what muscles does rowing not work

What Muscles Does Rowing NOT Work & Which Does It Work?

Hi everyone! Kathleen here. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you probably know by now that I injured my back a few years ago.

While the pain was terrible, there was a silver lining to the whole thing; I discovered an exercise machine that I never gave a second thought to before – rowing!

What muscles does a rowing machine work? To start with, rowing engages your quads and glutes, as well as your upper body muscles, like the delts, lats, and abs. It does not work your chest muscles as much, including your adductors, abductors, and overheads.

I will be the first to admit that, when I started, I knew nothing about rowing machines. I only knew that this was one of the only machines I was able to use that didn’t hurt my back.

Over time, I’ve really gotten obsessed with my rowing machine and learned a lot about them, such as what they can do for you and what they can’t. If you’re like I was and you’re new to rowing, or if you’ve never used a rowing machine, but you’re thinking about it, today’s article is for you.

I want to tell you about all the benefits of rowing, including which muscles are worked and which aren’t, as well as whether you can get those ripped abs and the big booty that everyone seems to want. Exercise machines come and go (remember Thigh Masters?), but indoor rowing machines have been around since at least the 1800’s so you might as well get on board.

If you’re looking for a good workout, but you don’t want to spend hours every day on the various machines at the gym, you should look into rowing.

Rowing is perfect for both beginners and those with more advanced fitness levels. There’s a reason Peloton is coming out with a rowing machine, and it isn’t because their bikes and treadmills aren’t popular! It’s because rowing is a full-body workout that can change people’s lives!

Are you ready to be completely astounded by what a rowing machine can do for you and what muscles it works?

Keep reading! I guarantee we’re going to have a little fun along the way.

Does a Rowing Machine Work All Muscles?

muscles used by rowing machine

An indoor rowing machine is an amazing piece of equipment. It doesn’t work every single muscle in the body (more on that later), but it works an astounding 86 percent of them. With a rowing machine, you can work all nine different muscle groups in the body in a single workout session.

In case it’s been a while since you were in your high school biology class, the nine major muscle groups in the body are:

  1. Chest
  2. Shoulders
  3. Back
  4. Biceps
  5. Triceps
  6. Abdominals
  7. Quads (The front of the thigh)
  8. Hamstrings (The back of the thigh)
  9. Calf muscles

Now some people put biceps and triceps together and list them simply as “arms”, and they put the thigh muscles together as “leg muscles”, and that’s fine with me. I’m not here to argue about muscle groups. I’m here to have fun and pass along what I’ve learned.

So, back to our muscles.

Rowing works every single one of the above muscle groups every time you do a rowing stroke. You won’t find another exercise machine that offers what a rowing machine does!

OK, let me edit that. I believe that jumping rope also works all of the above muscle groups, but jumping rope isn’t low impact and can really wreck your knees and hips.

If you want to jump rope, that’s fine. It is inexpensive and doesn’t take up much space, that’s for certain! You can jump rope; I’ll stick with rowing.

If you need weight-bearing exercises for your bones, you can still go walking, use a trampoline, or do whatever type of exercise you find enjoyable to keep those bones happy. However, adding rowing to your workout routine will give you more benefits than walking ever will.

Now, one look at the list of muscles that rowing works may leave you wondering what muscles does rowing NOT work?

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What Muscles Does Rowing NOT Work?

rowing machine muscles used

In all honesty, not much.

You may find that some muscles don’t get as much of a workout as others when rowing. These muscles include the chest muscles, the adductors and abductors of the hip, and the top of the shoulders (sometimes called the overheads).

OK, I guess rowing misses your face muscles (unless you are grimacing or laughing while you work out) and your toes, but I’m not sure those matter all that much.

You may have heard people say that rowing doesn’t work your core muscles, but that isn’t true at all, unless you aren’t doing the rowing motion correctly.

I want to recommend that newbies take a class or at least watch some online videos about rowing with the correct form. If you don’t, it’s very easy to end up with back and shoulder pain.

Even though rowing works some muscles harder than others, it’s a good idea to switch up your workout routine so your body doesn’t become used to doing the same thing every time.

This is actually a good thing because now you can work on those muscles that aren’t used as much through strength training (whether it’s dumbbells or resistance bands), and you can prevent boredom from creeping into your workout.

I like to use resistance bands while watching TV. I have a trampoline that also helps to work the hips, and believe it or not, it also works my toes! (In case you felt bad neglecting your tootsies.)

Think you need more than just a rowing machine to get yourself in tip-top “Gee I look good naked” shape? Think again!

Can You Get in Shape Just by Rowing?

Technically, you sure can!

As long as you do the rowing stroke correctly and work out at least 5 days per week, you can totally get yourself in shape by rowing.

what muscles do rowing machines work

Remember that a rowing machine works 86 percent of your muscles (you can read more on what muscles are worked in rowing here ), so if you have 86 percent of your body in great shape, what else is there?

Did I hear you say weight loss? Oh yes, you can lose tons of weight just by rowing. Now you will need to eat a healthy diet and create a calorie deficit from your rowing workout, but you can find hundreds of online testimonials from people who have lost weight just by rowing.

A rowing workout can burn as much as 900 calories, but this number will vary depending on many factors, including your age, current weight, and how hard you are working out.

For most people, you can expect a calorie burn of between 400 and 600 calories an hour.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a heck of a lot of calories! Especially if you add them up by exercising 5 or 6 times during the week.

You can even burn more calories after you’ve stopped exercising, by using a HIIT rowing workout program.

The great thing about a HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) rowing workout is that you only do these workouts every other day. On alternate days, I like to mix things up by doing different cardio or strength training workouts. This way, my body never gets accustomed to the same workout routine, and my mind never gets bored.

If you love your stair climber or gardening, you don’t have to give those up! Enjoy the things you love to do and add rowing workouts at least 3 days a week to reap all the benefits that rowing offers.

I think I may have failed to mention that rowing workouts work the most important muscle in your body- your heart!

Click Here to find out: Are Rowing Machines Good for Seniors

Is Rowing a Good Cardio Workout?

The heart is perhaps the most important muscle in the body. You have larger muscles, but not a single muscle is going to work if your ticker isn’t working.

This is why getting in regular cardiovascular exercise is so important. For those who may not know, a small system called the pulmonary loop, which is located on the right side of the heart, picks up the oxygen-poor blood from the body and moves it to the lungs for cleaning and re-oxygenating.

rowing machine muscles used

Your heart and lungs are a team, so you want to be sure you exercise them as well while you are building muscle mass on your booty.

Rowing is an excellent cardio workout that will strengthen the heart and help develop the lungs so that they work better. Regular cardio workouts not only help you lose weight or maintain your current weight, but it’s also a terrific way to avoid cardiovascular disease and keep your blood vessels flexible, which can lower or prevent high blood pressure.

If you’ve got a rowing machine, or if you have access to one, get your rowing face on and let’s throw cardiovascular disease to the curb, shall we?

What Muscles Get Toned from Rowing?

Most people want to lose weight and gain muscle from their exercise routine, but some might also be interested in having beautiful muscle tone. With rowing, you’ll get to tone all those muscles activated during a workout as mentioned above.

Let’s face it, if you’ve ever looked at a professional dancer and been awestruck over their luscious thighs and graceful arms, then you know what I’m talking about. Not everyone wants to look like the Hulk on steroids, do you?

rowing muscle groups

The best way to get those tight yet sleek muscles is to lower your overall body fat level and work most muscle groups. Regular rowing machine workouts can help you do both and show through those admirable 6-pack abs and dancer’s thighs.

To lose body fat, you need to do a full-body exercise and cardiovascular exercises. Bring your heart rate up to 70-85 percent of its maximum and hold it there for at least 20 minutes to burn tons of fat. If you don’t know what your heart rate should be, you can find that info here.

As your body loses excess fat, you should also start to build skeletal muscles. The rowing stroke targets most of the major muscle groups, so you don’t have to do any other type of exercise if you really don’t want to. However, you might find that you will reach your fitness goals faster and build muscle more quickly if you use free weights or resistance bands on your rest days.

Remember that while an exercise bike or treadmill will help you burn calories and build leg muscles, a rowing machine also works the upper body at the same time. This means sleek, beautiful arms, and an upper back that will make you pull out those backless dresses you’ve got hidden in the back of the closet.

Why You Should Do Rowing Machine Workouts


When the basic rowing stroke is done correctly, there are a great many benefits. Some you know, others you may not know.

  • Strength gains. Especially true for beginners – you will find that you gain muscle mass as your body fat levels drop even if you can’t do a full 30 or 45-minute workout. As I mentioned earlier, you can gain even more muscle mass and blast away more fat with HIIT rowing workouts, hours after you’ve finished exercising.
  • Major endurance gains. If you find that you’re out of breath quickly from climbing a flight of stairs, rowing can help improve your endurance and lung capacity so other types of exercise become easier.
  • Upper body and lower body toning. I may have mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Rowing is a full-body workout, so while you can sit on an exercise bike for hours, it won’t help your upper body. I love that rowing is a true full-body workout program that works your legs, core muscles, upper arms, shoulders, and back muscles, including the upper back.
  • Better posture. Poor posture is a problem for nearly all Americans. We spend hours sitting in front of our computers at work, hours sitting each week commuting to work, and then we relax by doing more sitting in front of the television or our phones, and almost always with a slouch that our mothers would have screamed at. Rowing will help improve your posture and protect you from back pain and other health problems that come from sitting. 
  • Benefits of a low-impact exercise. If you suffer from bad knees (read more), hip pain, arthritis, or other health issues, like joint pain, you will be happy to know that you can still work all major skeletal muscles in the entire body and protect your joints at the same time.
  • Easier and more effective weight management. You can lose weight or maintain your current weight easily by regularly using your rowing machine.

It’s easy to see why I love rowing so much. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy walking my dog or using my trampoline, but the benefits of rowing far outweigh any of the other popular machine-based exercises out there, hands down!

The Major Muscle Groups Worked in One Rowing Stroke

what muscle groups does rowing work

If you are new to rowing, you might be wondering how in the heck you can work the entire body with every rowing stroke.

There are 4 parts to each rowing stroke, and each part does its share in turn. I’m using some shortened terms for body muscles (for example, glutes = gluteus maximus, the butt) so if you aren’t familiar with these terms, you can look them up.

  1. The Catch. This is the starting position where your butt is close to your heels, and your arms are extended in front of you holding the handle. The Catch works your triceps, deltoids, traps, calves, hamstrings, abs, and lower back.
  2. The Drive. This is where you push back with your legs. The Drive works a lot of muscles, including the thighs, the traps, the upper back, the arms, and the middle back, as well as the glutes, delts, and lats.
  3. The Finish. This is where your legs are completely extended, and you pull the handle towards your chest. You lean back slightly and work your abs, traps, deltoids, biceps, lats, quads, and glutes.
  4. The Recovery. As you slide back to the start position, you may think that you’re resting, but you are actually still working your traps, delts, hamstrings, calves, abs, forearms, and triceps.

You improve your cardiovascular system and work all of the above muscles in one single fluid motion. I don’t think anything gives you this kind of workout and works all the body muscles like a single rowing stroke.

The Final Takeaway

Ok, so if you haven’t figured it out by now, I really love my indoor rowing machine. It’s the perfect workout for busy people, and who the heck isn’t busy in today’s world?

I’ve reached the highest fitness level simply by doing HIIT rowing workouts. I only do my rowing workout every other day for 30-minutes, and this leaves me plenty of time to do things I really need or want to do.

If you want the most perfect exercise on the planet that won’t hurt your joints and will have you lose weight and increase muscle mass without strength training, if you have joint pain and most other machines only make it worse, and if you want to beat cardiovascular disease and live a healthier life overall, then you will love rowing workouts.

Life is too short to be unhealthy! Embrace life and row happy!