What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work?

What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work?

Rowing is a total body workout that is sure to get your heart pumping in a hurry. It requires a blend of both endurance and power, and the low-impact nature of the movement doesn't beat up your joints like running on a treadmill. Competitive rowers are some of the fittest and most powerful athletes on the planet. The indoor rowing machine plays a massive role in their training.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a competitive rower to reap the strength and cardio benefits of rowing!

What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work

Rowing is a total body workout.  Each rowing stroke resembles a horizontal deadlift and uses similar muscles.  

86% of the muscles in the body are put to work while using a rowing machine.  The sheer number of muscles involved in a quality rowing stroke contributes to the activity’s incredible benefits.  Rowing may seem like a cardio-only activity, but it requires tremendous strength and endurance, making it a fantastic option to build lean muscle and burn calories.  

Four different phases make up each rowing stroke, and each segment works a wide range of muscles.  


The catch is when you’re closest to the machine, setting up for a powerful pull.  At the catch, shins should be vertical, hamstrings pressed up to the calves, torso against the quads, head tall, eyes looking forward.  Grip the handle using the flexor muscles of the fingers and thumb.  Abdominals are braced and ready to transfer the force produced by the lower body into the handle.  

Muscles used:  Triceps, deltoids, traps, calves, hamstring, abdominals, and lower back.


The posterior chain includes the hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, and calves, the primary muscles used during the drive phase of a rowing stroke.  During the drive, you're actively putting force into the platform of the rowing machine, the torso tilted forward slightly.  As the legs drive into the machine, unwind the hips and begin moving from a forward tilted position to a backward position.  You’re now entering the next phase of the rowing stroke, the finish.  

This motion should be smooth and continuous.  

Muscles used:  deltoids, traps, biceps, upper/middle back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves


During the finish, the legs extend at the knees, the torso hinges back at the hips, the lean continues to tilt backward while the hands pull the handle toward the chest.  

The spinal erectors and abdominal muscles are activated during the finishing phase of the rowing stroke.  Both groups of muscles support and stabilize the spine, allowing for a controlled and powerful stroke.  

Muscles used: traps, deltoids, biceps, forearms, lats, glutes, quads


The recovery phase is essentially the drive phase in reverse.  The recovery phase starts with the arms leading, followed by the body and the legs as you move back toward the machine.  It's essential to allow the arms to initiate this motion. 

Muscles used: traps, hamstrings, calves, triceps, forearms, abdominals

Health Benefits for Rower Machine

Rowing is a physically demanding activity well known for delivering a potent cardio and strength workout.  Rowing provides minimal impact to the joints, making it an excellent exercise for those who require a joint-friendly exertion modality.  The combination of strength, cardio, and many muscles working makes rowing fantastic for burning calories faster than many other exercise options.  

Regular Rowing for Strengthening and Cardio

Rowing is a full-body workout that can serve as strength training and cardio in one shot.  85% of the muscles in the body are working during a rowing stroke, which mimics a horizontal deadlift.  The repetitive nature of rowing means adds up to a significant amount of exertion and training effect.  

Low Impact

Running is one of the best ways to burn calories, but it comes at the expense of higher ground impact forces to the body.  Over time, this impact can lead to injury.  On the other hand, rowing involves virtually no impact while conditioning the entire body in less time.  You’re able to train hard and spare the body from impact.  Low-impact cardio activities are ideal for people who've suffered lower-body injuries or need to limit jarring to the joints.

Burn Calories Faster

The more muscles working during exercise combined with an increased intensity often means more calories burned during that exercise. When more muscles are working at a higher intensity, less exercise time is required to burn a significant number of calories. 

A 20-minute rowing workout completed at a slower pace (20 strokes per minute) equates to 400 strokes.  Four hundred continuous repetitions of any exercise are going to burn a significant number of calories.  The unique low-impact benefit of rowing makes it a mode of exercise you can train most days of the week for added calorie burn to accelerate weight loss.   

Rowing Workouts to Build Muscle

You can scale rowing workouts to suit any fitness level and technical know-how.  Here are a few workouts that are sure to test the body and mind!

Level 1:  2k Row for Time

Two thousand meters is the standard world championship race distance and a popular rowing challenge for indoor efforts.  The 2,000-meter row will challenge your mind as much as your body. The pace must be brisk yet not too aggressive to avoid early burnout.  A careful balance of intensity and pace makes the 2,000-meter distance a workout that you’ll test for a lifetime.   

A “good” time on the 2,000-meter row varies widely by age, size, and fitness level. Anything around 6-minutes for a male is considered world-class. Sub 7-minutes is considered elite for a female.  

If you’re not happy with your time, work on conditioning for a few weeks and test again!

Level 2:  10k Row for Time

If you’re looking for a long-distance endurance workout, the 10,000-meter row is an excellent option.  Before jumping into a 10,000 meter, make sure the stroke technique is on point.  Ten thousand meters is a long distance to row with poor technique.  Next, pace and stroke rate are essential to consider.  Pace is measured by 500-meter splits, while stroke rate is the number of strokes taken per minute.  

To get faster at rowing, especially a 10,000 meter, concentrate on increasing pace using a constant stroke rate.  

Level 3:  12 EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute) – 15 Cal Row

EMOM workouts, or every minute on the minute, are interval training efforts that address nearly every major pillar of fitness.  You will build muscular strength, muscular endurance, and explosive power all in one shot. 

For this workout, row until the performance monitor shows 15 calories, then rest for the remainder of the minute.  Repeat this sequence 12 times.  This workout is highly challenging and not for the faint of heart, which is why we classify it as a level 3 workout.  

A 15 calorie row might take 40-45 seconds, which leaves 15 seconds for rest before starting the next effort.  That’s not much rest time.  While this workout only lasts 12-minutes, it might be the hardest 12-minutes of your workout career.  The rest is incomplete while the intensity is kept high.  Workouts like this are fantastic for building anaerobic capacity and fat loss.  

Learn More at GoRowinGo

GoRowinGo’s water rowing machine is a world-class indoor rower, loaded with features at an unbeatable price.  Water rowing machines are known for having a smooth feel and aesthetic appeal. The noise reduction characteristics make water rowing machines perfect for any living space.  

The GoClub rowing fitness community gives you access to a supportive rowing community where you can learn about new workouts, technique tips and improve your fitness with other like-minded individuals! 

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