How Training On A Rowing Machine Will Impact Your Body

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Most of the equipment you find in a gym has an obvious purpose. Therefore it is simple to evaluate what impacts it will have on your body. For example free weights and weight machines will build muscles and increase your strength. Exercise bikes and treadmills will work your legs and get your heart beating. Leading to improved cardiovascular health and performance.

But what does a rowing machine do for your body? It appears that the answer to this question is not so obvious. I say this because it is the most under-used machine in the gym – judging by how few people are using one. Plus the amazing impact it will have when used regularly.

The rowing machine provides you with a full body workout that trains all of your muscles and your cardiovascular system. This article takes you through the ways regular rowing machine exercise has a positive impact on your body.

You may be reading this article as part of research into buying a rowing machine for use at home. If so, we have a couple more articles that you may be interested in. Here are links to our guide and review of rowing machines available for purchase and guide to benefits of training on a rowing machine.

A rowing machine provides a full body workout

A rowing machine really is a full body workout. The rowing stroke requires you to use your upper and lower body, as well as engaging your core. Therefore exercising on a rowing machine impacts all of your bodies major muscle groups.

The resistance (effort to complete a stroke) gets your heart beating and increases your breathing rate. Therefore you work your cardiovascular system at the same time.

Rowing also provides a “ground reaction force” which is a form of “loading” more weight or pressure on the bones. This develops bone density and can reduce or prevent the chances of osteoporosis.

A rowing machine works the entire body like no other machine. It’s like circuit training or interval training, but on just one piece of equipment. Other machines that claim to work the entire body, for example the elliptical cross training machine, allow you to give one part of your body a rest. It is possible to focus on the arms or the legs to move. Whereas with a rowing machine there is no hiding place. Upper and lower body must be used to complete a stroke.

Muscle use and development on a rowing machine

First let’s take a look at the muscles used during the rowing action. We will focus on the muscles at each stage of the motion. Concentrating o the major muscles providing the movement such as the hamstrings and quadriceps, and not including a lot of the smaller muscles, such as those in the hands used to grip the handle.

Stage one – the catch

Rowing stroke - the catch

At the catch your legs are bent and your shins are in an upright position. Hamstring and calf muscles contract while the knees are in flexion, quadriceps muscles are elongated and stretched.

Your triceps shorten to extend your arms out with straightening at the elbows.

Muscles in your back, specifically the erector spinae muscles, relax to allow for trunk flexion. At the same time the abdominal muscles move the torso forwards.

Stage 2 – the drive

Rowing stroke - the driveThe first stage of the drive requires power generation from the legs. The quadriceps extend the knee, straightening the knee. A number of smaller muscles are engaged to stabilise the lower back. The muscles in your shoulders contract.

The next stage has emphasis on the body swing as your knees finish their extension. Your gluteus and hamstring muscles contract to extend the hips. Back extension occurs via contraction of your erector spinae. Elbow flexion occurs with contraction of your bicep muscles, bringing your hands towards your chest.

The final stage of the drive is the arm pull through. Your knees are fully extended, with legs out straight. Hip and back extensions are being completed. Muscles in your upper body are being contracted with high force to complete the drive. Shoulders are extended and abducted by your deltoids, while your upper arms are internally rotated by the latissmus dorsi and pectoral muscles. You scapula is rotated downward and then drawn backwards by the pectoral, trapezius and rhomboid muscles.

Stage three – the finish

Rowing stroke - the finishAt the finish the body is being stabilised by the abdominal muscles. The gluteus muscles and quadriceps contract as the legs straighten. Muscles in the back contract to maintain the torso in the finish position.

Stage four – the recovery

Rowing stroke - the recoveryThe recovery stages starts with the triceps contracting to extend the elbows, pushing the arms forward. Your abdominal muscles flex, bringing the torso forward. At the same time your hamstrings and calves contract, sliding the seat back to the catch position.

Fat burning on a rowing machine

A rowing machine is a great piece of equipment to help you lose weight through burning fat. To get your body into a fat burning zone you need to burn more calories than your consume. Rowing burns a high level of calories as it works a lot of muscles as well as raising your heart beat. The calories burned on a rowing machine are detailed in the table below, split out into various weights of the person rowing:

Exercise & Calories Burned per Hour130 lbs155 lbs180 lbs205 lbs
Rowing machine, light207246286326
Rowing machine, moderate413493572651
Rowing machine, vigorous502598695791
Rowing machine, very vigorous7088449811117

For more detail on the weight loss potential of a rowing machine check out these two articles, targeting weight loss on a rowing machine and burning calories on a rowing machine.

The effectiveness of a rowing workout for burning calories and therefore burning fat relies on a number of factors. The key ones being the length of time you spend rowing, the intensity of the training session, plus your size and level of fitness.

Staying slim on the rowing machine

Cardiovascular training on a rowing machine

Cardiovascular training on a rowing machine means improving your bodies cardiovascular endurance capacity. Effectively the hearts ability to pump blood around your body, and the lungs ability to supply oxygen to your muscles, via the blood stream. You will begin to feel the difference from your improved cardiovascular capacity not only on the rowing machine, it will transfer into other sports and exercise activities, and even every day tasks such as climbing steps.

The key to pushing your cardiovascular performance and ability is to exercise with intensity. Pushing your heart and lungs performance close to their limits each time you train. This encourages them to adapt, anticipating a similar level of intensity in the future. Over time the heart will grow stronger, able to pump more blood with a single beat. Plus lung capacity increases, more oxygen is taken in with on breath, plus oxygen is diffused more efficiently into the bloodstream.

The rowing machine for building muscle endurance

Muscle endurance is the ability of muscles to keep going for longer periods under stress. Muscle endurance is impacted by both aerobic and anaerobic endurance. Working out on a rowing machine will increase both the strength endurance and speed endurance of your muscles when carry out correctly. Strength endurance is the ability to maintain a level of contractile force over time. Speed endurance is the ability to prolong the length of time over which you can maintain maximum (or close to maximum) speed through muscle contraction.

A classic way to work on muscle endurance with a rowing machine is interval sprint training. Pushing the intensity of rowing by increasing the speed to sprinting i.e. going as fast as you can for a short period. These sprint periods are book ended with short periods of rest in between, allowing time to recover. This cycle of sprint and then rest is repeated a number of times (between 4 and 10 depending on fitness).

Over time the muscles are trained to work under a state of deprived oxygen, to recover more quickly from exertion, and to clear the build up of lactic acid more quickly. All of which increase your level of muscle endurance.

Completing a rowing challenge

Training on a rowing machine and bone health


A rowing machine can be a great aid in holding off or preventing the onset of osteoporosis, which is a common degenerative bone condition occurring in older age. Osteoporosis is basically your bones becoming less dense, making them more fragile. This in turn leads to greater chance of breaks and fractures.

There are many factors that can cause this condition. They include genetics, poor nutrition, drinking alcohol, smoking, menopausal changes in women, and the thing that makes it relevant to this article, lack of exercise.

Being physically inactive, not getting enough exercise, is a major risk factor in the onset of osteoporosis. Physical exercise is very good at triggering the uptake of calcium into bones. This calcium builds bone mass in your early years. It also reduces the loss of bone density in your later years.

Mechanical loading

When you carry out physical activity mechanical loads are transmitted to your bones. These loads place stress on your bones, and stimulate an increase in bone density in response. There are two forms of loading. Through gravitational forces and through muscular pull. Gravitational forces are the weight-bearing loads placed on bones. Muscular pull is the force transmitted to the bones your muscles are attached to when you contract these muscles.

Rowing is great at applying the muscular pull forces to your bones, which leads to increases in bone density. It does not apply gravitational force, in a way that running for example would. However there is a plus side to this, as the gravitational force comes with impact stresses. As we will come to later, rowing is very suitable for those that suffer with joint issues and injuries. So those with joint issues and injuries can use rowing to maintain bone density, without having to rely on gravitational forces that may cause pain and further injury. Plus, as rowing is a full body workout, it helps with bone density across the whole body.

How to train on a rowing machine

To a beginner it may seem that there is only one way to train on a rowing machine, as the rowing action does not change. However there are in fact many ways to vary the way you train. Things such as speed, length of session, the level of resistance and changes in intensity throughout a session mean there are many ways to train.

Two of the most popular ways to train are High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Low Intensity Steady State training (LISS). Both types of training have a number of benefits, many of which overlap. High intensity sessions are best for pushing you too your limits and quickly improving cardiovascular performance. Lower intensity sessions are typically carried out for a longer time period, so are more suitable for burning high numbers of calories and training muscles to have longer endurance periods. The best training plans mix these types of training so the benefits of both are gained.

For a guide on rowing machine workouts that target numerous different results check out our rowing machine workout article.

Low impact nature of rowing exercise

Rowing is low impact and good for your jointsRowing is very popular with a number of people as it is a lower impact exercise than some other forms of cardio training such as running. The lower impact nature of rowing means that it is suitable for people with existing joint issues or those recovering from injury or surgery. Many people actually row as a way of staving off joint problems, anticipating that time spent on a treadmill of playing impact sports will lead to joint issues in the long run.

Make sure you use correct rowing technique

To get the best results and maximise the positive impacts that rowing can have on your body it is important to use the correct technique on a rowing machine. The video below will demonstrate good technique and is worth taking a quick look at:

It also worth taking a look at Wikihow for a fantastic article on rowing machine technique. Check out the link below:

Wikihow – How to row on a rowing machine

Wrapping things up

OK just to recap what we have covered, exercise on a rowing machine will have the following impacts on your body:

  • Develop muscles accross the whole of your body, including all of the major muscle groups
  • Burn calories and therefore fat, changing your body composition
  • Improve your cardiovascular capacity, increasing heart health and lung efficiency
  • Build your muscle endurance, both aerobic and anaerobic plus both strength and speed endurance
  • Increase your bone density, reducing risk of or preventing osteoporosis
  • Be kind to joints and existing injuries

That is quite some list!

Rowing machines are suitable for any level of fitness, from beginner to elite athlete. Just work out at a level you are capable of to begin with, and if your follow our workout guides, you’ll quickly make progress. So what are you waiting for? Why not get started rowing asap?

p.s. if you enjoyed this article and found it informative, please like or share it. This makes it much easier for others to find it. Thanks!

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