Rowing Machine Muscles Worked (Physique Shape & Benefits)

There are many different ways to work out, but rowing machines are regarded as one of the best full-body exercise machines. They're used to help burn calories, get rid of fat, and build muscle across your body.  

The rowers' physique is something a lot of people strive for, and in this guide, we'll help explain which muscles are worked with your rowing machine and how you can get the perfect rowers' body.  

Part of the reason rowing is so effective is the way it engages muscles at different points. The whole rowing motion is called a stroke, and it will move the strain to various muscle groups and give you the benefits across your entire body.  

Rowing is designed to be low impact, which helps protect your muscles and joints from strain. However, if you aren't using the correct form, you can start to feel pain in your back, arms, elbows, and wrists. Understanding the whole stroke motion and performing it correctly is the key to protecting your body and maximizing your workout.  

Here's a quick rundown of the 4 phases you should go through when performing a rowing stroke: 

1. The Catch 

This is where you start the rowing motion. Your seat should be 6-8 inches from your feet and your shins vertical. Reach forward and extend your arms to grab the bar, making sure you keep your back engaged. Your leg muscles should be poised and ready to push, and your arms ready to work your triceps by pulling. Keep your head lifted and prepare to pull the weight back as quickly as possible in the next step. 

This is the beginning and the end of the phase, and the workout comes from controlling the motion and the resistance.  

Muscles Worked: 
  • Triceps  
    Your triceps will be engaged as you reach forward to grab the bar. This step is about preparing your arms to take the weight and pull back as quickly as possible, so you should start to feel them flex. At the end of the catch, you'll be slowing down and controlling the bar. This will engage your arms and help you build muscle. 
  • Legs  
    Your legs are the driving force behind the rowing motion. As you perform the catch phase, your hamstrings and quads should be engaged, with your calf muscles ready to support. You'll use all the force of your legs to control the rowing motion as you slow down. 
  • Back Muscles  
    Your back muscles are the stabilizing force here to help you control the rowing motion. They'll be flexed as you prepare to drive and engaged as you lower the bar down to starting position. This stage of rowing really engages the back muscles, which helps your posture. 

2. The Drive

The drive phase is where you pull the handle and drive backward to create the backwards rowing motion. Imagine that you’re rowing on a boat, and this is where you would put in the work to drive the ship forward. The majority of the work is done here, and you engage the most muscle groups. This is where you get the real benefit of the exercise. 

You’ll start by pushing your legs back until they’re stretched out and the seat is pushed right back. Then you want to open up your hips and lean back, engaging your glutes and core. This prepares your upper body to pull the handles back in the next phase. 

Muscles Worked: 
  • Legs   
    Your legs do the majority of the work here, and you should feel it in the quads, calves, and hamstrings. This engages all your smaller leg muscles and really works your lower body. It's difficult to get such a well-rounded workout without any impact. 
  • Shoulders   
    Your shoulders should be engaged as you move your body backwards, gripping the bar. You'll engage them more in the next phase, but they should be flexed and supporting the rest of your body. Great for improving your mind-muscle connection and toning your shoulders.  
  • Biceps   
    Your biceps will be working to grip the bar as you move backwards. You’re preparing your body for the big pull in the next step, and they should be primed and engaged.  
  • Abs   
    Your abs are essential for stabilizing your body in this stage. You should feel them straining and working to move backwards in this phase.  
  • Back   
    Your back is vital for this phase, and as you push backwards with your legs, you need to keep your muscles engaged, so your posture doesn't slip. If you let yourself slouch, you can injure your lower back, so it's vital you are engaging them to support your core. This phase works the upper and lower back, really helping to strengthen your whole upper body.  

3. The Finish 

The finish is where you end the explosive backward motion, and it's essential for working your body. You should start by pulling the handle backwards quickly so that it ends at the lower part of your ribs, and then your shoulders should help pull even further as you lean back slightly.  

This phase really works your upper body and follows quickly on from the drive. It's what brings the whole stroke together to maximize the workout for your entire body. The sequence should always be: legs drive backwards, lean back through the hips, pull the handle back towards you.  

Muscles Worked: 
  • Torso    
    Your torso and upper body are what drive this phase. As you pull backwards, you should feel it in your upper back, and your muscles should be working to pull the handle back quickly. This phase is great for that full upper body workout.  
  • Biceps    
    The pulling motion comes from the biceps primarily, and you should feel them tense up as you pull backwards. They'll remain engaged throughout this phase, and it's important to keep focused on them as you pull the handle all the way back. Don't let the bar slip as it gets close to your body, and keep the motion as smooth as possible. 
  • Shoulders    
    As you move your body backwards, your shoulders will become essential to stabilize the rowing motion. Your shoulders should open up slightly, and you'll feel the strain right at the end of this phase.  

4. The Recovery 

The recovery phase is just as important as the drive but basically works in reverse. First, your arms should drop forward, then your body should move forward, and finally, your legs should bend again. At the end of this phase, you should be back to the starting position and ready to begin the stroke again. 

Your recovery phase should be slow and controlled, the opposite of the explosive drive phase, and your muscles should be engaged throughout. You’ll notice the strain in particular muscle groups as you control the motion. 

Muscles Worked: 
  • Triceps     
    Your triceps will control the speed with which the handle goes back to the starting position. You should feel them engage as you slide forwards and don’t release until the bar is touching the rower.  
  • Upper Legs & Calves     
    Your upper legs and calves will be used to stabilize your return to starting position. Remember that this should be slow and controlled as this will give you the most benefit in these areas.  
man flexing his shoulder and back muscles

What Muscles Are NOT Targeted During A Rowing Workout? 

As you can see, rowing is a great way to work out most of your body, but it isn't a complete workout because there are some major muscle groups it doesn't touch. Here's a list of the muscles which aren't targeted because you may need to start incorporating some other exercises to hit them: 

The Chest 

Your chest shouldn't be engaged during the rowing motion, and if it is, you are probably doing something wrong. The nature of the movement just doesn't naturally work your pectorals, and you'll typically want more of a push motion to work out your chest.  

The Top Muscles Of The Shoulder 

The top of your shoulders are engaged through shoulder press or shrug movements. Rowing only pulls horizontally and focuses a lot of the work on the back of your body, and you won’t see any gains on the top of your shoulders.  

The Adductors And Abductors Of The Hip 

The adductors and abductors are the inside and outside of your hips and thighs. You generally work these with a side-to-side motion, but the straight up and down movement of rowing just doesn't engage them.  

How To Get A Rower’s Physique 

A rower’s physique is all about muscle and tone. The trademark image of a rower’s body is large shoulders and big, built biceps. They typically have wide hips with strong glutes, big legs, and back muscles which are clearly visible. They also tend to have low body fat, so they come across as lean. Rowers can also appear to be very tall as their strong core and back stops them from slouching.  

The real reason for the unique rower’s physique is the fact that they have to generate power themselves. They need to propel the boat forward, so they have strength in their body, without excess weight to slow everything down. This is what leads to the combination of lean and strong. It's also a functional form with strong muscles made to do a job that has been built through repetitive motion.  

Here are some tips to help you get that rowers physique:  

Focus On Form 

Form is everything, and without good form, you won't get the benefits and may even risk injury. Focus on the phases of the row and getting each part right. Remember, it's better to start slow and then build up once you're more confident.  

Put In The Hours  

There's no escaping it; you have to put in the work. You should look to row regularly and use rowing machine at least a few times a week. Start by aiming for 2km and then increase as you get more confident. Joining a rowing club is always a great way to start rowing more.  

Weight Training  

Look to perform some weight training alongside your rowing to help develop your body. Focus on your back, legs, and core, as these will help your rowing performance.  

Build Resistance  

Don't stay stagnant. Always look to increase your resistance whenever you start to feel comfortable. It's worth using a rowing machine with a variety of levels to choose from.  

Develop Your Stamina 

You need good stamina so you can work out for longer and maximize the benefits. Try incorporating some high-intensity exercises where you push yourself for short bursts and then rest. This helps to improve your stamina and overall fitness.  

Eat Clean 

To grow your muscles and get the right physique, you need to eat the proper diet. Try to cut out the unhealthy food and sugar and move to a protein-rich diet. This will allow you to maximize the growth and get you to where you want to go. The best diet for each person will vary, so always do what's best for your body.

back muscles from rowing

People Also Ask (FAQs)

Can you lose belly fat on a rowing machine? 

Yes, using a rowing machine can be more effective at getting rid of belly fat than other forms of cardio, but you do need a healthy diet to really shift that extra weight.  

How many minutes a day should you row?  

Most experts advise starting with 30 mins a day and building up to more as you can. Start with shorter bursts if you need to, but once you get to 30 minutes, you will see some more benefits.  

Can you get in shape by just rowing?  

Rowing is a great way to get in shape, but you will need to combine it with a healthy diet. If you are eating clean and training 4-5 times a week, you should start to see the results in about 2 months.   

Does rowing work on your abs? 

Yes, your core is engaged throughout the exercise, and rowing is an effective way to work out your abs.  


Rowing is a great way to get in shape, and a rower's physique is something many people aim for. Form is important, and understanding the phases your body should go through when using the rowing machine can help you maximize your workout. Hopefully this guide has helped explain the benefits of rowing and the muscles which are targeted and given you some valuable tips to build your rower's body.  

If you're ready to start working on a rower's physique, you can check out our guide to the best affordable rowing machines on the market. 

Last Updated on January 13, 2023

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Andrew White

Andrew White is the co-founder of Garage Gym Pro. As an expert fitness professional (gym building nerd) with over 10 years of industry experience, he enjoys writing about everything there is to do with modern fitness & the newest market innovations for garage gyms. When he isn’t testing out products for his readers, he’s usually out surfing or playing basketball.