Total Gym vs Rowing Machine

For most veterans, the choice for a whole body workout home gym equipment usually comes down to total gym and rowing machines. However, total gym vs. rowing machines sets up an interesting dilemma since they both have the same functionalities. So how do you choose between the two?

Total Gym Vs. Rowing Machine

In this guide, we will look at the different aspects of each. After that, we’ll give you an in-depth analysis of some of their similarities and differences.

We aim to help you make an informed buying decision whenever you want to set up an all in one full-body workout; whether at home or in a commercial gym set up. First, let us have a brief overview of each equipment.

Rear view of a young man exercising on a rowing machine

Total Gym

Tom Campanaro, the inventor of the total gym, had a brilliant mind when he assembled a full line of home workout gyms to create one complex gym. The brilliant idea was to use your body weight as resistance. You do not need any external resistance. 

When using a total gym, you can achieve a full-body workout and burn calories in less time. Gravity plays a significant role in this fitness equipment to be effective. You can do over exercises on this equipment, all of them involve sitting on a sliding board; in various positions.

There are cables with handles attached to this sliding board. By pulling and pushing these handles, you initiate a pulleys system, which helps you lift your weight as the board slides. You can alter the intensity of your work out by adjusting the resting position of the sliding seat.

How Does a Total Gym Work?

When you lower the height of the board, you are lifting against gravity less. You, therefore, lift less of your body weight. By raising the height of the board, you will fight more gravity. You are, therefore, carrying more of your weight.

The pulley system helps users enjoy versatility with the various number of exercises available on the equipment. It also allows movement in all directions when exercising. 

The total gym is more than 30 years old and has diversified to create diversified versions to date. To this day, there are 4 total gym models available: total gym XLS, total gym FIT, total gym supreme, and the total gym Apex G1.

Rowing Machine 

When you want to purchase a rowing machine, you should consider the material quality, durability, ease of use, design, comfort, and adjustability. There are two categories of these machines. 

The first category has the footrests and flywheels fixed on a stationary frame. The seat is left free to slide up and down along the stationary frame. When you use the machine, the seat moves relative to the footrest and the flywheel, respectively. Meanwhile, the footrest remains stationary to the ground.

In the second category, both the footrest and seat are free to move up and down the stationary frame. When you are exercising, the footrest and the seat move relative to each other and relative to the ground.

Different Types and Models of Rowing Machines

Rowing machines differ according to where they pull their resistance from as follows:

  • Piston resistance model: uses hydraulic systems attached to the handles of the machine.
  • Braked flywheel resistance models: uses a combination of magnetic, water, and air resistance.
  • Magnetic resistance model: uses permanent magnets or electromagnets and a rotary plate of non-magnetic material in the flywheel.
  • Air resistance model: uses vanes attached to the flywheel to provide the flywheel with the braking necessary to create resistance.

When done correctly, an exercise in a rowing machine involves 86% of body muscles. 

Similarities Between the Total Gym and Rowing Machine 

Below are some similarities between the Total Gym and Rowing Machine. 

Both are Good for Beginners

They are suitable for beginners looking for a decent strength level, functional fitness, fat loss, better metabolic rate, and lean muscles.

If you utilize these two correctly rather than only joint movement, you can get reasonable strength with a ripped physique. You should, however, not substitute them with free weight and machines if your target is to gain maximum muscle and strength.

Man using a rowing machine

Both Offer Low Impact Workout

Rowing machines and total work out are much safer than other exercise options. Take outdoor running, for example, where you must put in a lot of stress on your ankles, joints, and knees.

With this option, your legs are safe because they do not have to hit hard surfaces frequently. It is a more comfortable option.

Users with muscle problems can use these low impact machines when compared to weight training. They do not put much pressure on the joints. They may appropriate for obese users and people with joint and ligament problems. The use of body weight allows you to customize your weight resistance training.

Both are Good for Full Body Strength and Conditioning Workout

Most workouts focus on a particular part of the body. However, these two provide a full-body workout from your hips, glutes, legs, back, shoulders to your arms. You get a full package, including running challenges, squats, biceps curl works.

Rowing is excellent for cardiovascular exercises and helps you train all your major muscle groups. During traditional rowing, the total gym rowing trainer recruits about 85% of your muscles. That aside, this equipment tolerates many exercises that help isolate muscles both in your upper and lower body.

Both are Easily Portable

Just like the total gyms, the latest models of rowing machines are significantly easy to store. They are reasonably foldable and collapsible. 

You can move them to a corner when you are not working out and set them up at the center of the room when you want to work out. Both have caster and rollers to help you move them around; you don’t need to carry the equipment.

Both are Good for Home and Commercial Gym Use

You can install these machines at your home gym if you are already self-motivated, and you can do without the added morale boost that comes with interactive training. You can also add this to your commercial gym, given its versatility. 

Differences Between Total Gym and Rowing Machines 

Despite having a lot in common, these gym devices have several aspects that set them far apart. 

Space Consumption

One notable difference between these two fitness machines is the physical space they occupy. The total gym occupies the least space since it is foldable and stored upright against a wall or inside a closet. 

On the other hand, you can only separate some rowing machine into two parts to ease the storage. It is inconvenient to users with small rooms. 

Rowing machines also have big tanks and flywheels that make them consume a lot of space when set up. Most rowing machines are too bulky and too big.

Heart Rate Monitor

Rowing machines like the Concept, 2 model D, provide speed, pace, calories, a heart rate monitor, and watts for every workout you do. It makes it perfect for users who want to monitor heart rate and stroke rate levels. 

Total gyms do not have heart rate monitors. If you intend to buy an exercise machine based on this, then the rowing machine will be a better addition to your gym.

Work Out Plans

Rowing machines have workout programs for all levels of users. The programs may be prudent in your progress from a mere beginner to the pro level. 

For Total gym equipment, you have to get your video support from somewhere else. It does not only come with extra costs but might also become an attention divider when working out.

Types of Resistance

The total gym fitness tool uses your body resistance to help you exercise, while the rowing machine uses different types of resistance. You can customize your weight to the resistance you need for effective training. You are also able to notice when one of your arms gets overused.

Different rowing machines use different types of principles to provide the mass and drag, which is necessary to provide resistance.

Main Distinguishing Factor

The main distinguishing factor between these two is resistance. While the total gym uses the body’s resistance to create a pulleys effect, rowing machines’ resistance depends on the model. The mechanism from which every model of the rowing machine gets its resistance makes them more prominent than total gyms.

When to Use the Total Gym

Below are some of the best instance where you might have to choose a total gym over the rowing machine

Man using a Total Gym

When You Want to Customize Your Resistance

A good work out in a total gym is enough to challenge any trainer at any level. It is perfect in exerting power that forces your muscle to muscles to help stabilize your joints.

It is a piece of balanced workout equipment, and you will notice one hand anytime begins to push or pull more than the other. The amount of force (pulley system) is determined by how the users use their bodies to form resistance on the devices.

When You Need Multi-Planar Movement

When using total gym equipment, you can move whichever direction you choose; backward, sideways, or even rotational. It is also suitable for circuit training.

With total gym models like the total gym XLS, you have over 80 exercises available. This equipment offers between 6 to 22 levels of resistance. The different levels of resistance depending on the type of total gym you choose.

When You Live in An Apartment or A Small House

The total gym is more of a silent machine. When you are using a rowing machine, you might get discouraged because of the noise that it produces. Especially when you share the space with other people or when you live in an apartment.

When You Have A Small Storage Space

It is easier to find a place to fit your total gym than for a rowing machine. They are easily foldable and collapsible. Rowing machines have big tanks and flywheels that unnecessarily take up ample space in your gym.

When You Need Little Time and Knowledge on Assembling the Equipment

All other models of this equipment are ready to use at the time of purchase. You only need to attach some pins and adjust the height to set up your gym.

When you are in doubt, you can always check online videos on setting up a total gym at home. Putting up pieces like it is winning the case of rowing machines may be hard at times. 

When to Use A Rowing Machine

Below is a guide on when you might want to use a rowing machine

When You Don’t Want A Gravity Gym

Rowing machines give you the option to alter the dumper, which in turn alters the external resistance (which may have little impact) and the amount of energy you need for the push and pull. The resistance levels in a total gym cannot match the fine-tuning on machines. 

When You Demo Videos 

The demo videos of raw trainers that this gym equipment comes with show support on multi-planar movements. They are essential if you are a beginner or someone who wants to try something new at the indoor gym. 

All the rowing machines like the concept 2 have specialized videos. The total gyms have recently just begun having them on their equipment. Therefore, you might not find them in most of their equipment.

When You Have A Significant Work Out Space

Of the two devices, the rowing machine needs more extensive work out space because they are somewhat larger than total gyms. They also tend to be noisy, and it would not be better to work out when you share a small room with someone.


Each one of these machines has its advantages and disadvantages over the other. To make an informed decision on what to choose from, you need to check on each model and see whether they fit your intended usability or not.

All of them have diversified with time. To decide on the type of equipment you want, you first need to evaluate the purpose of the equipment, the amount of space you have, and whether you are a beginner or pro.

Robert Lemus has been a natural competitor for 6 years, starting in Men’s Physique, then Bodybuilding, and then into Classic Physique. He is the Orange County Bodybuilding champion in 2016 for the Musclemania Organization. In 2018, he received his Pro Card with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in Classic Physique.