man rowing on a rowing machine

What Muscles Do Rowers Work?

Rowing machines work different muscles at each part of the stroke, making them one of the most efficient machines at the gym.

As a competitive rower for over a decade, I’m stoked to see rowing machines like the Hydrow or Peloton finally get their rightful place in home gym tech.

Why?

Rowing is a crazy effective, full-body workout that combines resistance and cardiovascular training.

It also works a shit ton of muscles. Nine muscle groups and 86 percent of your body’s muscles, to be exact (1).

While rowing is technically a “pushing” sport, your upper body and core are put through their paces too, says Gina Vita, ACSM-certified personal trainer.

What Muscles Get Toned From Rowing?

The rowing stroke is broken down into four phases: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. You hit different muscles depending on which phase of the stroke you’re in, making it a total-body workout.

The catch

the catch phase of rowing stroke

The catch gets its name from your oar “catching,” or entering, the water.

Start with your seat as far forward as it will go up the slide. Keep your shins vertical to the ground, with your knees bent at close to a 90-degree angle.

Relax the lat and trap muscles in your back to keep a neutral spine. Activate your triceps to extend your arms straight in front of you. Grasp the handle firmly.

Engage your hamstrings, calves, and glutes to prepare for the next part of the stroke, the drive.

Muscles worked: Hamstrings, glutes, calves, triceps, latissimus dorsi (lats), trapezius muscle (traps), rhomboids

The drive

the drive phase of the rowing stroke

Now it’s time to actually “drive,” or take your stroke.

Keeping a forward tilt in your torso, push against the footpads with your quads. Keep your hips forward and arms extended to activate your lats.

Slide backwards along the rail away to extend your legs. As your hands cross over your knees, recruit your biceps, deltoids, and back muscles–your lats, traps, rhomboids, and erector spinae (low back)–to pull the handle in a straight line towards the middle of your sternum.

Keep your core engaged throughout the movement to stabilize your body.

Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, deltoids, biceps, lats, traps, lower back (erector spinae), rhomboids, abs

The finish

The name speaks for itself; this is the final position of your body at the end of your stroke.

Hinge your hips towards the back of the slide. Use your biceps, lats, and shoulder muscles to hold the handle at the middle of your sternum. Engage your abs and glutes for stability.

Muscles worked: Biceps, lats, shoulders, glutes, quads, abs

The recovery

the recovery phase of the rowing stroke

Reverse the motion. Using your triceps, extend your arms away from your torso. Hinge your hips forward to about a 30-degree angle. As the handle passes over your knees, engage your hamstrings, glutes, and calves to guide you back into the catch position.

Muscles worked: Hamstrings, glutes, calves, triceps

3 Common Rowing Machine Mistakes

Poor technique opens the door for excess muscle strain, which puts you at risk for injury, Vita says.

Avoiding these common rowing mistakes can protect your muscles and keep you injury-free.

1. Driving with your biceps instead of your quads and lats

Your legs and back muscles—not your biceps—should drive your rowing stroke, Vita says.

“Your legs and back muscles are your larger, stronger muscle groups,” she says. “When you take muscle engagement away from these bigger muscles, you aren’t maximizing your full stroke potential.” Meaning: you build less muscle.

Driving with your biceps also puts them at risk for injury, including tendonitis, Vita says.

Fix it: Keep your arms extended during the drive phase. Push with your legs and don’t bend your arms until your hips hinge and you start to lean your torso backward.

2. Moving back and forth on the slide too fast

Actual rowing takes control.

Fix it: “From the catch position, drive back to the finish. This is where your speed occurs,” Vita says. “Your recovery should be twice as long as your drive. This control allows for better muscle activation and a complete rowing stroke.”

3. Arching your back during the recovery phase

“It’s common to slouch forward, especially as you get tired,” Vita says.

Resist.

When you slouch during the recovery phase, your chest falls forward and your shoulders rise, which prevents you from fully activating your lats during the drive phase.

“You set yourself up for low back pain and potential injury,” says Vita

Fix it: Relax your shoulders and keep your chest up, she says.

shirtless man on a rowing machine

Four Rowing Workouts from a Pro Rowing Coach

Hydrow athlete and rowing coach Laine Maher suggests these workouts to build muscle, boost cardio, and get a great training session.

2K for time

“A 2K (two thousand meters) is one of the most incredible feelings to complete and is a very tough race that pushes your body to the absolute max,” says Maher.

Warm up for at least 10 minutes, Maher says. “That includes some solid, steady strokes as well as some quick, hard strokes at race pace,” she says.

Maher’s recommended race plan: Start strong and fast for 10 hard strokes, and then settle into your race pace. “Your 2K pace will be slower than the pace you hold for an all-out 1 minute challenge, but faster than the pace you hold for a 5 minute all-out challenge,” Maher says.

Start at a controllable rhythm (that’s the number of strokes you complete in a minute) such as a 29 to 30 stroke rate and bring it to a 30 or 32 nearing the final 750 meters to go, she says. “From 300 meters left to the finish, bring the rhythm as high as possible to your final sprint,” says Maher.

6K for time

The 6K is all about endurance, says Maher. Her biggest suggestion: go for negative splits.

If your goal pace is a 1:55 split, start your 6K workout at about a 28 rhythm, and around a 2:01 to 2:00 split (the time it takes to finish 500 meters).

From there, drop your time and speed up your stroke every thousand meters.

After the first 1K, try to fit 28 strokes in under two minutes (aim for 1:58 to 1:59). For the next 1K, try to knock another second off your pace while adding another stroke (in other words, a 1:57 to 1:58 pace and a 29 rhythm).

“Stay in control from the beginning,” says Maher. ”Start with energy, and then harness it from the middle into the finish.”

30-minute interval workout

Maher suggests two interval workouts: a longer, more continuous workout, and a more intense workout with shorter bursts. “Both interval workouts are great, but they use different energy systems in your body,” she says.

Longer Interval Workout

  • 4 minutes at a 24 rhythm (75% of your all-out effort)
  • 1 minute rest
  • 3 minutes at a 26 rhythm (85% of your all-out effort)
  • 1 minute rest
  • 2 minutes at a 28 rhythm (95% of your all-out effort)
  • 1 minute rest
  • 1 min at 30 rhythm (100% effort)
  • 2 minutes rest

 

“Then repeat the sequence,” says Maher.

Shorter Interval Workout

Maher’s favorite shorter and faster 30-minute interval workout: 40 seconds on at 28 to 30 rhythm (100% effort) and 20 seconds rest. Repeat until you hit the 30-minute mark.

Steady-state workout

Steady-state rowing is incredible for strength training, says Maher. A good goal: a 20 to 22 stroke rate for 40 minutes.

Work for eight minutes at 70% of your all-out effort, then rest for 2 minutes.

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