Rowing Machine Back Pain: How To Fix It And Avoid It

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a woman using a rowing machine for back pain

According to Wilson et al. (2021), 66% of rowers will experience back pain during a 12-month period (1).

Although that could scare away people trying to get into rowing, we intend to provide all the information necessary to avoid it and fix it once and for all.

After this article, you’ll know what rowing-related back pain is and how you can identify it and reduce your risk of injury.

Follow along!

What Is Rowing Machine Back Pain?

Back pain, also commonly known as low-back pain (LBP) or lumbalgia, is a symptom that typically occurs between the lower rib margins and the buttock creases.

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Rowing training has a big load on the lumbar spine, to the point that for eight seasons, 21% of all reported injuries in a national rowing team were lumbar spine-related (2).

Simply put, the rowing machine’s back pain originates or exacerbates during a rowing session.

It’s hard to say whether rowing is the root cause or an aggravator. Either way, the rowing movement is a common denominator.

Back Pain Symptoms

The symptoms will vary depending on the leading cause, injury severity, training volume, age, and sex.

The pain can be experienced in one or both legs, and the sensation can be tingling, weakness, or numbness, depending on the type of injury. 

Some of these symptoms are usually associated (not always) with disc-related problems, muscle weakness, and previous back or hip injuries.

These manifestations can rapidly ease right after the rowing activity stops. Others can last a few hours, depending on their intensity.

Common Causes of Rowing Back Pain

It’s not easy to pinpoint the specific cause of back pain. For that reason, the diagnosis and treatment tend to have a general and broad approach. 

However, some causes that repeat more often are excessive training volume, an improper form, and inadequate rowing machine setting.

Overtraining

Overtraining is perhaps the most common cause of back pain in rowers. Increasing the training volume too fast and too soon is battle beginner rowers often lose.

Rowing workouts that last more than 30 minutes without stopping are associated with a higher risk of rowing back pain (3).

Even experienced rowers are not exempt from this. Having more years of being a rower is also associated with lumbalgia (3)

The increase in training volume without proper recovery, a young training age, and inadequate weight training are also precipitators of overtraining. 

Improper Rowing Form

A poor posture is often a combination of muscle weakness and lack of proprioception or body awareness. 

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This is a common cause in novice rowers since there’s significant tension in the back muscles.

“Fatigue and bad rowing technique contribute to more spine flexion and less hip movement during the rowing stroke,” says Wilson et al. (2021) (1).

Ankle and hip mobility are vital in maintaining a neutral spine and reducing the chances of developing rowing back pain.

Source: UCanRow2

Incorrect Rowing Machine Setting

Modern indoor rowing machines have multiple add-ons to keep you entertained throughout your workout.

You can set up your phone or tablet and watch your favorite TV shows and movies. 

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But sometimes, improperly setting these features on the rower can cause strain in the neck, thorax, and spine

This could be problematic, especially if you have long sessions with the incorrect setting.

We recommend adjusting everything to eye level to keep a neutral neck and a proper rowing form.

How To Fix And Avoid Rowing Machine Back Pain

Although almost everyone will experience some rowing back pain, there are ways to fix the root problem and avoid the recurrence.

A solid upper body and abdominal muscles, adjusting the training volume, and improving the rowing technique are crucial to minimizing the risk.

Identify The Pain Cause

This is an essential step to fixing your rowing back pain once and for all. However, this is a challenging task since most lumbalgia has multiple causes.

However, identifying the root problem will provide a more long-term solution.

While there isn’t a specific treatment, identifying the pain cause will certainly help avoid the aggravators and put up a plan to help you enjoy the benefits of rowing without pain.

Training Volume

Rowing is often overused due to its simplicity and practicality. This causes a high cumulative loading on the lumbar spine resulting in rowing pain. 

The key to finding your adequate training volume is to adjust it to your training level.

If you’re a beginner, focus on your technique first and keep your rowing workouts in the 10-20 minute range. 

For intermediate and expert rowers, focus on your recovery as much as your training intensity

Take time to build your core strength and double down on your proper form.

Improve Your Rowing Technique

A correct rowing technique will be your ally in reducing the chances of recurrent low-back pain. 

The correct technique requires the range of a rower’s hip flexion to be at least 130 degrees, the knee range of motion should be full, and the hamstrings should have good flexibility.

The upper back muscles of the trunk should have good endurance, particularly in the back and buttock muscles (posterior chain), to reduce the risk of back pain and improve poor technique (1).

Consider Visiting A Physiotherapist

Whether you’re dealing with recurrent rowing injuries or it is your first time, we strongly recommend visiting a physiotherapist or a related medical professional. 

Having a thorough evaluation and diagnosis is helpful to understand better the underlying mechanisms that are causing the pain.

They should also minimize the probability of future injuries by prescribing tailored strength training and guiding you through a solid recovery phase.

Can Rowing Cause Herniated Disk?

It’s improbable. Although rowing could exacerbate back pain, it is not often associated with causing disk herniations. 

Is A Rowing Machine Good For Sciatic Pain?

It depends on the severity of the injury. It’s usually OK for mild pains, but avoiding it in severe cases is better since pressing the glutes could worsen the pain.

About Mauro Castillo Gonzales

I've been in the world of CrossFit since 2016. Started as a client, later became a coach, and eventually bought an affiliate with two friends from January 2020 to January 2022. In 2018 I won 1st place at a local competition in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. After I sold my shares in January 2022 I moved then to another city to run as the general manager of another affiliate STI CrossFit.