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. I will also share tips on how to improve strength in those muscles.

I have been part of competitive rowing teams for years and within these circles it is complete unanimous agreement with which muscles make you a quicker and more powerful rower. Looking at it simply, the power of a stroke comes roughly from these muscle groups:

  • 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 where you pick up as much ‘weight’ as possible and then look to accelerate this weight through a stroke. Kind of like turning a bike pedal in a higher gear. You then need to ensure that you accelerate the stroke (the pace of the rowing machine handle) all the way to the end.

When you do weight training for rowing squads you also focus on these key groups – i’ve never had a training plan that featured bicep curls!

  • Squats
  • Split Squats / Lunges
  • Deadlifts
  • Hip Thrusts
  • Bent Over Rows
  • Bench Press

The 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! This is why those who are not within these groups, or power-users of a rowing machine do not understand which muscles are used on a rowing machine.

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

Legs

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.

If you want to improve your leg strength there are a couple of key exercises to do (both weighted and upweighted):

  • Squats (all variations)
  • Lunges
  • Glute exercises

If you want to do this at home there are a host of products that would help this – depending on the amount of room and investment you have.

How To Master The Barbell Back Squat | Coach

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. 

I have always found (especially as a tall person) that my lower back has been weaker than most and so having a stronger back can make such a huge difference.

Ways to build lower back strength include deadlifts and kettlebell swings.

How to Do a Kettlebell Swing Plus Form Tips, Variations and Workouts | Coach

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.

Bent over rows and pull up/ chin ups are the best way to build this strength.

Arms

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!

Finally – in my post You’ve just bought a rowing machine… what next? I touch on this topic but then go into a lot more detail about how to use this technique and get those rowing scores much much quicker.

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