What Muscles Does Rowing Work?

Socrates once said, “It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” One way of realizing the full potential of your body is through rigorous exercise.

What Muscles Does Rowing Work

The human body has more than 600 individual muscles. These can be grouped into 11 groups, or simply 5 major groups: Legs and buttocks, abdominal, back and shoulder, chest as well as arm muscles. Every good exercise regime aims at working out all these muscle groups to ensure balance.

One of the best ways to achieve a full-body exercise is through rowing. Experts have concluded that it works 84% of all the muscles in the body, and is one of the best workouts for burning calories and gaining lean muscle.

When you do anaerobic exercises on a rowing machine, you are helping to build more muscle just like with weight lifting.

Muscles Used During Rowing

When rowing, you follow a standard technique that puts into action the whole body including the legs, core, arms, chest and back muscles.

Rowing techniques vary, however. You can use your arms alone, especially if the rowing machine is a hydraulic piston rower. You can also change positions, hand grips and techniques to target different muscle groups. That makes rowing even more versatile and useful for a total body workout. 

The standard rowing technique on a typical rowing machine consists of two parts, as shown here. Those are the drive, and the recovery. They can be further divided into four phases.

Stages of a Rowing Stroke

This is the beginning of the stroke, with the arms extended and back and legs bent.

The Drive

Just as the name suggests, this is the second part where you push off with your legs, pull with the arms and swing through the vertical.

The Finish

This is the end of the drive, where the back is leaned slightly past the vertical, the arms are being used to pull towards the middle of the body and the legs are fully extended.

The Recovery

The recovery is simply the reversal of the whole process as you back to the starting position. You swing your back, pass through the vertical and lean forward, while at the same time bending your legs and arms as you pull your body forward.

Muscles Used During Rowing Strokes

When you use the correct rowing technique, your body moves in one fluid motion and engages every muscle group as needed. It is low impact and has minimal chance for injury. 

However, if you have back problems, you should speak to your trainer or doctor about it. There are other techniques that you can use without hurting your back or spine.

In general, rowing uses the following muscle groups.

  • Quads
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes.
  • Abdominal muscles
  • Lats
  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Biceps
  • Back

Each stage of the rowing stroke activates a different group of muscles.

What Muscles Does Rowing Work

The Catch

You start off the catch with the leg bent and shins in a vertical position. The arms are fully extended, and the back slightly bent forward. The back muscles are relaxed and the abdominals are pulling your body forward. At the same time, your triceps and deltoids are working to have your arms extended.

The Drive

Pushing off on the drive engages the quads, hamstrings, glutes, triceps, biceps, core, back … basically the whole body. At this point, however, your arms are still doing minimal work. You should use the push off to extend your arms and legs without yet pulling towards you.

This gives most of the work to the powerful leg muscles, especially the quads and glutes (thighs and buttocks.) The core and also get into action as you swing from a forward lean, through the vertical axis to the back leaning position.

The Finish

The finish is the point in the stroke where you use your upper body to pull towards your lower chest or midriff.

The quads and glutes contract to fully extend your legs and your abdominals extend to hold your body during the lean. The back muscles contract at the same time, while you use your biceps and deltoids to pull in. This stage effectively uses most of your upper body.

The Recovery

The whole process is reversed, without the load from the resistance. Here, your body weight plays a major role as you extend your arms, pull in with the legs to bend them, and lean the upper body forward.

In doing so, you will use all the major groups involved in the rowing stroke.

Benefits of Rowing

Rowing exercises work a wide range of muscles in the body to bring about many wonderful benefits.

Rowing is an Amazing Cardiovascular Workout

Rowing is considered a combination exercise, in that it can be used as a cardio endurance workout as well as for strength training. By working the major muscles in the body, it forces your lungs to take in more air and your heart to pump faster, making it great for cardio.

Rowing Burns Through Fat in no Time

Through rowing, you can expect to burn anywhere from 400-800 calories per hour. With the right diet and plenty of rowing exercises, you can burn through fat faster than you can take it in.

Rowing is a Great Way to Build Lean Muscle

Did you know that rowing is a great HIIT exercise? This is especially true when you use variable resistance rowers which allow you to vary resistance instantly. 

Rowing Increases Your Stamina and Endurance

Rowing is hard, and it has no shortcuts. It’s either you give it your all, or you don’t. When you push yourself to do it for longer and longer each time, you increase your stamina.

Rowing is Great for Strength Training

Rowing is a non-impact form of exercise, which makes it good for seniors and invalids. You don’t have to take it at full intensity but can instead take it slow for long periods of time to build strength and prevent muscle atrophy. 


Rowing exercises help you to work out over 80% of your muscles. Given that the average body is about 40% muscle mass, all the muscle groups in the body are engaged in one way or another.

The secret of rowing lies in the technique used. If you’re a normal, healthy adult, the standard technique used is perfect as it will help you obtain a full-body workout simultaneously. 

Many experts nowadays have come to appreciate the benefits of rowing exercises even more, and it has even been incorporated into Crossfit workouts.

About Gaurav Dhir

Gaurav Dhir, B. Tech, PGDCM is an engineer and MBA by training. A fitness aficionado, Gaurav follows a strict diet and exercise regimen to keep himself vigorously active. He loves playing sports and being outdoors. Gaurav is responsible for the health and wellness of 4 generations including his son, elderly parents and very elderly grandparents.