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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, friendly 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. The 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 pullback 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 emphasizes 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 Use?

Here are more examples of using the rowing machine in positions other than sitting, exercising your core, or doing 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 questions, I just couldn’t leave this out.

“Don’t waste your money on a rowing machine…buy dumbbells 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 dumbbells for home use or use a gym to get access to all of its facilities. For more specifics on the best rowing machine for home use, click here.


Can you use a rowing machine for different types of exercise?

Rowing is a total body workout that uses many muscles in your body during every stroke you take with little to no impact. It allows you to burn fat through cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance. For a more well-rounded routine, you can also do kettlebell swings and other movements.

Which strength exercises are important to do for muscles not used in rowing?

Strength training with pull up bars, dumbbells, and rubber bands can be done each week in addition to rowing to work out those muscles not being used much or getting much attention like your triceps. However, rowing does use all the major muscle groups, but you need to exercise those muscles with different movements and motions and focus on strength training for your core.

What are good performance metrics on a gym rowing machine?

For aerobic conditioning on a rowing machine, you will need much longer rowing times. Most steady rate workouts should be between 45 and 90 minutes in duration. For these, the intensity and heart rate will be lower so you can go for that full duration. If your max effort is 1:45 for a 500-meter row, then a hard meter row will most likely be an average of 4 to 6 splits higher than that.

How effective is it to use a rowing machine as your primary form of exercise?

If you plan on using a rowing machine as part of your primary exercise routine, its effectiveness is going to be based on your goals. A rowing machine can be effective for cardiovascular exercise and fat loss and can burn approximately 600 calories in an hour, which makes it a more than effective cardio workout machine.

Can one lose belly fat only by training on a rowing machine?

There really isn’t one exercise that will specifically target belly fat. The body fat you lose is going to be as a whole. However, finding workouts, like rowing, that can help burn fat overall can be part of your exercise routine.

What are the pros and cons of using a rowing machine for daily exercise?

One of the biggest advantages of a rowing machine is the fact that it is good for a low-impact workout that still burns calories. There is no significant strain to your joints, and the machines are relatively quiet for indoor rowing. However, if you can’t use your arms and legs with your core, then it will be harder for you to use a rowing machine. You also have to make sure to put the time in to learn the proper technique.


  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