Rowing Machine vs Treadmill

If you’ve ever wondered if your time is better spent on a rower or on a treadmill, then this is the definitive guide for you. A lot of people ask this question because they want to maximize the time they have available for a workout and get the most cardio benefit for their efforts.

Determining which is better is a difficult choice, since each person comes to their workout with a different level of fitness. There are definite advantages to each, so let’s take a look at which is going to be most efficient and useful in the long term.

Rowing machine and a treadmill being used - which is best?

First, a note on the word better. When comparing and contrasting any gym activity or equipment, one person’s idea of ‘better’ is going to be different than someone else. That’s because each of us come to the gym with our own specific set of expectations and goals.

While some people might look at a treadmill or rower for a calorie burn, others might use it as part of overall metabolic conditioning, and even others might use it as part of a cross training program. The point here is that better is relative so keep that in mind as we unpack what each of these machines does and how to use them effectively.

What Is a Rowing Machine and How Does It Work?

An indoor rower or rowing machine is used to simulate the action of rowing in a boat. Also called ergometers (or erg for short) the rowing machine has recently become one of the most popular cardio machines in the gym.

All rowing machines consist of an energy damper or breaking mechanism. This is connected to a chain, strap, belt, and handle. The most popular type of rower is a flywheel, which uses an elastic cord to pull the chain and return the handle. The rowing motion that a person generates causes the footrests and seat to move further and closer apart in tandem with the user’s stroke.

On a rower, an electronic monitor measures the user pullback of the flywheel but it doesn’t measure the energy expenditure to stretch the elastic cord.

Rower displays give a variety of different metrics to track. You can view your strokes per minute, calories burned, or kilometres travelled. Just as the 5km race is a good benchmark test for runners, a 500m row is the same for erg users.

If you’re using a rower for the first time, it’s important to set the resistance low. This will help you figure out your pull and push action. Next, secure your feet into the footrests so that the strap hits at the base of your big toe joint. This will help with the flexion of your feet as you push and pull. Bend your knees and grab the handle with an overhead grip. Pull back as you push your legs away from the flywheel. Aim for making contact with your sternum and keep your elbows pointed down against your sides. Return the handle and chain and extend your arms and body forward, once again bending your knees. Then pull back again for a complete stroke.

Rowing Machine Benefits

As you might expect, using a rowing machine provides amazing upper body benefits in addition to an overall cardio workout. Unlike a stepper or an elliptical trainer, when you use a rower, there’s no real way to cheat like you might be tempted to do when there are handlebars for leaning. When you strap into a rower, you’re going to use your entire body on every single stroke.

When you use a rower, you’re engaging a number of different muscles in your body. During the catch portion of the stroke, you’re engaging your lower back, hamstrings, and your gastrochnemius and soleus (those are the muscles just behind your knees). During the start of the drive, you’re using all of those plus your rhomboids and quads. During both the drive and the finish of a stroke, you’re using muscles in your upper and lower body, both front and back. In addition to those already listed, you’re also using your abs, delts, traps, chest, obliques, lats, bis and tris. This is far superior to the number of muscles you use while running, and since you’re engaging more muscle groups, you’re going to get an overall better workout.

Rowing machines also offer adjustable resistance. This allows you to make the rowing action more or less difficult depending on your strength levels. Rowing in non-weight bearing, so it causes less wear on your joints.

Rowing machines engage most of the major muscle groups in your body. You get a great leg workout from the push back and your entire upper body is engaged during the pull action of a row. Rowing works your upper and lower body simultaneously. For those who have little time to spend in the gym, this is going to give you the most efficient workout, especially if you’re starting out on your road to wellness.

What Is a Treadmill and How Does It Work?

A treadmill is a cardio machine that is used indoors to mimic outdoor running. Treadmills are operated by a motor that turns a belt. The motor generally operates between 1.5-3 horsepower, which allows you to walk, jog, run, or sprint.

A moving belt is in constant motion that helps to recreate moving on stable ground. This belt is attached to wheels under the body that helps the belt in motion. When the belt is moving, the person using it has to move against the direction of the belt to remain in place. Otherwise, they fall off. Changes in the speed of the belt can help a person attain higher speeds of running. To best mimic the intensity of outdoor running, most manufacturers recommend setting the treadmill to a 1% grade.

Treadmill Benefits

There are myriad benefits of running on a good treadmill, but perhaps the biggest draw is that a treadmill gives you the option to run indoors when the weather is inclement. If you’re training for a race or event and need to log a specific set of miles a day, a treadmill is an obvious choice. Treadmills are great for any skill level runner and can also act as a confidence booster for those just beginning their path to wellness.

Treadmill running can be useful for race simulation or to perform a beep test to determine your overall fitness. Some research shows that a treadmill might also help runners improve your form. That’s because when you’re running on a treadmill, you have short strides with a higher stride frequency. You’re going to be more aware of each strike, freeing your mind to concentrate on proper form.

A treadmill gives you the ability to adjust your running speed and incline and decline levels to make your workout more challenging.

Treadmill workouts engage your leg muscles and your core. This includes glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, and quads. Running is a dynamic movement that can be extremely beneficial in aiding weight loss. Running can help increase bone mass and has been shown to prevent some age-related bone loss.

Rowing Machine vs Treadmill – Which one’s for you?

Comparing rowing and running is no easy feat. Each provide you with amazing cardio benefits which helps strengthen your heart and reduce overall weight. No matter which you select, both are going to help you achieve the following.

The cardio workout you earn on a rower or the treadmill helps to increase your bone density and strengthen your heart and lungs. In doing this, you’re reducing your risk of chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Cardio workouts also help reduce the risk of some types of cancer. Promoting weight loss and burning calories lends itself to an overall increase in confidence and a reduction of stress levels. Studies have shown that just a quick workout can brighten your mood and help release neurotransmitters that help you feel comfortable and happy.

Potential Injuries and Risks

There’s some conflicting science about the overall impact of running. Some emerging research suggests it might not be as bad as once thought on your joints. But most of the studies about the impact of running are carried out on long-term long-distance runners, so the results might not be completely accurate. People who begin running later in life might experience joint-related stress fractures, though the same can be said for those who have been running for years. Some of the most common running related injuries include:

  • Hamstring tendinopathy
  • IT band injuries
  • Patella tendonitis (runner’s knee)
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Shin splints
  • Stress fractures

While rowing is much more low-impact than running, it does come with its own risks. Lower back pain is the most common rowing injury because of the constant bending back and forth that’s required when you row. Upper back pain from straining the muscles of your shoulders and neck can also be an issue.

For both running and rowing, bad form is a significant risk factor for the development of injury. Prior injuries can exacerbate the chance that you’re injured while running or rowing. An overall lack of fitness can be a significant contributor as well. If you’re just beginning the path to fitness, it’s probably best to start with small, short distances. As your heart becomes stronger and your body becomes more adapted to cardio activities, you can safely increase your distances.

Overall Caloric Burn

Both a row and a run are going to help boost the afterburn – the number of calories you burn after exercise. In nutritional parlance, this is called EPOC – the excess post oxygen consumption. Without getting too technical, think of your EPOC as a bonus check from your workout.

You’re getting a good calorie burn while you’re running or rowing and your metabolism stays elevated after your workout. Each person is going to burn a different amount of active calories no matter running or rowing. A general approximation is that a 68 kg person will burn just over 150 calories in 30 minutes of rowing at a moderate pace. That same person would burn 180 calories in the same time running at a moderate pace.

Determining which machine is better for you should take into consideration your specific goals. If you’re cross-training for an event or competition, then you’re likely going to see benefits from both machines. If you’re new to wellness and are just beginning to explore the great benefits of cardio, then you might want to start out on the rower because it’s not weight-bearing.

Both treadmills and rowers give you the option to engage in aerobic and anaerobic workouts. The difference between these two is simple. In an aerobic workout, you work at a pace that you’re able to sustain for several minutes. Anaerobic workouts are high intensity for short periods of time. Whether you’re working on sprint interval training or doing a death-by-calorie row workout, both are going to offer you amazing benefits.


The truth is that exercise is medicine. So it really doesn’t matter if you’re rowing or running; science shows that thirty minutes of heart-pumping exercise five times a week is going to help you live a better, fuller, and healthier life.

That said, running and rowing are two separate cardio beasts, each with their own benefits. Running can help you train both your mind and your body, especially as you improve your form and technique and are able to conquer longer runs. Many people find a sincere Zen in running longer distances that allows them to open their mind and empty it of all thoughts. Rowing can give you a complete total body workout in a short amount of time, making it ideal for anyone who doesn’t have a ton of time to spend in the gym.

No matter which you choose, make sure you prepare your body appropriately for what you’re asking it to do. That means starting your session with an appropriate warm up that lasts at least 10 minutes and directly targets the muscles you’re going to be working. That means if you’re running, take care to warm up your hip flexors, quads, and hamstrings. If you’re planning to row, engaging your upper body as part of your warmup is essential.

As with all exercise, maintain proper form to help reduce the risk of injury. For both running and rowing, that means engaging your core, keeping your back straight, and shoulders back. If you’re not sure how to engage your core, check out our content on how often you should train abs and the benefits of an ab roller. Both will help you gain a better understanding of just how critical your core is to proper movement.

Running and rowing offer a wide array of benefits that are going to help you on your path to wellness, no matter your goals. Each will give your heart an added boost of strength and both will help your mind relax and your mood improve.

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Team MT

Team MT is the editorial team of MuscleTalk. With over 20 years experience we write quality, evidence based, articles. In addition to creating original content, we also edit and fact-check any articles we feature by external writers.

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