Will Rowing Machines Build Muscle?

Rowing machines are often hailed for their cardiovascular benefits, but they are also an effective tool for muscle building. While they may not result in the same muscle mass as weightlifting, they engage all major muscle groups with each stroke, offering a comprehensive workout. However, the extent of muscle gain depends on several factors, including the intensity and duration of your training sessions. Despite the debate surrounding their effectiveness for muscle gain, rowing machines undeniably contribute to increased muscular endurance and strength. Let’s delve deeper into how rowing machines can contribute to muscle development.

Rowing Machines and How They Work

rowing machines
Doing exercise on a rowing machine” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rowing machines, also known as ergometers, are designed to simulate the action of rowing for the purpose of exercise or training. This versatile piece of gym equipment provides a full-body workout, engaging both upper and lower body muscles. The mechanics of a rowing machine involve a sliding seat, handlebars attached to a chain or rope, and a flywheel at the front which provides resistance.

The operation of a rowing machine is a synchronized process that involves four main movements: the catch, drive, finish, and recovery. At the catch, you are seated with knees bent and shins vertical. You then engage in the drive, pushing off with your legs while pulling the handlebar towards your chest. The finish is the end of the drive, where your legs are extended, and the handlebar is held against your body. Finally, during the recovery, you return to the starting position. This cycle of movements emulates the rowing action, providing a balanced workout that incorporates cardiovascular and strength training.

Benefits of Rowing Machines for Strength Training

Rowing machines are an excellent tool for strength training due to their capacity to engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Each rowing stroke involves your legs, core, and upper body, which includes the muscles in your arms, back, and shoulders. This comprehensive engagement results in a balanced development of muscle strength throughout the body. Moreover, the adjustable resistance offered by most rowing machines allows you to control the intensity of your workout, making it suitable for progressive overload – a key principle in strength training.

Beyond building muscle strength, rowing machines also contribute to enhancing muscular endurance. This is because rowing exercises are typically performed for extended periods, requiring your muscles to resist fatigue over time. This combination of strength and endurance training makes rowing a highly efficient workout method. Additionally, unlike some forms of strength training, rowing is low-impact and poses less risk of injury, making it a sustainable choice for long-term fitness and health.

Using Proper Form When Using a Rowing Machine to Maximize Results

Using proper form when exercising on a rowing machine is crucial to maximize results and prevent potential injury. It begins with the correct positioning of your body. Your feet should be securely strapped in the footrests, knees bent, and shins vertical. Hold the handlebars with an overhand grip, arms extended, and keep your back straight but not stiff. As you move into the drive phase, push off with your legs first, then lean back slightly and pull the handlebar towards your lower chest. The recovery phase should be the reverse of this sequence: extend your arms, hinge forward from the hips, and then bend your knees to slide the seat forward.

Maintaining this proper form throughout your workout ensures that you’re effectively engaging the right muscle groups and getting the most out of your rowing session. It’s also important to pace yourself and maintain a consistent rhythm rather than speed. A common mistake is to go too fast and burn out quickly, but effective rowing is more about power and endurance. Remember, the aim is to use the strength of your legs and core rather than just pulling with your arms. With the right technique, a rowing machine can provide a full-body workout that strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular fitness, and burns calories efficiently.

Incorporate Other Exercises Into Your Workout to Build Muscle

While rowing machines provide a comprehensive workout, incorporating other exercises into your routine can yield more significant muscle gain. Strength training exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and lunges can be particularly beneficial. These exercises target specific muscle groups, allowing for focused muscle development and strength enhancement. They also allow for progressive overload by increasing the weight over time, which is critical for muscle growth.

In addition to strength training, consider incorporating high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into your routine. HIIT workouts involve short bursts of intense exercise followed by periods of rest or lower-intensity exercise. This type of training can stimulate muscle growth and enhance fat burning, making it a great complement to your rowing workouts. Moreover, flexibility and balance exercises such as yoga and pilates can improve your range of motion and stability, which can enhance your performance on the rowing machine and reduce the risk of injury. Remember, a well-rounded fitness program that includes a variety of exercises is the key to optimal muscle development and overall health.

Tips on Maintaining Proper Technique While Using a Rowing Machine

Maintaining proper technique while using a rowing machine is vital not only for maximizing your workout results but also for preventing injuries. One key tip is to remember the correct sequence of movements: legs, body, arms during the drive phase and arms, body, legs during the recovery phase. This sequence ensures that the more powerful muscles in your legs and core do most of the work, reducing strain on your back and arms. It’s essential to keep your back straight throughout the stroke, leaning back slightly at the end of the drive phase and hinging forward at the hips during the recovery.

Another important aspect of maintaining proper technique is controlling your speed. Many beginners make the mistake of rowing too quickly, which can lead to sloppy form and diminished results. Instead, focus on power and rhythm. A good rule of thumb is to spend twice as much time on the recovery phase as on the drive phase, allowing for a brief moment of rest and ensuring a smooth, controlled movement. Additionally, always ensure that your grip on the handlebar is firm but not overly tight to avoid unnecessary fatigue in your hands and forearms. Remember, consistency in your form is key to getting the most out of your rowing machine workouts.

The Difference Between Building Muscle with a Rowing Machine vs Free Weights

Building muscle with a rowing machine and free weights involves different approaches and yields different results, each having its unique benefits. Rowing machines provide a full-body workout, engaging both upper and lower body muscle groups simultaneously. They offer a combination of strength and cardio training, which not only builds muscular endurance but also promotes calorie-burning and fat loss. However, while rowing machines can increase muscle tone and strength, they might not lead to substantial muscle mass gains, especially if you’re looking for bodybuilder-type muscles.

On the other hand, free weights are traditionally associated with greater muscle mass gains. Exercises with free weights allow for targeted strength training, focusing on specific muscle groups at a time. This focused approach can lead to increased muscle size, especially when combined with progressive overload – consistently increasing the weight lifted over time. However, free weights generally don’t offer the same level of cardiovascular workout as a rowing machine. Therefore, your choice between the two should depend on your specific fitness goals. If you’re aiming for overall fitness, toning, and endurance, a rowing machine could be your best bet. If your goal is significant muscle mass gain, incorporating free weights into your routine would be beneficial.

Overall, rowing machines offer a unique combination of cardiovascular and strength training that can lead to improved fitness, increased muscle tone, and enhanced endurance. While they may not provide the significant muscle mass gains associated with free weight training, their benefit lies in providing a balanced, full-body workout. Incorporating proper technique and form is critical to maximize these benefits and prevent potential injuries. Furthermore, supplementing your routine with other exercises and strength training methods can yield even greater results. Therefore, whether you’re a beginner looking to get started with fitness or an experienced athlete seeking to diversify your workouts, rowing machines can be an effective and versatile addition to your fitness regimen.


Q: What muscles does a rowing machine work out?

A: A rowing machine provides a full-body workout, engaging both upper and lower body muscles. This includes the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, back, shoulders, and arms.

Q: Is a rowing machine suitable for beginners?

A: Yes, a rowing machine is suitable for individuals at all fitness levels, including beginners. The adjustable resistance allows you to control the intensity of your workout, making it as easy or as challenging as you need.

Q: Can I build muscle mass with a rowing machine?

A: While a rowing machine can increase muscle strength and tone, it may not lead to significant muscle mass gains like weightlifting. However, it’s an excellent tool for improving overall fitness, burning calories, and enhancing muscular endurance.