Rowing machine: What muscles does it work?

rowing machine

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Rowing has been called the best total body cardiovascular workout due to the fact that it engages practically every major muscle group in your body. In fact, rowing uses 85% of your muscles, compared to other activities such as running, which incorporate less than half this amount. The fact that rowing requires so much muscle power sets it apart from other forms of cardiovascular exercise because it has the ability to tone and strengthen the body more. For instance, cycling and running are both excellent forms of cardiovascular exercise, however, both of these forms of exercise engage mostly the legs. Rowing, on the other hand, engages the legs, arms, core, chest, and back. Here’s how.

  • Rowing engages the legs. It’s no secret that a rowing machine works your legs. The muscles of the legs, the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, make up one of the largest muscle groups in the entire body. While many cardiovascular exercises engage the legs, rowing engages them in a way that provides low-impact, muscle strengthening activity. Each row stroke is powered by the legs. The glutes, hamstrings, and quads contract to push the foot pedal away as the handle is pulled each time. The calves are stretched and elongated through the finish of the stroke and also contracted at the catch, making rowing extremely effective in shaping and toning your legs.
  • Rowing engages the core. It is impossible to row effectively without a strong, tight core. Your core muscles must be engaged to effectively catch and pull for each stroke. It’s important that you be conscious of tightening your abdominal muscles during your rowing session and keeping your lumbar spine as erect as possible to avoid injury and generate power in your pull. If you relax your abdominal muscles during a pull, you risk hurting your back and not generating enough power in your stroke. Additionally, a tight core will help you return the handle to the catch at the end of every stroke.
  • Rowing engages the arms and shoulders. This may seem obvious, since you will be pulling a handle each time you make a stroke, however, it should be noted that not only are your forearms, biceps, and triceps getting a great workout, your shoulders are also getting in on the action. Each time you pull, these muscles contract to pull the handle back safely to your chest. It is easy for your arms to feel fatigued while rowing, and if this happens you may need to adjust your form and work on your rowing posture. As a side note, the majority of the strength for your strokes should be generated from the legs, with the arms being a secondary muscle group for the exercise.
  • Rowing engages your back and chest. The push/pull movement of rowing is an excellent way to engage your back and chest. The pulling movement that begins each stroke is beneficial to your lats and also your delts. It’s important to keep good posture while you are rowing to ensure you are using your muscles correctly and supporting your spine through the entire stroke. Doing this will not only strengthen your back, but will also prevent injury. Your pectoral muscles will also get a workout while rowing. Each time you bring the handle to your chest your pectoral muscles are contracted, providing a movement pattern that mimics a push-up.

Rowing is a great exercise for strengthening practically every muscle group in your body. Using an at-home rowing machine as part of your fitness routine can dramatically increase your strength in just a few sessions per week. Rowing uses more muscle groups more effectively than practically any other form of cardiovascular exercise. The more efficient you become with rowing, the more strengthening and toning you can expect in all areas of your body.


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