I’m often asked what muscles does a rowing machine work? Or do rowing machines work more muscles than an elliptical etc.? The quick answer is they work nearly all your muscle groups, and yes, while an elliptical is an amazing machine for a full-body workout as it works 80% of the body’s muscles, the rowing machine trumps the elliptical, working up to 90% of the body muscles and nine major muscles groups.

woman rowing on concept 2 model d at home

magneticChoose an Air or Water Rower (natural feel)

Before we get to the muscles used in the 4 phases of the rowing stroke, I think it’s best to mention which rowing machine type is best to use.

If you want your rowing workout to feel as natural as possible, it’s best to choose an air rower or water rower as both of these rowing machine types utilize resistance systems that are dynamic.

The main benefit of dynamic resistnace is that it mimics the feel of outdoor rowing much more closely than a magnetic resistance system which is contant.

The pace of your workout determines Dymnaic resistance strength, and by that, I mean the faster you row, the stronger the resistance, just like rowing on water outside. And because it is dynamic, it’s suitable for all fitness levels as the number of resistance levels are limitless.

What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work?

While it’s almost impossible to mention every muscle used in the rowing stroke, we can break it down into the four phases of the rowing stroke and explain which muscle groups are used for each phase of the stroke.

muscles worked rowing machines

1. The Catch – The catch is the beginning of the rowing stroke. You need to lean slightly forward while maintaining muscle engagement through the back for good posture. Extend the arms. Shins will be vertical, the seat will be 6-8 inches from the feet, and the heels will be slightly lifted.

Muscle used Catch – During the catch, your triceps are used to extend your elbows and arms forward to take hold of the handle. Your back muscles are relaxed, and your abdominals flex your torso forward.

2. The Drive – “It’s important to think of the drive phase as simply the transition from the catch to the finish. The legs initiate the drive by extending, pushing the upper body away from the front of the rower much like the start of a deadlift bringing the barbell off the floor.” says Micheal s. Pilhofer  MSPFITNESS” Once the hands have transitioned past the feet. The hips start to swing back, moving the torso from that 11 o’clock angle towards the 1 o’clock angle. Finally, in the sequence, the arms bend, bringing the handle in towards the torso.”

Muscles used in the Drive Phase – You initiate the drive phase with the powerful muscles of your legs, specifically the hamstrings and calves. As you work through the drive sequence, your biceps activate to pull the handle towards your lower ribs. Abs – as the handlebar is pulled close towards your sternum, your abs also contract to keep your body stabilized.

Your back muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi, work more as you swing your torso open, and your glutes and hamstrings contract to extend the hip. We engage nearly all upper body muscles when the drive finishes with the arm pull-through.

man rwoing on mr. captain water rowing machine at home

3. The Finish – “The finish position finds us with straight and firm legs, having just been extended all the way. Torso angle now has a slight backward lean, opposite of the catch position. This lean puts the body at 1 o’clock with the hands pulled in just below the solar plexus,” says Phihofer. Shoulders are down and relaxed with elbows neither winged out nor jammed in at your side. Elbows need to be near the body as if you had a grapefruit between your elbow and your side, with forearms and wrist parallel to the floor. This is the finish position phase of the rowing stroke.”

Muscles used in the Finish – The abdominals stabilize the body. Your biceps also contract through this phase to stabilize and support your back muscles keeping your torso in the final position and rotating the upper arms.  

4. The RecoveryReverse the motion by relaxing your arms away from your torso, hinge forward towards 1 o’clock, and then bend your legs back to catch. Be sure that the handle passes over your knees before bending your knees. The recovery phase should be half the speed used in the drive, which will allow your muscles to recover and prepare for another strong push.

Muscles used in the Recovery phase – In the recovery phase, the triceps activate to extend your arms forward and away from the body. Your abdominals flex the torso forward. Your upper and lower leg muscles contact specifically your hamstrings, glutes, and calves as you slide back to the catch position.

woman rowing on a magnetic rowing machine in her home gymm

The Top 5 Benefits

The gym is packed full of exercise bikes, ellipticals, and treadmills, but sadly more often than not, it’s the rowing machine that you could rely on to be left unoccupied. Heck, that was a few years ago. Since then, experts can’t stop praising the benefits of these excellent machines. And consequently, their popularity has gone through the roof. And if you’re wondering just what all these health benefits are? Keep reading as we’re going to look at the top 5.

1. Increase Stamina – A rowing machine is one of the best choices for endurance training. Rowing stimulates and strengthens your lungs and heart. You can perform full-body aerobic and anaerobic exercises on the rowing machine by switching up your workouts. Steady-state rowing will promote aerobic endurance, HIIT sessions will develop your anaerobic endurance.

2. Cardio & Strength Training At The Same Time – The rowing machine is one of the only machines that can offer you a pro-level cardio workout while giving you a full-body workout at the same time. And there’s a ton of research out there that shows when you combine cardio with strength training. It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease much more so than performing cardio or strength training on their own.

3. Low Impact – Rowing burns serious calories without putting extra stress on the joints. It’s a low-impact non-weight bearing exercise. A 2014 Study showed that people who rowed for eight weeks experienced 30%better joint rotations in their elbows, shoulders, and knees. Rowing can even be an excellent choice for people with osteoarthritis. 

low impact on knees rowing machine workout

4. Weight Loss – Because you work all of your body during rowing, it’s the perfect exercise to keep your body at a healthy weight. It’s a fact that rowing can burn between 600 and 1000 calories per hour thats more than an elliptical or an exercise bike, making it a highly effective exercise to get rid of belly fat.

5. Improve Posture – Since the rowing machine primarily uses your legs, core, and back, it has loads of postural benefits and is a great tool to engage the posterior chain [backside] of the body,” says Illustrisimo. Working your posterior chain is essential for balancing our muscle strength, reducing injury risk, and helping correct the bad posture that’s common in our sedentary society.

6. It’s Affordable – 10 years ago, rowing machines for home use were expensive. You’d have to pay well over $800 for a decent one. Fast forward a few years, and you can now get hold of a high qulaity air rower for around $400. Even water rowers have come down in price. I recently reviewed the Runow solid oak rowing machine. An impressive well-built water rower with a price tag of just under $600. 

7. Great Choice for any Fitness Level – All rowing machines work the same muscles and require the same technique. Still, there’s are different types of reistnace systems. Each reistnace system has its advantage and disadvantage, but one thing you can be sure of is that all rowing machine resistance types are beginner-friendly. Magnetic rowers use a constant reistnace system that allows you to select resistance strength, usually with 8-16 levels of resistance to choose from, ranging from very easy, to very strong for calorie-burning workouts. Air and water rowers use dynamic resistnace systems where the strength of the resistnace is determined by the pace of your workouts thus having a limitless amount of resistance levels.

Final Thoughts

We can see that rowing machines engage all the major muscle groups with each rowing stroke, making them an excellent choice to gain muscle strength and mass. They’re the only cardio machine that can provide both a full-body workout and a pro-level cardio workout simultaneously, which has proven to have many cardiovascular benefits.

Not only that, rowing is a non-weight-bearing exercise, so it’s a much better choice than a treadmill that puts 4x the stress on your joints—making a rowing machine the perfect choice for those who would otherwise be restricted due to joint pain.