What muscles does a rowing machine work?

Pete Donohoe

Our lives are busy, it’s no secret. So now more than ever, efficiency in working out matters. We want to get the most of every minute of working out, meaning we want to find workouts that exercise multiple muscle groups effectively. 

What muscles does a rowing machine work?

If done correctly, rowing works an impressive 86% of major muscle groups. Each rowing stroke activates muscles in your lower body, upper body, and core. Let’s break down the stroke movement by movement.

The Catch

As the first phase of a stroke, the catch works your arms, lats, core, and glutes. Your arms are used as you extend forward to hold the handle in the starting position. Your legs are working as you hold your shins vertically in the catch position. Your core muscles, this includes your back and latissimus dorsi muscles, help support your arm movements/extension. 

The Drive

As you push through your feet and extend your legs in the drive phase, you’ll use your hamstrings, glutes, and quads. Your core is fully engaged as you hinge at the hip to bring your body upright, you’ll work your entire back and abs to keep your body stabilized. As you pull the handle to your chest, your biceps activate and shoulder muscles contract. 

The Finish

In the third phase of the rowing stroke, your core is engaged as you hinge further back at the hip. This hinge engages all five of the major muscles that make up your core including the rectus abdominis, internal abdominal oblique, external abdominal oblique, and transverse abdominis. As you pull the handle in to your body, you'll use your biceps and shoulders.

The Recovery 

As you start the recovery phase you’ll extend your arms back out towards the front of the rowing machine, activating your shoulders and triceps. You’ll hinge back forward, continuing to engage your core muscles. You’ll draw your knees up as you pull yourself towards the front of the rowing machine. This motion works your hamstrings and calves as they contract while you bring yourself back to the starting position.

Additional Resources

If you’re looking to grow your knowledge base, Hydrow has an extensive library of articles that can support your rowing journey.

Hydrow Rowing Glossary to help you get familiar with different terms you’ll come across while rowing.

Proper Rowing Form to support safe and effective strokes on your rowing machine, reducing injury and giving you a better workout.

How long should you work out on a rowing machine? The answer will depend on your goals and experience level.

Rowing vs Running: Is rowing better than running? Which will help you reach your health and fitness goals best?

How to Calculate the Right Pace Windows and Meet Your Goals to help you improve your health and fitness through a “good” split on a rowing machine.

Rower Comparison to determine which rowing machine is right for you.

Sources: Tachibana, Kanta, et al. “Muscle Cross-Sectional Areas and Performance Power of Limbs and Trunk in the Rowing Motion.” Sports Biomechanics, vol. 6, no. 1, 2007, pp. 44-45.