Rowing Machine vs Elliptical: Muscles Used, Calories Burned, and More

The rowing machine and the elliptical trainer are both exercise machines that can engage multiple muscle groups while providing users with healthy cardiovascular exercise. The machines both work several muscle groups (i.e., legs, chest, back, core), but the rowing machine also engages the arms as well. Thus, the rowing machine burns slightly more calories than the elliptical. However, the elliptical is a more ideal machine for older people and people with bone conditions.

Elliptical Trainer vs Rowing Machine

An elliptical trainer, colloquially known as an elliptical, is a stationary exercise machine used for cardiovascular exercise. Functionally, it allows users to perform movements similar to climbing stairs, walking, or running without causing excessive pressure on the user’s joints. Thus, an elliptical allows users to perform low impact cardiovascular exercises.

elliptical machines

Ellipticals are designed to allow resistance to be adjusted. Different models of ellipticals can also have additional features such as electronic screens that can display relevant information such as exercise duration, timers, steps taken, calories burned, and more.

A rowing machine, or an indoor rower, is an exercise machine that allows the user to simulate the movements needed for rowing. While an important training machine for professional and enthusiast rowers, the rowing machine is an ideal exercise machine due to the great number of muscles that the rowing machine targets.

Rowing machines are designed to allow resistance to be adjusted. Depending on the machine, there are different ways rowing machines can adjust for resistance. Furthermore, rowing machines are often standardized to display the time it takes for a user to row 500 meters depending on the user’s stroke power and speed.

Compared to the rowing machine, elliptical trainers have a very short learning curve. Due to the design using an elliptical is intuitive and easy for beginners to learn. Meanwhile, the rowing machine is a more difficult piece of equipment to learn. While individuals simulate the movement of walking when using an elliptical, the rowing machine requires specific form.

rowing machine
Rowing Machine

There are four movements involved to ensure proper form when using the rowing machine. These four movements are the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery.

An individual begins to use a rowing machine in the catch position which entails the knees bent with the shins in a vertical position. The arms and shoulders are relaxed and extend forward while the back should be approximately parallel to the thighs.

During the drive, the legs are extended while the body is maintained at the catch position. As the legs reach maximum extension, the handlebar can then be pulled towards the chest. Proper form dictates that the chest is primarily used for pulling the bar as the arms are kept parallel to the ground.

The finish is the final position with the legs fully extended and the handlebar pulled close to the chest. The shoulders should be slightly behind the pelvis with the back maintained in an upright position and the wrists parallel to the ground.

The individual then slowly reverses their actions to perform the recovery. The arms are slowly extended back to the relaxed position and the torso engaged to lean forward. The final position of the recovery should match the starting catch position.

Muscles Used


Given that the mechanisms involved are completely different, it is a surprise that the muscles being used are quite similar. Both the elliptical and rowing machine target muscles from both the upper and lower body.

Starting with the elliptical, the actions involved when using the elliptical highly resembles walking, thus lower body muscles such as quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves are targeted.

The quadriceps (quadriceps femoris) is one of the largest leg muscles in the body. Covering the front of the thigh, the quads is subdivided into four separate heads: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. Located above the knee, the quads primarily functions as an extensor muscle of the knee.

The hamstrings are the antagonist of the quadriceps which means while the quadriceps extend the knee, the hamstrings flex the knee. Located behind the thigh, the hamstrings are composed of three separate muscles: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.

Below the hamstrings, the calves are composed of two muscles. The larger gastrocnemius and the smaller soleus. Generally, the calves are located posteriorly between the knee to the ankle. Functionally, the calf helps in flexing the knee, but its primary duty is for plantar flexion of the foot (“extends the foot”).

The elliptical also targets the glutes. The glutes are a thick group of muscles that cover the buttocks. It is composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius. Functionally, the gluteal muscles are heavily involved with the movements of the hips. The movements needed to use the elliptical are great for activating these muscles.

While not activated directly, the elliptical also engages the core of the user to some degree. Located in the center of the body, the core muscles include a wide array of muscles such as the transversus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, rectus abdominis, and more. The elliptical engages the core muscles as the user maintains the proper upright posture when using the exercise machine.

While most of the muscles being directly targeted by the elliptical are the lower body muscles, using this machine involves pulling and pushing the handlebars which can then help engage the upper body.

There are several muscles that are located in the back that can be engaged when using the elliptical such as the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor, and rhomboideus. The back muscles are especially engaged when the handlebars are being pulled.

Chest muscles are also engaged when working on the elliptical. These muscles include pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. Antagonist to the back muscles, the chest muscles are activated when an individual is pushing the handlebars.

While the elliptical engages an impressive number of muscles, the rowing machine can engage all of them with a few additional muscles. Numerous sources state that the rowing machine can engage 80-85% of all the body’s skeletal muscles.

Aside from the muscles previously mentioned that the rowing machine can also activate, the rowing machine can also engage the arm muscles. Particularly the triceps and the biceps. The triceps are activated as soon as the individual begins to pull the handlebar up to a point. Beyond a certain point, the biceps take over in pulling the handlebar all the way to the chest.

When discussing the muscles involved in the elliptical and the rowing machine, it has to be noted that the rowing machine engages the muscles more than the elliptical simply due to the design of the rowing machine.

The handlebar of the rowing machine is not affixed to a certain axis which means that a user has to assume proper form to correctly use the rowing machine. Meanwhile, exercising on an elliptical does not require the assumption of proper form to use, thus it is easier to mistakenly use the elliptical without engaging muscles needed to function.

Calories Burned

While the rowing machine and the elliptical can engage several muscles when used they are primarily for cardiovascular exercise which means that most individuals using them are focused on burning calories instead of building muscle.

However, there are numerous factors that affect the number of calories burned using the elliptical and the rowing machine. Firstly, if an individual is putting in the same amount of effort in performing the movements for both the elliptical and the rowing machine, then the number of calories being burned should not be too different from one another.

Assuming a moderate pace for both:

  • Rowing Machine: 30 Minutes = 210 Calories (Assumes 125 lb. bodyweight)
  • Elliptical Machine: 30 Minutes = 270 Calories (Assumes 125 lb. bodyweight)

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Rowing Machine vs Elliptical: Muscles Used, Calories Burned, and More