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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Painter Diver

What Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work?

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Rowing is great at working a large variety of muscles in your body. It works muscles all the way from your neck to your feet, which is why so many people say it gives you a full body workout, and it practically does! Even though a ton of muscles get worked, there are some that don't get as much attention. The main muscles that get worked are the BIG muscles in the body, but the little ones get a little neglected and they are also really important even though they are small. This article is going to focus on the body as a whole, but if you would like to see a post specifically about what muscles the rowing machine works in the upper body and some shoulder exercises you can do to help keep your body well balanced, you can find that blog post here.


It's important to note that based on peoples anatomy and their rowing form, some of these muscles might be less or more activated.


muscles highlighted on person on the rowing machine

What Overall Muscles Does the Rowing Machine Work?

This is an image of someone rowing on the water with 2 oars (Skulling)
Photo from Concept2

At different part of the rowing stroke, different muscles are used. The rowing stroke can be broken down into 4 main components: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. If you'd like a more detailed overview of these steps, please see this blog post about rowing form.


Muscles Used During the Catch Phase

Muscles highlighted on person during the drive phase of rowing stroke when at the catch

During the catch, our back is straight with a little bit of rounding (some people round more here than others), the hips and knees are bent (flexed), the ankle is brought upward (dorsiflexed), the shoulders are up around shoulder height (flexed), and the elbows, wrists, and neck are straight and neutral.


For the back, the small erector spinae muscles are a little relaxed, but in some people might be more activated depending on your back position. The abdominals and the hip flexor muscles (psoas minor, illiopsoas, and rectus femoris) are working to help to flex the trunk, pelvis, and hips. The sartorius is also activating to help us get a little more reach by rotating our hips in this position, but that will also vary from person to person based on their hip position at the catch. The big hamstring (back of thigh muscles) and some calf muscles (gastrocnemius) are also working here. In the front of the thigh we have the big quadriceps muscles which are being stretched out in this position, however one of the four quadriceps muscles contributes to bending the hip, which was mentioned above (rectus femoris). On the front of the shin, we have the tibialis anterior working to dorsiflex our ankle. Now for the arms, the elbow is straight out, which is using the triceps brachii. Then we are gripping the handle, which again will vary from person to person on how much grip is occurring, but the finger and thumb flexor muscles are working as well. That's a lot of muscles and that's just in the catch position!


Muscles Used During the Drive Phase

Muscles highlighted on person during the drive phase of rowing stroke

The drive is where most of the work and power takes place during the rowing stroke, so this is where we use a lot of our big muscles. The initial push off with our legs at the start of the stroke is where we use max effort from our legs. This is where the front thigh muscles (quadriceps) quickly straighten the knees. The ankles go from that bent position to more of a relaxed position (plantarflexion) by using the calf muscles. The calf muscles are the gastrocnemius we saw being used in the catch phase and also the smaller calf muscle in the center of our calf, the soleus. The back and core is stabilized with a lot of our core back and abdominal muscles including the erector spinae, paraspinals, transverse abdominus, rectus abdominus, and obliques to name a few of the big ones used here.


A good majority of the shoulder muscles are being activated here as well and you can see this information in detail here. But some of the big ones are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, teres major and minor, biceps brachii, serratus anterior, and trapezius muscles. Most of these are in the back of the shoulder, so you will notice the pec major and deltoid aren't really doing much here.

Muscles highlighted on person during the drive phase of rowing stroke when body is swinging backwards

As the body/trunk starts to swing backwards and the hips open up, the emphasis shifts slightly to also include some big butt muscles (gluts) and the back thigh muscles (hamstrings). The erector spinae and paraspinals are helping with more back extension here as well. The shoulders and elbows start to change position here as well so the biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis help do this in the arm.

Muscles highlighted on person during the drive phase of rowing stroke during the end of the drive phase

Lastly in this position, the elbows bend even more and come into our belly. This is where the elbow flexors jump in more so, but still only minor compared to the other big muscles used earlier in the drive phase. This is also a little bit different if you are on the water and using an oar versus only using the rowing machine, since you don't need to feather (turn) the oars on a rowing machine. But depending on your wrist position here, the flexor and extensor carpi ulnaris muscles bend the wrist a little. If you are struggling with elbow or wrist pain, I recommend checking out this article on gripping the handle which might help.


The shoulder starts to go backwards (extend and adduct) in this position. Some internal rotation of the arm/shoulder might happen here as well, activating some other muscles. This is all done for the most part by the latissimus dorsi, pec minor, teres minor, posterior deltoid, trapezius, rhomboids, and long head of the biceps .


Muscles Used During the Finish Phase

Muscles highlighted on person during the drive phase of rowing stroke during the finish phase

This is when the knees are straight and not too much happens. Muscles are used to keep your body in this position and cause stabilization, but there are no new muscles activating in this phase, just muscles staying activated.


Muscles Used During the Recovery Phase

Muscles highlighted on person during the drive phase of rowing stroke during the recovery phase

This is the reverse of the drive phase. The tricep muscles straighten the elbows back out. The anterior deltoid activates here with the coracobrachialis and biceps again for the arm movement. Our trunk needs to bend forward, so our hip flexors and trunk stabilizers activate again and back muscles stabilize our spine. Our ankles start to dorsiflex again and our knees bend. This uses our leg muscles a little differently. Our big leg muscles, the hamstrings control the knee bend, and the quadriceps work eccentrically to control the movement forward. So even though the same muscles are used here as in the drive, the muscles are used differently than they were during the drive phase for some of it.


So What Muscles Aren't Worked?


I know there was a lot of listing of muscles in this article, which is a bit more dense than my other posts, however I wanted to be as inclusive as I could for y'all. This article has a lot of information as well if you'd like another resource. It is also where the above pictures are from.


The muscles that aren't working vary a little depending on your form, but the smaller muscles are the main ones. Additionally, some muscles that are being used in the rowing stroke are used in a minor way, so working them off the rower will be beneficial to strengthen them at a higher training level as well as through their full range of motion, which you might not be getting during the rowing stroke.


Shoulder Muscles To Work off the Rower

Let's start with the shoulder. While the serratus anterior is used, working this muscle more thoroughly can be very beneficial. A great exercise to strengthen the serratus anterior is serratus slides. This can be done with a foam roller or with bands.

Here are some videos to show you both options. But the premise is that you are raising your arms overhead while keeping your forearms on the wall or foam roller. If you decide to do it with the bands, start gentle and work your way up, as it is more difficult than it seems.


For the bands, I recommend getting a pack of bands like these resistance bands. It comes with a variety of different resistances so you can combine or switch as needed.


You should feel this in your shoulder blade are or around your ribs. Try not to shrug your shoulders too much and keep those forearms on the wall or the foam roller.


Rotator Cuff Exercises


Open Can Arm Lift Exercise

For this you will either need long bands, or a machine with weights that has the arms that you can move down towards the ground, or dumbbells.

To do this movement, the setup will be a bit different depending on what method you choose, so checkout the videos linked in the paragraph above depending on what you are using. With bands, stand on them, dumbbells just grab them, and weight machine, get the arm as low as you can and bring it up to where you are standing with your arm(s) out a little. Keep your shoulder blades down, elbows straight, thumbs pointing UP, raise your arms to about your shoulder/head height. If you look at your arms they aren't straight in front of you or straight out to the side, they are in between making a V in front of you. Slowly lower down to your starting point and repeat. You can hold it at the top. The first video above shows some variations and progressions you can try as well.

This video shows the banded option and some variations, of it, but the second one at 28 seconds in is what we are focusing on here. If you need bands for this, something like these work great.


You should feel the outside muscles of your shoulder blade working. Try not to shrug your shoulders, lean too much, or arch backwards. Also remember to keep those elbows straight! If you need to bend them, the weight might be too much.


For the video with the weight machine, remember to lift more halfway to the side and halfway in front of you, instead of straight out to your side.


External Rotation

This can be done with weights or with a band. For this, grab a towel and put it between your body and your upper arm. Hold it there with the arm tight by your side. You can do this in sidelying, with the arm you want to work up towards the ceiling, or standing with a band in the door or around something. Just make sure no one is going to open the door on you. You can use the same bands mentioned above for the open can exercise.

Bring your arm out away from your body, keep your elbow in by your side. You should feel this in the back of your shoulder blade, not really in the arm (deltoid or bicep). If you feel it there, try decreasing the weight but also taking a break as usually once the deltoid or bicep helps with this movement, it needs some time to not help with this movement. So take a break, do something else, and come back to it with a lighter weight and see where you feel it.


Internal Rotation

This is the opposite of the exercise above and can be done with weights or a band as well.

Use a towel just like you do for the external rotation, except pull in towards your body instead of away from your body. Elbow tight by your side and at 90 degrees bent. This video to the side shows both the internal and external banded one. You should feel this in the back shoulder blade area and the same things as noted above in the external rotation exercise are the case for compensations if you don't feel it there.


Triceps, Pecs, and other shoulder muscles...even the serratus anterior!


Pushup Plus

I know...they might be hard, but they can be really helpful. And if you add an extra press when you are at the top, it can even work the serratus anterior muscle!

Setup for a pushup that is at the correct difficulty level for you, arms under your shoulders, slowly lower yourself down, keeping your elbows by your side to really engage those triceps too, then get as low as you can without plopping on the floor, and push yourself back up by pushing the floor away from you. At the top is the "plus" part that engages the serratus, so don't forget it!


If doing a pushup like my husband in the video is too hard, try doing it on an elevated surface like the back of a couch or a bar or counter. At 8:10 in this video I show the elevated version, but don't forget the extra push at the top. You should feel this in the front of your shoulder, arms, and back of shoulder blades even.


Overall Shoulder

Here is a shoulder complex exercise that will give you a burn. I made this video for a client, so until I make a new one, hope it helps!

You will need a band like the ones for the serratus slides above. You will likely feel this in a bunch of places, but it shouldn't hurt. The video talks about how much to do and how to do it. There are a few positions your arms will go in for this exercise. It's quite a bit easier to understand by watching, so I haven't written it out here, but there are captions in the video.


Lower Body Muscles to Work Off the Rowing Machine


Some of the really important muscles that don't get worked on the rower involve balance and hip stabilization. These are super important for day to day activities like walking, running, and decreasing your fall risk.


Hip Stabilization

Have you ever seen someone walk and it looks like one hip drops down and the other side is "normal"? This is called trendelenburg gait and can happen for a variety of reasons from nerve damage to weak hip abductor muscles. The gluteus medius and minimus are big muscles that play a role in this. Every time we step during walking, our hips need to maintain a stabilized position in order to keep our trunk from side bending and possibly causing issues to the knee, ankle, hip, back, and more.


There are some exercises you can do for this muscle. Standing hip abduction with or without a band can be really helpful. This video is bookmarked at the timestamp for that exercise. Following that exercise in the video is standing hip extension which is an end range position we don't get on the rower. Both of these, you can put a band around your knees or ankles. Around the knees will be less force and torque on the knee, so do what is comfortable for you or do it without a band if needed. You will stand, balance on one leg (hold onto something if you need to to start), and start by making sure your hips stay even and one hip doesn't drop down. Then you will take the leg that you are not standing on and bring your leg straight out to the side. Only go as far as you can without your body leaning to the side. Then bring your leg back in and repeat this until you feel your hip/gluts working and you can do it without leaning your trunk. For the extension, you will bring your leg straight back behind you, and try not to let your trunk lean forward. You will notice that this is a small motion because our hips don't have that much extension to be honest. Do both of these on both legs for a few sets.


Balance

The hip exercises above aid in balance, but we also need to look at your feet and ankle muscles. Some of the ones that don't get used in rowing are the peroneals (fibularis longus and brevis). Start with standing on one leg and balancing. Hold that for 30 seconds. If you need to, you can put your other foot down so the toes are touching the ground so you are making a small kickstand with your foot. Do this near a counter if you are uncertain about your balance, just don't fall!


You can make this harder by closing your eyes. You can also try eyes open turning your head from side to side or up and down - SLOWLY. You can also do leg swings where you balance on one leg and swing the other leg front and back quickly or slowly or side to side across your body.


Alright I hope this helps get you started and give you something to start doing and a better understanding of the muscles used on the rowing machine. Remember, if you have pain, some of these might help, but some might not be appropriate, so please follow up with a healthcare provider.


Happy rowing!

Beginner's Guide To Indoor Rowing on book and kindle cover

If you found this helpful, you can grab a copy here of my book, Beginner's Guide to Indoor Rowing for more info on how to adapt the rowing technique for you and common things to look for that might cue you into adaptations you might want to make to avoid getting hurt.


Instagram: @the.rowing.doc

You can also join our community of rowers!


Please remember, this is NOT medical advice, and is a forum. If you would like medical advice, please follow up with a healthcare provider or feel free to reach out to me and we can chat on how I might be able to help or help you find someone who can.

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