Peloton member on a Peloton row

Can Rowing Be Your Strength Training?

Find out whether this full-body exercise can also double as strength and cardio.

By Alyssa SybertzJune 21, 2023


Recently got hooked on the Peloton Row? We get it. Rowing is an incredibly effective form of exercise, engaging 86 percent of the muscles in your body while also spiking your heart rate for both muscle-toning and endurance-boosting results. But since rowing engages so many muscles, can it replace the more traditional strength and resistance training in your exercise regimen?

“I would not call it strength training, but strengthening,” says Peloton Row and Tread instructor Adrian Williams. “The concepts are totally different.” Here’s everything you need to know about rowing, strength training, and how to maximize your results from both to get the most out of every exercise session. 

What Exactly is a Rowing Machine Workout?

“Rowing can be a multitude of things. We cast a wide net in terms of types of row workouts,” says Adrian. “It is a total body workout, 70 percent legs, 20 percent body, 10 percent arms, and can serve multiple purposes in your weekly routine. It can be used for a workout or recovery depending on how your body feels.” That’s because rowing is, by nature, a low-impact workout. Since your butt stays on the seat the entire time, you’re not putting pressure on the joints of your ankles, knees, or hips the way you do when running or doing plyometric movements, for example. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a killer workout on the rowing machine.

“We have everything from Beginner classes to form and drills, HIIT, intervals, endurance, and bootcamps, which are a combo of rowing and strength,” Adrian says. “It is a total-body workout so you're targeting all muscle groups, lower, mid, and upper body. It is a great way to improve cardiovascular health while strengthening your muscles at the same time.” 

This double benefit comes from the resistance the rowing machine provides. While simply moving up and down the slide and pulling the handle at a fast pace might get your heart rate up in the same way that running sprints on a track or jumping rope will have you breathing heavily, the added resistance forces you to also engage your muscles with every stroke.

Is Rowing Strength Training?

The rowing stroke originates with a powerful push from the legs, similar to the movement you would complete doing a leg press at the gym. So does that mean rowing can replace your strength training? Not quite, according to Peloton instructors. “While rowing does primarily target and strengthen certain large muscle groups, mainly the legs and body, it may not be the most effective method for building muscle mass compared to other forms of resistance training such as weight lifting,” explains Peloton Row instructor Alex Karwoski. “Rowing primarily relies on the leg drive to generate power but it doesn’t provide the same level of muscle stimulation as dedicated lower body exercises such as deadlifts or squats.”

Continued muscle growth comes from repeatedly challenging your muscles with more weight or more resistance. This process, known as muscle hypertrophy, causes tiny tears in your muscle fibers that your body then needs to repair. When it does so, it fuses those fibers back together and surrounds them with new muscle cells, which creates muscle growth.

Rowing primarily strengthens the muscle that you do have through repetitive movement and engagement. That’s not to say rowing doesn’t lead to any muscle growth—if you’re new to rowing or are working muscles you don’t normally use during other activities, you’ll likely see some gains.

“Your muscles will definitely become stronger, especially your glutes, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and core,” adds Adrian. “But I would not say rowing can replace your strength training.”

A well-rounded fitness routine should include aerobic endurance training to strengthen your cardiovascular system, weight training to induce those muscle tears and build muscle mass, and resistance training to sculpt and strengthen your muscles. Rowing can serve as both your and your resistance training, but you need to also incorporate some weight training into your weekly routine—not only to improve your exercise performance, but also to maintain your overall health. After all, if you’re past the age of 30, you can lose up to 8 percent of your muscle mass per decade. It’s up to you to continue to build new muscle through strength training in order to avoid this muscle loss causing problems for you down the road.

How to Combine Rowing and Strength Training

“Most rowing training plans will include some strength training sessions in the weight room to specifically target parts of the body,” says Alex. The benefits of including these strength training sessions are twofold. First, working to build the muscles that power the rowing stroke, such as the hamstrings, glutes, and lats, can make you a stronger and faster rower. And second, building the muscles and working through the movement patterns that aren’t part of the rowing stroke, such as lateral movements, twists, and upper body pushes, can make you a stronger overall and help you avoid muscle imbalances.

To help you generate more power and lower splits during your next row, Adrian recommends trying Bulgarian split squats, dead bugs, and bent over rows during your next session with weights. Bulgarian split squats, or single leg squats with your back leg elevated behind you on a bench or chair, target the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors while also working each leg individually to ensure you aren’t favoring one over the other when you row. Dead bugs, AKA a bird-dog done lying on your back, are a great way to target the deep core to generate more power through your body swing. Finally, bent-over rows will build the lats, the strong upper-back muscles that you’ll use to pull the handle through the stroke.

To build overall strength that will support your health and wellness in the day-to-day, Adrian suggests adding in some other movements, such as an upper-body push (like chest presses or overhead presses), rotational exercise for core strength (like Russian twists), unliteral movements (like bicep curls, oblique crunches or single-leg calf raises), and hinge movements (like deadlifts). If your joints are healthy enough, you can also incorporate some plyometric movements, such as jump squats, for even more muscle-building power. These will support the growth of a strong foundation to power your rowing efforts and beyond.

Row Bootcamp classes on the Peloton Row or through the Peloton App are a great way to bundle your strength and cardio workout into one. If you prefer to do strength workouts on different days, you can also take strength classes through the Peloton App.

The Takeaway

Rowing is an incredibly versatile, total-body workout. You can use it for cardio, to increase your heart rate, get your sweat on, and burn calories. You can use it for resistance training to sculpt and strengthen your muscles through repeated movement. But to guarantee that you’re giving yourself the best chance to get stronger, faster, and more powerful than before, it’s smart to incorporate some additional strength training into your week (whether with weights or resistance bands). This way, you’ll know that you’re continuing to build the muscle mass you need to keep your bones and joints healthy and your metabolism high as you age.


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