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When considering your options for the best cardio machine to add to your home gym, you may be curious about more than one type. Let’s face it; there are tons of options—treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bikes, and rowing machines—the list goes on. In this comparison, we’ll look at two opposites on the cardio fitness equipment spectrum: the StairMaster vs rowing machine. 

Let’s put these two machines head to head and see how they stack up. You may notice throughout this guide that StairMasters and rowing machines aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison. It’s more like comparing apples and bananas—both are fruit but taste very different. So let’s get moving on this comparison.

Quick Look: StairMaster vs Rowing Machine

Before we dive into the comparison, let’s start with some essential facts about StairMasters and rowing machines. 

Rowing machines are pretty straightforward: They’re a low-to-the-ground horizontal cardio machine that simulates rowing a boat, specifically a scull or crew-style boat. Sometimes rowers are called an “erg,” which is short for ergometer, a name for a device that measures performance output.

StairMaster is a brand name, but  also how many folks refer to stair mills, stair steppers, and stair climber machines. All of those terms are interchangeable for cardio machines that offer stair-climbing experiences. (It’s sort of like how people call tissues Kleenex even when they’re not referring to a Kleenex-brand tissue.)

That said, there are a variety of climbing- and stepping-style machines including: 

  • The StairMaster StepMill, which powers a continuous flight of stairs. 
  • The CLMBR is a climbing machine that mimics vertical rock climbing. 
  • The Bowflex Max Total 16 is a vertical stair-stepping machine where your feet don’t leave the pedals—more like an elliptical machine. 
woman using clmbr

Comparison Chart: Stairmaster vs Rowing Machine

There are many stair stepper and rower brands, models, and price ranges to choose from. You can find both styles in bare-bones or high-tech machines with touchscreen displays that offer interactive personal trainers and workout routines.  

We’ll outline two highly rated machines—the StairMaster StepMill and the Concept2 RowErg—for this comparison. Remember, these two machines aren’t totally analogous cardio options, but we’ve found that people are curious about comparing the StairMaster and rowing machine side-by-side. 

Woman using Concept2 RowErg

We encourage you to consider the difference in footprint, weight, user weight capacity, and resistance levels. The StairMaster is much taller and heavier and offers a significantly lighter weight capacity.

The Concept2, on the other hand, is a longer machine (albeit shorter), lighter, and provides an impressive 500-pound user weight capacity. Our team has extensively tested the Concept 2 RowErg and found that this machine suits many fitness levels, including beginners, older adults, athletes, and casual exercisers. 

The unlimited air resistance with a manual damper makes the machine usable for all abilities and ultimately puts you in control of your workout. The faster you go, the more air the fan can intake, which adds more drag (and difficulty) to your workout. 

We detail our hands-on testing experience in our Concept2 RowErg review

StairMaster SM3 StepMillConcept2 RowErg
PriceAround $3,000About $1,000
Footprint29″ L x 46″ W x 73″ H95” L x 24” W x 14” H
Weight298 lbs 57 lbs 
User weight capacity275 lbs 500 lbs
Resistance 20 levels Unlimited air resistance; manual damper 
DisplayLCD display Advanced PM5 Performance Monitor
WarrantyLifetime frame, 5-year mechanical, 2-year electronics, 1-year labor5 years 

Who Should Use a StairMaster?

As mentioned earlier, StairMasters and stair steppers come in a variety of modes and stepping patterns. Our best stair climber roundup has a ton of options we’ve vetted, tested, and ranked for your convenience. 

Based on our testing experience, here’s who we think StairMasters are best suited for: 

  • Anyone looking for an excellent cardio addition for lower-body workout plans. 
  • Folks looking to target all the lower-body muscles including the glutes, calves, quads, and hamstrings. 
  • Exercisers looking to avoid high-impact on ankles, knees, and hips. 
  • Folks who need a compact footprint, but aren’t limited on ceiling height.
Woman using the Echelon Stair Climber Sport

Who Should Use a Rowing Machine?

Unlike stair climbers, rowing machines are pretty consistent. We’ve tested some with high-tech displays and programming and a few that can fold, but other than that, rowers all provide the same basic mechanics of rowing a boat. We ranked our top picks in our best rowing machines roundup. 

Here’s who we think will benefit from a rowing machine: 

  • Beginners to advanced athletes can benefit from rowers; it’s a cardio machine that fits all fitness levels. 
  • Anyone looking for a super low-impact cardio exercise with no vertical impact on the ankles, knees, and hips. 
  • Folks who want a total-body workout routine targeting both upper- and lower-body muscle groups. 
  • Anyone who wants the ultimate all-in-one cardio and strength training machine; an erg helps burn calories and build muscle by pulling against resistance. 
  • People who want to perform high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with the ability to control speed and resistance levels. 

RELATED: HIIT Rowing Workout

coop using the bells of steel blitz air rower

StairMaster vs Rowing Machine: Key Similarities 

  • Both machines provide heart-rate inducing cardiovascular activity. 
  • In most cases, both types of cardio machines provide basic workout metrics. 
  • Both machines offer lower-impact cardio options; stair stepping has less impact compared to running or walking, and rowing machines offer even less joint impact due to the seated orientation. 
  • Neither machine is ideal for anyone with limited mobility; the stair stepping pattern and the low seat of a rowing machine may make it difficult for older folks or anyone who struggles with lower-body mobility. 
Handle bars on the Echelon Stair Climber Sport.

StairMaster vs Rowing Machine: Important Differences  

  • Indoor rowing machines are an excellent choice for both HIIT workouts and endurance workouts; stair steppers are ideal for steady-state cardio workouts.
  • Rowing is a full-body workout, whereas not all StairMasters work the upper body. 
  • Rowers may be better suited for beginners or people who struggle with mobility due to the low-impact movement and stationary foot pedals. 
  • Stair-stepping machines require more overhead ceiling height; indoor rowers provide a seated workout you can do in your basement or garage gym regardless of ceiling height. 
  • Rowing machines require you to pull with your upper body; stair-stepping machines typically have handrails and don’t require activity from your arms. 

RELATED: Steady-State Cardio vs HIIT

rowing on the sole sr 500 rower

StairMaster vs Rowing Machine: Final Thoughts

If you’re still scratching your head thinking, StairMaster vs rowing machine—which one is best for me?—have no fear. We have some final thoughts to wrap up this comparison: 

  • StairMasters will need more overhead accommodations than rowing machines, which are fairly low to the ground. 
  • Neither machine is truly ideal for folks who struggle with mobility, each presenting unique issues. 
  • Rowing machines are ideal for people who want training variation with intervals and endurance training; stair steppers are best suited for steady-state cardio. 
  • If you’re looking for a full-body workout, the rower offers resistance against both the lower and upper body, whereas the stairmaster is strictly a lower-body workout. 

StairMaster vs Rowing Machine: FAQs

Is rowing or StairMaster better?

A rowing machine and a StairMaster-style machine are two different forms of cardiovascular exercise, with neither being objectively better than the other.

However, the rower offers a low-impact, full-body workout that can be done in small spaces or gyms with low ceilings. Many folks prefer rowing because it offers an opportunity to build strength when pulling against the resistance strap. 
Stair steppers can provide efficient lower-body workouts but may require considerations on ceiling height due to the vertical stepping pattern on some machines.  

Is StairMaster better for fat loss?

Doing any cardiovascular exercise regularly can help you reach your fitness goals, including those that are weight-loss focused. The CDC1 encourages adults to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous cardiovascular exercise every week for cardiovascular health. Even with the recommended amount of exercise per week, a balanced diet also plays a major role in weight loss and body composition changes. 

What are the cons of the StairMaster?

StairMasters and stair steppers may have a few downsides, including accommodating the tall machine and clearance above your head while on it. StairMaster may also not be the best choice for anyone who struggles with lower-body mobility or finds walking up stairs difficult.  

References 

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need? 2023.

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