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It seems as if every day I hear more people talking about taking up rowing and the joys of owning an indoor rower. I might be a bit prejudiced in this area, but I completely agree. Rowing is fun, it’s fast, and it really gives you a total body workout. Oh, wait! Did I say TOTAL? How about 86 percent? Does that qualify as total?
While rowing works out 86 percent of the body’s major muscle groups, it leaves out the remaining 14 percent. Rowing does not work out or engage as intensely the chest, top muscles of the shoulder, and the hip adductors and abductors.
Would you like to know about the muscles that rowing works, at what percentage, and more about the muscles it doesn’t work? In today’s article, I’m going to spill the beans on rowing, muscles, and everything you need to know to get all the benefits of rowing and more.
What Muscles Will Rowing Work?
I mentioned earlier that exercising on an indoor rower works 86 percent of the muscles in the body, and that is 100% correct. Indoor rowers are one of the fastest ways that everyone can use to put them on the road to good health.
You might be wondering which muscle groups does a rower work.
The truth is that rowers are a nearly perfect workout machine. The muscles that a rowing machine works are:
- Triceps brachii or Triceps
- Back muscles
- Latissimus dorsi or Lats
- Shoulder muscles
- Pectoralis or Pecs (chest muscles)
- Core muscles
- Quadriceps or Quads (the front thigh muscles)
- Hamstrings (the back of the thigh)
- Gluteal muscles or Glutes
- Leg muscles, including the calfves
Not only that, but one of the biggest muscles, the heart, also gets a tremendous workout!
So in short, working out on a rowing machine will not only work all the muscle groups, but rowing machines will also give you a cardio workout, help you with weight loss, and improve your fitness level.
That’s a lot of exercise for one rowing workout!
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What Muscles Does Rowing Work the Most?
There are 4 phases to each rowing stroke. Each phase works different muscle groups. Let’s break it down stroke by stroke.
Muscles Worked By Phase of a Rowing Stroke
The Catch – Beginning Position
You start a stroke with your hands on the handle, 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, as you flex your feet towards you while preparing to pivot for the next phase of the rowing stroke.
The catch position of a rowing stroke will work the following:
- Tibialis anterior
- Lower back (spinal erectors)
- Deltoids or Delts
- Trapezius or Traps
- Serratus anterior (aka big swing or boxer’s muscle)
The Drive – 3-Step Phase
This part of the stroke works your muscles in three steps. You may also think of it as the long transition from the Catch to Finish.
Step 1 – Emphasis on the leg muscles
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 your elbows slightly. It will work out your:
- Upper Back
Step 2 – Focus on body swing, pivoting from the hips
Push back your seat past the middle of the beam, swinging the 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, effectively working out your:
- Spinal erectors
- Abs and obliques
- Deltoids or Delts
- Teres major
- Serratus anterior
- Arms (forearms)
Step 3 – Main emphasis on the arms and upper body muscles
With a more pronounced incline, engage your core, contract your arms to prepare for the pull-through, and extend your legs. This step will work the:
- Upper arms
- Upper back
The Finish – Body in Layback Position
The finish is where the drive ends and recovery begins. You should pull the handle towards your sternum, aligning it with your elbows, wrists, and forearms in a single line.
Your form should be: 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.
This part of the rowing stroke puts more muscle groups to work, including the:
- Arms (forearms)
Engaging the core and back is what keeps your balance at this position, also called the layback.
The Recovery- The Drive in Reverse
You might think that the body muscles are resting at this point, but even this part of the rowing stroke exercises some of the leg muscles and other muscle groups. Think of this phase as the reverse of the drive.
From the layback, extend your arms forward at the chest level, tighten your abs to flex your torso forward from the hips, slowly bringing your back from the inclined to an upright position, bending your knees and flexing your feet as you slide your seat to the front. Keep your back straight and your core engaged the whole time.
This will work your:
- Arms (forearms)
- Wrist extensors
As you can see, nearly every muscle in the body is being worked during some stage of the rowing stroke. In fact, I think I might have made this article shorter by listing the muscles that AREN’T worked! Which is the next thing we’re talking about.
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What Muscles Are NOT Worked Out with Rowing?
This will be a very short list!
While rowing is a nearly perfect workout, it misses a few muscle groups and doesn’t work them as hard, and these are
- The chest
- The overhead (top) muscles of the shoulder
- The adductors and abductors of the hip
If you wanted to do some resistance training or strength training to complement rowing, you should focus on these muscles.
Some say that you should also consider the abdominals. This is especially true for newbies who are just beginning to learn the rowing motion. You should work out the abs to ensure that you protect the back muscles. If you are new to rowing be sure to check out my article on what is a good rowing pace.
Rowing does involve the abdominals when you perform the strokes correctly, but beginners may not yet master the technique. Doing a complementary workout for this muscle group will not hurt.
You might also want to think about stretching, as well as strengthening the arms, hands, legs, and upper body, including the shoulders, to help prevent injuries.
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How Long Does It Take to See Results from Rowing?
This would depend on your fitness level when you start, the frequency and duration of your workout sessions, and the intensity of your rowing workouts.
People who are generally in good physical condition but who might be 15-20 pounds overweight, could see an improvement in their strength and muscle tone and even lose some weight, in as little as 2-weeks. They only need to work out at medium to high intensity for 20 minutes 6 days a week!
Whether you want to have stronger arms, an upper body that you can be proud of, or if you want the world to see what you have accomplished, a rowing machine has the answer for you.
There could be cases when you’ve dedicated yourself to rowing machine cardio workouts 6 days a week and still not see results after a few weeks. I know how frustrating that could get, but don’t give up!
The benefits of rowing are numerous – I’ll mention some to get you inspired if you aren’t yet.
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Benefits of Rowing
Intense but low-impact workout
It’s one of the most intense total body routines that has low impact on your joints (non-weight bearing). It reduces the risks of injury for people with weak joints or who are recovering from some injuries and want to get fit or lose weight.
Best exercise for the heart and lungs
Its intensity makes it one of the best cardiovascular routines there is. 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.
Burns calories like crazy
How significant are the calories burned on a rowing machine? 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 on moderate intensity for an hour. You can up that number to over 800 calories doing vigorous or intense workouts on a rower.
I’m Not Seeing Results Yet, What Now?
You may not have attained your goals yet, but you can’t deny feeling and looking good. Who doesn’t want to feel and look younger, healthier, and happier?
My best advice is not to give up. The ergometer may be the devil in disguise, but it can actually be your best friend. Ask yourself if you’re truly working as hard as you should and for the length of time recommended.
Some people like to cheat a little, but you’re only cheating yourself. The rowing machine won’t care if you use it as a coat rack and you end up with cardiovascular disease. Use your rowing machine to work that body. Everybody needs exercise! Give yourself time, take off one day per week to rest, and you will see results soon.
That’s when you’ll see that a rowing machine beats the heck out of any stationary bike or other types of exercise machines. Rowing works all the major muscle groups, and no amount of floor exercises can even come close.
Bottom Line: Rowing as a Full-Body Workout
You can get the most out of your rowing machine if you avoid common mistakes and work on performing the strokes correctly, rather than focusing on how fast your body can move.
Here are some helpful tips and tricks to make your workout session go more smoothly and help you see results more quickly:
- Remember that nutrition counts! It won’t help if you burn 500 calories with your rowing machine, only to consume 700 extra calories in junk food.
- Take a few “before” photos and then compare them to your “after” photos every two weeks. You will be shocked at your progress!
- Don’t compare yourself to anyone but you!
- Drink plenty of water (you hear that a lot, I know, but are you really doing it?)
- If you are a true beginner, take some classes or watch some online videos about how to do the strokes correctly. Focus on performing the strokes with a fluid motion and don’t worry about speed; that will come with practice.
- Mix up your routines so you don’t get bored and your body doesn’t become accustomed to the same workout
- For those with an air rower, be sure to check the damper setting on your rower
- If you feel tired or sore, row with less intensity for one day, then get right back on schedule.
- Don’t forget to take one day off per week so your body has time to build new muscle and rest.
- Stretch your arms, hands, and legs at least one day per week to keep the connective tissue in your body flexible
Exercise is a lot of work, true, but no one says that you can’t enjoy it at the same time! Relax and have fun with it. The benefit of exercise, and rowing especially, are so worth it. Show the world what you’ve got—I for one can’t wait to see it! If you are interested in seeing some great machines be sure to check out all our quiet rowers.
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Written by Petra Amara – RowingCrazy.com
CEO & Founder of RowingCrazy, National Rower, Coxswain Womens Eight Team, Rowing Coach & Writer
Petra is a Mother of two and owner of Rowingcrazy.com. Petra lives and breathes rowing, she also has a passion for writing which lead her to start RowingCrazy.com to share her rowing experience and expertise with others.