man using rowing machine

Exactly Which Muscle Groups You Work on a Rowing Machine—All 86 Percent of Them

Rowing machines work different muscles at each part of the stroke, making them one of the most efficient machines at the gym.
By Austin Letorney
June 7, 2023

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, low impact, full-body workout that combines resistance and cardio workouts.  Because it recruits all of your major muscle groups to complete one full stroke, it simultaneously utilizes more of your aerobic capacity. Win-win. 

While rowing is technically a “pushing” sport—with the majority of the work coming from the big muscle groups in your legs—your upper body and core are put through their paces too, says Gina Vita, ACSM-certified personal trainer

Here, all the muscles worked on a rowing machine, common form mistakes, and rowing workouts from a pro coach to boost your results.

What Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work? 

Ultimately, rowing machines are a total-body workout. Rowing works a whopping 86-percent of the muscles in your body, making it a crazy efficient workout. 

Rowing is basically a horizontal deadlift and uses similar muscle groups. On the drive the main focus is on the posterior chain—the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and spinal erectors are all being used. In the pull, the quads, forearms, biceps, and lats are used as well.


Good Rowing Machine Form

Depending on which part of the stroke you’re in, you’re going to hit different muscle groups. The rowing stroke is broken down into four phases: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery.

While the major muscles involved in the move (prime movers) are working concentrically to drive your movement, other muscles are acting in opposition—serving to keep the body stable and control the movement, Vita explains. This stability helps your prime movers generate more power, resulting in a more efficient stroke.  

Here’s how Vita breaks it down. 

The catch

man performing the catch of rowing machine motion

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

How to:

Muscles worked:

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

The drive

man performing the drive of rowing machine motion

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

How to: 

Muscles worked:

Quads, hamstrings, glutes, deltoids, biceps, lats, traps, lower back (erector spinae), rhomboids, abdominal muscles

The finish

man performing the finish of rowing machine motion

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

How to: 

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, abdominal muscles

The recovery

man performing the recovery of rowing machine motion

Now reverse the motion. This phase is all about eccentric control, take your time here so you can focus your energy on the next drive. 

How to: 

Muscles worked:

Hamstrings, glutes, calves, triceps

Most Common Rowing Machine Mistakes

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

Having proper form will help avoid these common rowing mistakes, protect your muscles, and keep you injury-free.

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

Your back and leg 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.


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 shoulder blades and keep your chest up, she says.


Rowing Machine Workouts to Try

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

“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.