Does Rowing On A Machine Tone Your Body? Which Muscles?

Are you trying to find the best cardio machine that also helps you tone your body? Chances are you have set your eyes on a rower. I’ve found out what a rower can do for your body.

Does a rowing machine tone your body? Yes, rowing on a machine can certainly make your body look better. Toning is nothing more than lowering your bodyfat percentage and growing the muscles. Both are possible to do on a rowing machine with the right workout strategy.

Below, I’ll explain exactly how you can do this exactly and which muscles you can expect to tone.

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?

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Biceps
  • Rear deltoid
  • Latisimus dorsi
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • 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.

Want to buy a rowing machine for all the benefits? Click here to find the best one for your home gym.

Does a rower tone muscles?

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.

To make a muscle more visible you can do two things;

  • 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.

Lower body fat

Luckily, a rowing machine can do both things. Let’s look at lowering body fat percentage first. A rowing machine is a great way to do this. Rowing is great because you use a large amount of the muscles in your body. This allows you to burn a lot of extra calories.

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.

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.

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. Some people are afraid to start looking ‘too bulky’. For most people that’s just an excuse to not work out. You don’t start looking like a bodybuilder overnight. It takes a lot of hard work to grow a muscle.

More on this below.

Check out the buying guide on this site to find everything you should know before buying a rower.

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?

Learn more about rowing machine resistance types here. (click)

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.

9 amazing benefits rowing has on your body

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.

Learn more about rowing machine resistance types here. (click)

Related questions

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.


Hey, I'm Matt. Welcome to I've been going to the gym for about 15 years and am now looking to build my own. In the process I've learned many things I'd like to share with you.

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