One of the original sports in the modern Olympic Games, rowing is notorious as an effective full-body workout. It’s grown in popularity in recent years thanks to a shift towards high-intensity interval training and cross-training classes in the fitness industry. A low-impact alternative to treadmills and other cardio equipment, you’ll likely find a rowing machine in most gyms but may feel intimidated by it or not know how to use it.
“A rowing machine is a product one uses indoors to emulate the act of rowing in a boat on the water, but in the comfort of your own home or gym,” says Dani Hansen, Paralympic Rower and Hydrow Athlete. “On-water rowing is an incredible workout, but between the costs and the required equipment, isn’t always accessible – not to mention how challenging it is to learn how to steer, navigate a waterway and keep your boat upright.”
She says that an indoor rowing machine allows you to hone the skills you need to row on water without all of those inherent barriers. “The power, endurance and technique you need to row successfully on the water are exactly what gets worked on when you are rowing indoors as well,” says Hansen.
Fitness professionals in the Good Housekeeping Institute Wellness Lab spoke with Hansen to learn more about the health benefits of rowing machines, as well as what to look for when purchasing one. Here’s everything you need to know, including information on rowing machines, muscles worked and technique tips for beginners.
1. Rowing works multiple muscle groups
What makes rowing machines superior to many other pieces of workout equipment is that they recruit a variety of major muscle groups. “Rowing engages up to 86% of the body’s major muscle groups, so you’re working your arms, shoulders, core, back, glutes and legs,” Hansen says. “There’s a common misconception that rowing is primarily an upper-body sport, but in reality, your legs and core are equally important components — the majority of your power is actually going to come through your legs. It’s truly a full-body sport.”
2. Rowing is easy to learn
Indoor rowing is quite easy to learn but can be difficult to master. You want to pay attention to form and be sure to stay consistent with your rowing regimen to see results and improvements. “Rowing will give you everything you need in a well-rounded fitness regimen, but your personal goals — like increased energy and better sleep — will help you determine what types of workouts you should actually do,” Hansen says.
She also adds that even though you may feel inspired to row every day, recovery is vital and especially important for those new to fitness or this type of exercise. Be sure to prioritize hydration, nutrition, active recovery and rest as you start your rowing journey.
3. Rowing develops strength and endurance
Each portion of the rowing stroke utilizes different muscles, which can help build both strength and endurance. Here is how each section works specifically to build strength in different parts of the body:
- The Catch: This is the start of the rowing motion where the seat is slid all the way forward and you bend your knees close to your chest so you’re close to the front of the machine. During the catch motion, you’ll strengthen your triceps since they are used to extend your arms forward. You’ll also utilize your hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles which compress as your shins are held in a vertical position. Your back muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi, are activated during the catch.
- The Drive: The next phase of the stroke starts with pushing your feet off the foot stretchers until your legs are fully extended, engaging your core and using your hip hinge to swing your body into an upright position. Then, engage your shoulders, arms and back to pull the handlebar back. The drive is one swift fluid motion and strengthens your legs, shoulders, biceps, abs, and back.
- The Finish: This third phase requires core engagement as you stabilize your body while hinging slightly backward. Then use that momentum to fully extend your legs and bring the handle all the way into your sternum. Each muscle in your torso is activated here to stabilize the body, as well as the biceps.
- The Recovery: The final motion of the rowing stroke is essentially all of the first three steps in reverse. You’ll strengthen your triceps as they activate to extend your arms forward, as well as your upper legs and calves as they contract during the recovery motion. Each of the four phases also utilizes the muscles in the neck, hands and chest.
4. Rowing is a low-impact exercise
Hansen says that even the hardest rowing workouts are virtually zero-impact, which makes it gentle on joints and an excellent option for those with lifelong injuries or those who are rehabbing from a recent injury. “You’re also seated for the entire duration of the workout, which is another reason rowing is often recommended to people who are recovering from an injury or concerned about falling and need activities that can keep them moving for decades to come,” she adds. “Rowing also actively builds bone density, which is something that will serve you well, no matter your age.”
5. Rowing is excellent for all levels of fitness
Whether you’re a true beginner, just getting back into the swing of things after taking some time off or are in the best shape of your life, Hansen says rowing meets you exactly where you are. “As your rowing form improves and you become increasingly confident with your stroke, your speed, power and endurance will increase with every workout — but the movements you do in every session remain largely the same,” she says.
6. Rowing is great for your heart
In addition to building muscle and stability, an indoor rowing machine can provide one of the best cardio workouts. “Rowing can help by strengthening your cardiovascular system, which includes the heart, blood vessels and blood,” Hansen says. “Since rowing is such an intense workout, it requires your heart to work a little harder to transport oxygen and blood throughout the body to fuel your working muscles. When your heart has to work harder, it gets in a great workout, too.”
7. Rowing is efficient
As a proven full-body workout, Hansen says rowing is a terrific option if you often find yourself in a time pinch. Whether you plan to row for 10 minutes or 45 minutes, you can get a great efficient workout and hit all of the major muscle groups at once. “Since rowing recruits so many muscle groups, it’s one of the best workouts you can do minute-for-minute to build endurance, burn calories and develop a strong, balanced body,” she says.
8. Rowing is a complementary addition to other exercises
Whether you’re just looking to mix up your workout routine or are seriously training for a race or competition, Hansen says that rowing can be an excellent exercise to add to your cross-training regimen. “Some of the cross-training benefits include improved strength without the load on joints, increased endurance in an efficient manner, better hip-hinge movement which supports better hip function and improved mobility,” she says.
9. Rowing is incredibly versatile
Compared to treadmills and stationary bikes, rowing machines can prove to be extremely versatile. The main reason Hansen feels rowers are superior to other pieces of cardio equipment is because they provide a total-body workout that other machines can’t compete with, making it a great choice to add to any home gym. You can also vary your rowing workouts, from high-intensity short intervals to longer and sometimes more strenuous rowing distances.
Rowing Technique Tips
Hansen says that as with any exercise, it’s important to prioritize learning how to properly use the machine and master the correct form. She adds that good form will also lead to a more powerful rowing stroke, fewer injuries and improved cross-training. If you’re rowing at a gym, consider asking a trainer for assistance to show you the proper form and technique. Here are a few key tips to keep in mind:
- Keep your knees parallel with each stroke and don’t let them bow out to the side.
- Avoid hunching your shoulders. Sit up straight with your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears.
- Keep a secure grip on the handle so it doesn’t slip out of your hands but don’t over-grip as this can lead to unnecessary forearm burnout.
- Proper rowing technique demands core engagement, so be sure to engage this critical muscle group with each stroke.
“Rowing machines can seem intimidating at first, but the rowing stroke itself is actually really easy to learn,” Hansen says. She recommends breaking the stroke down into three simple steps: Drive with your legs, swing at the hips, then pull your arms in, all while engaging your core. Then you simply reverse the sequence, so it goes legs, swing, arms; arms, swing, legs.
How often should you use a rowing machine?
Hansen says that how often you use a rowing machine is dependent on a number of factors, including your goals, level of fitness and desire to cross-train. “Since rowing is a low-impact workout, it is generally safe to incorporate rowing into your regimen more frequently than a workout that wears on your body more such as running,” she says. But she caveats this with the important message of prioritizing rest and active recovery days, which will contribute to a more successful fitness journey. “And of course, you should always consult your healthcare provider before exploring a new fitness regimen, especially if you’re recovering from an injury,” says Hansen.
How much do rowing machines cost?
Rowing machines range anywhere from $100 to over $3,000, with most ranging between $500 to $1,500. The Hydrow Rowing Machine that won a 2022 Good Housekeeping Fitness Award costs $2,495, for example. Simpler machines without various settings or interactive components are on the lower end, whereas more advanced machines with a monitor and other features can be pricier. Some rowing machines offer virtual fitness classes that require a separate subscription plan as well.
What should you look for when purchasing a rowing machine?
You’ll first want to consider the size of the machine to make sure it fits into your workout space, as well as ease of storage. Price is a key factor, as well as how often you plan to use the machine. There are all different types of rowers including water rowers, air rowing machines, magnetic rowing machines and more. It’s worth trying them out before making the purchase.
Hansen recommends choosing a rower that is easy to learn. “If a certain product requires weeks or months of learning to even get started, will you actually stay interested? Choose a rower that lets you hop on and go,” she says. She recommends rowing machines with tech features that will keep you engaged and challenged without feeling too overwhelmed. Options that incorporate accountability and structure and key too, and ones that offer online communities and live classes can keep you motivated and looking forward to your next workout.
Why Trust Us?
Dani Hansen is a two two-time Paralympian (2016, 2020) and two-time Paralympic Medalist. Hansen started rowing in 2012 at the University of Washington. Hansen led the UW team to the Pac-12 Championships in 2013, 2016 and 2017, winning the NCAA championship in 2017. She coached at the University of Washington for one season in 2017. Hansen made the US Paralympic team in 2014, earning silver medals at the World Championship in the 4+ in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019. Hansen’s team earned a gold medal at the 2018 World Championship, at which they set the current world record for the 4+ event. In 2019, Hansen won a gold medal at the World Cup II in the 4+. Hansen is a USA Fan’s Choice Athlete of the Year (2016). She’s also a two-time Hometown Hero for her hometown of Patterson, CA – the town declared November 26th Dani Hansen Day. Hansen was Hydrow’s first athlete hire and joined the company in 2018.
Stefani Sassos has been working in the fitness industry for the past 10 years, specializing in cross-training and strength training. As a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, she uses her expertise and exercise science knowledge to create informed fitness content for the Good Housekeeping Institute. From vigorously testing exercise equipment to curating workout plans for GH readers, Stefani is passionate about leading an active lifestyle and inspiring others to do the same. An avid CrossFitter, Stefani exercises on a rowing machine almost daily and loves that it provides an effective but low-impact workout.
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