Rowing Machine vs Treadmill – Which of the 2 is Best for You?

Rowing machines and treadmills are two popular options for getting a good cardio workout, but when you look at rowing machines vs treadmills, which one is best? The short answer is: It depends.
exhausted woman after a home gym session

When looking to build up a solid cardio workout routine, you need to ask yourself: do I want to focus exclusively on cardio, or should I try mixing in some strength training as well?

Do you have any joint or mobility issues? Do you enjoy running? We’ll aim to answer the question – rowing machine vs treadmill, which is the best workout.

Both offer great benefits for increasing cardio capacity and burning fat. Having a good look at each will help you decide if you want to row, run, or both.

Rowing Machines

Although rowing machines have been around for more than a century, it wasn’t until the introduction of the ergometer rowing machines in the early 1980s that they properly began to simulate rowing. Since then, rowing machines have been a mainstay in fitness centers and home gyms. 

And for good reason, as they offer a lot of health benefits. First, it is a fantastic, low-impact way to get a cardio workout. If you have issues with your knees or ankles, rowing can get your heart rate going without the strain that running can put on your leg joints.

Rowing also gives you some strength training while you do your cardio. It utilizes many of your muscle groups so that you will get a more or less total body workout. The core is particularly well activated.

More expensive models of rowing machines can enable a life-like experience with apps via your smart device or directly through the machine’s screen.

Rowing is not a natural action like running and there is a technique that needs to be understood. Rowing machines can have a learning curve, and a proper rowing technique is recommended to avoid injury and to get the full benefit of the workout.

The following video shows the basics of how to row properly using our favorite and one of the best rowing machines out there – and they’ve been out there a long time.

The Concept 2 is one of the most popular rowing machines

People with shoulder, arm or certain back issues may find the motion uncomfortable or even prohibitive. Check with your medical practitioner if you’re unsure and warm up before any rigorous workout.

Pros:

  • Good cardio workout
  • Low impact 
  • Combines a good amount of strength training with cardio
  • Highly efficient form of exercise

Cons:

  • Has a learning curve to get started and a technique that needs concentrating on
  • May not be suitable for people with some back, shoulder or arm issues

Treadmills

Treadmills are the go-to machine for cardio workouts and are a popular and ubiquitous feature in gyms worldwide. They are easy to use and always available, and have also been around for a long time, over 200 years. Treadmills have become more and more suitable for home exercising, with cheaper and more compact models on the market.

Like rowing machines, treadmills experienced a technological revolution beginning in the 1980s.

Treadmills today allow you to do more than just run. You can set programs to run inclines and in some examples, declines, make wind sprints, set heart rate and other goals, and so much more.

No longer is it just running; nowadays, you can finely customize your cardio workout.

Also, most treadmills these days allow you to watch TV while you sweat. You can dive into that Netflix binge on your run and hardly even notice the calories you’re burning.

With Bluetooth connected devices you can also get an immersive workout with live coaching, classes and an ‘on the road’ experience.

While treadmills offer an excellent cardio workout, they won’t do much for strength conditioning. Also, if you have joint issues, especially knees, ankles, or lower back, then running, in general, might not be the best or most comfortable way for you to get a cardio workout.

Pros:

  • Superior cardio workout
  • Easy to use
  • Highly customizable workout options
  • Available practically everywhere

Cons:

  • Cardio only, no cross-conditioning
  • Can be hard on joints

Cardio Work: Rowing Machine vs Treadmill

Both treadmills and rowing machines can offer a good cardio workout. While rowing machines are a highly efficient overall exercise, treadmills provide a more focused cardio workout. 

With the programmable options available on most modern treadmills, a more customizable one is also available.

Caloric Burn: Rowing Machine vs Treadmill

Again, both machines can be a great way to burn calories, and again treadmills (or running) win out by a small margin. However, burning calories is not necessarily the same as weight loss, which isn’t the same as just burning fat.

The reality is that muscle weighs more than fat. On top of that, muscle mass requires more energy from your body, so having more muscle mass will help your metabolism work more efficiently. This means faster fat burning and a slimmer figure, even if you may weigh more.

So with that consideration, it depends on what you are going for when you aim to burn calories. Treadmills will burn more calories, but rowing machines potentially can be better at kickstarting your metabolism.

Muscle Building: Rowing Machine Vs. Treadmill

When it comes to lower body strength, treadmills win out over rowing machines. However, when you look at the overall muscle-building impact, rowing machines have a solid advantage. 

Treadmill running will give you better muscle tone and definition from the waist down, but rowing machines work many more muscle groups with each pull. The core, probably being the most significant and arguably the most important.

Bodily Impact: Rowing Machine vs Treadmill

Rowing machines are a good option for anyone who wants to get cardio and strength workouts with minimal impact on joints and connective tissue. The only injury risks involved would be from an improper form in your rowing motion or aggravating a rotator cuff (muscles around the shoulder) or elbow issue.

Treadmills have come a long way in keeping the impact on the joints minimal. It’s definitely much easier on the knees, hips, and ankles than running on concrete. More sophisticated treadmill models have a seriously effective cushioning system that minimizes the load on the joints that comes from running. 

That being said, people with issues in those joints should talk to a fitness trainer or their doctor before going crazy on a treadmill. Running, as a rule, carries a decent amount of impact even on the softest of surfaces.

Standout Features

With either a rower or treadmill you have the versatility of high intensity sessions or workouts that are nice and easy. But each machine features its own unique advantages, depending on what you are looking for.

Rowing Machines:

  • Full body workout
  • Combined cardio and strength in one workout
  • Joint impact is less

Treadmills

  • Highly customizable workout programs
  • Highly efficient cardio impact
  • Watch shows while you work out

FAQs

Are rowing machines hard on your back?

When used with proper form, rowing machines are not hard on the back. In fact, rowing machines are a great way to strengthen back muscles. Check out the video above for the right technique.

Are rowing machines and treadmills good for weight loss?

Like any exercise program, you get out of it what you put into it. Rowing machines can burn calories, build muscle, and boost your metabolism. To see the maximum benefit from your workout, you need to watch your caloric intake and eat healthy whole foods.

What are the different types of rowing machines?

A multitude of different rowing machines is available. They include flywheel (air), hydraulic pressure, magnetic wheel, and water resistance. Each has its own advantages and properties.  Trying out several different styles will help you find the one that works for you.

What are the different types of treadmills?

Treadmills come in many varieties, including motorized and non-motorized, workout-programmable, some have incline abilities, some can fold away for storage. Again, it is best to try different types and see which one fits your needs.

Can I use treadmills and rowing machines with a pacemaker?

If you have a pacemaker or any heart or health issue, it is always the best idea to consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen.

Conclusion

So, which one wins the day in the question of rowing machines vs. treadmills?

Use a rowing machine if:

  • You want a lower impact workout
  • You want to include core strength and cardio training in one exercise
  • Whole-body training and fitness is what you are after

Rowing machines are an excellent choice for all these reasons. You can find them in most gyms, and if you are looking to get one for the home, great options abound.

Use a treadmill if:

  • You are focused on cardio workouts and love running/walking
  • You want to customize your cardio workout
  • Your goal is to burn calories

Treadmills offer magnificent cardio exercises, they are easy to use and customize, and you can find them anywhere. Many types are available in just about every gym and in every variety and price point for your home.

Use both if:

  • You want to mix up your routine
  • You want to cross-train
  • You get bored easily with a single exercise

It’s never a bad idea to incorporate multiple types of workouts. Fitness experts extoll the benefits of cross-training, so if you are up to it, try combining both rowing machines and treadmills in your workout plan.

More info…

…want to know more about the rowing machine? Check out our article comparing a rower and elliptical or go to discover the best rowing machines.

Whatever you decide, remember that it’s always best to do something. Even if it’s just ten minutes a day to start, doing something will pay dividends over time and lead to a healthier and more energetic you.

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