The rowing machine is a classic exercise for cardiovascular endurance, but what muscles does the rowing machine work? And how can you get the most out of the exercise? In this article we’ll be covering:

Let’s jump straight in.

What Muscles Does The Rowing Machine Work?

The rowing machine combines leg pushing and back pulling movements, specifically the muscles that rowing machines work are:

  • Your quadriceps, as a prime mover that drives your legs and extends your knees
  • Your rhomboids, teres minor, teres major and lats as upper back muscles that pull the bar towards you
  • Your spinal erectors, which work to maintain a rigid torso and extend the spine

So the major rowing machine muscle groups that you’ll use are your spinal erectors, legs and back.

Rowing Machine Muscles Worked Diagram

Rowing machine muscles worked diagram

Rowing Machine Muscles Not Used

There are various muscles not used by the rowing machine. For a balanced training programme, you should incorporate exercises to address these missing areas. Some of the biggest muscles not used in rowing include:

  • Chest
  • Front delts
  • Triceps
  • Hamstrings

does a rowing machine work your abs?

Technically yes, a rowing machine does work your abs to some small amount, but it is not a great choice of exercise. I would recommend planks, deadbugs, side planks and other exercises as alternatives.

does rowing machine work chest?

No, the rowing machine does not work your chest muscles. I would use exercises such as pushups or bench press instead.

Rowing Machine Variations and Alternatives

There are plenty of rowing machine variations and alternatives that you can use, here are three of my favourite, plus when and why you might use them.

Seated Rowing Machine (Seated Row)

Seated Rowing Machine Muscles Worked

The seated cable row is a great rowing variation that allows you to focus on the upper body portion of your rowing. You’ll primarily be using your rhomboids, teres major and minor, and rear delts, with some help from your spinal erectors and lats. That means that you’ll be using the same muscles worked on the rowing machine.

I recommend using the seated row if you need more targeted upper-body strength to improve your rowing.

Leg Press

Leg Press Muscles Worked

The leg press is a rowing alternative that you can use to build strength and size in your legs. You’ll mainly be using your quadriceps, the same leg muscle worked by the rowing machine, so the strength you build on the leg press should have a good carryover to your rowing.

Elliptical / Cross Trainer Machine

What muscle does cross trainer work?

The elliptical machine, also known as the cross trainer is a great cardiovascular exercise that works your quads and glutes, as well as your arms and shoulders to a small degree.

Like the rowing machine, the elliptical is also a low impact option, meaning that it places very little impact stresses on your ankle, knee and hip joints.

Quick Training Recommendations for Rowing Machine

I recommend using the rowing machine anything from 1 to 4 times per week.

  • For cardiovascular endurance, I recommend 30-40 minutes at 6/10 difficulty (or a pace that you can comfortably talk at)
  • For glycolytic/lactate training I recommend 5 sets of 1-2 minutes work at 8/10 difficulty (challenging) followed by 1-2 minutes rest.

Top Tip: Rowing Is For Endurance Not For Muscle Size or Strength

Remember, when we talk about the rowing machine and muscles used, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those muscles will get much bigger or stronger, instead, the rowing machine trains those muscles for endurance.

What Is a Good Pace on the Rower?

A good rowing pace depends on many factors such as your sex, age, and the distance that you’re rowing. To give you a very rough idea for a 500m row:

  • 1:30 is exceptional
  • 2:00 is good
  • 2:30 is okay
  • 3:00+ minutes is in need of improvement

At the end of the day, though, if you’re just starting out take your time and improve as your body allows.

Rowing Machine Muscles Worked Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use a rowing machine every day?

Using the rowing machine every day is likely to lead to some overuse injuries and joint aggravations, especially around your hips, lower back and shoulders. I recommend rowing 1-4 times per week to allow for some recovery in between.

How many muscles does rowing use?

Rowing uses at least seven muscles, your rhomboids, teres major, teres minor, lats, quads, glutes and spinal erectors. Plus, since the quads and erectors are actually groups of multiple muscles, rowing can be said to use more than twelve muscles, making rowing a full-body exercise.

Does a rowing machine help you gain muscle?

The rowing machine is a poor way to try and gain muscle as the rep scheme will be too high, the loads you move will be too light, and the speed of each repetition will be too fast to allow for good control or mind-muscle connection. That doesn’t mean that rowing machine muscle gain is impossible; as a beginner, you will likely develop bigger legs and a bigger back, but this progress will be short-lived.

I recommend combining rowing machine workouts with resistance training for hypertrophy (muscle building)

Are rowing machines good for losing belly fat?

Rowing machines can help you to burn calories, which can contribute to losing belly fat (or any bodyfat) if it takes you into a calorie surplus. For best weight loss results, I highly recommend looking at your diet and nutrition habits.

Is 20 minutes of rowing enough?

20 minutes of rowing is enough to get a good workout in for most beginners and early intermediates. 20 minutes on the rowing machine might also be enough if you perform those minutes at a very high intensity. However, for intermediate and advanced rowers, 20 minutes won’t be enough time to significantly improve.

Next Steps

Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…

1) Get in the gym and start using the rowing machine to improve your cardio fitness, as well as slightly working your legs and back. Or if you need a bit of help with your training, consider having a look at my custom programme options

2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.

3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your sports performance, you can find more information about my services here.

‘Til Next Time


Strength coach

Alex Parry, MSc, BA

Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.

His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.