What do Rowing Machines do? What Muscles do They Target? – Reviews 2019 – 2020

You’ve decided to go to the gym, and you’ve found there’s a queue by the rowing machines and the ellipticals are all full up. You’re sick of treadmills, too. But while pondering your next move, your eyes fall on something you’ve always overlooked. It’s the rowing machine, that curious beast that the gym instructor called the ‘erg’ when showing you round. Should you use it? What’s the benefit? Let’s find out.

What is rowing all about?

Rowing is an exercise that provides both a cardiovascular workout that burns a high amount of calories, and extensive resistance training. As you exercise and build up a sweat and exertion, you burn fat, train your heart, and work your muscles.

Rowing machines are low-intensity pieces of exercise equipment that simulate rowing on a boat. They are combination machines, meaning they combine fat burning, muscle development and cardio. This means that they also engage all sorts of muscle groups too, including muscles on your arms, legs, back and abdominals, so while you work your heart, you’re working nearly your whole body, losing weight and building muscle mass at the same time.

It requires 25% effort from your upper body and 75% effort from your lower body. They also engage a broad range of muscle groups and are therefore great for muscle toning, cardio, and fat loss.

Better weight loss through fat burning

Rowing machines are a great way to lose weight. According to Harvard Medical School, an 82kg man can burn 377 calories in half an hour. Research at Pennsylvania State University found that rowing machines are tougher fat-burners than treadmills and exercise bikes. The Internet is full of all kinds of exercise routines utilising rowing machines to help you to burn all the fat you want.

It’s already clear that the rowing machine is a great fat burner – it can burn up to 800 calories in an hour’s workout – but its other key characteristic is the sheer number of muscles that it engages – including the abdominal muscles. And when you develop powerful muscles, you also develop muscles that burn more energy in a dormant state.

All those muscles being used

Rowing impacts all sorts of muscles in every major muscle group. Initially, there’s the “catch”, where the back, quadriceps, hamstrings and calf are engaged, then the “drive”, using the abdominals, triceps, chest, shoulder, wrists and glutes, and finally the “finish” activating the biceps and obliques. As it gets easier (if you stick it out, of course), you can make it harder by adjusting the ‘damper’ (that rod sticking out the wheel at the end of the rowing machine), and with stronger muscles comes more energy, reduced back pain and stronger bones. 60% of the effort is in the legs, 30% from your back movements, and 10% in the arms.

Rowing by itself is not sufficient to develop abs. It’s definitely not bad as the abs do get engaged, and it’s superb for your back muscles, but it alone will not suffice to tone your six-pack. It’s best to combine it with another exercise form, such as weights, to ensure your abs get proper attention.

Keep that heart in shape

Rowing is perfect for maintaining your heart. Rowing increases your heart-rate, which over time reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. It also has benefits for your pancreas, brain, skin and lungs. Pushing your aerobic and anaerobic systems hard and consuming more oxygen as a result. Apparently, Sir Steve Redgrave at his peak has a resting heart rate of 36 beats per minute. The average man has between 60 and 70.

Strengthening joints after injuries

If you’re recovering from an injury or otherwise have joint pain, rowing is great for healing with minimal impact on your bones and joints.

Being low intensity, rowing machines are sometimes recommended as a good means of exercise to do while recovering from an injury. 60% of the effort comes from the lower part of your body.

Rowing does put strain on your lower back muscles and it’s probably not a good choice of exercise for those already vulnerable to back pain or already suffering from severe pain, especially as these people tend to have developed an instinct to tighten their back muscles subconsciously, either in reaction to pain or in anticipation of it.


We’ve just seen that rowing is a varied form of workout with tons of benefits, offering an extensive cardio workout for strengthening your heart, calorie burning for losing weight, and resistance training for building up your muscles.

It is impressively effective at all three, but stands out as a remarkable all-round muscle developer, which in turn impacts the cardio and fat burning aspects. It’s worth investigating different kinds of rowing workouts that have been devised to meet particular exercise goals.

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