In recent years, rowing workouts have become increasingly popular, largely due to the reliance on rowing on the erg for CrossFit and Orange Theory workouts.
There are now many awesome, engaging, smart rowing machines for home use, such as the Hydrow, Ergatta, and Aviron rowers, which allow people to stream rowing classes, watch footage of real waterways, and play virtual rowing video games on tablet-enabled at-home rowing machines.
Not only can rowing be surprisingly enjoyable, but rowing workouts are also a fantastic way to improve both your aerobic fitness and muscular strength.
In fact, because rowing works most of the muscles in your body while simultaneously increasing your heart rate and respiration rate, rowing can be considered a hybrid or a combination of strength training and cardio exercise in one.
But, what does the rowing machine work exactly?
In this article, we will look at the muscles worked on the rowing machine and give pointers for making your time on the rowing machine a true total-body workout.
We will cover:
- What Does The Rowing Machine Work?
- Rowing Machine Muscles Worked
Let’s jump in!
What Does The Rowing Machine Work?
Every type of exercise will activate at least several muscle groups, if not more.
For example, cycling is a lower-body-dominant activity, working primarily the quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes.
Most people tend to think of rowing as an upper-body exercise, but the list of rowing machine muscles worked extends well beyond the biceps and triceps.
This tends to occur because the upper-body muscles worked by rowing somewhat differentiate the activity from something like cycling or walking, which is much more lower-body-centric.
Furthermore, many beginners who are unfamiliar with proper rowing technique rely too heavily on the pulling motion with the arms during the rowing stroke rather than the pushing motion of the legs.
However, with proper technique, the rowing machine is a total-body workout.
In fact, according to a study from the English Institute of Sport, rowing machines work a total of nine major muscle groups that together comprise 86% of the muscle mass in the body.
A rowing machine works the glutes and quads in the legs; the deltoids, biceps, and triceps in the arms; and the core muscles.
Because the rowing stroke activates so many muscles, rowing burns a lot of calories and is an efficient form of exercise from a metabolic and strengthening standpoint.
To understand which muscles are worked by rowing machines, it’s helpful to break down the four phases of the rowing stroke, which are the catch, drive, finish, and recovery.
The rowing stroke begins with the catch, in which the seat is all the way forward as close to the front of the machine or monitor as possible.
At the catch, the knees are bent so that they are coming up towards the chest, and the shins should be perpendicular to the floor. There should be a slight forward lean in the torso due to a hinge at the hips.
If you picture a clock with 12 o’clock being completely vertical and upright, your torso should be hinged towards the front of the rowing machine as if pointing to 11 o’clock.
After the catch, the next phase of the rowing stroke is called the drive. The drive is where most of the power and pressing is required.
The drive begins when you push your feet against the footplates of the rowing machine as explosively as possible, extending your legs (straightening your knees) as you slide the seat down the rail away from the monitor of the rowing machine.
The drive is initiated by the legs as you press off the foot stretchers as forcefully as possible as if trying to perform a jump squat.
After pressing with the legs, you sequentially activate the core to hinge at the hips and swing your body from the forward leaning position you had at the catch to an upright position, followed by the shoulders, arms, and back, which are used to pull the handlebar in towards your sternum.
Although this motion should be completed in order (legs, then core, then arms), you want it to be one smooth, fluid flow between the three body regions so that it’s a seamless motion.
The third phase of the rowing stroke is called the finish. This phase is dominated by the core muscles, which are required to stabilize the body as it hinges slightly backward at the hips.
Whereas at the catch, you are leaning your trunk forward as if pointing to 11 o’clock, at the finish, you are leaning your trunk backward as if pointing to 1 o’clock.
As you perform a powerful hip hinge, you use the momentum of explosive hip extension to help bring the handlebar all the way into your sternum.
The arm muscles help internally rotate the arm to maximize the length of the stroke as you bend the elbows fully.
The final phase of the rowing stroke is called the recovery. The recovery is essentially the reverse of the drive, bringing your body back to the catch position.
During the drive, you press with the legs, then hinge with the hips, then pull with the arms, and during the recovery, you perform the three steps in reverse.
Therefore, you first extend your arms so that the handlebar reaches towards the monitor of the rowing machine, then you hinge with the hips to bring your torso forward, and lastly, you bend with your knees by engaging your hamstrings to pull you forward towards the machine.
The finish ends at the initial catch position of the rowing stroke.
Rowing Machine Muscles Worked
Now that we have covered the basics of the rowing stroke, here are the muscles worked rowing:
The hamstrings are biarticular muscles, which means they control movement at two joints. The hamstrings extend the hip and flex the knee.
The hamstrings are involved in flexing the knee from the recovery to the catch.
At the catch, your knee is fully flexed so that your shin is parallel and your bent knees are up by your chest, so the hamstrings help bring your knees up.
The hamstrings are activated during the drive phase of the rowing stroke to help extend the hip.
Like the hamstrings, the quads are biarticular muscles, but they are the antagonists of the hamstrings, meaning that the quads oppose the movement of the hamstrings.
Whereas the hamstrings extend the hip and flex the knee, the quads flex the hip and extend the knee.
The quads are the primary driver of knee extension during the drive phase of the rowing stroke, providing incredible propulsive power to press the body away from the footplates.
Additionally, at the catch, the quads help flex the hip and bring your trunk forward so that you can maximize the length of your stride.
The glutes are one of the primary muscle groups involved in the drive, helping extend the hip and move the trunk from the forward-leaning position to upright.
The calf muscles, or calves, are located behind the lower leg, running from the back of the knee down to where they taper and connect to the heel in the Achilles tendon.
There are two distinct muscles that form the calves: the two-headed gastrocnemius, which is the larger and stronger muscle, and the soleus.
The gastrocnemius helps bend the knee and plantarflex the ankle (like standing up on tiptoes), so the rowing machine uses the calves to help create ankle plantarflexion during the pressing portion of the movement from the catch to the finish.
The soleus is a smaller, thinner muscle that lies underneath the gastrocnemius. It assists the gastrocnemius in plantarflexion of the ankle and stabilizes the tibia throughout the movement so that your shin and foot remain aligned with the knee, thigh, and hip.
The gastrocnemius also helps control knee flexion, so the calves as a unit play a big role in the catch phase of the rowing stroke, helping create the knee flexion you need and the vertical shin position you are looking for.
#5: Latissimus Dorsi
The latissimus dorsi is a large, broad, fan-shaped muscle that spans most of your back, and it is one of the primary muscles worked by rowing.
During the catch phase of the rowing stroke, the latissimus dorsi helps control the extension of your arms.
The trapezius is a muscle in your upper back that helps control the movement of the shoulder blades, particularly retraction and protraction.
During the catch phase, the trapezius muscle helps stabilize and control your shoulder blades as you extend your arms forward.
Another group of muscles the rowing machine works is the rhomboids, which are smaller muscles in the upper back that connect the spine to the shoulder blades.
The rhomboids are activated during the catch phase of the rowing stroke to help stabilize the shoulders as you reach forward with your arms to extend the length of your stroke.
The deltoids, which are the muscles that make up the bulk of your shoulders, are one of the main muscles used on the rowing machine.
The deltoids play an important role in the drive, by helping your arms pull the handlebar back towards your sternum.
The biceps, which are the muscles on the front of your upper arms that people notoriously flex and pose with, are responsible for bending the elbow.
During the drive and through to the finish, the biceps flex the elbow to help you pull the handlebar into your sternum, once your hands have passed your knees.
The triceps, which are located in the back of the upper arm, are used to extend the elbow or straighten the arm.
During the catch, your triceps extend your arms fully as you reach for the handlebar of the rowing machine and maximize the length of your stroke.
#11: Abdominal Muscles
Rowing works 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.
For example, during the drive, the abs contract to stabilize your trunk as you hinge your hips backward.
The abs are most heavily involved at the finish, where they play the vital role of supporting and stabilizing the trunk during the backward hip hinge against the resistance of the handlebar.
#12: Erector Spinae
The erector spinae and deeper multifidus muscles run along the length of the spine, where they help extend and stabilize the spine.
These back muscles worked by the rowing machine engage during numerous phases of the rowing stroke.
For example, during the drive, the erector spinae group helps stabilize the upright position of your torso as you pull the handlebar in towards your lower ribs.
During the catch, these muscles help stabilize the trunk even though you are hinging forward, preventing collapse or rounding of your back.
As can be seen, rowing works most of the major muscles in the body. By using proper form, you can reap the benefits of rowing as a total-body workout.
For some ideas for your next workout, check out our 5 Great Rowing Workouts For Your Next Cross Training Session.