Whether you want a low-impact cardio workout to lose weight or build strength, the rowing machine does twice the work of other cardio machines. Bear with us as we go through all the rowing muscles, and you’ll wish you’d discovered it sooner.
Which Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work?
By engaging all major muscle groups, rowing works your aerobic capacity more than other machines. A rowing stroke has 4 phases, and it consists of 65-75% leg work and 25-35% upper body work.
To achieve this kind of workload, in weightlifting, you’d have to use multiple pieces of equipment and do a full body workout, including push, pull, and leg exercises.
With a row machine, you do the same movements while performing a low-impact workout that won’t give you any injuries, get you bulky, or make you suffer down the line.
The rower resembles the horizontal version of the deadlift, leg press, calf raises, barbell rows, and more. You’ll be working the lower body (hams, quads, and glutes), upper body (deltoids, latissimus dorsi), and core muscles (abs) all at once.
In a single rowing stroke, these major muscle groups are trained:
- Core Muscles – Torso
Rowing does a terrific job of developing a strong core because it involves tilting the body forward and backward. This is not some crunch-alike engagement, rather, all your core muscles will be trained as you try to keep your body stable.
- Lower Body Muscles – Legs
Rowing builds strength, first and foremost, in the leg muscles. But, little do people know that leg strength and power are essential to developing strength in your upper body as well.
Your quads, hamstrings, glutes, as well as calves, are all trained since they’re the ones that propel your body to row. Rowing activates the same muscles as squats, but it does so repeatedly, without putting pressure on the knees.
- Upper Body Muscles
After legs and core – both of equal importance to a strong body – rowing strengthens your back muscles. Your back keeps your torso stable and allows you to work your shoulders and upper arms. The deltoids, the main shoulder muscles, together with the biceps and triceps also engage when you row.
Now, it’s about time we lay down the phases of the rowing stroke, and the muscles worked in each.
4 Phases of the Rowing Stroke and the Muscles Worked in Each
1. The Catch
A rowing stroke starts with the catch, where you position your body close to the front of the machine. To perform this motion, place your feet in the footplates and make sure they’re safely strapped. To learn more about rower foot positioning, I wrote this article called “What Is The Proper Rowing Machine Foot Position?” which shows the correct foot placement.
Come close to the front of the row machine by bending your legs and using the power of your hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Your knees should be close to your chest, arms fully extended, and your shins vertical to the ground.
During this step, you’ll also be training your triceps and back muscles. Engaging your lats (latissimus dorsi) will allow you to properly extend your legs and rotate your shoulders.
Muscle Trained: Calves, Hamstring, Glutes, Upper Abs, Lower Back, Triceps, Deltoids, Traps.
2. The Drive
The drive phase of the rowing stroke is all about powering the leg muscles and fully extending them. While firing up the glutes and hamstrings, you should keep your arms extended and your torso straight at a 45-degree angle.
The drive strengthens muscles in your lower body, in this case, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. As your body leans back, biceps, back, and shoulder muscles contract as well.
Muscles trained: Glutes, Hamstring, Quads, Calves, Deltoids, Traps, Upper & Middle Back, Biceps, Forearms, Abs, Forearms, Delts, Lats.
3. The Finish
The third phase of a stroke is a short but very efficient motion called the finish. While keeping your core tightened up, you lean backward by 5 degrees max. The motion is complete when you pull the handle towards your ribcage or chest. Here your upper arms will internally rotate, mirroring the rowing motion.
Muscles trained: Glutes, Quads, Rectus Abdominis, Internal Abdominal Oblique, External Abdominal Oblique, Pyramidal, Transverse Abdominis, Traps, Posterior Delts, Biceps, Forearms, Lats.
4. The Recovery
The goal of the recovery phase is to return to the initial position of the stroke.
A lot of stabilizing power is required to finish the rowing stroke as the resistance in the rower’s flywheel will oblige you to hinge forward. With the handle in your chest, it’s time to let go and extend your arms, keeping them parallel and engaged.
As you bend your knees, you’ll feel all the activation in your back, core, and shoulder muscles. This phase is paramount to effectively strengthen the rowing muscles if you stay in control of your movement and perform it slowly.
Muscles trained: Hamstring, Calves, Triceps, Traps, Delts, Forearms, Abs.
Tips to Maximize Muscle Activation in Your Rowing Stroke
Rowing is a discipline that takes a lot of commitment and technique to master. To get all the goodies that rowing offers, invest in learning and nailing your form. Below are some common mistakes people make in their indoor rowing machine workouts.
- Always follow the order of the phases!
The order of steps in a rowing stroke is critical for coordinating and conditioning your body to make the most of the muscles worked. Even though the stroke is a single movement, as a beginner is better to perform each phase slower until your body learns how to coordinate.
Legs are extended first, then your body and core lean back, and lastly, your arms pull the handle to your chest. Finally, you restore to the original position by extending your arms, then straightening up your torse, and lastly bending your legs.
As such, the lineup is as follows: legs, torso, arms, then again, arms, torso, and legs. Reminding this order as a beginner will help you master a full rowing stroke.
During the recovery phase, a common mistake is just to let go and let the handle pull you towards the front of the rowing machine. You should keep all your muscles flexed and engaged as you go to the original position or else, you’ll lose a lot of the efficiency of the stroke.
- Don’t forget to activate the core throughout the rowing stroke!
Don’t worry if, in the beginning, you don’t know how to activate your core. People with weaker core muscles have trouble understanding how to engage it. But, as you progress in your workouts, you’ll be able to ‘feel’ the muscles and establish the muscle-brain connection.
An engaged core will minimize any strain in your lower back, help you keep your upper body straight, and avoid rounding the shoulders.
- Use your leg power to your best advantage!
During the catch and drive, rely mostly on your leg power. Many people lean back while extending their legs, thus losing the benefits of the momentum created by your leg power. The finish and recovery are the phases where you should involve your upper body more.
- Aim for 20 strokes per minute or less!
In the rowing realm, slow goes a long way compared to speed. If you’re a beginner and want to strengthen your muscles, don’t start by performing intense workouts.
Rowing works great at levels 3 through 5, which is also where most professional rowers practice as well. Nailing the steps and working at a comfortable level, will allow you to recruit more muscle fibers and bring faster results.
How Does Rowing Work 86% of Your Muscles?
The rowing machine serves as both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. You can get your cardio workout and strength training in one session by simply switching the intensity. Simply put, rowing slowly and steadily strengthens muscles while rowing faster improves endurance.
By keeping your heart rate elevated and boosting the ability of the body to use oxygen efficiently, the row machine will benefit your heart and lungs.
Also, this machine doesn’t place much tension on the ankles and knees. It’s a great alternative to treadmill runs, sparring, and cycling – which work less muscle and are limited in strength- and muscle-building.
A study observing muscle balance patterns in rowing found that every joint improved by more than 30% in strength. Also, a high-intensity rowing workout is classed as low-impact, making it perfect for everyone who is recovering from an injury, or has recurring problems with their joints.
Everyone from teenagers to the elderly and all the fitness levels in between will achieve their health goals through rowing. Stamina, flexibility, endurance, strength, leg power, pull power, you name it!
Final Words: What Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work?
Rowing workouts work 9 major muscle groups, which comprise 86% of your muscular system. It will grow massive strength in your core muscles and legs, the essentials for a strong body. Your triceps, biceps, back, and shoulder muscles will be trained for both endurance and strength.
Whether going too fast for cardio workouts or slowing down to build strength, the rowing machine will help you stay healthy and avoid any injuries since it is low impact and weight-free.
Rowing Machine King Founder and Author.