This article is about the mighty rowing machine, and in it I discuss the muscles you use throughout the rowing motion.
I also provide a tutorial with instructional videos on how to use proper rowing machine form, and I share the benefits a rowing machine workout provides.
What muscles do you use on a rowing machine?
A rowing machine works all of your major muscle groups, from your shoulders & arms on down through your abs, back, butt, & legs.
It provides an aerobic workout that builds your endurance & strength, cardiovascular benefits, and is well-suited for low-impact high intensity interval training.
We’ll look at the specific muscles activated in a rowing machine workout and go over a rowing machine’s key benefits.
I also provide a checklist for maintaining good form throughout the rowing stroke, and a couple of beginner rowing tutorial videos as well.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant medical and sports science resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
The muscles a rowing machine works
The rowing machine activates all of your major muscle groups throughout the course of a single stroke. Different muscles are used for each part of the rowing stroke.
The rowing stroke can be divided into 2 main motions, the Drive and the Recovery. In between them are 2 smaller movement/positions, the Catch (at the start of the rowing stroke, before the drive), and the Finish (at the end of the drive, before the recovery).
The sequence is as follows:
- The Catch
- The Drive
- The Finish
- The Recovery
Here are the muscles used during each of the rowing stroke’s movements.
Abs – The abs tilt your body forward at a 1 o’clock position towards your feet & the front of the rower.
Legs – Upper legs & calves compress as the shins are held at vertical.
Triceps – The triceps extend your elbows & arms forward to grasp the handle in starting position.
Legs – The initial move in the drive is all from the upper legs & calves. The legs should be drawing the handle towards you at this point, not your arm muscles.
Shoulders – As the legs drive your body back along the rail, the shoulder muscles contract.
Biceps – Once your hands reach your knees, your biceps activate to pull the handle towards your lower ribs.
Abs – Your abs flex as the handle is pulled towards your body.
Back – The back stabilizes the upright position of your torso as the handle nears your lower ribs, then activates to pull your body back to an 11 o’clock position at the end of the Drive.
Glutes & hamstrings – Your upper leg muscles (particularly your hamstrings) and your butt muscles contract to extend your hips as your upper body leans back into the 11 o’clock position (In case you didn’t know, glutes are your butt muscles).
Upper body – At the end of the Drive, almost every major upper body muscle is active as your glutes & leg muscles stabilize your position.
Abs – The abs are active as they stabilize your body at the Finish.
Legs & Glutes – Upper legs and glutes are active & contracting in the Finish position.
Back – Your back is contracting to stabilize your Finish position, and is active contracting so your arms rotate internally.
Biceps – The biceps muscles are also contracting to stabilize and are actively helping the back muscles rotate your upper arms.
Triceps – Triceps activate to extend arms forward away from you.
Abs – Your abs are active to tilt your body forward to the 11 o’clock position.
Upper legs & calves – Upper & lower leg muscles contract as you slide your seat down the rail back to the Catch position.
If you’re interested in more sports science detail showing ALL of the muscles used while rowing, here’s a PDF of an old pamphlet “The Biomechanics of Rowing”, courtesy of Concept2, the makers of the #1 rowing machine in the world.
Bottom Line: The rowing machine engages all of our major muscle groups during each rowing stroke. This puts it well ahead of other cardio machines in terms of providing total-body conditioning.
Benefits of rowing
Here are a few of the good things a rowing machine & its workouts provide us.
Rowing provides cardiovascular benefit
Rowing certainly qualifies as an activity that can provide moderate to vigorous exercise, as per the HHS (our US Dept. of Health & Human Services).
This means a rowing machine can provide you with improved heart & lung function, more endurance & energy, as well as many more of what the Health Dept. call substantial health benefits.
Rowing gives a full-body workout
Rowing isn’t a substitute for strength training if you’re looking to build muscle & get a lot stronger.
But it can strengthen & tone nearly all of the major muscle groups in your body, and even grow them all a little too.
As I showed in the previous section, a rowing machine workout conditions all of these major muscles (and some minor ones I don’t mention as well):
Rowing machine workout bonus:And a rowing machine workout is good for weight loss too: a moderate to vigorous rowing machine workout can burn several hundred calories per hour.
Tip to increase muscle work on a rower
You can increase the amount of muscle strength required of you during parts of your rowing machine workout, and this will in turn add a little more muscle mass.
You do this by increasing the amount of resistance.
On an air rower like the world #1 Concept2 Model D, resistance can come from simply you working harder to pull more air into the fan.
(You can also use the dampener to allow more air into the fan.)
Other types of rowing machines will have a knob of some kind to adjust the resistance to a more difficult level, which will engage your muscles more.
Rowing is no-impact low-impact cardio
A rowing machine provides a low-impact cardio workout.
It’s considered low-impact because your feet never leave the ground and impact it over & over, like they would if you were running, jogging, kickboxing, or taking a high-impact calisthenic or aerobics class.
This is great for those of us who don’t want to put any more stress on the joints in our knees, hips, & ankles than we already do in our day-to-day lives.
For some of us that are older, pain & stiffness in our joints can make high-impact cardio workouts a drag.
For some, even walking can be an activity full of discomfort, which can make getting sufficient aerobic activity every week difficult.
Enter the rowing machine: it gives a great aerobic workout without any stress on the knee, hip, or ankle joints, making it a good option for anyone with arthritic issues.
Proper form for a rowing machine
Learning how to properly use a rowing machine isn’t hard, but there are a number of important things to be aware of when you begin.
Since that might seem a little much to keep track of, I’ve prepared a short sequential checklist here for each of the four movements: Catch, Drive, Finish, & Recovery.
After this, I provide a couple of short tutorial videos too.
The Catch sequence
- Arms extend forward at the Catch
- Shins are vertical
- Upper body is tilted forward to 1 o’clock position
- Seat is at least a foot from ankles; don’t slide closer
The Drive sequence
- Begin Drive by pressing with the legs
- Then lean body from 1 o’clock back to 11 o’clock
- Finish Drive by pulling handle into body with arms & back
- The Finish is just the position at the end of the Drive, where legs are extended & contracted, the upper body is at 11 o’clock, & the handle is pulled to the lower ribs with abs stabilizing.
Reverse the order of these movements for the Recovery.
The Recovery sequence
- Extend arms forward as handle passes over knees
- Lean the body forward
- Let the knees bend
- Seat slides back to starting position
(keep it at least a foot from your ankles)
Beginner rowing tutorial video
I do think (since I learned by watching) that seeing someone demonstrate correct technique is the best way to get all the details ingrained.
That way they become second nature pretty quickly.
So I’ve also included a short but excellent & easy-to-understand beginner’s video tutorial from my favorite rowing machine company ever, Concept2 😊.
Common rowing technique errors
And since sometimes it’s easy to fall into poor habits unless you know what it is you’re doing wrong, I also have this helpful video from Concept2 that points out the most common ways people mess up their rowing technique.
Rowing technique errors with arms & hands
- Improper grip
- Breaking arms at the Catch
- Chicken wing arms
Rowing technique errors with back
- Lunging at the Catch
- Over reaching at the Catch
- Lifting with the back at the Catch
- Excessive layback
Rowing technique errors with legs
- Bending knees too early in Recovery
- Rushing the slide
- Over-compressing at the Catch
- Shooting the slide
Rowing machine muscles FAQ
Is rowing bad for your back?
When done correctly, a rowing machine workout does not cause discomfort or strain your back muscles.
The two most common reasons for rowing workout back pain according to rowing trainers are incorrect rowing technique and weak abdominal muscles.
Weak ab muscles cause a person to overcompensate for that with their low back during the stabilizing parts of the stroke; that can make it sore.
And bad technique on any piece of cardio equipment – where you repeat the same movement over & over – can cause pain & injury.
Getting the right upper body posture throughout the rowing stroke, along with engaging the right sequence of muscle moves, will make rowing pain-free & enjoyable.
Is rowing good for your back?
Proper rowing technique strengthens back muscles, and good form is the key.
Proper rowing technique engages, contracts, & relaxes several back muscles during the stroke: the lats, rhomboids, traps, and spinal erectors.
They’re strengthened & toned by the resistance provided by your body weight and any resistance supplied by the machine itself, e.g., the air being pulled through the fan on a Concept2 Model D.
If you’re shopping for a home rowing machine, I put together product evaluation reports on several models covering all price ranges and resistance types:
I hope this article on rowing machine muscles, workout benefits, and proper technique is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.