Got your eyes on an indoor rowing machine but aren’t sure if it can do for you what you want it to do? Can a rowing machine tone your body and improve your physique? Let’s find out.
Rowing on an indoor rowing machine is a great way to get a more toned physique. Rowing burns calories which can help lose body fat which exposes more muscle. For untrained individuals, the resistance from rowing is going to be enough for moderate muscle growth on the back of the body.
Below, I’ll explain exactly how you can do this exactly and which muscles you can expect to tone.
Does an indoor rowing machine tone your body?
Many people’s workout goals involve getting a better looking physique and improving health. Click here to find the health benefits of an indoor rower. In this article we’ll look at the physique improvements rowing can bring you.
A common thing people say is that they work out to ‘tone up’. Toning muscles is actually not a very accurate term. Most people that say ‘toned’ muscle mean ‘visible’ muscle. Or at least more visible than before, creating a more aesthetically pleasing physique.
Toning muscles doesn’t exist in the sense most beginners think it does. They just mean they don’t want to become a stereotypical bodybuilder. Well, the good news is, unless you train like a bodybuilder for years, follow their diet and for many “special supplements”, you won’t look like a bodybuilder, not even if you lift weights.
However, most people just want to look better with more visible and defined muscles.
There are two parts to accomplishing this;
- Grow the muscle
- Lower your body fat percentage
That’s really what muscle toning is. A bigger muscle will make it more visible and lowering your body fat percentage removes the layer on top of the muscles (and inside the muscles) which makes them more visible and looking harder/more dense.
A rowing machine is a great tool for losing body fat and thus exposing the muscle underneath. It can also grow some of your muscles, amplifying the toning effect. However, not all muscles will be trained by a rower so combining rowing with resistance training will give the best results.
Let’s look at both lowering body fat and growing muscle separately and how a rowing machine can help and what it doesn’t do.
Lower body fat
Let’s look at lowering body fat percentage first. A rowing machine is a great tool to do this. Rowing is great because you use a large amount of the muscles in your body. More muscle mass used means more calories burned. Over time, burning more calories than you’re eating will make you lose body weight.
Of course all the rowing in the world isn’t going to lower your body fat if your diet isn’t on point. If you look at the basics of losing weight, you have to use more energy than you take in. So you have to eat less calories than you burn throughout the day.
While losing weight, you do run the risk of losing muscle as well as fat. That’s really counterproductive to the muscle toning we’re trying to accomplish. If you strip off the fat but there’s no muscle underneath, you just look emaciated.
Follow a healthy diet but especially keep an eye on your protein intake. Eating about 1 gram of protein per lbs. of bodyweight helps preserve muscle. If you can combine this with resistance training that stimulates your muscles, even better.
There are many nuances and details that can impact this but energy balance is the foundation. What rowing helps you do is burn more calories. That’s just one part of the equation, your diet is the other one. Rowing burns calories so if your diet is on point, you’ll lose weight over time.
Looking for a good home gym rower? Click here to find my favorite.
Grow the muscles
The other part of toning your body is to grow the muscle. Many people that are new to working out will use the word toning because they don’t want to get too big. Well, the mechanism how muscle growsxxxx
Rowing on a machine (or outside) Won’t make you look like a bodybuilder. Just google ‘rower physique’. You’ll find some pictures of professional rowers that don’t look anything like professional bodybuilders. Sure, they’re muscular but it’s still what most people would describe as athletic. Keep in mind that these are likely professionals so their workout routine is a lot tougher than what you will go do and their workout routines likely also involve heavy weight training.
In short, I mean to say you can go crazy on a rowing machine and not worry about getting too big. If anything, you probably want to supplement your rowing routine with some weight training.
Rowers mostly use the muscles on the back of your body. That’s great for posture, and building a good muscle base but, it doesn’t target many of the muscles you see in the mirror. For those muscles, a simple weight training routine performed before or after the rowing will help to get those more visible.
Working out on a rowing machine will provide enough of a growth impulse for beginners (specifically those muscles on the back of your body. but after a while of working out the growth will plateau because you’d need more resistance to keep gaining muscle.
So while a rower is a great tool for losing the body fat and exposing muscles, some weightlifting will be necessary to get that ‘toned/athletic’ look. A rower will build some muscle but won’t fully get you the look you probably want.
Keep reading below to find out which muscles are grown by rowing.
Check out the buying guide on this site to find everything you should know before buying a rower.
Which muscles does a rowing machine use?
Let’s start off with looking at which muscles you use on a rowing machine. Before we do that, I’ll start with a qualification.
A rowing machine doesn’t build all the muscles in your body. Let’s take a look at the movement to discover which muscles you (should) use.
As you can see, you use your legs, arms and back. You’re pushing with your legs and pulling you’re your arms and upper body. There is a slight curling motion with your legs to bring the sliding seat back into the starting position. Your lower back also has to be used quite a bit. You lower back doesn’t (shouldn’t) move much but you have to use your lower back to keep it in a safe position throughout the stroke.
So which muscles do you actually use?
- Rear deltoid
- Latisimus dorsi
- Spinal erectors
- Various stabilizing muscles
It’s estimated that for the rowing movement, the force comes for about 65% from the legs and 35% from the upper body. Of course people are different so the percentages can differ a little bit between people but it’s obvious that the majority of the force comes from the legs.
Your legs are generally stronger than your upper body so it makes sense that you create more force there than in your upper body. But because your upper body muscles are not as strong, that doesn’t mean they don’t work as hard. Because they are weaker and smaller, they still have to work as hard.
Which type of rower is best to tone your muscles?
You might wonder which type of rower is the best if you want to tone your muscles. That means focusing both on lowering your body fat percentage and growing your muscles. So you might know there are different rowing machine types that create resistance in different ways. Is there a difference in muscle toning ability between those types?
Water and air resistance rowers are the best option to build muscle. That’s because they have ‘unlimited’ resistance that scales to the power you put in. That makes them excellent for HIIT workouts which results in more muscle growth than steady state cardio workouts.
To start off with, you’ll need a machine that allows you to do the full rowing movement. That excludes the vast majority of the hydraulic rowing machines. The hydraulic type rowers often have a fixed seat, which takes much of the legwork out making it more of an upper body workout.
That means we only have to look at Air, Air + Magnetic, Magnetic and Water rowers.
To decide which type is best, it’s important to know what makes muscles grow.
Muscles need a training impulse to grow. You have to do something to the muscle that tells your body it has to grow it. Normal steady state cardio isn’t very good at that because it doesn’t ask much from your muscles. A complete beginner will see some gains but that will stop pretty quickly.
That means you need something that challenges your muscles. That’s resistance and the amount of repetitions. The repetitions are done by you so what the rower has to do is provide resistance. This means we want a machine that has adjustable resistance and preferably is capable of providing really strong resistance.
Water and air rowers usually don’t have adjustable resistance. On those types the faster you pull, the higher the resistance gets. This is actually really good. It means that you go as hard as you can and it adapts to you.
There is one better option however, and that is the air + magnetic resistance type rower. This type combines two types of resistance. The air resistance starts at almost zero and ramps up from there. Adding the magnetic resistance means that you add a certain amount of resistance to this. The magnetic resistance doesn’t increase with speed so it just lifts up the whole resistance curve.
That’s why the air + magnetic resistance rower the best option for muscle growth since you have the most control over the resistance.
Wondering how much an air + magnetic rower costs? Click here to find a list.
How to grow your muscles on a rowing machine
Knowing all of that, how can you exactly build some muscle on a rowing machine?
First off, you have to understand you’re only going to build the muscles you’re using. So if you’re looking to build a big chest, this isn’t going to be your thing.
In general, a resistance that you can do for fewer repetitions (1-5) does more for strength building and higher repetitions (up to 15) works more towards hypertrophy (muscle growth). The muscle growth is what we want for muscle toning.
And besides that, doing 5 repetition sets isn’t really practical on a rowing machine. You might as well be doing heavy squats at that point. So, let’s go to the other end of the spectrum. 15- 20 repetitions per set can certainly be used for building muscle and is suitable to do on a rower.
This repetition range can fit into some kind of interval training protocol. That’s probably going to be the most effective in general. Interval training allows you to work out at a higher resistance level that pushes your muscles harder than normal cardio.
Looking for a good home gym rower? Click here to find my favorite.
Here’s what you do;
- Warm up on the rower
- Row as hard/fast as you can for 15 to 20 reps. Your legs should be really burning for the last +-5 reps. If they don’t, increase the speed/resistance.
- Don’t go all the way to failure. Have 1 or 2 repetitions left in the tank after every set. Don’t have too many left over either. It has to be challenging.
- Rest/ go slow for one minute. You can shorten this later if it becomes easy.
- For beginners, start with 4 sets. Do this two times a week. (throw in normal cardio workouts a few other days a week). Add one set a week up to about 8 sets.
As a side effect of HIIT, your cardiovascular system has to work harder as well. HIIT protocols are proven to be very effective for fat burning and increasing cardiovascular health. If you can add a muscle building effect to this, that’s almost the perfect workout.
All that said, don’t expect to become a huge bodybuilder even if you implement all the strategies above. After you reach an intermediate level, the resistance a rower can offer is probably not quite enough to provide a growth impulse anymore.
If you really want big muscles, training with free weights is hard to beat. Also, to stay balanced and prevent muscle imbalances you should train the muscles a rower doesn’t target. This balance will create a better physique, a stronger overall body and can help to prevent injuries.
Can rowing give you toned legs? Yes, during a rowing stroke, most of the force comes from the legs. To create a growth impulse for your muscles, row at a really high resistance level that burns out your legs in about 15 repetitions. Combine this with a High intensity interval training protocol and you’ll certainly start noticing a difference.
Can you grow Glutes with a rowing machine? The rowing movement mainly targets your quadriceps and hamstrings in your legs. However, glutes, abs and upper body also get a good workout but not as much as your quads and hamstrings. So while it will definitely help them, if you want your glutes to grow in comparison to your legs, there are better exercises.
Favorite Cardio Machine Accessories
Check out these accessories that improve a home cardio workout:
- Equipment mat: All cardio equipment should be put on an equipment mat. The Rubber-Cal mat (Amazon) is an affordable yet very high quality choice.
- Interval timer: To time your intervals and workouts, there is no better choice than the GymNext Flex. It’s super easy to use and set up with a phone app.
- Tablet holder: Cardio can be boring. With this tablet holder (Amazon) you can follow along with on-demand workouts or just watch a movie on any cardio machine.
- Heart rate monitor: Monitoring your heart rate is very important while doing cardio. The Polar H10 (Amazon) connects to almost anything you can imagine and is very accurate.
To find which cardio machines I recommend for home gyms, click here.