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11 Rowing Machine Alternatives to Boost Cardio & Build Muscle

If you work out at home, you’re probably in need of some effective rowing machine alternatives. Even in commercial gyms, rowing machines are pretty scarce. 

There’s another call for rowing machine alternatives – people with lower back issues need rowing machine alternatives, and some people struggle to get low enough to use a rower. Finally, some people just don’t like rowing, and they’ll do anything to avoid it!

Worry not, I’ve got you covered!

As a personal trainer for more than 30 years, I’ve used all of these rowing machine alternative exercises with my clients. To be honest, none of them are as good as actually rowing – it’s the gold standard – but they come pretty close.

In this article, I’ll first explain why the rowing machine is such an effective exercise. I’ll then lay out what a good rowing machine alternative must be able to do.

Finally, I’ll show you how to do the eleven best rowing machine alternatives, for both cardio and strength gains.


Why the Rowing Machine Might Not Be for You

When it comes to getting in a joint-friendly cardio workout that also works the majority of your skeletal muscles, the rowing machine is hard to beat. 

But it’s not for everyone. 

Rowing properly requires learning the proper technique. It’s got a deeper learning curve than other gym options like the elliptical or stair stepper. If you aren’t rowing with correct technique, you leave yourself open to injury.

People with pre-existing lower back injuries may also struggle to maintain the unsupported lumbar rowing position for more than a few minutes. Beyond that, rowing for more than 10-15 minutes can be pretty uncomfortable for many people.

It demands a pretty tight hip angle, which can aggravate the hip flexors in people who have suffered from chronic hip flexor tightness.

It’s also a problem for people who have hip issues such as arthritis, or those who have had hip replacement etc. 

And then there’s the problem of access. While most gyms will carry rows and rows of treadmills and cross-trainers, they’re likely to have, at best, half a dozen rowing machines. 

If you’re working out at home, you’re going to have to invest a decent chunk of money to add a rowing machine to your gym inventory. The best rowing machine for home use is the Concept2 RowErg, which retails for around a thousand dollars. 


What’s So Good About the Rowing Machine?

The rowing machine is an awesome cardio training choice. When training clients, it has long been my go-to exercise to burn calories, improve heart health and boost aerobic endurance. Here are four things I love about rowing machine workouts:

Rowing is Low Impact

Rowing is an example of what is known as a closed chain exercise. That means that your feet never leave the platform that they connect with. As a result all of the jarring that occurs when you lift the foot and then bring it back down is eliminated. 

Not only is rowing not bad for your joints, research shows that it can actually improve joint function. A 2014 study that tracked 24 people over 8 weeks of rowing workouts recorded an average 30% increase in elbow, shoulder, lumbar and knee joint torque. 

Rowing Works the Entire Body

Rowing machine alternative muscles used

Unlike most cardio exercises, rowing works nearly every muscle in your body. While treadmill or stair stepper workouts are lower body centric, rowing engages your upper body muscles as well as your legs. 

According to the American Fitness Professionals Association, 65-75% of the rowing action is done by the legs, with 25-35% carried out by the upper body.

The main lower body muscles worked in a rowing machine workout are the:

  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Calves

The upper body muscles that are engaged when you row are the:

  • Pectorals
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Biceps
  • Abdominals
  • Obliques

It Delivers an Excellent Cardio Workout

Rowing forces the heart to pump more blood around the body. This makes the heart stronger, so that it is able to pump more blood with every beat.

The combination of low impact, heart benefits and the ability of the rower to control the intensity of the exercise, makes it an excellent option for seniors and others who need to bring down their blood pressure and offset their risk of cardiac disease. 

It’s Great for HIIT

High intensity interval training (HIIT), where you transition from all-out sprints to short rest periods, is best done on exercise machines that allow for quick stops and starts. Most cardio machines don’t stack up because they require you to decrease the speed on the monitor, eating up valuable time.

With a rowing machine, though, you can do a twenty second all out sprint and then stop for 20 seconds with no transition whatsoever.


How I Selected the Best Rowing Machine Alternatives

In formulating this list of the 11 best rowing machine alternatives, I wanted to give you information that was practical.

Rather than just throwing together a list of strength training rowing exercises, which is what most rowing machine alternative articles consist of, I was intent on digging a little deeper to give you genuine replacements that will provide you with a similar training effect as rowing.

So, let’s break down what rowing accomplishes:

  1. It gives you an effective cardio workout.
  2. It provides quad flexion and extension.
  3. It extends the hips and engages the glutes.
  4. It involves horizontal rowing of the arms to engage the rear delts, lats, trapezius and rhomboids.
  5. It engages the erector spinae (lower back), obliques and abdominals, which act as stabilizer muscles.

Finding exercises that will do all of those things is a real challenge. That’s what makes rowing so good – it provides a unique combination of aerobic and anaerobic training like no other.

So, let’s make it abundantly clear that none of the exercises to follow are as good as working out on a rowing machine.

There are two types of rowing machine alternative exercises:

  • Cardio
  • Strength training

The cardio exercises will do a similar job of working your heart and lungs as rowing and they will engage your upper body muscles. But they don’t do as good a job of engaging the core to stabilize the body in an unsupported position. 

I’ve also been aware of you guys who train at home and don’t have access to expensive cardio equipment. That’s why I’ve added a couple of home-gym friendly exercises that do a great job of combining cardio with full body muscle stimulation. 

The strength training exercises don’t even try to compensate for the cardio effects of using a  rowing machine. They exclusively focus on replicating the muscular movement pattern of the rowing drive action.

Once again, I will include a couple of home gym-friendly options. 


Equipment needed for these exercises

  • Elliptical machine
  • Air bike
  • SkiErg
  • Cable rowing Machine
  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebell
  • Adjustable exercise bench

11 Rowing machine alternatives that replicate the same movement pattern

Rowing machine alternative infrographic 1

1. Air Bike

Equipment needed for an air bike workout:

  • Air bike

How to do an air bike workout:

  1. Adjust the bike seat height so that it is in line with your hips.
  2. Sit on the seat with your right leg fully extended and a slight bend in the knee. 
  3. Adjust the seat horizontally to get the proper arm length. Your left arm should be fully extended when holding the handle with a slight bend in the elbow.
  4. Begin exercising by pushing and pulling with your arms with the arms tucked in. Simultaneously push down with the legs. Your forefoot should be positioned over the pedal. 

Exercise muscles worked:

  • Heart and lungs
  • Quadriceps
  • Calves
  • Lats
  • Rear delts
  • Core
  • Biceps
  • Triceps

2. Elliptical Machine

Equipment needed for an elliptical workout:

  • Elliptical machine

How to do an elliptical workout:

  1. Hold onto the stationary handles in the center of the machine for support as you step into the foot platforms. Now move one hand at a time to the moving handles.
  2. Stand upright with a natural arch in the lower back. 
  3. Some ellipticals will automatically begin tracking your speed and distance, while others will require you to turn the monitor on. 
  4. Set your program and begin exercising. As one leg goes forward the opposite arm should come back in a rhythmic action. 
  5. Just like a rowing machine, you can go as fast or as slow as you want on the elliptical. 
  6. You can also row backwards. This will target the hamstrings more than a forward action.
  7. When your session is over, slow down, hold onto the center handles and carefully step off the machine. 

Elliptical muscles worked:

  • Heart and lungs
  • Quadriceps
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings 
  • Calves
  • Lats
  • Rear deltoids
  • Biceps
  • Triceps

3. SkiErg

Equipment needed for a SkiErg workout:

  • SkiErg

How to do a SkiErg workout:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and about 18 inches in front of the machine’s flywheel. Grab the handles above your head, with the elbows bent at 90-degrees and slightly higher than eye level.
  2. Initiate the downward drive of the arms by engaging the core. Come up on your toes at the start of the pull. Drive the handles downward by hinging at the hips before bending the knees. At the conclusion of each pull, the knees should be bent and arms extended at hip level. 
  3. Stand up and elevate the arms for the next pull. Keep moving in a smooth, fluid action. 

SkiErg muscles worked:

  • Lats
  • Rear delts
  • Triceps
  • Core
  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

4. Burpees

Equipment needed for burpees:

None

How to do burpees:

  1. Stand with your feet together and your arms above your head.
  2. Drop into a squat, placing your hands on the floor in front of you.
  3. In one quick, explosive motion, kick your feet back to assume a high plank position.
  4. Lower your chest to the floor to perform a push up.
  5. In another quick motion, jump your feet back into a squat and then jump into the air.
  6. Return to the start position. 

Burpees muscles worked:

  • Triceps
  • Deltoids
  • Abdominals
  • Lats
  • Hip flexors
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes

5. Kettlebell Swing

Equipment needed for the kettlebell swing:

  • Kettlebell

How to do the kettlebell swing:

  1. Place a kettlebell on the floor and stand behind it with your core and back muscles engaged and maintaining a neutral spine. 
  2. Hinge at the hips to bring your arms down to gran hold the kettlebell handle. Your knees should be quarter bent so that you are in a tabletop position. The kettlebell handle should be in line with your eyes. Screw your hands into the handle to create tension in the triceps and lats. 
  3. Begin the swing by bringing the kettlebell back between your legs and then swinging it up to chest level. Continue swinging back and forth in this manner to complete your time or rep count.

Kettlebell swing muscles worked:

  • Triceps
  • Deltoids
  • Abdominals
  • Erector spinae (lower back)
  • Lats
  • Hip flexors
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes

Unsure where to start with your home gym workouts? Check out our complete beginner weightlifting routine.


6. Seated Cable Row

Equipment needed for the seated cable row:

  • Low pulley cable machine
  • V-Handle

How to do the seated cable row:

  1. Sit on the seated cable row station and palace your feet on the platform provided. Your knees should be slightly bent. Maintaining a natural lower back arch, lean forward to grab the v-bar handle with both hands. 
  2. With your arms extended, pull back until your torso is at a 90-degree angle to your legs. In this start position, your lower back should remain slightly arched and your chest out. 
  3. Without moving the torso, pull your lebos back until the handles touch your stomach. Squeeze your back muscles in this contracted position.
  4. Extend your arms to return to the start position. 

Seated cable row muscles worked:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Rear deltoids
  •  Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • biceps

If you don’t have a low-cable machine to carry out this exercise, check out our seated cable row alternatives to find a replacement. If you find it too easy, then be sure to check out our cable row alternatives to find a more challenging exercise to strengthen your back muscles.


Rowing machine alternative infrographic 2

7. Band Row

Equipment needed for the band row:

  • Resistance band

How to do the band row:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs outstretched, feet together, and a loop band placed around your midfeet.
  • Hold the band end in both hands, about eight inches apart, with your palms down.
  • Maintain an upright torso with a neutral spine position. Draw your shoulder blades back and down and flare your lats. Tighten your core and engage your quads.
  • From a straight arm position, row the band in toward your hips. Contract the lats in this position and hold for a second.
  • Return to the start position under control, being sure not to round your back.

Band row muscles worked:

  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius
  • Rear deltoids

8. Chest Supported Dumbbell Row

Equipment needed for the chest supported dumbbell row:

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

How to do the chest supported dumbbell row:

  • Set an adjustable bench to a 45-degree angle.
  • Place a pair of dumbbells at the head of the bench.
  • Lie face down on the bench so that your arms are directly above the dumbbells. 
  • Plant your feet firmly on the floor, push your lower back into the bench and reach down to grab the dumbbells with a neutral grip (palms facing each other).
  • Flare the lats as you pinch the shoulder blades slightly together. Now pull the dumbbells up to touch the bench at about the level of your hips.
  • Tightly squeeze the lats in this position then lower under control to the start position. 

Chest supported dumbbell row muscles worked:

  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius
  • Rear deltoids

9. Inverted Row

Equipment needed for the inverted row row:

Rogue Ohio Cerakote Bar

Rogue Ohio Bar Cerakote
Read our best Olympic barbell guide here

This is the bar that we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 120 hours of research and tested over 100 barbells.

It is affordable but comes with some high specs. The Rogue Work Hardening and 190k PSI tensile strength mean the bar will last a lifetime in a home gym.

It is a multi-purpose bar with a 28.5mm diameter shaft and composite bushings in the sleeves. This means it’s balanced for heavy slow bench presses but you can also perform snatches and fast overhead lifts.

How to do the inverted row:

  • Position an unloaded barbell on supports so that it is sitting horizontally about four feet from the floor. Make sure that the supports are solid and the bar is secure. 
  • Lie face up on the floor so that your shoulders are directly below the bar.
  • Reach up to grab the bar a little wider than shoulder-width apart with an overhand grip.
  • In this position, your torso should be at around a 45-degree angle.
  • Depress your shoulder blades and flare your lats. Keeping your spine neutral, your core and quads engaged, pull yourself up to the bar to touch your chest to it.
  • Lower under control and repeat. 

Inverted row muscles worked:

  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius
  • Rear deltoids

Is the inverted row not a challenge anymore? Then be sure to check out our inverted row alternatives to level up on the same muscle groups.


10. Jumping Pull ups

Equipment needed for the jumping pull up:

  • Pull up bar
  • Platform

How to do the jumping pull up:

  • Place a platform under a pull up bar that will allow you to reach up and grab ther bar while standing on it.
  • Grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width overhand grip.
  • Dip down so your arms extend long. 
  • Simukatabeously jump and pull to bring your chip up over the bar.
  • Return to a fully extended position. 

Jumping pull up muscles worked:

  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius
  • Rear deltoids

11. Burpee Jumping Pull up

Equipment needed for the burpee jumping pull up:

  • Pull up bar

How to do the burpee jumping pull up:

  • Stand under a pull up bar with feet shoulder width apart. 
  • Drop to the floor, placiomg your palms ground and kicking your legs back behind you.
  • Immediately jump your feet back forward so that you are in a bottom squat position.
  • Explode up to jump up and grab the pull up bar above you.
  • Pull up until your collarbone reaches the bar.
  • Lower back to the start position. 

Jumping pull up muscles worked:

  • Lats
  • Rhomboids
  • Trapezius
  • Rear deltoids
  • Quadriceps

Rowing Machine Alternatives: The Bottom Line

The rowing machine is an awesome exercise, so if you have access to it and don’t have any limiting issues, you should definitely use it.

For those of you who can’t use a rowing machine for any reason, the exercises we’ve just covered will give you almost as good a cardio and muscle-engaging effect. 

I recommend combining a cardio-focused exercise, such as the burpee, with a strength-focused move, like the chest supported dumbbell row, for best results.

Are lower back issues preventing you from doing compound lifts in your home gym? Check out our deadlift alternatives for lower back friendly alternatives to the standard barbell deadlift.

Photo of author
Hi, I'm Steve. I'm a personal trainer, current home gym owner, former gym owner, and copywriter. I joined my first gym at age 15 and, five years later, I was managing my own studio. In 1987, I became the first personal fitness trainer in New Zealand. My work has been featured on Muscle and Brawn, Gymaholic, Fitness Volt, and many other places.

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