as to assess which aerobic exercise is most appropriate for you.

References

1. Damiano DL, Norman T, Stanley CJ, Park HS. Comparison of elliptical training, stationary cycling, treadmill walking and overground walking. Gait Posture. 2011 Jun;34(2):260-4. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2011.05.010. Epub 2011 Jun 17. PMID: 21683599; PMCID: PMC3130090.

2. Bernstein IA, Webber O, Woledge RAn ergonomic comparison of rowing machine designs: possible implications for safetyBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2002;36:108-112.

3. Filipovic M, Munten S, Herzig KH, Gagnon DD. Maximal Fat Oxidation: Comparison between Treadmill, Elliptical and Rowing Exercises. J Sports Sci Med. 2021 Mar 1;20(1):170-178. doi: 10.52082/jssm.2021.170. PMID: 33708000; PMCID: PMC7919349.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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