Rowing machine vs treadmill vs elliptical: cardio machines compared

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Once you have decided that you are going to start an exercise plan to lose weight or drop body fat percentage at home, in a gym or wherever it’s probable that you are weighing up the differences between a rowing machine vs treadmill vs elliptical.

We all know that cardio exercise burns fat and helps us lose weight right! In this article I will aim to give to the information to help you make an informed decision when it comes to deciding between some very popular cardio machines – Let’s look at the rower vs treadmill vs elliptical.

Rowing machine vs treadmill vs elliptical basic comparison

Running and jogging on a treadmill is great for burning calories but treadmill exercises are focused on the legs and lower body when compared to a rower. Exercise on a rowing machine will give you a full body workout while an elliptical is somewhere in between.

Rower vs elliptical vs treadmill for weight loss and fat burning

Rowing machine vs treadmill vs elliptical
It’s widely believed that the treadmill is better for burning more calories per hour than the rower and on the face of it this may be true. But from my experience with fitness and weight loss, I think there is another factor that is overlooked.

This is my theory – The more lean muscle that you have, the more fat you will burn at rest. While running on a treadmill will probably burn more calories when you are actually working out, you are not training or engaging as many muscle groups compared to a workout on a rowing machine. This means that in the long term, you may find that the rower is equal to or better for fat loss than the treadmill.

I may be wrong but in my opinion, the jury is still out on this.

Running, jogging and walking on a treadmill can be great for fat loss if you do it regularly, and the more frequently you do this, the more efficient your body will become at fat burning but you may be missing out on the potential for your muscular development especially in your upper body if this is the only exercise choice that you decide to use.

If the treadmill does become your choice for cardio, when it comes to fat loss you should definitely try to add some kind of resistance training to your workout as well. This will not only stop you from neglecting your upper body muscle groups but it will actually help you decrease your body percentage fat too.

Although the rower gives you an element of muscle toning, this is still predominantly a piece of cardio equipment so I’d also advise that you incorporate some kind of resistance program if the rowing machine becomes your choice of fat burning and weight loss equipment. As you get more advanced with training on the rower, you will be able to focus the work on some of your big upper body muscles such as your back (latissimus dorsi).

The elliptical machine is probably the least efficient at burning fat although it will still do a great job. If you think about how an elliptical machine works, you will notice that the movement that you are doing is guided when compared to the treadmill and the rower.

This may sound pretty negative toward the elliptical machine but I personally hold high regard for the elliptical machines out there as they are low impact, a great beginner exercise choice and depending on the settings and techniques you use, you can still achieve fantastic fat loss results.

Rower versus treadmill versus elliptical for muscle tone

There is more to fitness than just being a healthy weight or having a certain body fat percentage. I have seen people earn some fantastic results when it comes to weight loss and I’m always impressed with these peoples determination to stick with a fitness program until they get these results because it’s never easy.

It’s great that there has been hard work, determination, sacrifice and determination to get this weight off and lower body fat percentage through cardio alone but this often comes at a cost of muscle tone and strength. The older we get, the more valuable this muscle mass and strength is for us.

Rowing machines add an upper body workout
While running on a treadmill will certainly help to burn calories, rowing on a rower will actually help to burn calories and help to tone all of the major muscle groups in the body. With the correct technique on the rower, you can actually help correct or maintain good posture too.

When it comes to the elliptical machine, this actually has an option to engage the upper body. Most elliptical machines have handles that can be used for stability or can be used as part of your workout. As the elliptical trainer is designed to guide your stride, you can actually shift your body weight between the balls of your feet and your heels while you workout, this means that you can actively target your calves or your quads to take more of the effort.

Rower vs elliptical vs treadmill technique and form

When deciding between a treadmill and a rowing machine, or any piece of equipment, you should think about the technique that you need to maintain when using them.

When it comes to technique most people would probably say that the treadmill is easy as there is minimal need to work on exercise technique. This is very wrong. Walking, jogging and running have the potential to be a high impact exercise. This means that the knees hips and back can suffer if you don’t get it right and moreover, if you are on the ball with your exercise routine and are always hitting your sessions with bad running form, you will risk injury more quickly.

Rowing is a low impact cardio exercise choice but this doesn’t mean that just because there is no risk of injury from the high impact that incorrect exercise technique will not open you up to injury.

As it is with the treadmill, it is with the rowing machine – If you always hit your cardio sessions with bad form, your bad technique will become a bad habit and open you up to problems further down the line.

As mentioned, rowing is a low impact cardio exercise choice but due to the nature of this piece of equipment, there is a good opportunity to cheat yourself on your workouts and this is less likely on a treadmill.

When on a rowing machine, especially if you are new to rowing, you may be tempted not to use it to its full potential by not performing full “rows” or the full range of movement. Another common mistake when rowing is to let your arms snap back into the start position. This normally starts to happen when you become tired. The problem with this is that you will be putting a lot of strain on your elbows and shoulders.

If you are always aware of your form and make your technique a priority right from the start, the correct technique will become a habit very soon.

I have mentioned the correct rowing technique before, here is a link that will help you get it just right. (See the video at the bottom of the section.)

The same goes for the treadmill. Sure, all you have to do is get on a treadmill and run right? Everyone knows how to run don’t they? I have firsthand experience of having a bad running form so I have learned to take correct running technique very seriously.

We have talked about the impact being a potential issue when running in general, but if your running form is not quite right, you can find yourself with bad posture, back problems and the impact that comes from running and jogging can really help to make a potential problem a lot worse.

I found a great video from a marathon runner that hits all of the major points. If you follow this guys advice you will be in a great position to analyze your form and maybe make some improvements.

I have mentioned that the elliptical machine is a “guided exercise machine” several times in this article so this may sound like it’s an easy option that requires zero technique. I would say that technique and exercise form is one of the most important things to prioritize before progressing with the workload and I would also say that there is no form of cardio or resistance exercise that requires zero technique.

One of the most common problems with cardio machines such as the elliptical is that it appears to be an easy machine to start with and as it is guided and basically tells your feet and arms where to go, it does the heavy lifting. This is great for the beginner but it’s also something to be aware of. So if you do choose the elliptical trainer, you should always be aware of form –

  • Stand tall
  • Look forward NOT down
  • Shoulders back and down
  • Abs engaged
  • Glutes engaged

When you are using an elliptical machine, especially when you start to get tired always be thinking of these points. This will help with posture, will help burn more calories and will help you get the best out of your elliptical workout.

Should I get a Rowing machine, a treadmill or an elliptical trainer?

All three of these machines are good choices for cardio exercise and fat burning but there are a few factors that might swing your decision one way or another.

Here is my summary based on my knowledge and experience with using these three pieces of cardio equipment.

Elliptical for rehab training
If you are new to fitness and fat loss, recovering from an injury that requires you to rehabilitate and build up muscle function, I would choose the elliptical trainer. This is because it has a low impact action and requires the least amount of concentration when it comes to technique and form. If the elliptical trainer is your choice of cardio equipment for weight loss however, please make sure that you pay attention to the form that is required as mentioned in the technique part of this article. This is still very important.

If you are injury free, new to fitness, want an efficient way to burn fat or would like to progress with running or jogging, I would go for the treadmill. This is a great piece of kit for the beginner as there is a lot of scope for progression when it comes to jogging and running too.

If you have never been a runner before, this is a good choice if you would like a starting point as you can actually start at walking pace and build up from there. Again, I will point out the importance of running form here and also highlight the potential need for an additional upper body resistance routine to give your upper body a bit of engagement.

The rower is the more advanced piece of exercise equipment of the three and I believe that it takes the most concentration when it comes to form, but that’s not to say a beginner can’t choose this machine for cardio and weight loss. Rowing is a great all over body exercise that can be challenging.

If you do choose the rower I would advise that you make sure you are rowing correctly from the beginning. It’s easy to be lazy on this one and if you are, you may open yourself up to injury and also dilute your results from your workout.

Still not sure if you have found the right option?

For more ideas, and our recommendations on rowers, ellipticals and running machines, check out our ultimate guide to the best home exercise equipment.

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