In this guide you’ll learn all the reasons your back might be hurting while you row and what you can do about it.
Rowing on an indoor rowing machine provides an excellent full-body workout that burns calories and conditions the muscles.
However, with a tough workout comes health and safety considerations: given the potential stress it puts on the core, upper body, and your lower back.
Is a rowing machine safe for someone with back problems? Could it even cause back pain in an otherwise pain-free person?
Does rowing cause back pain?
Rowing has a reputation for causing back pain. However, this is not true.
Rowing actually strengthens the muscles groups that support good posture, specifically those in your glutes, core and back.
Not only is it good for posture and general back health, but it can be used to improve back pain by strengthening the supporting muscles! So why is it sometimes painted as a back-breaking machine?
Why people really get back injuries using a rowing machine
As is so often the case in fitness, rowing machine injuries are caused by improper use of the machine.
Whether it be the debilitating kind or a general post-session fatigue, back pain is not a normal result of rowing. If it occurs, it is because of bad form.
Should you row if you have a back injury?
One thing that rowing can do is to exacerbate the existing back problems that you have. If you’ve pulled your back in any way, or feel there’s something not quite right, make sure you rest your back and don’t try to row.
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Common causes of back pain when you row?
As mentioned earlier, the main reason for back pain when you’re using a rowing machine is either due to improper technique (which is easier to do than you might think) or you have an existing back condition or physiological weakness that’s causing it.
But what are some other potential causes of lumbar pain when you row?
- Tight hip flexors – This is a common one where you’ll end up putting more work and strain on the wrong part of your body because your hip flexors are not doing the work they should.
- Rowing with a weak core – One of the main reasons people can get back pain when rowing is that they haven’t got a sufficiently strong enough core. Thankfully, it’s easy enough to develop this area and it will help every part of your training!
- Rowing with tight hamstrings or glutes – Similar to the first point, trying to row with hamstrings that need stretching first will put stress on your back and can cause pain over time.
What to do if you get pain in your back when you’re rowing
The most important thing to do when you get any kind of pain doing any exercise is to stop straight away. Sounds obvious, but a lot of people will try to ‘power through’ the pain, be it on the rowing machine, treadmill or any other fitness equipment.
If your back hurts while you row, stop straight away and find out what’s causing it. A good physical trainer, chiropractor or even your GP will help you get to the bottom of what’s causing those ache while you row.
If tightness in your body is the cause of your back pain, there are specific stretches you can do to loosen up those muscles and alleviate your back pain during rowing. Strength Coach Will has some great stretches that cover the typical muscles that can cause back pain when rowing.
Avoid these when you’re rowing to prevent back pain
There are a few key things you should definitely avoid when you row.
- Stiffening your shoulders
- Opening your back too early on the drive
One good tip is to be mindful of the muscles that are doing the work. (Slowing things down can help with this). The strain should be on the big, strong muscles you’re trying to work out, never on your lower back.
Learning to stretch your back can work wonders
Here are some good stretches anyone can do before jumping on their rowing machine.
Rowing as cardio
Rowing is an intense form of cardio that is great for burning calories. A 30-minute moderate-intensity workout can see a 125lb person burn around 210 calories, a 155lb person can burn 260 calories, and a 185lb person can burn 311 calories.
If you are trying to lose weight, then a few rowing machine workouts a week will put you on the right track.
Once you have mastered the art and build up some strength, an intense rowing session can garner even better results. In an intense session, a 125lb person can burn around 255 calories, a 155lb person can burn 216 calories, and a 185lb person can burn 377 calories.
When upping the intensity, treat the rowing machine like a spin bike. You can either row faster and increase the number of strokes per minute (like cadence on a bike) or add resistance to make each pull more difficult.
Rowing as strength training
Rowing machines offer full-body conditioning because the lower body has to push back against the base, the core must hinge and engage with each pull, and the upper body must work to pull back the handles.
The higher the resistance setting, the more challenging the workout is for your muscles.
This type of training is limited in how much ‘bulk’ muscle can be built because the resistance levels are capped at a weight that is generally lighter than you would find in the free weights section of a gym.
However, it is excellent for general strength and endurance muscle. Neither bulk nor endurance muscle is superior, a balanced training regime should aim to build both.
- Are Rowing Machines Good For Weight Loss?
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- How effective are rowing machines at getting in shape?
- Water-Resistance Rowers vs. Air Rowers – Which is Best for you?
How can you avoid rowing machine injuries?
Avoiding back pain on a rowing machine comes down to a matter of form. When rowing, make sure that you:
- Push through your heels at the beginning of each stroke then hinge your core backwards. The initial explosion that sets off each row should come from your lower body, the core should then take over and your upper body should only guide the stroke and pull the residual weight.
- Keep your head up and look forward throughout each stroke
- Relax your shoulders, keep them away from your ears!
- Follow the goldilocks rule for your elbows – they should not be too tight against your chest or too stuck out, somewhere in between is just right.
Generally speaking, form is harder to maintain the faster you go. If you want to challenge yourself, consider upping the resistance over the cadence. Unless you are a competitive rower, speed is not something you need to worry about too much.
Are there any other injury risks?
If you wanted further proof that rowing is a safe exercise, know that it is a low-impact exercise, which means it puts very little stress on the joints. Low-impact activities are considered safe, even ideal, for people with injuries, age-related joint concerns, pregnant ladies and everyone else.
Finally, you should be aware that overtraining on a rowing machine – like with any form of exercise – increases the risk of injury. Whether it is a matter of training on too high a resistance, too high a cadence or doing a longer session than your body can handle, there are plenty of ways to overdo it on a rowing machine. Know your body, know yourself, and know your limits.
References & Further Reading
- NHS – Back pain overview
- Spine Health – 4 Easy Stretches for Lower Back Pain Video
- A weighty study by NCBI on the effects of indoor rowing on your body
- World rowing (pdf) – Injuries possible with over-use of rowing
- Research Gate – Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness