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October 09, 2020 10 min read

Step into any gym nowadays and you’ll be confronted by a huge range of equipment. Gone are the times when your workout options were to go for a run or hit the weights; now there is a huge range of options for every possible workout need.

Most people, when they work out, want to do it in as efficient a way as possible. Whether your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, or just get fitter overall, there are more options than ever to do it. 

Two very popular workout machines are the treadmill and the rowing machine. These two pieces of equipment can both provide a fantastic workout, but choosing which to use can be difficult.

Many people ask the question of which machine is better, so that’s the topic we’ll explore in this article. There are plenty of benefits to using both machines, however, many differences in the way they exercise our bodies. For example, it’s more difficult to achieve proper rowing machine form than to run on a treadmill. 

If you want to buy an exercise machine to use in your home, both the treadmill and the rowing machine are great choices. The elliptical machine and stationary exercise bike are also typical options for a home gym.

Many gym addicts who want an easy way to work up a sweat at home pick one of these machines, as they’re both great for fat burning and cardio. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, so we’ll conduct a thorough comparison. Read on to discover the different effects of these two exercise machines, and which is better for your personal needs. 

Girls running on treadmills.

How Does a Treadmill Work You Out? 

The treadmill, or running machine, is a classic piece of gym equipment. Running on a treadmill is quite different than taking a jog around the block, although both are adequate forms of exercise. When running outside, there are all sorts of external elements to contend with including weather, other people, and obstacles in your path. On the other hand, running on a treadmill removes all these distractions and allows you to perfectly tailor your workout. 

On a treadmill, you can adjust the speed and incline of your run to provide the perfect amount of resistance. Take a gentle stroll, or crank it up to the highest speed for a huge challenge; the choice is yours. The primary limitation of using a treadmill is that its effects are mostly confined to the lower body. As well as activating your cardiovascular system, a treadmill will hit a range of muscles in your lower extremities. 

The primary muscles used in a treadmill workout are the quadriceps and hamstrings, as well as the calves and glutes. If you increase your pace to a run, activation of the abdominal muscles is also likely.

Upper body activation is much lighter, with a slight strain on the back, shoulders, pectorals, and arm muscles. You can carry weights while you run to increase the workout for your arms, but running is primarily a lower-body workout. Read about proper form for sprinting to improve your technique. 

It’s worth noting that treadmills can be an accessible workout machine for all. Most are equipped with handrails which means you can approach your workout with care, starting at a slow speed and stabilizing yourself with your arms.

This is a huge advantage for fitness beginners as it allows you to get a workout no matter your ability. A slow walk on a treadmill at a small incline can be excellent cardio for those starting at a low level of fitness. 

How Does a Rowing Machine Work You Out? 

Rowing machines are designed to mimic the actions of propelling a boat through the water. To use one, you sit on a sliding seat and grasp a bar (which is the oar). There are two movements that you go through when using a rowing machine; firstly, the legs are used to push back from the front of the machine. Then, your arms pull in the bar from in front of you, until it touches your stomach. You then reverse these movements to return to your starting position. 

Rowing machines can be more complex at the start than treadmills, as achieving the correct form is difficult. This is one main difference between this machine and a treadmill, as there’s no previous training required to walk. To adjust the strenuousness of your rowing machine workout, you can change the setting of the damper. A higher damper will increase the resistance of the exercise to give the effect of a slower and heavier boat, while a lower damper will make the exercise easier. 

Unlike running on a treadmill, rowing provides a full-body workout. The sliding seat and hand-held bar mean that total body conditioning is achievable with a rowing machine if you maintain the correct form. Every stroke of a rowing machine requires your calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and abs, just like a treadmill.

However, upper body muscles including the obliques, pecs, biceps, triceps, deltoids, upper back, and lats are also heavily engaged. As you can see, far more muscles are activated during rowing in comparison to running. A rowing machine will even strengthen your hands and wrists over time from gripping the bar. 

As well as a muscle workout, using a rowing machine can be considered a high-intensity exercise. This means that it’s great for cardio and fat burn, as well as your general fitness overall. From this general comparison, you might conclude that rowing is a superior activity because it has better full-body muscle activation.

However, this isn’t the only element you need to consider. Let’s explore a little deeper into the different effects of exercising with a rowing machine and a treadmill.

Muscle Building: Rowing Machine Vs Treadmill 

Both of these exercise machines have muscle-building potential, but let’s take a look at which is better if that’s your primary focus. The treadmill mostly affects the lower body muscles we’ve already mentioned, such as hip flexors and supporting muscles.

However, there aren’t many options for increasing resistance on a treadmill to better work your muscles. Crank up the speed or incline to achieve a better cardio workout, but doing so will only slightly increase the muscle-building potential for this exercise. 

Rowing machines, on the other hand, are excellent at building muscle. When rowing, you’re building muscles in your upper and lower body, and it’s easy to make the exercise more strenuous by cranking up the damper. Abs, back muscles, core muscles, and arm strength are all easily built on a rowing machine. For maximal results in the deltoids and biceps, rowing machines are a much better exercise machine choice. 

Calorie Burning Potential: Rowing Machine Vs Treadmill

If we take a look at the most common reasons people want to work out, burning calories is important. Hitting the gym is generally a matter of building muscle and losing weight, and to lose weight you need to burn calories.

Running, whether you do it outside or on a treadmill, is one of the most effective ways to burn calories that we know. Few exercises come close to the energy-expending potential of the treadmill, but rowing machines do provide good opposition. 

It’s difficult to measure the exact number of calories burned in any given workout, as it depends on many different factors. The intensity of the exercise and the personal health and metabolism of the individual has a big impact on the number of calories you can burn.

You might be interested to know that running outside actually burns more calories than running on a treadmill and rowing a real boat through real water burns even more still. However, the majority of people don’t have access to this option, so rowing machines are more common to use. 

For pure calorie-burning potential, running on a treadmill is better. Assuming you’re working out at the same intensity on each machine, a treadmill is likely to better activate your cardiovascular system to consume energy. However, overall weight loss could be better with a rowing machine as it builds more muscle, increasing the number of calories you burn overall (outside of your workout). 

Impact Considerations: Rowing Machine Vs Treadmill 

Another vital aspect to consider is the difference between rowing machines and treadmills in impact. The impact of an exercise is the strain on your joints which comes from movement and gravity.

High-impact exercises put a lot of strain on your joints and can easily lead to pain and injury. Low impact exercise can be just as effective but is a better choice for beginners, those suffering from joint pain, or those wishing to avoid it. 

Running is a high-impact exercise, on a treadmill or otherwise. It’s possible to use a treadmill and make it low-impact; you can walk. However, walking won’t achieve the same muscle activation or cardio levels as jogging or running so it isn’t as effective an exercise.

Running at a speed fast enough to elevate your heart rate means a high impact on your knees, feet, and back. This leads to a lot of joint pain for runners. 

In contrast, using a rowing machine is a very low impact while still providing excellent cardio. Anyone with a pre-existing injury or condition may want to protect their joint by getting their cardio from a rowing machine instead. You stay seated throughout the workout, so gravity doesn’t work against you.

The main impact of running happens when you take a step and hit hard upon the ground, sending an impact up through your whole body. Rowing machines still activate your muscles but they do it in a less violent way. 

One thing you need to concentrate on when using a rowing machine is proper form. The high impact of treadmill exercise makes injury more likely, but rowing with incorrect form can be just as dangerous. Focus on keeping your back straight and pushing with your whole foot; this will make lower back and joint pain less likely.

If you keep perfect form throughout your rowing machine exercise, you shouldn’t need to worry about injury. 

What is Better for Cardio: Treadmill or Rowing Machine? 

Both treadmills and rowing machines provide a high-intensity cardio workout. Either would make a great addition to your HIIT routine, but which is better for purely cardio purposes?

Technically, running is the best cardio there is, so treadmills are better for cardio in general. However, if you look past the end of the exercise, rowing machines have the potential to keep your heart rate elevated for longer.

As always, the cardio potential of an exercise depends on the intensity with which you approach it. Both machines can have their resistance increased to raise your heart rate and bring you into the cardio zone.

A rower might take longer to get you to the cardio level because on a treadmill you can jump on and start running straight away. This means that treadmills are better than rowing machines for cardio, but in reality, both options have excellent cardio potential.

Which is Better for Losing Weight: Treadmill or Rowing Machine?

Weight loss is one of the biggest reasons people work out, so discussing which machine is better in this aspect is important. Weight loss is often whittled down to a matter of calories burnt, but in reality, there are many more factors that affect your weight loss journey.

Running on a treadmill has long been a go-to activity for those wanting to shed a few pounds, and there’s no doubt that it’s highly effective. As we mentioned before, you burn more calories per hour on a treadmill than a rower. 

However, fat loss is a different matter. Using a rowing machine builds much more muscle than a treadmill, and we know this muscle will help you burn more calories throughout the day. Muscle weighs more than fat, so you might see less of a difference on the scale.

However, your general fitness stands to improve much more because of the additional muscle mass. Treadmills and rowing machines are both excellent choices for weight loss, as we already explained how they are both great cardio activities. 

Many people believe that a treadmill is better for weight loss, as it’s true that you’re more likely to see a drop in your body weight. However, we believe that a rowing machine is actually the better choice as it will lead to more stable weight loss over time.

Building muscle while you simultaneously do cardio is a great way to ensure that the fat you’ve lost stays away. If you just want to lose fat, then a treadmill is a better choice. However, if you want to burn fat while building muscle and improve your overall fitness, rowing machines are better for losing weight

People with running shoes running on treadmills.

Rowing Machine Versus Treadmill: Which is Better? 

So, which exercise equipment should you choose? Treadmills and rowing machines are both excellent devices to increase your heart rate and get you into the fat burn zone. If weight loss is your only objective, then a treadmill is probably the more effective option.

However, we prefer to promote all-around fitness, for which the rowing machine is a much better choice. The low-impact but high-intensity of this exercise means that almost anyone can do it, without worrying about pain or strain on the joints. 

A range of muscle groups can be built using a rower, including the arms, legs, back, and core. Conversely, it’s mainly the lower body muscles used on the treadmill, making for a less balanced workout.

You can add hand weights to transform your run into a full-body workout, but this will only increase the impact of each step. This high impact workout is too intense for most people and is likely to cause issues in the joints. 

Rowing machines are much better for combining cardio with muscle building. This maximizes your calorie-burning potential, as you’ll burn fat both during the workout and for the rest of the day. It’s a more balanced total body workout that is great for losing weight in a more controlled manner.

If you build up muscles using a rowing machine, the pounds you lose are more likely to stay off. This low-impact workout is great for your leg muscles and your entire body. 

The main concern with this piece of equipment is the learning curve to use it correctly. Most people can take to a treadmill without any formal training, but getting your form right on a rower is vital.

You may burn fewer calories and fat when first using a rowing machine because you need to concentrate carefully on proper form. After some practice, you can up the intensity and unlock the true cardio potential of the exercise.

After a few rowing sessions with a workout coach, you should be able to fully utilize the benefits of this aerobic exercise. If you’re new to the wonderful world of workout machines or need some inspiration, check out this simple workout plan for beginners