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October 28, 2022

Are Rowing Machines Bad For Your Back?

Written by Julien Raby

Roughly 31 million Americans will experience lower back pain at any given moment. Because back pain symptoms are so prevalent, many Americans search for causes and solutions. Indoor rowing machines are a popular solution for back pain. The movement offers a low-impact, full-body workout that can prevent back pain and improve cardiovascular endurance.

Unfortunately, some individuals notice worsening symptoms or new pain after starting the movement. So, what are the causes of back pain while rowing, and how can you fix it?

Rowing machine is good for your back

Rowing is often considered an ideal exercise, as it offers high-intensity workouts targeting several muscle groups. The rowing stroke phases engage different muscles, including the following:

  • The Catch: The Catch is the starting position and engages the triceps, legs, and back muscles.
  • The Drive: Pushing off the platform uses the hamstrings, glutes, shoulders, biceps, abs, and back.
  • The Finish: The third stage of rowing requires stability through the core and biceps.
  • The Recovery: The final stage engages the calves, hamstrings, glutes, triceps, and other muscle groups for stability.

Rowing training can help prevent back pain and injuries if you have the correct execution. So, how does indoor rowing prevent back pain, and what are the benefits? 

How Indoor Rowing Prevents Back Pain

Several factors can cause back pain and tight muscles. Poor posture or sitting for long periods leads to higher amounts of pressure on your back and painful symptoms. You might also experience back pain, weak muscles, and less flexibility from lack of activity. Improper exercise techniques and overexertion are also risk factors.

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Luckily, the rowing motion strengthens your upper and lower back, alongside other muscle groups like your core, legs, and upper body.

Rowing Strengthens Your Back

Strong back muscles reduce the risk of injury during daily activities, like lifting heavy boxes or playing with your children. Rowing machines help strengthen your upper and lower back, which benefits your entire body. A stronger back can also ease symptoms of a tense, stiffy, and painful back.

Rowing Machines Improve Posture

Several muscles, like the hamstrings and back, are essential for a healthy body posture. The proper rowing technique targets and strengthens large muscles. The rowing movement targets the hamstrings, back, and core. A healthy posture can reduce muscle stiffness and pain while improving flexibility.

Indoor Rowing Can Improve Core Muscles

The correct rowing motion requires you to stabilize your body with your abdominal muscles. Strengthening your core muscles increases stability and can help tone your abs, leading to a better physique.

Common Back Injuries While Rowing

Although rowing is an excellent whole-body exercise that targets several muscle groups, injuries are common for beginners. However, injuries are different from regular muscle soreness. It’s common to feel a little sore or strained after your first couple of sessions on a rowing machine.

Illustration of how to use a rowing machine for bettering your back

Be sure to take a break and rest if you notice painful symptoms that don’t feel like regular soreness. Don’t overexert yourself or push too hard—it’s always better to focus on technique and listen to your body.

Lower Back Pain

The repetitive rowing motion can injure the lower back and cause lumbar spine injury. You might experience pain that radiates from the buttocks to the lower back discs. Rowers often report pain in the lumbar region of the lower back. Painful symptoms can happen at the end of a rowing stroke when extending your legs or sitting.

Upper and Middle Back Pain

Beginner rowers often experience upper and middle back pain, referred to as thoracic back pain. Thoracic back pain is common for novice rowers due to poor technique and execution. Rounded shoulders and a forward head posture while exercising result in distress near the base of the neck to the bottom of the rib cage.

How to Fix Back Pain While Rowing

So now that you know the benefits of rowing machines and common injuries, the million-dollar question is, “How do I fix back pain while rowing?” Luckily, rowing pain is usually resolved by improving technique and adjusting your approach. Here’s some advice for rowing you can use right now. 

Correct Your Posture

Beginners and expert rowers alike experience back pain due to improper posture. Hunching your back causes your shoulders to rise, your chest to droop, and your lower back to slump. This posture doesn’t provide your muscles enough space to execute the movement and increases the strain on your back.

Instead, tilt your hips forward and sit down on the front side of your hips. Ensure you’re engaging your core and keep your back in a neutral position. Relaxing the shoulders, so they aren’t hunched forward also improves stability.

Don’t Lean Back

One mistake rowers make is leaning back and pulling the handle all the way toward their face at the end of a stroke. Leaning back creates a weak, ineffective form that causes you to overexert yourself and strain your muscles.

It’s easy to lean back at the end of your rowing stroke. Instead, imagine your body as the hands of a clock. At the end of your stroke, your body should never lean past an 11 o’clock position. You can place something behind yourself, like a chair or box, to prevent yourself from extending past the 11 o’clock position.

Use the Right Settings

A common cause of rowing pain is incorrect machine settings. Ensure your monitor, phone, or tablet is at eye level. If you can’t view the screen without looking down—it needs to be higher. Incorrect height positions on the performance monitor can cause you to overextend your neck and spine.

Don’t Overdo It

Overtraining is one of the most common causes of injury and muscle pain, regardless of the exercise. Overexertion can happen when you suddenly increase your training level or the frequency of rowing. You may also experience overtraining from using a more demanding program than your body is ready for.

Regardless of your experience level, focusing on technique and form is crucial. Slowly increase your rowing intensity, quantity, and duration as you improve your form. Make time to slow down and focus on the movement to build a mind-muscle connection. Don’t forget warm-up sessions and take breaks or rest if you can’t maintain proper form.

a man is using a rowing machine which is good for his back

So, Should You Keep Rowing?

Indoor rowing is a fantastic full-body exercise that targets several muscle groups like the back, legs, and core. With the correct technique, rowing can reduce back pain, prevent future injuries and transform your body.

Ensure you’re focusing on form and technique instead of intensity. Don’t lean back or hunch your spine, as this stresses the back muscles. Incorrect settings and overtraining can also lead to injury if you aren’t careful.

So, what do you think? Have you improved your rowing technique and strenghtened your back?

About Julien Raby

My name is Julien Raby and I’m one of the owner of BoxLife. Here’s my background on LinkedIn if you want more info. I’ve been active pretty much my whole life and I discovered Crossfit about 7 years ago. I want to help you improve your Crossfit performances by giving tips on specific movements, workouts and equipment. You have a question? Get in touch!