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What Muscles Does Rowing Machine Exercise Work?

Muscles of the body

Rowing machine exercise works just about all your muscle groups, in your arms, legs, back, chest and stomach. The other day, I went to my favorite gym. I like it because it has good equipment, nice people, the owner is a personal friend (that helps!)

But since I like rowing because it works so many muscles, I asked my friend why he doesn’t have a rowing machine, only ellipticals, cycles, treadmills. He said that not enough people have asked for one. Amazing! I am not trying to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Mr. Universe, I just want to stay in shape, and get a good workout.

So the question arose for me, well, what muscles does a rowing machine actually work? Can it target all muscles?

If you’ve been wondering about this, I am about to give you the answer. And the ‘definitive answer’ is…………it depends.


The Basics: Muscle Groups


As you’ll see, rowing targets 5 Muscle Groups

  1. Legs
  2. Core, that is, stomach or abdominal muscles
  3. Back Muscles
  4. Arms.
  5. Chest

Starting with your legs, your quadriceps muscles, that is, the muscles that surround the area just above your knee joint, your hamstrings, those powerful muscles in the back of your thighs, your ‘glutes’, to put it plainly, the muscles in your butt.

You also need to use your core abdominals to use your whole body when pulling back. You of course need chest and arms in the pull back phase, as well as your back.

All told, experts agree that rowing machines use up to 85% of the muscles in your body.(3) That’s more than bicycling or running,which emphasize the lower body.


No Pushup or Push Lifting Muscles Used


But think about it. While it does use the pull muscles in your arms and chest, it doesn’t use push muscles, like in pushups, or lift straight up. Or for that matter, as in dumbbell flies, where you move your arms away from your body to the sides, strengthening your deltoids (the muscles just below your shoulders.)

“A rowing stroke starts with a powerful leg push — called the catch in rowing terminology. Extending your knees and hips uses some of the largest muscles in your body, namely your quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus maximus, which are located on the front of your thighs, the back of your thighs and the back of your hips, respectively. “(1)


Are Rowing Machines Better Suited for Some Muscle Groups over Others?


In this video, you’ll see that some rowing coaches emphasize their leg muscles more than their upper body muscles. That is not to say that you won’t get strong arms chest and back, but you won’t have the bod of an Arnold Schwarzenegger—So if you want to look like The Arnold, use body weights. More on that further down.


Can You Use a Rowing Machine for Different types of Exercises?


The answer to that is a definite YES. Remember we are talking about being in a gym or at home not in a boat. So you would be surprised at what you can do.

As you can see in this video, you can completely change the nature of the exercise to emphasize your Abdominal Muscles.


What about Upper Body Strength for Rowers?


As we saw, regular rowing machine exercises are meant for……Rowers! And you can see that different rowing enthusiasts have different ideas on rowing. Here is one coach talking about using the upper body.


Can a Rowing Machine Have Specialized Uses?


Here are more examples of using the rowing machine in positions other than sitting, to exercise your core, or do lunges to strengthen your legs specifically.


So, are Rowers – for Strength or Endurance?


Rowing machines can be used for either strength or endurance.  For example, by using the rower at a higher weight setting, and rowing faster, you build muscle, but if you pause to get more meters, you build endurance.(2)


When NOT to Exercise Muscles a Rowing Machine


This fellow makes the case that depending on your goal, a rowing machine IS NOT for you. Yes, I know, he totally contradicts many other fitness trainers who insist that rowing machines are the best all around piece of exercise equipment. But as your fearless blogger, who likes to look at all sides of  a questions, I just couldn’t leave this out.

“Don’t waste your money on a rowing machine…buy dumbells or join a gym”




So there you have it. You have seen:

  • How rowing machines exercise up to 85% of all your muscles at one time
  • Do not emphasize pushing forward or pushing up muscles
  • You can use rowing machines in several other ways than simply mimicking the act of rowing
  • That opinions vary on the usefulness of rowing machines for building strength.
  • Rowing uses the legs more than the upper body
  • Rowing can emphasize either Endurance or Strength, depending on what your objective is, and the technique you employ while on the rower.

So before investing in a rowing machine, be sure to know what your objective is. You may be better off just getting a set of dumbells for home use, or use a gym to get access to all of its facilities. For more specifics on the the best rowing machine for home use, click here.


  1. https://www.livestrong.com/article/82840-muscles-rowing-machine-work/
  2. https://www.quora.com/Do-rowing-machines-build-muscle
  3. https://www.businessinsider.com/doctor-says-rowing-on-a-machine-more-effective-than-running-on-treadmill-2018-3