What muscles do a rowing machine work


This is a commonly asked question, and one which causes incorrect technique on a rowing machine through misconception so here is a quick article to let you know which muscles a rowing machine works.

In my post You’ve just bought a rowing machine… what next? I briefly mention this, however I wanted to go into greater detail as I think it is important to understand. This will not only help your technique, but will help you to target the correct muscle groups for weight training.

So – whilst I know this is not scientific, this is a rough split of effort an old (and very well respected international coach!) used to drill into my squad:

  • Legs – 65%
  • Lower back/ Hips – 20%
  • Upper back – 10%
  • Arms – 5%

Now you will notice that this actually follows the order of a stroke, from the front. This is because you need to generate the majority of the power at the start, and apply in a fashion that accelerates the handle all the way to the finish. 

Biggest Misconception

“You are a rower, why don’t you have huge arms”

This is something I have heard throughout my career, as the common gym user associates rowing with the type of rowing boat you would take around a pond in Central Park, not a 2km rowing lake in the Olympics!

Now – lets look at each of these muscle groups in more detail.


At the start of a stroke, your whole body should be braced and still, with only your legs applying any force. If you imagine an actual rowing boat that might weight over 1000kg (an 8 person boat with a cox plus weight of the boat), the level of strength needed to move this up to speed can only come from the legs. Think about how much weight you can squat/ leg press against the amount you can bicep curl!

The breakdown of leg strength comes from not only the quads, but the glutes which are required to link the leg strength to the lower back, and hamstrings that are needed to pull you smoothly back to the front.

Lower Back/ Hips

This is the really explosive part of a rowing stroke. The handle/ oar is already moving and you then need to take this from its slow start and really accelerate it through. Imagine a power clean where you slowly lift the bar off the ground and then explode to get the bar up to your chest. 

Upper Back

A strong upper back is needed to continue to add power once the back is open and to really add some flair at the end. You want to imagine that you are drawing your shoulder blades back together whilst you are sat up right.


There is really not much power wise that the arms can add to a rowing stroke aside from a very final contraction at the end of a stroke. You then need to be tidy around the body as you look to carry out the ‘recovery’ part of the stroke and move back to the start.

Here is a video that explains it well. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you want to discuss in more detail!



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