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December 07, 2022
Since the rise of CrossFit, the rowing machine's popularity has risen immensely. And whether you love or hate CrossFit, it's hard to deny the benefits the rowing machine provides.
It's a full-body cardio workout that manages to activate almost every muscle in the upper and lower body. It does this by combining multiple movements into one exercise, forcing different muscle groups to work simultaneously.
This article will discuss the biomechanics of a rowing machine and the muscle groups used, including:
A rowing machine is a true full-body workout as it uses both the lower and upper body. It was designed to simulate collegiate rowing, the oldest collegiate sport in the USA.
This is not to be confused with recreational canoeing or kayaking, in which only the upper body is involved in the rowing stroke. Rowing consists of a boat that slides along a track, allowing an athlete to perform a paddle stroke with a larger range of motion while also utilizing leg drive.
Records of rowing machines go all the way back to the 4th century BC as they were used to train oarsmen. Basically, rowing machines are to rowing what treadmills are to running.
Every model is going to vary to some extent in its construction. However, there are a few similarities each version has. It's good to be aware of the rowing machine setup as we discuss proper form and answer: "what muscles does a row machine work?"
The base is simply the main structure that holds the seat and rower. It's usually made of lightweight metal and is around 8 feet in length. On either end are foot pads to support the machine and rower. The top of the base consists of a track for the seat to slide on.
The seat is typically cushioned and large enough for an athlete to sit on. It attaches to the track on the base, which allows it to slide up and down the base.
The resistance flywheel sits on the front and consists of a resistance mechanism to pull on. Rowing options include magnetic rowers, water rowing machines, and pneumatic rowers. We have some great magnetic rowing machines to check out for those interested in adding one to their at-home gym!
A chain or cable is wrapped around the flywheel, then fed to the athlete, who holds onto the handle. When the athlete rows, the flywheel will be harder or lighter to row based on the machine's setting.
In front of the flywheel on the base of the rowing machine is a footrest with straps. You place your feet here to pull yourself forward when sitting on the seat.
Before we go over "what muscle groups does a rowing machine work?", let's first discuss the proper form. Knowing the biomechanics will make understanding the muscle groups used easier. Plus, we're certain you'll want to hop on the nearest rowing machine after reading this article, so it'll be good to know how to effectively perform it.
We've broken the directions down into 6 different steps as there are a lot of moving parts. The good news is once you perfect the basic rowing stroke, you'll become much more fluid in your movements.
Once your legs are nearing full extension, start extending your hips (leaning backward), but keep your arms fully extended forward. Only your lower back muscles are being used to extend your hips, while your upper back muscles are maintaining stability.
This section brings us to this article's main topic: What muscles does the row machine work and how? Before we get into this, it's important to keep in mind that one rowing stroke trains up to 80% of the body's skeletal muscles! Since just about every muscle is used, we won't address every single one.
Instead, we'll go over the primary rowing machine muscles targeted and how they're put to work. Just a warning: After seeing just how many muscles are activated, you're more than likely going to want to use the rowing machine during your next LISS cardio session.
The quadriceps are your body's primary knee extensor muscle, meaning it is used to extend your knee. This muscle group consists of 4 different muscles that sit on the anterior of the upper thigh. These muscles include:
Each of these muscles crosses the knee joint, which provides the quadriceps the strength for a powerful extension. As a result, the quads are primarily used during the first part of the drive when you push your body away from the flywheel.
The rectus femoris also crosses the hip joint and is a hip flexor muscle. Therefore, when discussing what muscles does rowing machine work, it is also used during the recovery as you pull your body back. This explains why you feel some burning in your hip flexors during the stroke!
The hamstrings are the primary knee flexor and work to flex the knee. It's made up of three muscles, which include:
The hamstrings are used extensively during normal daily life to help provide locomotion. When a foot is planted, the hamstrings of the other leg can help "pull" the body forward.
In addition, these three muscles cross the hip joint as well. This allows them to play a role in hip hinge movements, such as extending the hips.
The hamstrings are one of the primary muscle groups used in the recovery phase of a stroke when you pull your body forward.
The glutes are the strongest muscles used in the human body and are frequently referred to as the powerhouse of the body.
The gluteal muscles are comprised of three different muscles:
All three muscles are used to control the movement of the thigh through hip flexion, hip extension, and hip abduction.
The glutes are involved in all lower body movements. But the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus are primarily responsible for stabilization and hip abduction, meaning the gluteus maximus does most of the work during a rowing motion.
It assists the quadriceps during the drive and the hamstrings during the recovery to pull. As you can see, it's an amazing gluteus maximus exercise.
The trapezius muscle, also known as "the traps," is a large pair of muscles that sit on the upper back and extend to the middle of the back. They travel so far down your back that they are grouped in sections to make muscle actions easier to identify. They're categorized into:
The traps play a vital role in all human performance, including training on a rowing machine, as they are the primary scapular stabilizers. In other words, the trapezius muscles control and brace your scapula (shoulder blades) to allow your arms to function. This means performing trapezius exercises is an absolute must!
Think about if you have ever tried to push a door, but the floor was slippery. You can push, but your feet slide some, and you cannot exert maximum amounts of power. That's a good visualization of what the traps do. If you have weak traps, other muscles and joints must account for this loss of power (shoulder muscles, elbow joint), leading to a lack of performance and injury.
When discussing "what muscles do a rowing machine work?", during one rowing stroke, the traps are activated from the start of the drive to the finish. At the beginning of the stroke, when your arms are extended and ready to drive, the traps still ensure no back rounding occurs.
When you reach the middle part of the drive, the traps continue to brace the scapula and will retract your scapula or pull your shoulder blades back. Once your scapula is fully retracted, the traps hold them there.
The latissimus dorsi, or lats, are the largest muscle group in the upper body, spanning the majority of your back. They're also the strongest muscle group in the upper body, and lat exercises are responsible for giving you some seriously enviable wings.
Their primary job is to manipulate the upper arms by pulling them down or back, like by pulling the arms down during pull-ups, or pulling the arms back during bent-over rows.
When you look at how a rowing machine works the body, you see that the last part of the drive is just a cable row. Therefore, it makes sense that the lats are an important major muscle group trained on a rowing machine.
The shoulder muscles (deltoids or delts) assist the lats in pulling the arms back. This primarily refers to the posterior delt (rear delt), as it is the primary pulling muscle of the shoulders.
The biceps are the arm's primary flexor and one of the smaller rowing muscles used. People don't usually think of the biceps when it comes to the rowing machine, but if you've ever done a few intense rowing workouts, you'll definitely feel it.
The biceps are used throughout the movement to assist the forearm flexors in gripping the handle. In addition, during the last part of the drive, the biceps are responsible for flexing the elbows and pulling the handle toward your body.
It's important to touch on the forearm muscles when discussing "what muscles do the rowing machine work?", as they are used extensively during a rowing workout. Similar to the biceps, this becomes more apparent during longer sessions.
The flexors contract to help close your hands and squeeze the handle to grip it. However, the extensors are also used to a high degree during gripping movements to keep your wrist steady. If the extensors don't activate, the wrist would curl due to the force.
As a result, rowing machines can provide decent grip strength training on the muscular endurance side.
When most people talk about "core muscles," they usually only speak about the abdominal muscles. Of course, the abdominal muscles are an important part of the core; however, your core muscles include all the muscles around your torso.
For simplicity, we will consider the lower back (erector spinae) to be a part of this muscle group along with the abdominals (in some situations, researchers will include the entire torso, including the chest muscles).
Regardless, the core is one of the major muscle groups used on rowing machines.
When talking about "what muscles does a rower machine work?", the core muscles contract to brace the torso and keep it erect throughout the movement. This is actually the primary job of the core muscles: to stabilize the spine and torso to protect it from dangerous movements.
During the recovery portion of rowing, when pulling the body back to drive again, the abdominals flex so the torso can hinge forward. However, the flywheel is also pulling you forward, and you're sitting, so you're not really placing significant stress on the abdominals.
When looking at the erector spinae specifically, it plays a greater role as it must actively extend the back during the drive portion. It's almost as if you're doing back extensions for the entire rowing workout. Actually, not almost. You are! This makes the rowing machine an awesome erector spinae exercise.
This is why it's imperative to use good form. At the same time, it's building muscle, helping you craft an iron-strong body.
As seen above, a rowing machine truly provides a full-body workout, hitting both the lower body and upper body. That said, the primary benefit of a rower is to improve your cardiovascular system.
While there are many types of fitness equipment to use in cardio workouts, the rower has a few unique benefits. For one, the entire body is used, yet it is low impact on your lower body, making it ideal for almost anyone. In addition, the rowing machine can train your aerobic and anaerobic systems, and it's easy to perform HIIT workouts on the rowing machine.
Improving your cardio will have numerous benefits, including:
We've talked about what muscle groups does the rowing machine work, and we know it's a lot of them. So when it comes to whether it helps build muscle, you'd think it could build a lot, right?
But sadly, that's not the case.
You must apply a sufficiently heavy load to continually see major skeletal muscle growth and build muscle. When lifting weights, this equals the weight of at least 70% 1RM.
While you can increase the resistance in most rowing machines, that combined with your body weight is generally too small to build muscle for an extended time. It may be able to add some muscle for a beginner. But if you want to add some serious muscle mass and strengthen muscles, you'll need to resort to a traditional workout split.
Absolutely! Since rowers use so much muscle, they're going to burn calories.
Surprisingly, there's not a ton of research on this, but we can base our answers on a study from Harvard Health1. They had three participants of different weights perform vigorous rowing for 30 minutes. Here are the participant's weight and calories burned:
That's quite a bit! Remember, though, for best weight loss results and a toned body, always pair your workouts with a quality nutrition plan, like the 80 20 rule diet or macros counting.
Here are a few tips to improve your rowing performance.
If you've already used a rower, you don't need us to tell you it hits almost every muscle in your body because you've experienced it firsthand! And if you haven't yet tried it, we highly recommend you do as it's great for your overall health.
Give one of these HIIT rowing workouts a shot, and you'll understand just how intense it is!
Due to its popularity, rowers can be found in just about every gym, so if you have a gym membership, you should have access to one. Start incorporating the rower into your weekly regimen. Then, have fun being the gym genius as you explain to everyone what muscles a rowing machine works on.
And if after reading this you want to have access to a rowing machine 24/7, make sure to check out these awesome magnetic rowing machines!
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