Treadmills vs Rowing Machines: Which is the Best Cardio Machine for Home Use?

By Sam Watson – July 6, 2022

You’ve only got so much space and money to invest in your home gym. When it comes to at-home cardio training, most people buy one machine. The two most popular choices are the treadmill and the rowing machine, but which one is better?

Working the Muscles

Although you don’t do cardio to build muscle, you do want to get as much muscle stimulation as you can from your workout. Doing so will increase your muscular endurance and potentially add a little muscle. So how do the treadmill and rowing machine compare when it comes to muscle stimulation?

In terms of working the lower body, the treadmill does a better job of working it than the rowing machine. In terms of muscle-building potential, though, there is not a lot of room for improvement on the treadmill. Apart from increasing the incline and running faster, your resistance will be pretty much the same. On the rowing machine, there is more potential to increase your intensity by rowing faster and increasing resistance.

For your upper body, the treadmill does very little. That is not the case with the rowing machine. A rowing workout will involve around 80% of the muscles in your body, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids, forearms and biceps. At the same time, the rowing action is working the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves of the lower body. The rowing machine also does a better job of activating the core area, especially the abs and the erector spinae, both of which are needed to keep the body stable as you are rowing. 

Burning Calories

Both rowing and running on the treadmill are effective calorie burners. There are a lot of variables that determine how many calories you will burn but there is enough research to state that the same person exercising at the same level of intensity will burn more calories on a treadmill than on a rowing machine. 

The number of calories burned during the actual workout, however, is not the end of the story. As mentioned previously, rowing better activates the muscles of your body as it provides the best muscle-building potential. The more muscle mass you have on your body, the more energy your body needs to use up to sustain that muscle. As a result, you will have a higher resting metabolic rate to burn more calories when you are not working out. 

A man using a rowing machine.

Joint Friendliness

Running on the treadmill is what is considered an open-chain exercise because it requires you to lift your foot off the surface to perform the exercise. The problem with this is that every time your foot comes back down to the surface, there is some degree of impact on your joints. 

Even though modern treadmills provide advanced running bed cushioning, you will still experience a degree of negative joint impact to the ankles, knees and hips when you use a treadmill.

In contrast to running on a treadmill, using a rowing machine is a closed chain type of exercise. Your feet remain in a set position when you’re rowing so that there is virtually no impact on your joints. In fact, rowing has actually been shown to be beneficial for your joints. A 2014 study showed an average 30% improvement in knee, elbow and shoulder mobility after eight weeks of rowing.

Cardio Fitness

Both running on a treadmill and rowing provide an effective cardio workout to improve your heart strength and improve your blood circulation. In terms of direct benefit, the treadmill will do a better job of improving your cardio fitness than rowing. 

Both the treadmill and the rowing machine will allow you to get into the target heart training zone for cardio benefits. However, it will take longer to get there on a rowing machine, which is why the treadmill is slightly more efficient in this respect. The difference, though, is only minimal.

People using treadmills.

Fat Loss

Many people equate weight loss with calorie burn, but there is more to it than that. As we’ve already touched upon, the more muscle mass you are carrying, the higher your metabolism will be. That will allow you to burn more calories long term.

Running on a treadmill will probably help to get your scale weight down faster. That is because it will help you to burn off body fat. However, when you exercise on a rowing machine, you will also be putting on some muscle mass at the same time that you are losing body fat. Because muscle is a lot more dense than fat, you can lose a lot of fat and gain a little muscle but see no change on the scale. You will, however, look a lot better in the mirror!

In terms of long-lasting fat loss, the rowing machine is a better option than the treadmill.

The Verdict?

Both the treadmill and the rowing machine are great cardio options. After considering five areas of comparison between the two, when it comes to working your muscles, joint friendliness and long-term fat loss, the rowing machine comes out on top. However, if your main interest is in improving your cardiovascular fitness, the treadmill is the better option. 

At the end of the day, the best exercise machine for you is the one you enjoy the most and will, therefore, most consistently use. 


About the Author

Sam smiling.

Sam Watson is a functional movement coach, ex-collegiate rower and writer at Start Rowing, with over 10 years of experience in the industry. She has a passion for health and exercise and loves being able to help others move more freely.


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