What Muscles Does A Rowing Machine Work?

The rowing machine is possibly one of the most underrated exercise machines in your local gym. Often neglected in favour of treadmills, exercise bikes and stairmasters… this trusty machine has many benefits.

A properly executed rowing sequence works far more muscles than most people think. 

Wondering what muscles does a rowing machine work?

Rowing is touted as a full-body workout. This compound strength training movement utilizes around 85% of the muscles in your body within nine different muscle groups. Some of the muscles worked include the core, quads, hamstrings, glutes, lats, biceps, and deltoids, creating a full body workout.

Besides being a full-body workout that uses most of the major muscles in your body, rowing has several other significant benefits for your physical and mental health.

Let’s take a closer look!

What Muscles Does A Rowing Machine Work?

What muscles does a rowing machine work?
What muscles does a rowing machine target?

Rowing machines are not as widely advertised as other types of gym equipment, so their benefits often slip under the radar. But the truth is that rowing machines can provide a great cardiovascular workout and work multiple muscle groups at once, making them a highly effective piece of equipment for improving fitness.

Rowing is a true full-body workout that employs around 85% of the muscles in the body from nine major muscle groups. Some muscles that are worked include:

  • The core
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Lats
  • Biceps
  • Deltoids

If you are a runner, there are plenty of incentives to adopt a workout routine that has such broad benefits. But pretty much any athlete can reap the rewards.

One simple stroke with the rowing machine activates the upper body, lower body, and core muscles. Every major skeletal number is utilized during a rowing exercise. In fact, rowing can be considered the horizontal version of a deadlift as it incorporates similar muscles to this full-body exercise.

As a result of its incorporation of every major muscle group, rowing is exceptionally good for muscle gain. There are different stages in a rowing machine action, and each stage focuses on a different set of muscles at a different time during the exercise.

The core muscles are activated to a large degree throughout the use of a rowing machine. This includes the abdominals that are used throughout. The hip flexors and the serratus anterior muscles also come into play to a large extent.

The glutes, hamstrings, and calves are also involved in rowing to a large degree. The large muscles in the legs are used to create a power drive. This is due to bending the knees and pushing back on the footholds to allow you to propel your body backward with the reverse-driving motion.

The muscles used during this particular action are the same as those used when performing a squat.

As the hips hinge open, the gluteus maximus muscles are employed. During the stroke, the lats are incorporated while powering through the legs. This positioning allows you to pull back with the back muscles and lats.

The arms’ biceps and deltoid muscles are used throughout the rowing action. The deltoids located on top of your shoulders are engaged as you row. Your biceps make up about ten percent of the total rowing force while you draw the machine handle towards your chest.

In short: rowing is a fantastic multi-faceted workout that will target many key muscles at once.

Stages Of Using A Rowing Machine

The action of rowing is made up of multiple stages. A somewhat different set of muscles is employed at each stage to complete the action. Once you have completed a single stroke of the machine, you will have used nine different muscle groups and 85% of the muscles in your body

Now who’s laughing on the treadmill?!

The rowing stages are called the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. During the drive segment of the rowing action, the focus remains on the posterior chain, engaging the hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

During the pulling action of the rowing movement, the biceps, quadriceps, forearms, triceps, and lats are used.

The Catch

The catch is the first phase of the rowing action. This sequence uses the triceps, deltoids, traps, abdominals, lower back, hamstrings, and calves. As the legs compress, the shins become vertical during the action.

As you extend your arms, the triceps kick into action to assist you. The flexor muscles in the fingers and thumbs are employed to grasp the handle of the rowing machine. The abdominals are flexed to a large extent to bring your torso forward.

The Drive

During the drive, various muscles are called in to action. The pectorals, deltoids, upper back, trapezius muscles, lats, biceps, and forearms are used. In addition, this movement uses the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. The middle back and abdominals engage to ensure the core remains stabilized.

The drive is first initiated with the strong leg muscles. At the same time, the shoulder muscles contract. The biceps are next engaged to allow you to pull the machine’s handle back towards your abdomen. As you swing your torso open, the back muscles work increasingly harder. 

The glutes and hamstrings are fully engaged to allow you to extend your hips. The last part of this stage involves pulling your arms through. This uses the majority of the muscles in your upper body. 

The Finish 

The finish is the third stage of the rowing action. This uses the biceps, forearms, shoulders, trapezoids, deltoids, lats, and abdominals. The leg extension part of the movement incorporates the glutes and quadriceps.

During this stage of the rowing sequence, the abdominals work to stabilize the body. At the same time, the glutes and quads contract. The biceps and back muscles also contract to ensure the torso remains in its final position. At the same time, the upper arms are rotated. The athlete performing the action must lean back to fully engage the abdominals.

Again… that’s a whole lot of activity for the core.

The Recovery

The final stage of the rowing sequence is recovery. This incorporates the triceps, trapezoids, forearms, deltoids, abdominals, hamstrings, and calves. The majority of the muscles in the hands, neck, and chest also form part of this stage of the rowing stroke. 

The triceps are engaged when the arms are pushed forward and away from the body. The abdominals are flexed as the torso moves forward. At the same time, the hamstrings and calves are contracted while you slide upwards to the catch. 

Rinse and repeat, and you have a very effective workout.

Top Benefits Of Using A Rowing Machine

There are countless benefits to using a rowing machine as part of your workout routine. There are very few machines out there that offer a full body workout as well as a full cardiovascular workout simultaneously.

Granted, a rowing machine might not be as passive as a treadmill or an exercise bike (good luck reading a book!), but you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck per minute spent exercising.

See more: air vs magnetic rowing machines: which should you buy?

Rowing exercises the upper and lower body. It will help you strengthen and tone all the muscles used in the exercise (which is most of your muscles). While your muscles are becoming stronger and more toned, your endurance is simultaneously improved, and your heart and lungs will also see major benefits. 

  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Better lung capacity
  • Improved overall fitness

What’s not to enjoy?

Another excellent benefit of using a rowing machine is that it is an exercise suited to all fitness levels and most levels of physical capability. It’s not a particularly intimidating machine to get to grips with if you are new to the gym. Just sit on it and away you go.

For those less fit, rowing can simply be taken more slowly and carefully, and they can rest at any stage.

Low Impact For Recovery Days

Using a rowing machine is a low-impact exercise that will not put tremendous strain on any of your joints. It’s important to remember that this depends on your technique. Perfect technique is essential to ensure that you do not injure yourself.

While an activity like running will put a tremendous strain on your joints, rowing is a good way to take advantage of recovery days by getting in a highly effective workout that can be adjusted for intensity.

Due to the actions associated with using a rowing machine and the repetitive movements, rowing can be seen as a meditative activity where you can zone into the action and move out of your head and into your body.

Highly Efficient If You Are Short On Time

Rowing is also an extremely efficient exercise.

If you don’t have much time to workout, it’s a great way to target a lot of the key muscle groups in one go.

It is a full-body exercise, so you will exercise most of your muscles while simultaneously enjoying a cardio workout. This is akin to other types of exercise, such as high-intensity interval training or other workouts involving simultaneous strength and cardio work.

A rowing machine is a much better alternative to other machines such as the treadmill or elliptical. The treadmill focuses on the lower body, while the rowing machine works the entire body. Similarly, the elliptical works the upper body and lower body simultaneously.

However, it won’t take long to discover: the rowing machine requires far more effort.

Rowing machines are also great for home workouts. These lightweight, compact machines can easily fit into an apartment. They are also far quieter to use than a treadmill and are usually much cheaper. Most rowing machines can also easily fold up to allow you to stow them away when not in use.

While the trusty rowing machine hasn’t quite captured the public imagination like, say, the Peloton has for cycling – there are still companies producing high quality machines that work great in the home.

The Hydrow is the closest comparison to a “Peloton for rowing“. If you need a machine that offers a fully modern interactive workout experience, it’s well worth a look. Another premium offering comes from NordicTrack, a well-known company with a series of sophisticated home rowing machines.

Hydrow rowing machine design
The stunning design of the Hydrow rowing machine

However, you don’t need a fancy rowing machine to get the full benefits of a complete muscle workout.

Even the most basic rowing machines will get the job done.

Is a Rowing Machine Good For Full Body Workouts?


A rowing machine is considered one of the ultimate full-body workouts that uses around 85% of the muscles in the body from nine major muscle groups.

Rowing is a coordinated muscle action that employs muscles from every large muscle group. It has several benefits, including improved brain and heart health and cardiovascular fitness.

It might not be the trendiest of investments if you are looking to kit out a home gym, but it’s certainly one of the smartest.

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Alex Randall

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Alex is the editor at Revel Sports. It was his idea to take our post-club-run chats and build a website out of them. He is responsible for dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s when any of us have something to post. (Basically: it’s all his fault). A ferocious 5K powerhouse on his day, Alex is known for not understanding the meaning of the term ‘negative split‘.
Alex Randall

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