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woman on a rowing machine

Rowing Machine Vs. Treadmill: How To Choose The Best One For Your Goals

If you’re in the mood to lose some weight or you want to improve your cardio, rowing and treadmills are two of the best options. But, if you can only choose one when comparing a rowing machine vs treadmill, which should it be? 

Below we look at the pros and cons of each, figure out which one’s best based on your personal needs, and help you make an informed decision. 

If you’re in a rush, our top choice is a rower because it’s easier on your joints and engages more muscles. That being said, treadmill running also has it’s advantages and might be a better choice for you personally (which we’ll examine below). 

Let’s get right to it…

Treadmill

a man on a treadmill in the gym

Treadmills are some of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment — very few exercises are as natural as running, so it only makes sense that the first thing you think about is running when you want to get in shape. Treadmills are used for a range of goals, with weight loss often being the most popular one. 

Running is centered around cardio and legs. It requires explosive muscle contractions in your legs to keep you pushing forward with speed. Because of how hard your legs are working to generate this force, you’re actually building a lot of muscle in your lower body. This includes your calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads, which all play a significant role in running.

That makes running a great option for toning legs, cardio, and weight loss. 

However, there’s a counter-argument to be made.

Running is a high impact exercise. If your goal is to lose weight, then you’re probably carrying around a few more pounds than your body is used to. 

This added weight puts that much more pressure on your joints. Over time, this can lead to knee problems, hip, ankle, and back pain. Running is also a challenge if you have flat feet because it can compound these issues. If your goal is to lose weight, then this is an activity you need to be able to continue doing for a long time. But if you have flat feet, sensitive joints, or you’re struggling with a higher amount of weight, then running probably isn’t the best choice for you.

That being said, if you’re used to running and only slightly overweight, then you know your body well enough to know if running is a good option for you. 

We’ll get more into the calorie burn, benefits, etc. below…

Benefits Of Treadmills

Treadmills can be found in basically every gym on the planet, and have become the go-to equipment for beginners and experts alike. Here are just some of the benefits they can provide when used daily: 

  • It’s an adaptable piece of equipment – you can walk, jog, sprint, walk at an incline, etc. 
  • Good for weight loss
  • Builds muscle in the legs 
  • You can’t outgrow a treadmill so it’s a piece you’ll be able to use for many years 
  • Most come with an LCD monitor that displays metrics like speed, heart rate, distance, and time
  • Easier on the joints when compared to running on the road or sidewalk 
  • Running burns a lot of calories 

Disadvantages Of A Treadmill 

  • Running is a weight-bearing exercise and high impact exercise
  • You need to know how to run and pay attention to your form to prevent injuries
  • If you have flat feet, this isn’t something you should be doing unless you have very supportive shoes with arches.

Rowing Machines

a couple doing rowing machine workout

Treadmills are great but they are by no means winning this battle just yet. One of the best things about rowing machines is that they are a full-body workout. 

They engage your back, biceps, legs, shoulders, and core. Rowing machines also come with variable resistance, which means that they can be as tough as you need them to be. This makes a rowing machine something you won’t outgrow anytime soon.  

As powerful as rowing machines are, they are also very gentle on our bodies. This makes them suitable for people who are more overweight, the elderly, or individuals who are recovering from injuries. 

The counter-argument to be made about rowing machines, though, is that rowing can become boring. Essentially, you’re doing the same motion over and over and you’re in the same place. With running, you can go outside. With a rower, you’re indoors unless you’re rowing an actual boat on the water.

That being said, rowers aren’t usually used for long sessions of steady state cardio. They’re excellent for shorter, high-intensity workouts that typically last for 20 minutes at most. This means you can do more, in less time, and go about your day. 

Additionally, because a rower engages more muscles, you get the afterburn effect. Essentially, your body is burning calories at an elevated rate for several hours after your session. So, while rowing for 30 minutes may burn slightly fewer calories than running for 30 minutes, once you account for the afterburn effect, you’re actually burning more calories with a rower. It’s also easier on your body.

Benefits Of Rowing 

The benefits that come with rowing are undeniable, as it stimulates almost the whole body. This means, yes, you will break a sweat and will be doing hard work. But at the same time, you can tone it down if you’re just starting out. Here are the main benefits of rowing: 

  • Rowers provide a full-body workout, which focuses on strength and cardio
  • Builds and tones more muscle 
  • Burns tons of calories 
  • It’s a machine that can grow with you as you improve – they work for both beginners and elite athletes alike 
  • Most rowers have monitors that keep track of all your important stats
  • Works for the elderly, anyone who’s overweight, and those with injuries
  • Low risk of injuries as it’s a low-impact exercise
  • Most models can fold for easy storage
  • Most models don’t need a power supply

Disadvantages of a Rowing Machine

  • Can be loud, although not as bad as treadmills
  • Depending on the model, rowing machines can be expensive but this is also true for treadmills 
  • Can get boring 

Features Head-To-Head

Target Muscles

back-muscles-of-a-person-using-a-rowing-machine

Treadmills work on the lower half of your body, and as a result, your lower muscles will become stronger. Rowing, however, incorporates many other muscles, making our legs, back, biceps, shoulders, and core work. When it comes to working muscles, the rowing machine clearly outmatches the treadmill. 

Weight Loss

Both the treadmill and rowing machine are excellent for weight loss. They burn a similar amount of calories if the activity is similar on both. That being said, with the rowing machine working more muscles, you get the afterburn effect which means you continue burning calories at an elevated level for the next several hours. A rowing machine is also easier on joints making it more likely you’ll be able to use it every day. Combining those things, the rower is the better choice for weight loss. 

Impact On Joints 

Running is a high-impact workout and harder on your joints. Running on a treadmill is slightly easier on your joints though. Most modern treadmills have a shock-absorbing platform that makes it similar to running on grass. That being said, it’s still a repetitive impact that can wear on joints. 

Rowing machines are the exact opposite — they are a low-impact form of cardio, which means you can work out for longer with less risk for joint injuries. 

The Likeliness That You’ll Keep Doing It

Using a treadmill, you can walk, jog, or run, so there’s at least some variation to your activities. However, if you’re not a fan of running, you’ll probably end up ditching the treadmill or using it as a clothing rack. 

But with a rower, you can sit back and relax while at a lower intensity level, then casually turn it up at your own pace. Rowers work for beginners all the way up to the most elite athletes in the world. It’s no coincidence that rowing is always part of the CrossFit Games. In our opinion, the rower is more likely to be used over the long term. 

Stand out Features

Rowing Machine 

  • Rowing machines come with resistance levels that you can freely adjust to suit your workout needs. 
  • Rowing is a low-impact sport and won’t cause damage to your knees, joints, or back, making it a better choice if you’re elderly, overweight, or have pre-existing injuries.
  • Rowing works more muscles.

Treadmill

  • You have a variety of options from walking at an incline to jogging and running. You can also do interval training (you can do this on a rower too though). 
  • If you tire of running on the treadmill, you can always go outside for a jog.

Conclusion

A rowing machine is your best bet if: 

  • You want to work your whole body
  • You enjoy rowing or at least think you could enjoy rowing
  • Want to improve your cardiovascular system
  • You’re older, overweight, or have sensitive joints

Read our review of the top rowing machines here.

Running on a treadmill is the best exercise for you if: 

  • You’re used to running or you have a good idea that you would like running
  • You don’t have joint problems or sensitive joints
  • You don’t have flat feet
  • You’re not obese or injured

Read our review of the best compact treadmills here.

When it comes to comparing a rowing machine vs treadmill, both are great options. But neither one is for everyone. Some people love running, others love rowing. You’re probably somewhere in between and trying to figure out which one you’ll like more. In our opinion, rowing is a better option for more people since the workout can be easy or intense and it’s low impact. That being said, you should have a good idea which is the best one for you after reading this guide. Let us know which one you chose and why. 

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