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Benefits of a Rowing Machine

Carla S. - Jan 15 2020

The humble rowing machine is arguably the single greatest and most underappreciated piece of exercise equipment ever conceived.

That may sound like a bold statement, but it’s one that’s tough to dispute when you take stock of its many virtues. You’d be hard-pressed to find another tool that does everything a rowing machine can, or does it as well.

If you haven’t yet joined the rowing revolution, it’s time to take a closer look at this versatile contraption and all the ways it can redefine your workouts and help you reach your fitness goals. 

What is a Rowing Machine? 

A rowing machine is a type of exercise apparatus designed to simulate the action of rowing an oar-propelled boat. So what does a rowing machine do, exactly?

You may know it as that weird looking thing in the corner of the cardio area at your gym that no one ever touches, or you may not know it at all. Either way, you stand to reap some serious rewards by getting acquainted with it.

Unlike most of the newfangled equipment you’ll find at most fitness centers, the first rowing machines were invented way back in the

4th century BC by the ancient Greeks, who used them to refine the technique of rookie oarsmen. Their methods must have worked, as the Greeks had a widespread reputation for being formidable seafarers in their day.

Jumping forward some 2,000 years, the rowing machine has demonstrated remarkable staying power and has only garnered more and more praise with modern technological advances. That’s because rowing provides a workout as few other exercises can.

Rowing machines can come in many different shapes, sizes, and styles. Still, in their most elemental form, they consist of a sliding seat that moves freely along a track, a handle connected to a cable or pair of grip levers, and some mechanism for generating resistance. Together, these components replicate the feeling of powering a small vessel through the water.

There are four main varieties of rowing machines, each of which is classified by how it produces resistance. These are commonly known as hydraulic, flywheel, magnetic, and water rowers.


One of the earliest types of indoor rowing machines, hydraulic rowers use a simple piston and cylinder system to create resistance. Each time you perform a stroke on a hydraulic rower, the piston moves inside the cylinder and compresses a small amount of gas or fluid, forcing you to work to overcome the pressure. 

Flywheel Rowers

Flywheel rowers are recognizable by the large fan compartments located at the front end of the machine. When you pull the attached handle, the unraveling cable causes the fan blades inside the compartment to turn. As the blades slice through the air, they are met with wind resistance. 

Magnetic Rowers

As their name suggests, magnetic rowing machines rely on magnetic energy to provide resistance. Inside the frame of a magnetic rower is a powerful electromagnetic brake, which you counteract with each stroke force. The result is a buttery smooth gliding action that’s almost entirely free of turbulence or noise.

Water Rowers

Just like flywheel rowers, water rowers make use of a central flywheel, but on a water rower, the flywheel is situated inside a tank of water. This means that when you carry out a stroke, you’re pulling directly against the water itself, just as you would be if you were traversing an open waterway.

Which Type of Rowing Machine is Best?

You can sit and compare specs all day, but when it comes right down to it, there is no “best” kind of rower. Each of the types mentioned above has its own unique set of pros and cons, and none of these are decisive enough to ultimately outweigh the others.

Let’s say, for instance, that you want to get into rowing, but your options are limited by your budget and the amount of floor space you have available at home. In this case, a compact hydraulic or magnetic rower would probably give you the most bang for your buck.

If, on the other hand, you’re a seasoned athlete and require a more versatile machine that can meet the demands of specialized workouts, you might prefer the increased sturdiness and adjustable resistance of a flywheel or water rower.

Ultimately, the best rower is the one that best suits your needs. 

How Do You Use a Rowing Machine?

To get a better sense of what makes rowing such an effective form of exercise, you first need to have a basic understanding of the technique involved.

First thing’s first: if the rowing machine you’re using has adjustable resistance settings, be sure to choose a setting that’s appropriate for your experience and individual level of fitness. Then, sit down squarely on the seat, brace your feet against the twin foot supports, and strap yourself in. Take hold of the handle or grip levers and make sure your grip is nice and firm.

When you’re ready to get moving, initiate the rowing motion by pushing yourself backward using only your legs' strength. As your legs reach full extension, let your arms take over, pulling the handle or grips in towards your sternum by squeezing the muscles of your upper back. End each stroke with a forceful contraction and lean back slightly to maximize your range of motion, then return to your starting position and repeat the process.

The key to conquering a rowing workout is to get a good rhythm going. One way to do this is by breaking your stroke down into phases and counting out each phase in beats—the leg drive is one, the pull is two, the back extension is three, and so on.

Another option is to sync your breath up with your strokes. For instance, you might take a deep breath as you push off, then exhale sharply as you complete the pull and begin sliding back to your starting position, ready for your next stroke. As you get more comfortable with the motion and your stamina increases, you might aim for a rhythm of one breath per stroke.

Learning to time your breathing to your movements in this way will enable you to row harder and faster for longer periods, thereby maximizing the utility of the exercise, as well as your output in other endeavors.

Rowing is a complicated exercise that can take a considerable amount of practice to get the hang of. But once you get dialed in and find your flow, you’re guaranteed to fall under its spell and watch the minutes and meters fly by. 

What Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Use?

A better question would probably be, “What muscles doesn’t a rowing machine work?”

Rowing is a true total-body exercise that demands effort from all the major muscle groups, including the legs, back, arms, and everything in between. This makes it one of the most efficient forms of exercise there is.

From a fitness standpoint, comprehensive muscle recruitment is a priority of the highest order. The more muscles you target, the more calories you burn, and the better your performance and physique have the potential to be as a result.

To drive home this point, just envision how the body moves during each phase of the stroke. 

  • Legs

The first and most crucial half of the rowing motion, the leg drive, is accomplished by firing the calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes all in one fluid sequence.

In other words, it gets all the primary lower body muscles working together in a natural motor pattern that keeps your joints in a strong, stable position, even if your form begins to break down as you tire out. 

  • Back

As you complete the leg drive, your upper body takes over for the second half of the stroke: the pull. Transferring all the force you’ve built up to this point effectively requires you to engage the muscles of your upper back—namely, your lats, rhomboids, and trapezii. These are all big, essential muscles responsible for the movement and stability of the arms and shoulders.

  • Core

Your core also gets in on the action while rowing, as your abs, obliques, and spinal erectors play a pivotal role in hinging and stabilization. And since you must necessarily keep your midsection tensed throughout both halves of your stroke, you’ll be activating those muscles the entire time you’re in motion.

When used correctly, the rower may be a more direct avenue to that chiseled six-pack you’ve always wanted, more so than other exercise machines for precisely this reason. 

  • Arms

The final portion of the pull is all about the biceps and rear delts. These muscles are indispensable for bringing the handle or grip levers to their end position, and they receive a thorough workout in the process. Toned biceps and sculpted shoulders are two of the biggest contributors to that toned look that so many people are after. 

What Other Benefits Does a Rowing Machine Offer?

Of course, rowing is good for more than just developing muscular strength and endurance. It boasts a slew of other perks that span the fitness spectrum's full length and promote overall health and wellness. 

  • Cardio

A few minutes of vigorous rowing will have your heart and lungs working double-time to send oxygen-rich blood to your laboring muscles. You’ll huff, you’ll puff, you’ll drip sweat, and you’ll love every second of it.

Health experts advise that the average adult perform around 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise throughout the week, or around 75 minutes of more intense training. Rowing can be an excellent way to meet this quota and give your body the activity it needs to function at its best. 

  • Fat Burning

As your heart rate continues to climb, you’ll enter the heralded fat-burning zone, in which your body begins breaking down its fat stores to ensure that it has plenty of immediate energy available to keep up the intensity.

If your objective is to shed body fat, you’ll want to settle into a rhythm that gets your heart rate elevated to about 70 percent of your maximum safe heart rate, which you can calculate by subtracting your age from the number 220. 

  • Customized Conditioning

Scaling the difficulty of a rowing workout to your current fitness level is a cinch. If you want to challenge yourself, simply pull harder and quicken your strokes. If you want to take things a little easier, slow down, and put more emphasis on your breathing and technique.

Since you have full control over the speed and degree of resistance you’re working with, you can change them up at any given moment—no need to pause or push any buttons. 

  • Joint Health and Recovery

Along with its many other advantages, rowing is exceptionally low-impact, making it a superb alternative to banging around on the treadmill or stair-stepper if you suffer from joint pain or are recovering from an injury. It’s also a great way to warm up those vulnerable muscles and joints before an intense weightlifting session, team practice, or aerobics class.

  • Coordination

Rowing teaches the body to work as a coordinated unit. Heightened coordination translates well to a wide range of other movements, from athletic pursuits like football, swimming, and yoga to more fundamental activities such as walking, balancing, and lifting.

As you can now plainly see, the only wrong way to use a rower is not to use it. 

The rowing machine occupies a well-deserved spot in the upper echelon of fitness equipment.

It quite literally does it all, combining cardio, resistance, mobility, and coordination training into one convenient package without any of the risks or disadvantages that sometimes come with other forms of exercise. On top of all that, it’s fun, which means you’ll want to use it. How many other machines can you say that about?

Whether your goal is to lose weight, build strength, improve your endurance, gain a winning edge in your sport, or just stay healthy, the right rowing machine can help get you there.