Rowing Machines Or Treadmills – Which Is The Best Form Of Cardio?

The Big Run-Off: Rowing Machines vs Treadmills

Which is better, rowing machine or treadmill? It’s important to ask questions like this when choosing the ideal workout for you. Are you training for performance, want to run a marathon or compete in a fitness competition?

Are you training for health benefits, to lower your blood pressure or get your diabetes under control? Well read on, and you’ll see which machine is best for you.

Benefits for your heart

Exercising your heart is a major benefit of exercise, as it makes your heart more efficient and more durable as you age. It can also improve your lungs, allowing more oxygen into your bloodstream and increasing performance.

Both rowing and running provide great cardiovascular workouts that strengthen your heart and lungs, increases bone density, reduces risk of heart disease, burns calories and reduces weight.

On the treadmill you can adjust the speed, but also the incline of the machine, and simulate uneven terrain using the onboard computer. The rowing machine allows you to adjust resistance on the damper by your feet. These will make your heart beat faster and your lungs gasp for more air.

Winner: draw – both are great heart trainers.

Recovering from Injuries

Running is considered a weight-bearing exercise. Studies show that runners put 4 to 8 times their weight on their joints with each step. This added force can cause serious damage to your joints. Every year thousands of runners have joint-related injuries and entire industries have formed due to this problem. Those new to exercise or with an improper running form are particularly vulnerable.

Rowing, however, may not be weight-bearing, but can be quite tough on your knees, as you must bend your knees completely and reverse direction constantly mid-stroke. The lateral work involved means you are not working against gravity, and it is often recommended as a means to help joints gain strength while healing.

However if you do not know the proper form, you can put your knees and back at risk when rowing. For that reason, it is not recommended for those with knee problems.

In addition, while rowing has an advantage in its ability to engage lots of core muscle groups including the back, rowing can be very wearing on your back if your technique isn’t spot-on. It can even lead to lingering pain and injury. Rowing is also not recommended for those recovering from heart attacks.

Winner: rowing machine – running can put strain on your lower joints.

Targeted exercise for building muscles

Rowing machines stand out as one of the best full-body workouts in the gym that engages nearly every major muscle group of the body. The treadmill works out leg muscles such as hamstrings, glutes, calves and quadriceps.

Rowing machines, however, work out most of the muscles in your hard, not just your legs. Obese and elderly people can especially benefit from this as a fat reduction exercise that is gentle on joints.

Dr Cameron Nichol, former Olympic rower, says it’s not just about calories. According to the University of Roehampton that compared the impact of running on a treadmill to rowing on a machine, 20 minutes on each.

The treadmill burned 350 calories while the rowing machine burned 300.  Dr Nichol points to ‘muscle activation’ as a more significant indicator, measured by the amount of electricity going through each muscle group during the workout, which indicated “how hard and how fast those muscles are working.”

Rowing is great for building muscle mass as it uses 84% of your muscles in each stroke. Running, while energy-intensive, cannot compete.

Winner: rowing machine – it reaches more muscles.

Fat burning for weight loss

Someone weighing 77kg running on a treadmill at zero incline for an hour at 5mph will burn somewhere in the region of 670 calories. That same person would burn 688 calories on the rowing machine on low intensity. On high intensity, that might be 900 calories on the rower, or 500 on the treadmill.

If you are 170lbs and you happen to use a treadmill for an hour at a 0% incline, at 5mph speed, you could burn 670 calories. If you were to use the rowing machine for the same one hour, and you were 170lbs, you would easily burn 688 calories.

You can easily expect to lose up to 900 calories on high intensity. Treadmills also provide full-body workouts and burn up to 500 calories per hour.

On the other hand, as rowing engages a lot more muscles, you can exhaust yourself in a short space of time and need a rest. Running at a steady pace won’t do this, and you can run for a long period, and so potentially burn more calories at the end of your session.

Winner: rowing machine, but the treadmill has its uses

Conclusion

The rowing machine appears to be a solid choice in comparison to the treadmill when it comes to developing muscles, losing fat and treating painful joints. But don’t write off the treadmill or running entirely – it is still a great machine in its own right, and many find running much more enjoyable than rowing, which means more exercise and a healthier lifestyle overall.


No one machine is better than the rest. Each one offers up specific benefits that will better serve you at different points in your fitness journey as your goals evolve and change. Instead of defaulting to the same machine when it’s time to log some cardio, take advantage of what each has to offer and incorporate them into your routine accordingly.

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