Choosing a piece of cardio kit is a tricky task, but for many the decision boils down to one key clash: rowing machines versus treadmills.
Both offer a great workout, able to put your aerobic and anaerobic energy systems to the test. But if you’re looking to add one of the best treadmills or best rowing machines to your home gym, it can be hard to know where your money is best spent.
Both have different advantages; one of the benefits of rowing machines is that they provide a low-impact workout, which is good if you want to go easy on your joints. However, a study published in the Journal Of The American Medical Association showed that you're likely to expend more energy if you're working out on a treadmill.
We asked Steve Hoyles, personal trainer and gym owner, to explain the practicalities of owning a rowing machine vs a treadmill – and got him to lay out the benefits of both. Here's what he had to say.
Rowing machine vs Treadmill: Cost
There are two types of costs when it comes to fitness equipment. There’s the up-front cost (purchase price) and the ongoing costs (running and maintenance). When it comes to treadmills and rowing machines, these are vastly different…
The up-front cost of a treadmill is significantly higher than a rowing machine. While some are cheaper, you won’t get a good quality treadmill for less than $3,000. You’ll get one of the top rowing machines on the market, the Concept2 Model D, for around $1,200.
The best treadmills are motorized, they have belts, shock absorbers and a more complex computer. They are used at high speeds and high intensities. Alongside an annual service, any repair work is likely to cost significantly more. You also have to plug a treadmill in, so it’s adding to your electricity bill, although this usually works out at less than $1 per hour, according to most calculations.
A rower is a much more simple machine. The computer is an LED set up, there’s no motor (just a chain and a flywheel) and the moving parts are limited to a simple chain, fan and seat. Maintenance and replacement are easy. Rowing machines aren’t plugged in, they’re powered by the user. These factors keep the ongoing costs down.
Rowing machine vs Treadmill: Workout type
The rowing machine is a full body workout and there’s almost no impact on the joints. The injury risk is really low, but the calorie burn is high. It’s also a pulling-heavy movement which helps to counterbalance the fact that we spend so much time in an internally-rotated shoulder position. The fact that both the upper and lower body are trained on a rower makes for an efficient workout.
The treadmill is an excellent calorie burning machine - research shows that treadmills burn more calories than many other exercise options, but this can come at a price. Injury incidence in runners is one of the highest of all recreational activities, with estimates suggesting 19-79% of runners will develop an injury of some sort through the sport.
While both machines are excellent, you have to factor in the all-body workout and the reduced injury risk of the rower. But if you're specifically focused on blasting through calories, bear in mind that treadmills are among some of the best exercise machines to lose weight.
Rowing Machine v Treadmill: Space and storage
When you’re putting together a home gym, space and storage have to be a consideration. If you’ve got a large, dedicated gym room then you can largely ignore this section but, if not, read on.
A rowing machine has an approximate footprint of 8’ x 2’, meaning it doesn’t take up much space. It can be pushed up against a wall or stood on its end. In the case of the Concept2, it can even be broken into two sections for easier storage. A rowing machine is light and easy to move around.
A treadmill can vary enormously, but most are around the 6’ x 3’ footprint mark. While this isn’t a dramatic difference in size, it’s significant if you’re in a small room. They also lack the ability to be folded down or moved around easily. Most treadmills will weigh around 250lbs, so you won’t be able to shift them easily!
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Rowing Machine v Treadmill: Neighbor-friendliness
This may not jump out as an obvious point to consider, but it’s an important one to consider when you go to splash your cash. If you find your neighbors complaining after your first workout, you won’t be very popular!
There’s no impact on the rower, so you don’t have to worry about the constant banging every time you use it. There’s noise from the flywheel, which will be louder the harder you’re rowing. It’s not deafening, but you have to consider it if you have neighbors.
If you live in an apartment block or have an attached neighbor, a treadmill won’t be the most courteous option. The motorized belt can be loud for a start, then there’s the pounding with every foot strike. If you have neighbors below you in particular, you won’t be very popular. The only suitable places for a treadmill (if you have neighbors) are a garage or basement.
Rowing Machine vs Treadmill: Do you need them?
The idea behind buying home workout equipment is to provide yourself with a workout option you don’t already have. Ask yourself then: can each workout be easily replicated without spending money?
In the case of a rowing machine, unless you’re a member of a rowing club, or you have access to a river/lake and a boat, then no - it can’t. Your only option is with a rowing machine.
Running is a much easier thing to do. As long as you’re injury free, strap on a pair of running shoes and away you go!
That’s a little dismissive - you might want to control speed, split times, intervals with precision, and that’s fair enough. Treadmill running might be safer in your neighborhood, and it's certainly so during winter if you don't want to run in the dark or rain.
Ask yourself is it worth spending big money on though, or could that money be better spent elsewhere? You can run anywhere, but rowing is a much harder workout to replicate.
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Rowing Machine vs Treadmill: Final thoughts
Both of these machines are excellent and have their place in a workout regime, but if we’re considering functionality, user experience, budget and the realities of owning both, the clear winner is the rowing machine.
A rowing machine provides a workout that’s as good (if not better), it’s certainly safer, significantly cheaper, easier to store, costs less to run, is harder to replicate and won’t see you upsetting your neighbors. I can’t put it any clearer than that.
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Steve Hoyles is a personal trainer and gym owner. He has written about health and fitness for over a decade, including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, BBC, Catalyst Athletics and hundreds of fitness websites as clients. He’s usually found at his gym or taking one of his two sons to their various sporting commitments!