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Your Muscles and Rowing: What Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work?

There’s a common belief in the rowing industry that working out on an indoor rower exercises 84% of your muscles.

To be honest, nobody knows where the 84% comes from. There are no scientific studies, scholarly articles, or other such reliable sources that we can properly cite.

So we’ve done a little bit of sleuthing around on the Web and came to the conclusion that the 84% figure actually comes from WaterRower.

As most of you already know, WaterRower is one of the world’s most popular sellers of rowing machines, and for a very good reason. It’s not surprising if the company throws out a pretty number to entice people to buy one of their rowers. (You can check out our review of the bestselling WaterRower Natural here.)

But is the 84% figure just another marketing stunt? If you’ve ever worked out on a rowing machine before, you know it’s not all hype. The indoor rower may not be much of a looker – though we can’t say the same for the gorgeous wooden rowing machines – don’t be fooled into thinking that there’s no way you can get a beast of a workout on it.

While we cannot completely vouch for the 84% claim, we sure can say that rowing is a powerful workout that exercises all of the major muscle groups in your body, 84% or not.

The broad stroking movements of the rowing exercise start by engaging your legs and glutes, core and lower back, and ends with the arms, shoulders, and upper back.

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Does Rowing Build Muscle?

In general, rowing is best known as a cardiovascular exercise that strengthens the heart and lungs. What most people don’t know, however, is that working out on the rowing machine is also good for the muscles.

We get a lot of questions from people who have second thoughts about rowing. They’re not sure whether to invest in an indoor rower because of their doubts about its ability to build muscle.

Here's our answer. Have you ever seen one of those professional rowers in their sleek rowing boats? The pros have an athletic upper body sculpted into a nice V shape and strapping, muscular legs. These bodies are built through the powerful movements of the rowing stroke.

To be clear, though, you’re not going to bulk up like a bodybuilder. Rowing alone will not give you the herculean gains you want. The best way to do that is to lift heavy weights.

However, even if looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger is your goal, rowing can still help you by supplementing your lifting with a low-impact, total-body cardio workout added to your weekly routine.

And rowing will still help you gain muscle mass and strength. It won’t probably be the gains you will get from lifting, but it will be functional, useful gains all the same. And, of course, you’ll still look good.

What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Work?

To understand what muscles are being exercised on a rowing machine, we have to look at the actual rowing stroke first.

Rowing as an exercise is pretty complicated if you’re a beginner. From off the rower, it looks like a single, stroking motion – and ideally, that’s what it is. But if you’re just starting out, it’s helpful to divide the stroke into simpler, separate movements.

Muscles Used During the Catch

rowing muscles at the catch

The catch is the starting position. Your legs are bent, with the shins positioned vertically to the floor. Your arms are extended with the power coming from the triceps, while the tiny flexor muscles in your fingers allow you to circle your hands over the handle.

On your back, the muscles are relaxed to keep your torso straight. In front, however, your abdominal muscles contract. This keeps your upper body bent slightly forward.

  • The erector spinae is the lower back muscle, which is most prone to injury. If you don’t execute your movements properly, you could strain your erector spinae. By relaxing the lower back muscle, you allow the ab muscles to contract and pull the torso forward.
  • The psoas major and the iliacus are hip muscles. They flex at the catch to keep you in this position. Some people have a psoas minor, which also contributes to the flexion of the pelvis.
  • The sartorius muscle, which is a long, thin strip of muscle that runs through the thighs, works to allow the body to reach far forward between the legs and back.
  • With your knees bent, your hamstrings and gastrocnemius muscle are contracted. The hamstrings are the large trio of muscles at the back of the thighs, and the gastrocnemius are the huge muscles on the upper calves.
  • Your quadriceps, meanwhile, are stretched out during the catch. The quadriceps are found on the front of your thighs.
  • Your triceps contract so you can extend the elbows out front.

Muscles Used During the Catch

  • Lower Back Muscle
  • Psoas Major, Psoas Minor, and Iliacus
  • Hamstrings, Upper Calf Muscles, and Quadriceps
  • Triceps

Muscles Used During the Drive

The drive is the major part of the rowing stroke. This is where you get all of your major muscles working and deliver as much power as you can.

Like the bigger rowing stroke, you will be able to better understand the drive if we first look at it as three separate movements.

The Leg Swing

rowing muscles at leg swing

The drive begins as you extend your legs. At this point, most of the power during your movements comes entirely from the legs.

  • Both your calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, contract as you push off the footboard of the rower with your legs. Your quadriceps also flex as you straighten your knees.
  • Your shoulder muscles are engaged to keep your form upright. The serratus anterior, the “wing” muscles that allow you to open your arms out to the front, back, and sides, and the trapezius, which is found at the back of the neck to the back of the shoulder, stabilize the shoulder blades.
  • The smaller shoulder muscles, including the teres major and minor, subscapularis, and the supra and infraspinatus are also at work during this part of the stroke.

The Body Swing

rowing muscles at body swing

The second part of the drive starts when your legs are fully extended (but not locked). Here, you open your body from the hips into the 1 o’clock position by recruiting power from the core, with help coming from the hamstrings and the glutes.

  • Your hamstrings and gluteus muscles, which comprise the largest muscle groups in your body, contract to extend the hips.
  • Your erector spinae, which is relaxed throughout the leg swing of the drive, contracts to open the back. Your abdominals, including the obliques on the side, stabilize your back to keep it upright. If you’re looking at yourself from the side, your back would open up in the 1 o’clock position.
  • Meanwhile, your biceps and brachialis, a long, strong muscle underneath the biceps contract to keep the elbows bent. Your brachioradialis, the muscle in your upper forearms, also help here.

The Arm Pull-Through

rowing muscles at arm pull through

The last part of the drive requires most of your upper body muscles to work. Your legs are fully extended, your calves are flexed to keep your heels in contact with the rower, and you’re about to finish extending your hips and back.

  • To rotate your upper arms inwards, two of your largest upper body muscles have to be engaged. The latissimus dorsi, a broad, flat muscle that runs from your armpits across your back, and the pectoralis major, a thick muscle that fans from your shoulder to the breast bone, are involved in this movement.
  • Your teres minor and posterior deltoid, the rear portion of the muscle surrounding the contours of your shoulders, flex the shoulder joint. The biceps also contract during arm pull-through.
  • Your pectoralis minor, which lies underneath the pectoralis major, rotates the shoulder blades down as you pull the rower handles to your abdomen. Meanwhile, the rhomboids, so named because of their shape, and the trapezius muscles, draw the shoulders backwards.

Muscles Used During the Finish

rowing muscles at finish

The finish is the final position before you go into recovery. With your legs extended, your body open, and your arms pulled back, nearly all of your upper body muscles are contracted, as well as the glutes and hamstrings.

  • Your latissimus dorsi contract continually to keep your arms turned in, even as you pull them backwards. Your triceps also work to keep your elbows flexed.
  • Your ab muscles, glutes, and hamstrings contract to stabilize the body. The back muscles as well as the biceps also flex to keep your body open too.

Muscles Used During the Drive

  • Upper and Lower Back Muscles
  • Shoulder Muscles
  • Biceps
  • Abs and Obliques
  • Gluteus Muscles
  • Hamstrings
  • Upper and Lower Calf Muscles

Muscles Used During the Recovery

rowing muscle at recovery

After the drive, you need to save your energy and generate optimum power again. During the recovery, you extend your arms straight out from the arm pull-through, the abs work to bend your body into the 11 o’clock position, and your leg muscles contract as you slide forward back into catch position.

  • When you push your arms forward, your triceps work to extend the elbows out to the front. Other muscles, including the anterior deltoid, biceps, and brachialis, also contract as your arms move, especially when you raise them slightly as they pass over the knees.
  • Your abdominal muscles flex as you bend forward from the hips. If you’re looking from the side, your body would be bent into the 11 o’clock position.
  • Your hamstrings and calf muscles contract as you slide down the rower’s rail into the catch position.

Muscles Used During the Recovery

  • Triceps
  • Abs and Obliques
  • Hamstrings
  • Upper and Lower Calf Muscles
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