Rowing machines and elliptical trainers both help you create non-impact, high-calorie-burning aerobic workouts, but much of the similarity ends there. Ellipticals primarily work your lower body by using a pedaling motion, while rowing machines work your entire body using a push-pull method. The primary goal of ellipticals is to help you meet weight-loss goals, while rowing machines emphasize improving muscle strength while you burn calories.
An elliptical burns slightly more calories per hour than a rowing machine, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. A rowing machine, or ergometer, helps a 155-pound person burn approximately 520 calories per hour exercising at moderate intensity, and more than 630 calories per hour rowing at a vigorous speed. An elliptical burns approximately 670 calories per hour for that person. Because of the increased muscle use necessary for rowing, your metabolism will stay elevated longer after your workout, resulting in a higher post-workout calorie burn.
Many cardio exercises and workouts require you to leave the ground with both feet at once, creating a high-impact force on your joints as you land each time. Over time, this can lead to a repetitive-stress injury. An elliptical puts all your body’s weight on your feet during the workout, but keeps them on pedals the entire time, making it a non-impact workout. Depending on whether the pedals are located behind, even with or in front of your hips, the machine creates different types and amounts of repetitive stress on your muscles. Some ellipticals let you pedal backward and forward; those that don’t force you to perform the same motion your entire workout. While there is no impact on your ankles, knees and hips, some elliptical users experience shin, knee, hip and lower back pain. Rowing machines also involve non-impact exercise. Depending on how much resistance you use and the amount of effort it takes to push and pull your body’s weight along the movable seat with each row, you can create enough repetitive stress on your ankles, knees, hips and lower back to cause pain.
Many ellipticals work only your lower body, providing no arm, chest, shoulder and back benefit. Some elliptical machines come with moving arm levers, which, with enough resistance, can help build upper-body muscles, but not as efficiently as a rowing machine can. A rowing machine is much more effective for building muscle, allowing you to emphasize different muscle groups by increasing or decreasing the amount of leg or arm effort you use. This can lead to overuse of either leg or arm muscles, creating a strain on your back. A rowing machine will also help you tone your arms and shoulders more effectively than an elliptical, while the elliptical might help you better target your calves. Because of the extra muscle use involved with rowing, it may be helpful to request a demonstration from someone who is familiar with the machine to reduce the chance you'll strain your back, hips or knees. Consider watching a demonstration or instructional video on a credible website before you row for the first time.
Both machines allow you create interval-training workouts by decreasing the amount of resistance you use and by working faster. An elliptical will allow you to replicate running sprints, if that’s important for your training. A rowing machine might require too much resistance to train your high-twitch muscle fibers as well as other, lower-resistance forms of interval training, including sprints on an elliptical. Many ellipticals are equipped with an electronic console that helps you create various cardio workouts, often accommodating people seeking computer-generated workout programs that provide data such as heart rate and calories burned. Some ellipticals provide real-time data about your heart rate and the number of calories you are burning, as well as post-workout summaries. Ellipticals can provide a way to improve bone density with weight-bearing exercise. Talk to your doctor about which equipment and which exercises are appropriate and safe for you.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.