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Expert Shopper Sports & Fitness

Rowing machine vs. elliptical

Are rowing machines or ellipticals best?

Exercising at home saves you the trouble of dealing with traffic or a packed gym. If you're buying just one home workout machine, it can be tough to choose between a rowing machine and an elliptical. 

Rowing machines offer a slightly better overall workout with more of a focus on the core, while elliptical trainers are easier to use without any kind of instruction. Both, however, are excellent workouts.

Rowing machines

Rowing machines are pieces of exercise equipment that require users to pull back on a bar while pushing out with their legs. The motion is similar to rowing a boat. Although they aren't tricky to use once you've got the hang of it, you generally need one session with instruction to get the stroke motion down to ensure that you’re exercising effectively.

Using a rowing machine is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise, which also works some key muscle groups to build strength. You can adjust the resistance on a rowing machine to tailor your workout. Average rowing machines cost around $200-$500, while high-end options can cost anywhere between $1,000-$2,000.

Rowing machine pros

  • You work a greater number of muscles on a rowing machine compared to on an elliptical, including your core muscles, which elliptical trainers don't do as much for. 
  • Using a rowing machine is a low-impact form of exercise, so it's easy on your knees and other joints. 
  • The design and mechanics of a rowing machine are simpler than that of an elliptical, so rowing machines are cheaper than ellipticals of comparable quality. 
  • With a similar degree of exertion, you'll burn more calories per hour on a rowing machine compared to an elliptical machine. However, this shouldn't be a major consideration when comparing different forms of exercise.

Rowing machine cons

  • Rowing machines require full extension of the arms and legs, so they have a fairly large footprint and take up a sizable chunk of space compared to ellipticals.
  • You don't work the chest and triceps when you use a rowing machine. Because it isn't a weight-bearing exercise, using a rowing machine won't slow mineral loss in the bones the way that ellipticals do. 

Best rowing machines

NordicTrack RW900 Rowing Machine

One of the best rowing machines on the market, this is a commercial-grade fitness machine for home use. It's extremely quiet with 26 resistance levels and a large built-in screen on which you can join live workouts or follow recorded ones. 

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Concept2 Model D Indoor Rowing Machine

This high-quality rowing machine is easy to use and features air resistance that automatically adjusts to give you more resistance the faster you row. It lets you track your fitness progress with reliable real-time data. 

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Sunny Health & Fitness Magnetic Rowing Machine

This affordable rowing machine might not have fancy high-end features, like air resistance or a large screen, but it does the job well at a low price. It offers eight levels of mechanical resistance and nonslip pedals and handlebars that feel comfortable to use. 

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Ellipticals — or cross trainers — are somewhere between treadmills and step machines. You stand on large pedals and hold onto the handles, moving your arms and legs in an elliptical motion. You can choose your pace to adjust the difficulty of your workout, so it can provide gentle, moderate or intense exercise.

These machines are popular due to their ease of use, even for complete newcomers to exercise equipment. They're fairly mechanically complex, so average models cost around $400-$800, while high-end models cost $2,000-$3,000

Elliptical pros

  • Elliptical machines are low-impact, so you can move at a pace similar to a run but without putting pressure on your knees and other joints. 
  • Unlike rowing machines, elliptical machines offer light weight-bearing activity. They're great for slowing down mineral loss in the bones.
  • Ellipticals work out your upper and lower body relatively equally, while rowing machines work some parts of the body significantly more than others. 
  • With an elliptical trainer, you can choose to reverse the direction in which you move, which works a different set of muscles. 

Elliptical cons

  • A certain degree of impact can help joints grow stronger, so you may need to mix in some higher-impact activities unless an injury or medical condition prevents it. 
  • Although you can find some cheap ellipticals, decent models usually cost significantly more than rowing machines of similar quality. 

Best ellipticals

Nautilus Elliptical Series

An excellent home elliptical with an interactive display that allows you to choose from 29 existing programs that you can tailor to meet your needs. It's easy to link with popular apps to track your progress. 

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Schwinn 430 Elliptical Machine

With a reasonable price tag, this is a great all-around choice for anyone who doesn't want to break the bank. It includes 22 preset programs for workouts, or you can go at your own pace. 

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Should you get a rowing machine or an elliptical?

The choice between a rowing machine and an elliptical is a tough one. Both offer a combination of cardio and strength workouts and provide similar results. Rowing machines offer slightly more of a workout for your muscles while ellipticals are easy to use. For many buyers, either would suit them just as well, so choose whichever you find more enjoyable to use.

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Lauren Corona writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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