What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work?

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man flexing rowing muscles from doing a rowing stroke cardio workouts

You’ve heard all the claims—working out on a rowing machine gets all the major muscle groups of the body engaged, 84% of the total muscle mass to be exact! But have you wondered exactly what muscles do rowing machines work? Is the promise of a full body workout true and what are the benefits of rowing? Find the answer to your questions below. 

What are the phases of a rowing stroke?

You know all about this, or you may have seen how a rowing stroke is executed. So just a recap, there are four phases to a rowing stroke which are the following:

4 Phases of a Rowing Stroke

  1. Catch
  2. Drive
  3. Finish
  4. Recovery

All your major muscles participate in completing every single rowing stroke on a rower, with 60% of the power coming from the legs, 25% from the core, and 15% from the arms. So if you thought that rowing was primarily a low impact upper body workout, you couldn’t be more wrong. 

So what muscles does rowing actually work? Do you get a full body workout?

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Let’s take each phase of a stroke and see which muscles contribute to complete the motions.


  1. The Catch

Different Muscle Groups of the Body – Upper and Lower


upper and lower muscles of the body used in strength training or rowing motion (ie catch position uses shoulder blades)Rowing Position: Start with your seat in the forward position, abdominals tightened, the upper part of your body slightly bent forward, knees bent, thighs forming an acute angle with the shins, and heels close to the seat. Grip the rowing handle with your arms fully extended to the front. Flex your feet towards you while preparing to pivot for the next phase of the rowing stroke.

Muscles Used: thigh and leg (quadriceps or quads, hamstrings, calves, sartorius, tibialis anterior), abdominals (core muscles – rectus abdominis or abs), lower back muscles (spinal erectors), and shoulder muscles (deltoids, traps, triceps, serratus anterior a.k.a. “big swing muscle” or “boxers’ muscle”)

lady on a rowing machine showing how to bend your knees in the Catch the Drive position to build muscle

  1. The Drive

There are three sub-phases to the drive, each focusing on a different muscle group:

Sub-phase 1: Focus on the legs

Rowing Position: Slide back your seat to the middle of the beam, keeping the top part of your body vertical, extend your arms parallel to the ground, knees partially extended, and feet pushing on the pedals. Contract your thigh and leg/glute muscles, and pull back elbows slightly.

Muscles Used: leg and thigh muscles (glutes, quads, hams, calves), upper parts of your body (deltoids, traps)

Sub-phase 2: Focus on the body swing

Rowing Position: Push back your seat past the middle of the beam, swinging your upper part of your body backward to a slight incline. As you push your legs, transfer that leg power to your torso during the swing. Upper parts of your body, abdominals, and lower body back muscles contract to keep the body steady.

Muscles Worked: lower body muscles in the back (spinal erectors), abs and obliques, and top muscles (deltoids, traps, teres major, serratus anterior), arm muscles (forearm and biceps), and leg muscles (glutes, hams, quads, calves)

Sub-phase 3: Focus on the arms and upper-body muscle groups

Rowing Position: With a more pronounced incline, engage your core, contract your arms to prepare for the pull-through, and extend your legs – pull the handle motion.

Muscles Worked: muscles (delts, traps, lats or latissimus dorsi, forearm, upper arms, biceps, pecs, upper back), quads

  1. The Finish

Rowing Position: With your shoulders back and down and upper back inclined, push your elbows back tight below your rib cage as you pull the chain to its max length. Continue to engage your core muscles as your feet push away at the pedals. Fully stretch your legs while preparing to contract them for the next phase. 

Muscles Worked: arm muscles (forearms, biceps), upper muscles (delts, traps, lats, or latissimus dorsi), abs, glutes, and quads

lady on a rowing machine at the recovery phase after intense strength training

  1. The Recovery

Rowing Position: Extend your arms forward at the chest level, tighten your abs to flex your torso forward slowly bringing your back from the inclined to an upright position, bend your knees, and flex your feet as you slide your seat to the front. Keep your back straight and your core engaged the whole time.

Muscles Worked: upper body muscles (traps, delts), arm muscles (triceps, forearms, wrist extensors), abs, thigh and leg muscles (hamstrings, calves)

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How significant are the calories burned on a rowing machine?

Man increasing his fitness level showing the catch drive rowing workouts in a fluid motion

With all those muscles getting a proper full body workout, we’re not surprised at all that you get at least 400 calorie burn rowing for an hour. This is comparable to intense aerobic exercise in and out of the gym. What sets rowing apart from others? Two things make rowers stand out from the rest of indoor fitness equipment:

Benefits of Rowing

  1. It’s one of the most intense total body routines with a low impact aerobic exercise on your joints (non weight bearing). This quality machine reduces risk factors for people with weak joints or who are recovering from some injuries and want to get fit or obtain weight loss.
  2. Its intensity makes it one of the best cardiovascular routines there is along with the added benefit of it being low impact. The rhythm and intensity of rowing routines raise the heartrate and breathing rates of an athlete. Done regularly, using a rower will strengthen your heart, increase your lung capacity, help you lose weight, and improve overall health.

The combination of these two characteristics, the number of calories burned with rowing, and the muscles engaged in each stroke makes rowing machines one of the most potent pieces of equipment in the gym for your entire body.

Wrapping up

The main function used with rowing machines – Catch. Drive. Finish. Recover. Repeat. If you ensure that you do this routine regularly to reach your fitness goals, each rowing session will not only make you healthy physically, improve your heart rate (reduce risk of cardiovascular disease), increase weight loss, but it will also help relieve stress, joint pain and improve overall strength.

In other words, it’s not only a question of “what muscles do rowing machines work, but also about the overall benefits of rowing that you can get from using these simple cardio machines.

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