Does Rowing Build Muscle? What the Research Says

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In the quest for a holistic workout regime that both efficiently burns calories and builds muscle, rowing machines have risen to prominence. Favored by fitness enthusiasts worldwide, these fitness devices mimic the physical motion of rowing a boat, offering a comprehensive workout that targets multiple major muscle groups. This article explores the efficacy of rowing machines in muscle building, delving into recent research and providing top workouts to maximize results. Lastly, we will explore the pivotal role that diet plays in your muscle-building journey.

Do Rowing Machines Build Muscle?

When the question arises – do rowing machines build muscle? The simple answer is yes. However, to appreciate the nuances of this answer, one must understand the mechanism of a rowing machine.

When discussing fitness and bodybuilding, the discourse often revolves around weightlifting or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). However, if you’re looking for an excellent full-body workout that both burns fat and builds muscle, a rowing machine can prove to be an incredibly effective tool.

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A rowing machine, as the name suggests, simulates the action of watercraft rowing for the purpose of exercise. But do rowing machines build muscle? Yes, indeed they do. The very nature of a rowing workout involves resistance training, an exercise modality proven to cause muscle hypertrophy or growth.

The Muscle Groups Worked

One reason why rowing machines are so effective in building muscle is due to the number of muscle groups they engage in a single stroke. The major muscle groups targeted during a rowing exercise are the legs (quadriceps and hamstrings), the core (abdominals and lower back), and the upper body (rhomboids in your shoulders, trapezii in your upper back, and your biceps and triceps).

A rowing stroke consists of four main movements: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. Each of these engages different muscle groups.

  • The catch is the starting position where you are closest to the machine. Your knees are bent, shins vertical, and the back is leaning slightly forward. This primarily engages your leg muscles and core.
  • The drive is the part where you push back using your legs and pull the handle towards your lower chest. This is the most intense part of the stroke where the leg muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings), back muscles (erector spinae), and arm muscles (biceps) work hard.
  • The finish is the end of the drive, where the handle is close to your lower chest, your legs are extended, and your back leans slightly backward. Here, the trapezius muscles and the wrist flexors come into play.
  • The recovery is the rest part, where you return to the catch position. Your muscles get a slight breather, but your core is still engaged to maintain form and posture.

Given the comprehensive nature of this exercise, a rowing machine workout is often touted as a ‘full-body workout’.

Progression and Overload

The principle of progressive overload is central to muscle building. The idea is to gradually increase the amount of resistance that your muscles work against. This, in turn, leads to increased muscle fiber recruitment and subsequently, muscle growth.

Rowing machines are equipped with adjustable resistance settings. Starting at a lower resistance allows beginners to perfect their form and avoid injury.

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As your strength improves, the resistance can be incrementally increased, providing your muscles with a continual challenge and promoting muscle growth.

Rowing and Muscle Toning

While rowing does build muscle, the type of muscle growth it stimulates differs slightly from that promoted by weightlifting. Rowing leads to a leaner, more athletic muscle build, as opposed to the bulkier muscles often associated with heavy weightlifting. This is because rowing is a compound exercise, working several muscle groups simultaneously, and also has a strong cardiovascular component.

Rowing also contributes to improved muscular endurance. This means that over time, your muscles become more efficient and can perform more repetitions before fatigue sets in.

To conclude, rowing machines are highly efficient in building muscle, owing to the nature of resistance training and the number of muscle groups they work simultaneously. However, they promote a lean, athletic build rather than a bulky one. With regular use, appropriate progression, and a balanced diet, rowing machines can be a key tool in your muscle-building journey.

What the Research Says About Rowing and Muscle Building

a woman uses a rowing machine to work her muscles

Several scientific studies corroborate the muscle-building capacity of rowing machines. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that athletes who incorporated rowing into their training regimen experienced significant increases in leg strength and power (Lawton, T.W., Cronin, J.B., & McGuigan, M.R., 2011).

Another study, published in PLOS One, assessed the impact of indoor rowing on muscle hypertrophy in untrained individuals. The study found that rowing led to noticeable muscle growth in the participants’ legs and a small but significant increase in arm muscle size. This indicates that regular rowing can indeed lead to muscle growth (Bagley, L., Slevin, M., Bradburn, S., Liu, D., Murgatroyd, C., Morrissey, G., Carroll, M., Piasecki, M., Gilmore, W.S., McPhee, J.S., 2019).

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Remember, though, that muscle growth is a slow and gradual process, and patience is key. Regular workouts with incremental increases in resistance coupled with a protein-rich diet can effectively lead to muscle growth over time.

5 Amazing Muscle Building Workouts on a Rowing Machine

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1. Standard Row

  • Duration: 15-20 minutes
  • Intensity: Moderate
  • Focus: Full-body workout

The standard row is the foundation of all rowing exercises. It engages all the major muscle groups, including the legs, core, and upper body. The continuous rowing motion at a moderate intensity for 15-20 minutes gives your muscles a sustained period of exertion, promoting muscle endurance and growth. The rhythmic nature of rowing means that you’re constantly working against resistance (set by you), which helps to strengthen and tone your muscles.

2. Interval Training

  • Sets: 10
  • High-intensity rowing: 2 minutes
  • Rest: 1 minute
  • Focus: Improving cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance

Interval training is a form of training where you alternate between periods of high-intensity exercise and periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. With interval rowing, your muscles experience both the tension of high-intensity rowing and short periods of recovery. This form of training is great for building muscle as the high-intensity periods really challenge your strength and the rest periods allow for quick recovery, letting you maintain the intensity throughout the workout.

3. Power Strokes

  • Regular rowing: 4 minutes
  • Power strokes: 10 strokes
  • Sets: Varies depending on workout length
  • Focus: Boosting power and strength

Power strokes are all about giving your maximum effort and speed in each stroke. After every 4 minutes of regular rowing, you do 10 power strokes as hard and fast as you can. This sudden burst of energy significantly engages your muscles and then you return to your regular pace, allowing some recovery. This intense workout can be a real game-changer in your muscle-building regimen as it helps improve both your power and strength.

4. Pyramid Workout

  • High-intensity rowing: Increase from 1 minute to 5 minutes, then decrease
  • Rest: 1 minute after each high-intensity rowing
  • Focus: Improving stamina, strength, and endurance

The pyramid workout is a rowing routine where you start rowing for 1 minute at high intensity, then rest for 1 minute. You then add 1 minute to your high-intensity rowing after each rest period, peaking at 5 minutes of high-intensity rowing. You then decrease the high-intensity rowing by 1 minute after each rest period until you’re back to 1 minute. This workout is great for muscle building as it continually challenges and pushes your muscles beyond their comfort zone, promoting muscle growth and endurance.

5. Long Distance Row

  • Duration: 30-60 minutes
  • Intensity: Moderate
  • Focus: Building lean muscle, improving cardiovascular health

A long-distance row involves rowing at a moderate pace for an extended period of 30-60 minutes. This is a brilliant endurance workout that stimulates the development of lean muscle mass. By providing a steady state of moderate-intensity exercise, your body enters a state where it burns fat and builds muscle, perfect for those who wish to get lean and fit while also strengthening their cardiovascular health.

Optimizing Your Diet to Build More Muscle

a selection of foods for a muscle-building diet

To complement your rigorous workouts on the rowing machine, it’s crucial to optimize your diet for muscle growth. Exercise breaks down muscle fibers, and the body uses nutrients from food to repair and build them back stronger. Here’s how you can maximize your nutrition for muscle building.


Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth. It supplies the body with amino acids, the building blocks for muscle tissue. A diet rich in high-quality protein helps increase muscle mass and strength when combined with regular exercise.

  • Aim to include lean protein sources in your meals and snacks throughout the day. These include lean meats like chicken and turkey, fish, eggs, dairy products like Greek yogurt and milk, and plant-based sources like tofu, tempeh, lentils, and chickpeas.
  • Consider including a protein-rich snack post-workout to aid in muscle recovery. This could be a protein shake or a combination of a protein and carbohydrate food such as Greek yogurt with fruit or a tuna sandwich.


Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for high-intensity workouts. Consuming carbohydrates helps ensure you have enough energy to perform your best during your rowing workouts and aids in muscle recovery post-workout.

  • Choose complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. These not only provide energy but also fiber and important vitamins and minerals. Foods such as brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and quinoa are excellent choices.
  • Timing of carbohydrate intake can also be essential. Eating a meal or snack containing both protein and carbohydrates 1-3 hours before your workout can fill your energy stores, allowing you to train harder. Consuming a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack after your workout can replenish energy stores and accelerate muscle recovery.


Healthy fats play a crucial role in hormone production, including testosterone, which is vital for muscle growth. Moreover, they provide a concentrated source of energy and aid in the absorption of certain vitamins.

  • Incorporate healthy fats from foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, and olive oil.
  • While fats are essential, they should be consumed in moderation as they are calorie-dense, and excessive calories can lead to unwanted weight gain.


Proper hydration is equally important for optimal performance and recovery. Water helps regulate body temperature, lubricate joints, transport nutrients, and facilitate various bodily functions.

  • Drink water throughout the day, not just around your workouts. The amount needed can vary based on factors like age, sex, weight, activity level, and climate, but a general guideline is to aim for 8-10 cups of water per day.
  • If you’re engaging in long or intense workouts, a sports drink may be beneficial to replace lost electrolytes.


While a balanced diet should provide all the necessary nutrients for muscle building, some people may consider supplements to enhance their performance or fill in nutritional gaps. Protein powders, creatine, and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are commonly used supplements in muscle building. However, it’s recommended to consult a healthcare provider before starting any supplementation regimen.

In summary, a balanced diet, combined with regular, intense rowing workouts, can significantly help build muscle. Remember, it’s not only about eating more, but also about eating right, timing your nutrients, and staying hydrated. Considering the services of a registered dietitian may be beneficial to create a personalized plan that aligns with your muscle-building goals.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, rowing machines indeed play a significant role in building and toning muscle, thanks to their incorporation of resistance exercise targeting both upper and lower body muscles. Coupled with the right diet and a structured workout plan, they can contribute to your overall strength, endurance, and fitness. However, it’s crucial to remember that progress takes time and consistent effort. The beauty of rowing machines lies in their offer of a full-body workout, marrying cardio and strength training, making them an effective tool in your fitness arsenal.