What Muscles Does A rowing machine work?

What muscles do rowers work featured image

From health-clubs catering for fitness-conscious professionals to body-building gyms filled with big necks and tiny vests, the rowing machine is a mainstay of establishments around the world. 

There are many good reasons for this- and more on those soon- but the main reason is simple: they’re a fantastically versatile and effective piece of equipment.

You could argue no other exercise (or single piece of gym equipment, certainly) gives you the ‘bang for your buck’ you get from the humble rower when it comes to the health and fitness benefits. 

I’m not going to get into that debate right here but what I will do is explain what a rowing machine does for your body and muscles.

What Muscles Does Rowing Work?

There’s no other full-body workout quite like that of a rowing machine. Think about it. You’re driving out with your legs, core engaged, and then you’re using your arms to bring the pulley towards your chest. Then back in again for the ‘recovery’ phase. 

It’s a simple, rhythmic movement that incorporates every part of your body. In the four phases of the row- the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery- between 80-85% of the muscles in the body are used. 80-85%!

Muscles Worked During The Catch

Many people associate rowing with the yanking of the pulley and might expect that arms benefit the most but if proper rowing technique is used the legs actually do most of the work: roughly a 60/40 split in their favor. 

Muscles Worked During  The Drive and Finnish

The quadriceps are used when you drive out from the machine. Your core needs to be engaged to maintain stability while you do. Your biceps bring the pulley into you, then you hit the upper back and traps as it reaches your chest. 

Muscles Worked During  The Recovery

In the recovery phase, you activate the triceps but the main benefactors are the glutes, hamstrings, and calves. All the while, of course, your lower back is getting a good workout.

I love hitting the treadmill to sweat out my day’s frustrations but it just can’t compete with the sheer full-body benefits of the rower. 

This brings me neatly on to…

How Does Rowing Benefit Your Muscles

Full-body exercises burn more fat than isolation exercises or ones that only target one body part (like bicep curls or the treadmill). It’s fairly common sense: the more muscles you involve in any given exercise the more energy/calories that get burned while you do. 

So if you are using 80-85% of your body it stands to reason that you will be burning more than if you are just using your legs, for example.

A 185-lbs man will burn upwards of 300 calories with just 30 minutes on the rowing machine 

Plus it’s the gift that keeps on giving: full-body exercises keep your metabolism stoked for longer than isolation exercises too.

And even if fat-burning is not the priority for you that it is for many…

The rower is great for muscle toning and helping build strength 

Obviously, it doesn’t pack the meat on like chucking those dumbells around but the rower works the muscles that facilitate your strength-building goals as well as providing enough resistance to tone up both the upper and lower body. 

What do you picture when you think of professional rowers? It’s usually standing riverside after the race, their vests rolled down to their waist. That athletic, sculpted, lean muscle mass. Beefy but not-too-beefy. Rowing built those bodies.

It strengthens the heart muscle and cardio-respiratory system

Whatever your goal- getting stronger, getting fitter, or losing fat- everyone wants the benefits the rowing machine brings to your cardio-respiratory system.

As your heart rate increases and your breathing gets faster and deeper, it increases the amount of oxygen in your blood. The more you row the better you are conditioning your body to use this oxygen more efficiently (your aerobic capacity). 

So as well as the fat-burning, the lean muscle mass-building, and the toning, it’s also great for your muscular endurance and conditioning!

Rowing increases mobility and reduces impact

Unlike the pounding that, say, running gives your knees, ankles, and joints, the rower puts much less stress on your body. So if you are recovering from injury or exertion it allows you to keep up your fitness without any added stress.

And it doesn’t just go easy on them, it also improves muscle and joint mobility. Rowing employs a wide range of movement, helping minimize stiffness and boost flexibility. It also strengthens stabilizer and neutralizer muscles that improve your off-balance movement.

And- on a more practical note- it has all these benefits while being incredibly versatile and time-efficient.

Rowing Machine Workout Options

As well as being a great workout on its own or as part of a circuit routine, many people use the machines as a warm-up prior to weight and resistance training, or even a warm-down after.

It’s there if you fancy a lung-busting 10k but it’s also perfect for the High-Intensity-Interval-Training for anyone more pressed for time. You have likely heard of them: short blasts of intense exercise interspersed with periods of rest. 30secs rowing like a maniac; 30seconds rest. Rinse and repeat for 10, 12, 15 minutes and you’ll stagger off the machine knowing you’ve had a workout.

And quite aside from the time-saving (which is useful enough), HIIT has been proven to boost your metabolism and keep it boosted for up to 48 hours after you take your feet from the stirrups. Not too shabby, eh?


So there you have it. You now know which muscles are worked when using a rowing machine, how the muscles work, and the benefits of rowing to your muscles. No matter what your goal, there’s a good chance a rowing machine will help you reach it.

  • It will help you burn fat and lose weight.
  • Help you get fitter, stronger, and more toned.
  • Help you improve the flexibility and mobility of your joints.
  • Boost your mood and help you ward off stress.

If you’re interested in getting your own rowing machine for home use, take a look at the best rowing machines available or compare rowers by checking out our reviews

Sam Watson


Sam is a CPT, Functional Movement Specialist, and content writer. As an ex-collegiate rower, Sam is an expert in the field of rowing and is passionate about helping people move more freely. With a dedication to excellence, Sam is a respected authority in the fitness and wellness community. When she's not working, she enjoys practicing yoga, hiking, and spending time with her two beloved dogs. Sam's expertise and personalized coaching make her an invaluable asset to the Start Rowing community.