What Muscles do Rowing Machines Work?

How Do Rowers Work?

During my many years spent as a personal trainer, I was regularly asked hundreds of questions pertaining to the same topics. I could compile a list of these which would quite honestly make a (hilariously) good read, one day I may just do that. For today though I am going to focus on perhaps the most frequently asked of all questions. “ What muscles do (insert here) work?” For the purpose of this article I’m going to focus on the rowing machine, a particular favourite of mine.

The indoor rower if applied correctly uses about 85% of all the muscles in your body. That’s a lot of bang for your buck, and for those who are short on time, sneaking in a lunchtime workout or quickly popping down the gym for a fast thirty before picking the kids up from school, it’s absolutely perfect.

It’s a complex world

Before going directly into the answer for this question I think it prudent to give the same preliminary answer I give to anyone who asks this question, regardless of the (insert here) in question. Most exercises in the gym, either directly or indirectly work most if not just about all the muscles in the body. Whether it’s a dumbbell single arm row, a plank or a hanging leg raise, most exercises work most muscles.

To further complicate the matter of answering these seemingly so simple questions we have the added complexities of the different ways in which muscles can be engaged. Just because a muscle doesn’t appear to be active in a particular exercise doesn’t mean that it is not. Below is a quick guide to the diverse array of muscular contractions the human body goes through during movement.

Concentric: The shortening of the muscle e.g. The Bicep shortening to bring the lower arm closer to the shoulder.

Isometric: A muscular contraction which does not result in the muscle changing length e.g. The bracing of the abdominals in preparation for a squat.

Isotonic: A muscular contraction where the muscle changes in length, this could be either concentric or..

Eccentric: The lengthening of a muscle under contraction e.g. The bicep curl from earlier, well the reverse of that, the return of the lower arm back to its original place by the hip, if done so under tension, is eccentric.

It doesn’t end there, oh no, in fact that is only the beginning of the story in answering these kinds of queries. You see, as well as the different kinds of contractions taking place during large compound (multi-joint) exercise, there are the different roles being undertaken by the different muscles, some major and some minor. This can get quite technical and for the sake of this article, too technical is not necessary. Below are the basics.

Agonist: The prime mover in the movement e.g. The Quadriceps in the push off phase of the row.

Antagonist: The opposing muscle that relaxes while the Agonist works e.g. The quadriceps in the sit down phase of the squat.

Stabilisers: The muscles that fix in place to keep structural integrity during movement e.g. The erector spinae muscles during the lift phase of the deadlift.

Synergists: Synergistic muscles work hard to assist the prime movers in getting their job done e.g. The Brachialis during the bicep curl.

Now we have a slight insight into how non-linear answering these kinds of questions can be, I’m going to do my best to answer in the most linear way possible. To do this I’m going to note the muscles working at the point in which they become active during the exercise in question.

The Row

  1. We begin the row with a slight forward lean at the hip and arch through the upper back. Our legs are straight at this point with just a little softness in the knees. Our arms are fully extended and gripping the handles down by the ankles. At this point almost no muscles are actively engaged. Remember abs are always engaged at least 70% of their max.
  2. The next stage, which we will call the push off, has us straighten our legs up until the point the handle is just past being level with the knee. At this point we initiate a short sharp pull from the elbow supported by the upper back and shoulders simultaneously as we use our lower back to pull and leverage more room for a longer stroke. Now it starts getting anatomically exciting. The calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes are all involved in the initial push off, followed by biceps, triceps, deltoids, upper traps, mid traps, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and erector spinae all having their say during the upper body phase.
  3. At this point we relax and return gracefully back to our starting point. Here a lot of the muscles that worked concentrically are relaxing and the stabilisers are coming into play.

To summarise.

The muscles worked when using the rowing machine are;

  • Quadriceps = upper leg
  • Gastrocnemius and soleus = calves
  • Hamstrings = upper leg (rear)
  • Glutes = bottom
  • Wrist Extensors and flexors = forearms
  • Pectoralis Major = chest
  • Trapezius = upper back
  • Deltoids = shoulders
  • Rhomboids = mid back
  • Triceps/Biceps = Arms
  • Rectus Abdominous = abs
  • Erector Spinae = lower back.

Get strapped in

As you can see the list of muscles worked by this fantastic exercise is pretty comprehensive, and these are only the major muscles, with a total of approximately 640 muscles in the human body and the smile alone using up to 46 of them, you can see how complex this subject can get.

Anyway I hope my article has been of some help. Now get in the gym and get those goals met!


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