Rowing Machine vs. Treadmill

Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon affiliate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Rowing Machine vs. Treadmill

How do you like to exercise?

Full-body all at once, or do you separate cardio and resistance training?

Depending on how you like to exercise, that’s going to greatly impact your decision here.

Rowing machines are full-body exercises that engage tons of muscle groups, while treadmills are focused strictly on cardio. They both make you break a sweat, they both let you engage your core, but they have completely different benefits aside from that.

In the fight of rowing machine vs treadmill, it’s going to come down to an extremely opinionated take once you know the pros and cons of each. Let’s get started.

Rowing Machine

Rowing Machine vs. Treadmill

Just as you would guess, a rowing machine emulates the motion of rowing a boat. Using either a magnetic flywheel or an actual water reservoir, you pull on a cord and create resistance.

The faster you pull the cord, the more resistance you have. This all connects to a seat on a sliding rail so you bend your knees and work out your calves in the process.

Rowing machines access and engage a lot of muscle groups from your legs to your back all the way to your core. You’ll even notice your biceps and triceps are getting a bit of extra beef on them after extended use.

As a full-body workout and not just solely focused on cardio, rowing machines are just an entirely different experience from a treadmill. These can be the only maintenance exercise you need for both resistance and cardio training.


  • Full-Body Workout: Full-body workouts train your muscles; the rowing machine just happens to also be amazing for cardio as well. Rowing engages more muscle groups than most machines do, and if you can consistently scale your intensity, you can easily burn more calories from rowing than you’ll burn on a treadmill any day of the week. It works out more muscles and actually builds them with decent results.
  • Conditioning and Endurance: If you can row for thirty straight minutes, or even through the uphill and downhill battle of HIIT, then you’re a monster. A beautiful monster. Performing exceptionally well on a treadmill is great, but it has a much lower barrier to entry than a rowing machine does.
  • Amazing Cardiovascular Benefits: Part of what makes a rowing machine so great is the way it creates a flow of blood through your body. Gravity forces blood to pool in the legs, but thanks to the dynamic motion of the foot pedals and sliding seat on a rowing machine, you’re engaging your legs and the valves in your calves all the time. Not to mention breaking a sweat and increasing your heart rate just like you would on a treadmill.
  • Compact and Affordable: Rowing machines can fold up, or simply stand up straight and be rolled into your closet or another room. It takes just ten to fifteen seconds to roll it out, and the same to put it back each morning. If you have limited space, this thing is a live-saver.
  • Low-Impact on Your Joints: Rowing is low-impact because you’re the one controlling how your body reacts to every subtle movement. When you run on a treadmill, you can’t magically ignore the shock that runs up your legs and into your knee joints.


  • You’re Not Going to Get Shredded: There’s some inherent misinformation in the term full-body workout. Yes, it works out your muscles, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same as the smith machine. You aren’t going to get shredded, but you can tone your muscles and build a little bit here and there. Just don’t go in expecting a miracle.
  • Lower Back Pain: It may be low-impact, but that doesn’t mean it’s no-impact. If you don’t practice your form right, your lower back is going to suffer. You engage your lower back during exercise, so one wrong postural move can be damning.
  • Harder to Scale: Scaling up your workout on a treadmill is pretty simple. In fact, most people can imagine what it entails, and they’ll usually be spot-on. Scaling up your workout on a rowing machine requires a lot of hours practicing proper form, and the intensity is more difficult than what you encounter on a treadmill. It’s not ideal for all first-timers.


Rowing Machine vs. Treadmill

Treadmills use a motor that spins a belt and tread, known as the running track. The track is fed into a loop that spins around the motor, and the roller on the back of the treadmill. It stays taut and gives you a great running surface that moves beneath your feet.

Treadmills are excellent for HIIT workouts if you have the right kind. Your treadmill should have an incline adjuster and cushioning system if you want it to stand any chance of going up against a rowing machine in terms of value and utility.

A treadmill with all the bells and whistles can be an all-in-one cardio experience, especially if you can connect your favorite media to a built-in screen to take any chance of boredom out of it.


  • Improved Joint Health: If you use your treadmill correctly, you can improve your joint health by strengthening the leg muscles around them. Treadmills can be harsh if you use them incorrectly or if you’re on a weight loss journey, so while you do have to apply extra caution here, your joints can absolutely benefit.
  • Simple to Operate: You turn the treadmill on, walk on the tread, keep your elbows bent and your core engaged. It’s simple and you can get used to it after a single session, which is why it’s one of the first machines most people use. Even if they come to this conclusion on their own accord, all it proves is that treadmills are not daunting to use.
  • Cardio Central: You don’t really need more cardio than what a treadmill offers you. It’s a great way to increase your heart rate, sweat it out, and feel the burn in your calves and core afterwards. There are tons of ways to train cardio, but there’s a reason why people still gravitate back to the treadmill time after time.
  • The Closest You’ll Get to the Outdoors: A StairMaster or elliptical doesn’t really mimic outdoor walking or activities. A treadmill, especially if you have some outdoor visual media, is the closest you can get to outdoor training while in the gym.


  • Can Get Boring: The treadmill is efficient, but it’s not the most engaging cardio equipment you could be using. In fact, it can get fairly boring unless you have your own media. Because there’s less range of motion, you’re not going to be entertained or mentally engaged while using a treadmill.
  • Less Dynamic Motion: It’s simple: you run, jog, or walk forward. There’s no mystery to it. If flexibility is important to you, your treadmill is going to lose a lot of value compared to a rowing machine. You’re basically doing the same thing over and over again, so while it will help trim fat off of key areas and burn up to 2,000 calories per week, the effects are in a narrow set of areas.
  • Minimal Muscle Engagement: Because you aren’t using as much dynamic motion, your muscles aren’t being engaged as much as they would be on a rowing machine. In fact, they’re less engaged than they would be during a run outside because of the incline changes and the way your body reacts to different terrain. Don’t get us wrong, a treadmill is still easier on your knees than running on sidewalks and dirt paths, but it doesn’t mean it hosts the exact same benefits.


Now it’s time to compare rowing machines against treadmills in the departments that matter the most. These two machines are nothing alike, so what they offer sways wildly in either direction.


Rowing Machine vs. Treadmill

While treadmills are the powerhouse of cardio machines, rowing machines come with a different mission. Rowing machines are full-body exercises, but they’re one of the few that really boost intensity and act as a cardio machine as well.

In fact, since cardio is all about increasing your heart rate, rowing machines can be classified as cardio and full-body resistance training at the same time. You can burn more calories with a rowing machine, which sounds insane to say, but it definitely comes with a scaling issue.


High-intensity interval training is by far one of the best ways to exercise, as long as you don’t do it for years on end. HIIT helps you with weight loss, and building muscle, and keeps everything in a tight, neat little time frame.

The problem with HIIT is that most people do it incorrectly. They don’t use the right machines. You can make any exercise intense, but if it’s not benefiting your entire body, you’re falling behind. HIIT rarely focuses on one single part of the body at a time.

Rowing machines are better for HIIT because of the way your entire body engages with the exercise. Yes, you’ll feel sore after, but that’s typically what happens with HIIT anyway.

Impact Level

Rowing machines reign supreme in this department. While they’re not no-impact, they’re certainly low-impact and much of that comes down to the way you hold yourself. Treadmills do almost nothing to prevent shock vibrations from running up your legs and damaging your joints over time.

However, some treadmills do have stabilizers built in. These are very nice, but not enough to completely justify choosing one over a rowing machine if impact is your major concern.

If you suffer from joint pain from prior injuries, or you have any form of arthritis, a rowing machine will be more forgiving than a treadmill.

Weight Control

Rowing Machine vs. Treadmill

Treadmills are excellent for weight loss and weight control. You burn calories, keep your cardiovascular system in check, and it all works well.

With rowing machines, you maintain your muscles, which help with stability and overall health. Either way, you’re winning in the weight control department.

The difference is that when you scale up, rowing machines allow you to burn more calories per 30-minute session.

In the beginning, treadmills will be the better option. If you stick with a rowing machine, it’s a slow start with a more satisfying reward down the line. If you mix rowing machine exercise with strength training, you’ll have gains and excellent cardio at the same time.

Mental Engagement

This isn’t something you typically see people talk about regarding exercise machines. However, treadmills are known as being notoriously boring to use, especially day in and day out. After a month, you’re practically itching to not use the treadmill again.

Rowing machines require focus and concentration, plus they engage your entire body. You have to keep your eye on the prize; you can’t just catch up on Netflix shows like you can with a tablet on the treadmill during a run.

If you want to see better results, you have to stay in the moment. Rowing machines are much less tedious and entirely more rewarding to use. You actually notice improvements, whereas with running (indoors), you often don’t.

Finding the Best Way to Train

At the end of the day, it all depends on what you need. If you’re just after cardio and you want to get resistance training from a different exercise, a treadmill will do the trick. Rowing machines offer a balanced and varied exercise, which benefits you in an entirely different way than straight cardio does.

Which one speaks to you?

Do you want a full-body workout so that you don’t have to worry about additional training in the gym, or do you need to segment your exercise so that you can focus on cardio on its own?

These two machines are very different and offer various benefits, but one thing’s for certain: they’ll both make you break a sweat.