What Muscles Does Rowing Not Work?

In order to keep our content free, we may earn a commission from the companies mentioned in this post.

Rowing machines have long been hailed as a comprehensive fitness tool due to their ability to engage a multitude of muscle groups simultaneously. The rhythmic pull and push action mimics the actual process of rowing a boat, eliciting a whole-body workout that burns significant calories, enhances cardiovascular fitness, and builds muscular endurance. However, like any fitness equipment, rowing machines may not work out all muscles optimally. In this article, we’ll demystify which muscles are less engaged during rowing, suggest supplementary exercises to target these muscles, and explore workout combinations for a holistic fitness approach.

Which Muscles Does a Rowing Machine Not Work?

To identify the muscles not extensively worked by a rowing machine, it’s crucial first to understand which muscles are targeted. A standard rowing stroke has two primary phases: the drive and the recovery. The drive is the active pulling phase where most of the power is exerted, and it predominantly recruits the quads, hamstrings, glutes, back muscles (rhomboids, latissimus dorsi), and the shoulders (deltoids). The recovery is the relaxed phase where you return to the starting position, which also involves the calves, biceps, triceps, and abdominals.

Despite providing a near whole-body workout, rowing machines may not optimally engage a few muscle groups:

  1. Pectoralis Major (Chest Muscles): Rowing has a limited impact on the pectoralis major as the exercise involves more pulling than pushing movements which would typically stimulate chest muscles.
  2.  Biceps Brachii: Although the biceps are involved during the pulling phase, they work more as stabilizers rather than primary movers. This means they might not get the intense stimulation needed for hypertrophy.
  3. Lateral and Medial Deltoids: The front deltoids are engaged in rowing, but the side and rear delts don’t get as much stimulation. These shoulder muscles are vital for complete shoulder development and stability.
  4. Calves (Gastrocnemius and Soleus): While the legs play a significant role in rowing, the calf muscles don’t get a robust workout. Their function is primarily for stabilization during the drive and recovery phase.

Best Exercises to Target Muscles Not Worked Out By Rowing

a very fit man flexing his muscles

To target the muscles that rowing workouts might miss, you need to incorporate a set of complementary exercises into your routine.

Here’s a closer look at some of these exercises:

1. Pectoralis Major: Bench Presses and Push-Ups


  • Stimulates pectoral muscles for growth and strength.
  • Enhances upper body muscular endurance.
  • Engages the triceps and anterior deltoids for a compound workout.

Bench presses are an excellent exercise for targeting the chest muscles. Lie on a flat bench, grasp a barbell with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width, lower it to your chest, then press it back up. This exercise stimulates the pectoral muscles directly, promoting growth and strength. It also indirectly works the triceps and the front deltoids, adding to its compound nature.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: The Benefits of Rowing Everyday 

Push-ups are another effective exercise for targeting the chest muscles. Assume a high plank position, lower your body until your chest touches the floor, then push back up. This bodyweight exercise not only targets the chest muscles but also improves core stability and upper body muscular endurance.

2. Biceps Brachii: Curls


  • Isolates the biceps for direct stimulation.
  • Enhances grip strength.
  • Increases upper body muscular endurance.

Bicep curls are excellent for isolating and developing the biceps. This can be done using a barbell or dumbbells. Hold the weights with palms facing forward, elbows close to your body. Without moving your upper arms, curl the weights while contracting your biceps, then lower them back down. This isolation exercise effectively stimulates the biceps, leading to increased muscle mass and strength over time. It also enhances grip strength and upper body muscular endurance.

3. Lateral and Medial Deltoids: Lateral Raises and Reverse Flys


  • Targets the side and rear delts for complete shoulder development.
  • Enhances shoulder stability and mobility.
  • Strengthens the rotator cuff muscles.

Lateral raises specifically target the side delts. Stand straight, hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides, then raise your arms out to the sides until they’re at shoulder level. This isolation exercise helps develop a balanced shoulder physique and enhances shoulder stability.

Reverse flys target the rear delts. Bend at the waist, hold a pair of dumbbells with palms facing each other, then raise the weights out to the sides and squeeze your shoulder blades together. This exercise strengthens the posterior shoulder muscles and the muscles around the scapulae, improving shoulder mobility and posture.

4. Calves: Calf Raises


  • Targets the calf muscles directly for size and strength.
  • Enhances lower body muscular endurance.
  • Improves balance and ankle stability.

Calf raises, whether seated or standing, are effective at isolating and strengthening the calf muscles. Stand straight, rise on your toes, hold for a second, then lower back down. This exercise can be done with body weight, with added resistance (like dumbbells or a barbell), or on a calf-raise machine. Calf raises directly stimulate the calf muscles, promote ankle stability, and help improve balance.

Other Workouts to Combine with Rowing to Target All Muscle Groups

a group of people doing deadlifts

Diversifying your fitness routine with workouts that complement rowing can help you engage all muscle groups and promote balanced physical development.

Let’s delve into how pairing rowing with lifting, swimming, biking, and running can enhance your overall fitness.

Rowing and Lifting


  • Weightlifting targets specific muscle groups, including those less worked by rowing.
  • You can create a split routine alternating between rowing and lifting.
  • A hybrid workout involves alternating between rowing intervals and lifting sets.

Rowing and weightlifting make a fantastic combination. While rowing is a cardiovascular workout that also enhances muscular endurance, weightlifting isolates specific muscle groups, promoting muscular strength and hypertrophy. This combination ensures you’re getting both cardio and strength training in your fitness regimen.

RELATED READING: Does Rowing Build Muscle?

If you prefer focusing on one type of exercise at a time, consider a split routine. You could row on some days of the week and lift on others, targeting muscles that rowing might not hit effectively.

Alternatively, you can create a hybrid workout that mixes rowing and lifting within the same session. For instance, you might alternate between 10-minute rowing intervals and sets of weightlifting exercises, ensuring your muscles get both the endurance work from the rowing and the strength work from the lifting.

Rowing and Swimming

Best Rower for 2023
hydrow square

Hydrow: Our Top-Rated Rower

  • Amazing Connected Rowing Experience
  • Motivating Instructors and Classes
  • Row Scenic Waterways Around the World
  • Live + On Demand Workouts
  • Large Library of Off The Rower Workouts
  • Two Models to Pick From
  • Modern and Sleek Design
  • 30-Day Risk-Free Trial 


  • Swimming offers a full-body workout that complements rowing.
  • It effectively targets chest and deltoids due to the variety of strokes.
  • Swimming and rowing can be alternated throughout the week for a balanced routine.

Swimming is a fantastic exercise that works your entire body, much like rowing, but with an emphasis on different muscle groups. In particular, swimming can be effective for working the chest muscles and the different deltoid muscles, thanks to the variety of strokes such as breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly.

Incorporating swimming into your fitness routine can provide an excellent balance to rowing. By alternating between swimming and rowing throughout the week, you can ensure that all your muscle groups get a thorough workout.

Rowing and Biking


  • Biking targets the anterior chain, complementing the posterior-chain focus of rowing.
  • It heavily engages the quadriceps and calves.
  • Biking adds a different kind of cardiovascular exercise to your routine.

While rowing primarily works the muscles on the back of your body (the posterior chain), biking focuses on the muscles on the front (the anterior chain). Biking especially targets the quadriceps and calves, which are less intensely worked during rowing.

Adding biking to your routine can therefore complement your rowing workouts, ensuring a well-rounded lower-body workout. Moreover, biking offers a change of pace from rowing, adding a different kind of cardiovascular exercise to your fitness regimen.

Rowing and Running


  • Running, especially on an incline, can engage the calf muscles more intensely.
  • It builds cardiovascular endurance from a different angle compared to rowing.
  • Alternating running and rowing can lead to greater cardiovascular fitness and muscle balance.

Running is another great exercise to combine with rowing. It engages the calf muscles more intensely, especially when running uphill or on an incline. Moreover, running stimulates cardiovascular endurance from a different perspective than rowing, enhancing your overall cardio fitness.

Alternating between running and rowing in your workout routine can lead to greater cardiovascular fitness. It also ensures a better balance of muscle activation across your body, promoting overall physical health and performance.

Final Thoughts

Rowing machines offer an efficient, full-body workout that combines strength training and cardiovascular conditioning. However, to achieve a well-rounded fitness routine, it’s crucial to supplement rowing with exercises that target the muscle groups less stimulated during rowing. By combining rowing with other workouts such as weightlifting, swimming, biking, or running, you can ensure you’re engaging all your muscle groups, promoting balanced physical development, and preventing the risk of injuries from muscle imbalances. Always remember, variety is the spice of life, and this applies to fitness too!