What Muscles Does Rowing Work and What Are the Benefits of Rowing?

Today’s world is arguably busier than ever before, which is probably why 77% of American adults don’t get enough exercise. We get it—going to the gym can be boring, time-consuming, and inefficient. You have to hop around from machine to machine in order to get a balanced workout, which can often take over an hour. If you’re looking for a fast, fun, full-body workout that takes care of strength and cardio all in one, then rowing may be the answer. A rowing machine can help you lose weight and gain muscle without bulking up. It’s also an effective, low-impact way to strengthen your heart and lungs. But what muscles does rowing work, and why is it such great exercise? Read on to find out!

What Muscles Does Rowing Work?

Rowing has been hailed by some as the “perfect exercise” because of the intense full-body workout it provides. Unlike other popular machine-based exercises, one rowing stroke targets nine different muscle groups. These major groups include 86% of the body’s muscles, making the rowing machine fantastic for muscle gain. The beauty of a rowing stroke is that it activates the upper body, lower body, and core muscles all at once. To get a more detailed understanding of what muscles a rowing machine works, let’s take a close look at each of the four phases of a rowing stroke.

1. The Catch

This is the beginning of a rowing stroke in which the seat is slid all the way forward and you’re positioned close to the front of the machine. To perform the catch, bend your knees up close to your chest while keeping your shins positioned straight up and down. Hold your arms out straight in front of you  shoulder width apart while hinging forward slightly at the hips and engaging your core. The muscles worked during the catch include the triceps, deltoids, trapezius, abdominals, lower back, hamstrings, and calves.

2. The Drive

The second phase of a rowing stroke, the drive, begins by pushing off from the foot stretchers until your legs are almost fully extended. From here use your core and hip hinge to swing your body into an upright position. Then, engage your arms, shoulders and back to pull the handle back towards your ribcage or sternum. These steps should all be completed as one fluid motion. The drive engages a huge range of muscles. The upper body muscles used include the pectoralis muscles, deltoids, upper back, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, biceps, and forearms. In the lower body, the gluteus muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings, and gastrocnemius (calves) work together as your mid-back and abdominal muscles stabilize your core.

3. The Finish

During the third phase, use your core muscles to stabilize your body while hinging slightly backwards at the hips. Use that momentum to fully extend your legs and draw the handle all the way in toward sternum. Your upper arms will internally rotate, simulating a rowing motion. The finish most heavily engages the arms (biceps and forearms), shoulders (trapezius, deltoids, latissimus dorsi), and abdominal muscles. However, the leg extension also requires your gluteus muscles and quadriceps to contract.

4. The Recovery

The final phase of a rowing stroke, the recovery, is basically the first three steps in reverse. To begin, extend your arms out in front of you toward the flywheel, keeping them parallel to the ground. Hinge forward from your hips and then bend your knees using your hamstrings to pull you forward. Keep going until you’re back in the initial “catch” position. Make sure that you control your motion during the recovery in order to activate the most muscle groups. This phase is the only one that engages your triceps. It also involves the forearms, trapezius, deltoids, abdominals, hamstrings, and calves.

Each phase also utilizes the muscles in the hands, neck, and chest. As a result, completing just one rowing stroke means you’ve activated every major skeletal muscle in your body.

Cardio + Resistance = the Ultimate Workout

Skeletal muscles aren’t the only ones that benefit from rowing—your cardiovascular system gets a workout too! Because rowing uses your entire body, it does a great job of keeping your heart rate elevated and lungs working hard. This type of exercise is called aerobic because it strengthens your body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently. While many people have a strong preference for either strength or aerobic training, research has found that neither type can reduce the risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) on its own. However, when cardio and resistance exercises are combined (like in rowing), risk factors for CVD can improve in as few as 8 weeks. Rowing is also the perfect aerobic exercise for anyone with joint pain or injuries. Unlike other cardio, which is often based on running and jumping, rowing is zero-impact and non-weight-bearing. It’s also fully customizable to your fitness level and the type of workout you’re looking for. If you want to increase your stamina, lower the resistance level and row at a slower pace for a longer time. If you’re looking for a HIIT-style workout, raise the resistance and intensity row for short bursts at a high speed.

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