Does a rowing machine help you gain muscle?

Pete Donohoe and Peter Donohoe

We live in a world that is arguably busier than ever before. Did you 77% of American adults don’t get enough physical activity. 

Plus, going to the gym can be boring, time-consuming, and inefficient. In a world full of busy bees living life on the go, an exercise that can offer a quick full-body workout in a short period of time for any fitness level is of the utmost importance - but does this even exist?

If you are looking for a fun, fast, full-body workout that takes care of strength training and cardio all in one, then rowing just might be your answer. 

An indoor rowing machine mimics the smooth motion of rowing on the water and can help you with weight loss as well as building muscle without bulking up too much. In addition, is also an effective, low-impact option for cardiovascular fitness, helping to maintain a healthy heart and lungs. 

What Muscles Does Rowing Work?

Rowing provides for multiple groups of body muscles. Unlike other popular machine-based exercises like the stationary bike or treadmill, one rowing stroke targets nine different muscle groups. In fact, according to a study from the English Institute of Sport, researchers found that these nine muscle groups include 86% of the body’s muscles. Making the rowing machine an exceptional option for those looking to build muscle.

The beauty of a rowing stroke is that it activates the lower body (like your quadriceps and glutes), upper body (like deltoids and lats), and core muscles (the coveted abdominal muscles) all at once. Many believe that rowing is all about leg strength, but as you can see, this couldn’t be further from the truth. To get a better understanding of what muscles a rowing machine workout targets, let’s dive into the four phases that make up a stroke: The Catch, The Drive, The Finish, and The Recovery. 

The Catch The catch is the start of a rowing stroke in which the seat is slid all the way forward, and positioned close to the front of the machine. To perform this motion, bend your knees up close to your chest while keeping your shins vertical to the ground. 

This movement will strengthen your: - Triceps -- during the catch motion, your triceps are used to extend your arms and elbows forward to take hold of the handlebar in the starting position.  - Legs -- your hamstrings, glutes, and calf muscles compress as the shins are held in a vertical position.  - Back muscles -- the back muscles are also activated during the catch, specifically the latissimus dorsi. This important muscle controls the extension of your arms while the trapezius muscles control the shoulder blades. The rhomboids are also used. The rhomboids are the muscle that sits between your spine and shoulder blades to support the trapezius. 

The Drive The next phase of the rowing stroke is called the drive. Begin by pushing your feet off the foot stretchers until your legs are almost fully extended. Engage your core and use your hip hinge to swing your body into an upright position. Then, engage your shoulders, arms, and back to pull the handlebar back towards your sternum or ribcage, completed in one swift fluid motion. 

This movement will strengthen your: - Legs -- your leg muscles - specifically the hamstrings and glutes - contract during the drive motion to extend your hips as your upper body slightly leans back into a 45-degree angle.  - Shoulders -- as your legs drive your body back along the rail, your shoulder muscles contract. - Biceps -- once your hands reach your knees, your biceps activate to pull the handlebar in towards your lower ribs.  - Abs -- as the handlebar is pulled close to your sternum, your abs also contract to keep your body stabilized. - Back -- both your lower and upper back muscles help stabilize the upright position of your torso and are activated as the handlebar is pulled into your lower ribs.

The Finish During the third phase known as the finish, engage your core to stabilize your body while hinging slightly backward at the hips. Use that momentum to fully extend your legs, bringing the handle all the way in toward your sternum. Your upper arms will internally rotate, simulating a rowing motion. 

This movement will strengthen your: - Torso -- believe it or not,  your torso is made up primarily of five muscles, which include the rectus abdominis, internal abdominal oblique, external abdominal oblique, pyramidal, and transverse abdominis. Each muscle that makes up the torso is activated during the finish motion to keep your body stabilized.  - Biceps -- your bicep muscles also contract through this phase to stabilize and support your back muscles. This helps them to rotate your upper arms.

The Recovery The final motion of a rowing stroke is the recovery phase, which is basically the first three steps but in reverse. To start, extend your arms out in front of you toward the flywheel, keeping them parallel to the ground. Hinge forward from your hips and bend your knees using your hamstrings to pull you forward. Keep going until you’re back in the initial “catch” position. Be sure to control your motion during this phase in order to activate the most muscle groups. 

This movement will strengthen your: - Triceps -- in the recovery phase, the triceps activate to extend your arms forward. - Upper legs and calves -- your upper and lower leg muscles - specifically the hamstring, glutes, and calves - contract during the recovery motion as you slide your seat down the rail, back to the starting position.

Each of the four phases also utilizes the muscles in the neck, hands, and chest. As a result, completing just one simple rowing stroke means you’ve activated every major skeletal muscle in your body. 

The Benefits

Cardio and Strength Training at the Same Time Skeletal muscles aren't the only ones that benefit from rowing - your cardiovascular system gets a good workout too. Since rowing uses your entire body, it does a wonderful job of keeping your heart rate elevated and lungs working hard. This is an aerobic exercise because it strengthens your body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently. 

Many people are in favor of either one or the other, strength training or aerobic exercise. Although, research has found that neither type can reduce the risk factors for cardiovascular disease on its own. However, when resistance training and cardio workouts are combined like in a rowing workout, risk factors for cardiovascular disease may improve in as little as eight weeks

Keeps Impact Low In addition to being a great way to incorporate aerobic exercise into your fitness routine, an indoor rowing machine is also ideal for those suffering from joint pain or injuries. Unlike other types of cardio machines like climbing stairs, jumping, and running, rowing is virtually zero-impact and non-weight-bearing. This provides those dealing with pain a way to get their heart rate up. You don't ve to worry about the aches to go with it. 

Helps to Burn Fat Activating all of your major muscle groups through rowing will increase the number of calories burned. Also, as you work out, it helps you to build more metabolically active (i.e., fat-burning) tissue. At the same time, it amplifies the “afterburn effect". This is known as the number of calories that your body continues to burn following a vigorous workout. It goes without saying that rowing is a true full-body workout, engaging your muscles from head to toe. To meet the energy demands of all the muscles being utilized, your cardiorespiratory system has to shift into overdrive. This exertion during a strenuous rowing session can burn around 300 calories in just thirty minutes for the average 70-kilogram individual. Rower workouts are a great option when it comes to managing body weight. 

The Bottom Line

The rowing machine engages all of your major muscle groups during each stroke. Effectively, gaining muscle mass mass. In addition, rowing comes with some pretty exceptional benefits like tying both cardiovascular exercise and strength training into one effective and efficient calorie-burning workout.

On top of being a great choice to improve your cardiovascular system and build strong lean muscle, an indoor rowing machine is low-impact and non-weight-bearing.

Considering an indoor machine? It’s important to keep in mind that not all machines are created equal. The Hydrow Rower was designed to create a compelling pathway to whole health for individuals of all fitness levels. Hydrow provides a means for everyone to access the soothing experience and holistic benefits. With world-class athletes to provide authentic at-home immersive workouts, Hydrow makes it easy to stay on track to reach your fitness goals. Whether you are looking to gain muscle or drop a few pounds, The Hydrow Rower can help you get your "erg" on.


Peter Donohoe

Peter is our head strength and movement specialist. As an Olympian, conditioning coach, and corrective exercise specialist, Peter’s methodology continues to influence the movement of athletes from many sports. Join Peter for On the Mat workouts and benefit from increased mobility and enhanced performance.