Rowing works almost your entire body, including your heart and lungs. Here are the main muscles worked on a rowing machine:
But, which muscles does the rowing machine work? What are the benefits of rowing for exercise?
In this article, we will discuss the benefits of rowing workouts, focusing primarily on the muscles worked by the rowing machine.
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What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work?
Many novice rowers categorize rowing as primarily an upper-body exercise. While it is true that the fact that rowing machine workouts use upper-body muscles more so than an activity like cycling or walking, the list of rowing machine muscles worked extends well beyond just the biceps, triceps, and shoulders.
Theoretically, it may seem like this potential miscategorization bears no significance to your rowing machine workout. However, the truth is that rowing is a highly technical exercise, particularly compared to running, cycling, or walking.
Thus, if you are under the assumption that you are just using upper-body muscles with a rowing machine workout, your rowing technique and the efficiency of your workout will suffer.
Beginners who are unfamiliar with the correct rowing machine technique often rely too heavily on the pulling motion with the arms during the rowing stroke to the detriment of maximizing the pushing motion of the legs.
All of this is to say that although the rowing machine does work the muscles in your upper body, a rowing machine workout is actually a full-body workout if you use the proper rowing machine form.
In fact, according to a study from the English Institute of Sport, a rowing machine workout uses a total of nine major muscle groups that together comprise 86% of the muscle mass in the body.
The muscles worked by rowing machines include the glutes, hamstrings, and quads in the legs; the deltoids and biceps in the arms; the lats and traps in the back; and the abs and lower back muscles.
By fully understanding the muscles worked by rowing machine workouts, you can better engage the proper muscle groups for a more efficient, powerful rowing stroke.
You will also burn more calories and get a better cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening workout if you are properly activating all of the intended muscles worked by rowing machine workouts. After all, the more muscle groups you are using, or the greater the percentage of your muscle fibers you are engaging during exercise, the higher the oxygen cost of the activity. This will translate to a higher heart rate and more calories burned while simultaneously improving your performance on the rowing machine.
Unlike simpler discussions surrounding the muscles worked by other forms of exercise like walking, cycling, or running, in which many people have more familiarity with the general movement patterns, it is easiest to discuss the muscles worked by rowing machines by discussing the rowing machine muscles in the context of the four phases of the rowing stroke rather than as a straight list of muscles used rowing.
Muscles Worked in Different Phases of the Rowing Stroke
The rowing stroke can be broken down into four different phases:
Although the rowing stroke is divided into these four phases, the phases should blend seamlessly into one another in one smooth, continuous motion. In other words, there is no pause or break in between each phase as you row.
Understanding the body positioning and movement through these phases will help paint a picture and deep in the understanding of the muscles worked by rowing machine workouts. It will also help novice and beginner rowers better understand which muscles they should be feeling and activating at which part of the rowing stroke. This can help circumvent the common rowing machine form errors or overreliance on the upper-body muscles when rowing.
Here are the phases of the rowing stroke.
The rowing stroke begins with the catch. The catch occurs when the seat of the rowing machine is all the way forward as close as possible to the front of the machine or monitor.
At the catch position, your knees are bent so that they are coming up towards your chest, and your shins should be perpendicular to the floor. Your body is essentially in a tuck position. You should have a slight forward lean to your torso, which should be initiated by hinging from your hips rather than rounding your back. Make sure to keep your back straight by engaging your core muscles and thinking about keeping your shoulders down and back.
In terms of the degree to which your torso should be angled forward, if you picture a clock with 12 o’clock being completely vertical and upright, hinge towards the front of the rowing machine as if your spine is angled to the 11 o’clock position.
From the catch position, you will move into the drive. The drive is where most of the power and pressing in the rowing stroke occurs. This is where a lot of beginner rowers make the mistake of primarily pulling the rowing machine handle into the chest using the arm muscles rather than pressing the seat back by using the legs.
To begin the drive, you should press your feet against the footplates of the rowing machine as explosively as possible. As mentioned, in the catch position, your body is in a tuck with your knees fully bent and your shins vertical to the ground. With the drive, you will extend your legs by straightening your knees as you push the rowing machine seat down the rail away from the monitor.
The movement of the drive should be initiated by the legs, primarily the quads and glutes. You should envision yourself trying to perform a jump squat against the footplates.
After pushing as hard as possible with your legs, you then activate the core muscles to hinge at the hips and swing your body from the forward leaning position held at the catch to an upright position. In other words, use your core to move from the 11 o’clock position to the upright 12 o’clock position. Then, engage your lats in your back, your shoulders, and your arms to pull the handlebar towards your sternum.
Essentially, the drive should be a sequential pattern of activating your legs first, then your core muscles, then your back and arms together. However, the movement should be seamless so that there is a smooth and fluid flow between these three body regions as you explode away from the front of the rowing machine.
The drive phase of the rowing stroke ends at the finish, which is the third phase. The finish is where the core muscles are most active. Here, you need to eccentrically engage your abdominal muscles (lengthening under tension) to control your hip hinge and the angle of your torso. At the end of the finish, your torso should be reclined slightly to the 1 o’clock position. Remember to keep your back straight.
You should capitalize on the momentum generated by your powerful hip hinge to help drive the handlebar of the rowing machine all the way into your sternum. You should use the muscles in your arms (such as your deltoids in the shoulders, biceps in the upper arms, and brachioradialis in the forearms) to help bend your elbows and internally rotate your arms to maximize the length of the stroke.
The last phase of the rowing stroke is referred to as the recovery. The recovery is essentially the opposite of the drive, so it involves moving your body back up to the front of the rowing machine to the catch position.
Because the drive involves pressing first with your legs, then engaging your core muscles for the hip hinge, and finally pulling with your arms, the recovery involves performing these three muscle activation stages in reverse. Therefore, you will first straighten your arms, then hinge forward using your core muscles, and finally, bend your knees by engaging your hamstrings until you are back up to the front of the rowing machine.
Muscles Worked On the Rowing Machine
Now that we have examined the rowing stroke in detail, it will be easier to understand the muscles worked by rowing machine workouts.
Here are the muscles worked by rowing machines:
One of the main muscle groups worked by rowing machine workouts is the quadriceps.
The quadriceps, commonly referred to as the quads, include four muscles (the rectus femoris, vastus medius, vastus intermedius, and vastus lateralis muscles) that run down the front of the thigh from the front of the hip joint to just below the knee joint.
The quads function as biarticular muscles, which means that these muscles control motions at two different joints (the hip joint and the knee joint). The quadriceps flex the hip and extend the knee. Hip flexion can be visualized as the action that occurs when you are standing upright and you go to lift your thigh up towards your chest. Knee extension is just another way of saying straightening the knee, so when your knee is bent (flexed), the quads contract to straighten it back out.
The quads are chiefly responsible for the powerful drive that propels your body from the tuck position at the catch through the drive phase of the rowing stroke to the finish at the far end of the rowing machine.
Remember, you want to envision yourself exploding off the footboard of the rowing machine (even though your feet are strapped in, and you will not actually be getting airborne) as if you are doing a jump squat. This will help activate the mind-body connection to really enforce how much explosive power you should be using with your quads during the drive.
The reason that the quads are one of the main muscles worked by rowing machines is that the quads are involved in knee extension, and from the catch at the front of the rowing machine to the finish at the back of the rowing machine, your knees move from full flexion to full extension.
The quads are also activated at the end of the recovery and through the catch position to help flex your hip and hinge your torso forward. Activating your quads here helps maximize the length of your rowing stroke, which will improve your efficiency, power, and speed on the rowing machine.
The hamstrings are the group of three muscles (semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris muscles) that run down the back of your thighs from the bottom of the pelvis at the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) to the back of your knee.
Like the quadriceps, the hamstrings are biarticular muscles because they also control actions at the hip and the knee. However, hamstrings are the antagonistic muscle group to the quadriceps, which means that they oppose the motions of the quads. Instead of flexing the hip and extending the knee like the quads, the hamstrings extend the hip and flex (bend) the knee.
The hamstrings are primarily involved in flexing the knee to bring the straightened leg to the bent knee position between the recovery back to the catch.
Essentially, the hamstrings are involved in knee flexion during the recovery to help bring your knee all the way up so that your shin is parallel to the floor.
The hamstrings are also activated at the very beginning of the drive phase of the rowing stroke when you are moving from the tuck position at the catch where your hip is completely flexed to the extended position with your leg straight out in front of your body through the drive to the finish.
Another key group of muscles worked by rowing machine workouts is the glutes, which refer to the gluteal (butt) muscles. The three primary gluteal muscles worked by rowing machine workouts include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.
The glutes are primarily involved in the drive because the glutes are involved in hip extension. Remember, at the catch, your hip is in full flexion because your thigh is coming up toward your chest. As you press away from the rowing machine and straighten your legs, you are moving into hip extension, which is largely powered by the glutes.
The glutes also help move the trunk from the forward-leaning position at the catch to the upright posture.
One of the overlooked muscles worked by the rowing machine exercise is the calf muscle group.
The calf muscles, or calves, are a group of two distinct muscles located behind the lower leg. The calves run from the back of the knee down to the calcaneus (heel none) by tapering and connecting to the heel via the Achilles tendon.
The calf muscle group includes the larger and stronger two-headed gastrocnemius and the flatter and deeper soleus.
The gastrocnemius helps flex the knee and plantarflex the ankle (like pressing down on the gas pedal of a car). Therefore, the rowing machine uses the calves to help create ankle plantarflexion during the pressing portion of the drive from the catch to the finish.
The gastrocnemius also helps flex the knee, so the gastrocnemius calf muscle assists the hamstrings during the recovery as you approach the catch to help bring the shin to a vertical position and the knees bent up towards your chest.
The soleus assists the gastrocnemius in plantarflexion during the drive. It also plays a key role in stabilizing the tibia while you row so that your shin and foot remain aligned with the knee, thigh, and hip.
The latissimus dorsi muscles, also called the lats, are one of the primary muscles worked by rowing. The lats are large, broad, fan-shaped muscles (or an inverted triangle) that span most of your back and taper down near the top of the back of your pelvis.
The latissimus dorsi muscles help pull the rowing machine handle in towards your sternum as you approach the finish and the lats help control the extension of your arms from the finish at the first part of the recovery back up towards the catch.
The trapezius (or traps) is an upper-back muscle that helps retract, protract, and stabilize the shoulder blades.
The traps help bring the handlebar all the way in towards your sternum at the finish by allowing you to retract your shoulder blades and squeeze them together in the back.
During the recovery up to the catch, the traps help you protract your shoulder blades so that you can extend your arms forward toward the monitor of the rowing machine.
Other muscles worked by rowing are the rhomboids. The rhomboids are smaller muscles in your upper back that span the medial or inside edge of your shoulder blades to your spine. The rhomboids work with the traps to help retract the shoulder blades as you approach the finish and protract the shoulder blades as you move from the finish back up to the catch.
By fully protracting your shoulder blades during the recovery and through the catch, you can maximize the length of your rowing stroke because you can reach the handlebar further in towards the monitor of the rowing machine.
Rowing machine muscles targeted also include the abdominal muscles like the rectus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and transversus abdominis, a deep core muscle that encircles your entire trunk like a corset.
If you are using the proper rowing machine technique, your abs should be engaged throughout the entire rowing stroke to help stabilize your spine and facilitate the various changes in hip hinge angles of your torso.
The abs are most activated during the finish, in which they must contract eccentrically to control the lean of your torso despite the momentum of your body at the end of a powerful drive.
The erector spinae and deeper multifidus muscles run along the lumbar spine, acting as key stabilizers and extensors of the spine and low back.
These lower back muscles are grouped together with the core muscles, so they function with the abdominal muscles during rowing machine workouts to stabilize the spine and control the hip hinge and trunk lean.
For example, during the drive, the erector spinae group helps extend the spine from the 11 o’clock forward lean to the upright 12 o’clock position, and again at the finish from the 12 o’clock position to the 1 o’clock backward lean.
Rowing machine workouts also use the deltoids. The deltoids are three-headed muscles that make up the bulk of the muscle mass in your shoulders.
The deltoids help pull the rowing machine handlebar in towards your sternum at the end of the drive to help maximize the power and distance of your rowing stroke.
The biceps are one of the arm muscles worked by rowing machine exercise. The biceps brachii is a two-headed muscle at the front of your upper flex the elbow and supinate the forearm.
Because the primary function of the biceps is elbow flexion, the rowing machine works the biceps during the drive phase and finish phase, when you bend your elbows to bring the handlebar all the way in towards your sternum.
Although most lists of rowing machine workout muscles focus solely on the skeletal muscles in your arms and legs, rowing is also a form of cardio exercise that strengthens your heart.
Your heart is known as cardiac muscle tissue, so it is indeed a muscle. If you consistently perform rowing workouts, you will strengthen your heart muscle. This will allow your heart to contract more forcefully, which can lower your resting heart rate and heart rate during exercise. The walls of the chambers of your heart are made of cardiac muscle tissue, so a stronger heart is able to pump a greater volume of blood out to your body with every heartbeat.
This means that your heart no longer needs to beat as many times per minute to meet the oxygen in nutrient needs of your muscles. Therefore, your heart can beat fewer times per minute during exercise and rest, decreasing the overall workload on your heart.
As you can see, the list of rowing machine muscles worked includes most of the major muscles in your body. By using the proper rowing machine technique, you can reap the benefits of rowing as a full-body workout for both your muscles and cardiovascular system.