What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work?

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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? 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 strokes are executed. So just a recap, there are four phases to a stroke which are the following:

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

All your major muscles participate in completing every single stroke, 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 an upper-body workout, you couldn’t be more wrong.

So what muscles do rowing machines actually work?

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


  1. The Catch


what are calories burned rowingPosition: 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 stretched out to the front. Flex your feet towards you while preparing to pivot for the next phase.

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

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

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

Sub-phase 2: Focus on the body swing

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. Upperparts 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 body 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

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

Muscles Worked: body muscles (delts, traps, lats, forearm, biceps, pecs), quads

  1. The Finish

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 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 body muscles (delts, traps, lats), abs, glutes, and quads

  1. The Recovery

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)

See My List of Top Rowing Machines Under $500

How significant are the calories burned rowing?

With all those muscles getting a proper full-body workout, we’re not surprised at all that you get at least 400 calories burned 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 a rowing machine stand out from the rest of indoor fitness equipment:

  1. It’s one of the most intense full-body routines with the lowest impact on joints. This low-impact quality opens a safe option for people with weak joints or who are recovering from some injuries to get fit.
  2. Its intensity makes it one of the best cardiovascular routines there is. The rhythm and intensity of rowing routines raise the heart and breathing rates of an athlete. Done regularly, rowing will strengthen your heart (heart rate), 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 equipment in the gym.

Wrapping up

Catch. Drive. Finish. Recover. Repeat. If you make sure that you do this routine regularly, it will not only make you healthy physically, but it will also help relieve stress and improve emotional strength. In other words, it’s not only a question of “what muscles do rowing machines work, but also about the overall benefits that you get out of rowing.

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