Rowing is an excellent cardio exercise that uniquely works nearly all of the muscles of the body. There is a belief, however, that working out on a rowing machine is bad for the back. In this article, we’ll explore this issue in depth and answer the question, is rowing good for your back?
I’ve been in the gym industry, both as a gym owner and a personal trainer for 35 years. During that time, I have been using and recommending rowing as a mainstay exercise for people who need to strengthen their back muscles, including those with ongoing lower back pain.
In the paragraphs to follow you’ll find out that rowing is actually very good for your back, but only if you’re doing it right. You’ll also discover how a rowing machine can benefit your back muscles, actually helping to overcome lower back pain. I’ll even throw in some off-the-rower exercises you can do to strengthen your back muscles.
- How Can A Rowing Machine Prevent Back Pain
- Rowing Machine Benefits for Your Back Muscles
- Can You Row With A Bad Back?
- Types Of Back Pain When Rowing: Is Rowing Bad For Your Back?
- Upper And Middle Back Pain While Rowing
- Causes And Fixes of Rowing-Associated Back Pain
- Off The Rower Exercises To Relieve Back Pain
- Final Thoughts
How Can A Rowing Machine Prevent Back Pain
When we talk about back pain, we’re usually referring to tension in the lower back, or lumbar spine, region. Lower back pain has become increasingly common as a result of our computer-centric lifestyles. Many people spend hours every day hunched over a screen, which rounds their spine. This places constant tension, leading to poor posture and a constant ache.
The first way that rowing will help prevent lower back pain is that it will improve your posture. When you are performing the exercise correctly you will be training your body to sit with the correct posture; shoulders down and back, neutral spine position, and chest out.
Rowing will also strengthen the erector spinae muscles which run up and down the length of your spine. In order to strengthen this key muscle, you need to move it through its full range of contraction and extension. That is exactly what happens when you properly perform the rowing stroke.
In these ways, exercising on a rowing machine will help to prevent back pain. It should be noted, however, that beginners may experience some discomfort in the lower back as they learn the proper technique. Even though this is quite natural, you should take a short break if you experience lower back discomfort. You do not need to train through your pain.
Rowing Machine Benefits for Your Back Muscles
A rowing machine is a unique form of cardio in that it works more than 80 percent of the muscles of your body. In contrast, most other cardio exercises are heavily focused on the lower body. Of all the muscles worked when you train on a rowing machine, the back is the one that is most directly stimulated.
The muscles of the back are generally divided into the upper and lower back. The upper back muscles consist of the …
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Teres Major
- Teree Minor
When people talk about the lower back, they are referring to the erector spinae muscles. Most people don’t realize that this muscle actually runs up and down the entire length of the spine, even though the only part of it that is visible on a well-developed body is in the lower back region.
When you work out on a rowing machine all of these muscles will, to a greater or lesser degree, be involved in the movement. Let’s break down the rowing stroke to find out how …
The catch is the start rowing position. If you were rowing on the water, this would be the point that the oar ‘catches’ the water. You should be sitting forward with your shins vertical to the floor, your torso in an upright position but leaning forward slightly. If you imagine a clock face, your torso should be angled at 11 o’clock.
In this position, you are simulating the ideal standing or seated posture position with shoulders down and scapula pulled with and chest out. Your spine will be slightly rounded to allow for the 11 o’clock torso position.
In the catch position, all of your back muscles are engaged. The erector spinae will be in the contracted position, while your lats, and traps are extended ready to fire.
The drive is the transition from the start to the finish position. It involves movement of the legs, hips, and arms, in that order. The arms, however, are merely the levers that connect to the back muscles. The drive action will bring the lats back into a fully contracted position. It will also bring the smaller, inner muscles, such as the teres major and minor, into the action.
In the finish position, your legs will be fully extended and your torso will have moved to a 1 o’clock position. The handle will be pulled into your solar plexus area. Your shoulders will be down with the scapula pulling into the center of the body. The elbows will be in at the sides as if you were holding a tennis ball between them and your ribs.
In the finish position, you are working the middle trapezius as your scapula muscles are drawn inward. You have also moved the erector spinae from a contracted to an extended position, working it through its range of motion. In this position, you also have to stabilize your body. This will bring the infraspinatus into action.
The recovery is the opposite to the drive sequence. That means leading with the hands, followed by the hips, and then the legs. This will return you to the catch position, with your shins vertical and your torso at an 11 o’clock position.
Check out other rowing machine benefits in our in-depth article.
Can You Row With A Bad Back?
You can row with a bad back. However, you should always consult your doctor or another medical professional before doing any type of exercise if you have ongoing back problems. Follow their guidelines.
If you are given the go-ahead, make sure that you do some dynamic stretching before getting on the rowing machine. If you experience any back pain during the workout, you should stop immediately.
A mistake that I often see with beginners that can make lower back pain worse is pulling too quickly on the stroke. This will overextend the lower back, putting undue tension on the erector spinae. It will also make the butt come forward which reduces your pulling power.
If you have existing lower back problems, I strongly advise getting proper technique instruction from a personal trainer or certified rowing instructor.
Types Of Back Pain When Rowing: Is Rowing Bad For Your Back?
Let’s now take a look at the different types of back pain you may experience when rowing.
Lower back pain while rowing
When people complain that their back is hurting when they row, they’re usually referring to discomfort in the lower back. The most common types of lower back pain are …
A Burning Sensation
Burning pain in the lower back while rowing is probably an indication of a nerve-related issue. The spinal column may be inflamed, leading to a pinched nerve or it may be that the nerve endings are not firing as they should.
If you are experiencing burning pain while you are rowing, you should seek medical attention.
Throbbing Pain in the Lower Back and Leg
If you are getting pain in just one leg and one side of the body, then it’s a sure sign that you are suffering from sciatica. This condition results when spinal nerves are compressed. This is another condition that will require professional medical treatment.
Sharp Pain in the Lower Back
Sharp pain in the lower back is usually the result of a muscle spasm or a herniated disc. If you get this type of intense, specifically located pain, you should stop exercising and apply hot and cold packs to the affected area. Then apply compression and rest until the pain subsides.
Lower Back Stiffness
Stiffness or tension in the erector spinae muscles is probably an indication that you are experiencing fatigue. Taking a day off to give your muscles some extra time to recover will probably ease the situation.
Upper and middle back pain while rowing
Pain in the upper or middle back while rowing is usually an indication that your technique is not on point, rather than some nerve or muscular problem. If you are grabbing the handle with a ‘death grip’, or holding it too close in, you will probably feel a slight tension transfer to the trapezius and rhomboid muscles which can feel uncomfortable.
Hunching forward rather than keeping an upright torso in the catch position may also lead to upper and middle back pain. If your shoulders are anywhere near your ears in the catch position, you are doing it wrong!
Causes and Fixes of Rowing-Associated Back Pain
Some of the lower back issues mentioned above are the result of issues that cannot be fixed with changes to the way you are rowing. If you believe that you are suffering from nerve-related back pain, sciatica, or a herniated disc, you should seek medical advice. The fixes described below do not relate to those conditions.
Poor Technique and Rowing Form
In the section on back muscle benefits from rowing, we described the four parts of the rowing stroke. Here is a quick recap …
- Shins vertical
- Torso at 11 o’clock
- Seat 6-8 inches from butt
- Heels may be slightly lifted
- Drive from the legs
- Open hips
- Lean back to a 1 o’clock position at end of drive
- Handles at solar plexus area
- Shoulders down
- Lower back neutral
- Arms first, then hips, then legs
- At end of recovery, the shins are vertical and torso at 11 o’clock
Read our ultimate guide on how to use a rowing machine for a full technique breakdown.
The most common form problems that can cause back problems are …
- Hunching forward – this will transfer the workload from the core and upper back and put it completely on the lower back.
- Lower body moving in sync – people who lack coordination may not move their hips, knees, and quads in fluidity with one another. When this happens, the lower back is forced to pick up the slack, leading to excessive strain.
Poor rowing posture will overstress the lower back. Getting the right posture begins with the way you sit. You should sit on your sit bones, which are the two bony parts above your butt. When we sit naturally, we do not sit on that part. The key to being on your sit bones is to maintain a neutral spine position.
To achieve the proper posture, pull your shoulders down and in. Flare your lats slightly and lift your chest up. This is the position your torso should be in when you assume the 11 o’clock catch position.
Swinging Back During the Rowing Stroke
A common problem is to throw the upper body back at the end of the drive. Then, as they move into the finish position, they find themselves leaning too far back. At the beginning of the workout, this will put more focus on the abs. But, after a few minutes, your abs will tire and your back will have to take over.
When you are overtrained, your working muscles will not have enough time to properly recover between workouts. As a result, you’ll be experiencing ongoing muscle fatigue. This will be most felt in your smaller muscle groups, such as the lower back.
When it comes to overtraining, we need to separate the symptoms into those that are psychological and physiological. The physiological effects normally kick in first. The following lists of symptoms are not exhaustive and some people may be overtrained without showing any of them. In general, however, the following symptoms will be shown by most people:
- Lack of interest in training
- Lack of focus in training, and in life in general
- Loss of appetite
- Diminished libido
- Lack of sleep
- Bad mood
- Diminished performance
- Weight loss
- Elevated heart rate post-workout
- Muscle soreness
- Swollen lymph nodes
- More frequent illness
Preventing overtraining requires that you take your recovery as seriously as you take your training. It includes getting your recovery nutrition on point, optimizing your sleep, and balancing your training with everything else that is going on in your life.
Wrong Rowing Machine Settings
When you get on a rowing machine you should make a couple of adjustments to customize it to your body. Start with the foot pedals. Adjust them so that the strap is over the ball of your foot. You want your feet to sit low. If they are too high, such as being level with the seat, this will encourage poor posture, and increase your risk of lower back injury.
The second adjustment should be to the resistance of the rowing machine. Rowing resistance changes according to the pressure that you add to each stroke. So, if you aren’t rowing with much pressure, you aren’t going to feel much resistance, regardless of what setting the tension knob or dampener is set at.
Remember that rowing is primarily a cardio exercise. That means that you will be doing hundreds, or even thousands, of strokes. You don’t want to set the tension level too high. Doing so will only compromise your form and increase your chances of back injury.
I recommend setting the dampener or tension knob at a 3.4 or 5 level where 10 is the maximum.
Off The Rower Exercises To Relieve Back Pain
By following a simple, five-exercise bodyweight strengthening routine, you can make the erector spinae muscles that run up and down your spine much stronger. This will help to reduce your back pain when rowing as well as during the rest of your day.
Exercises to Combat Rowing Machine Back Pain
Try these exercises to help combat back pain.
Seated Torso Extension
- Sit on a bench with your hands clasped in front of your chest and feet firmly set on the floor.
- Round your spine forward and lower your torso toward your knees.
- Reverse the movement to arch in your spine and pull back to the start position.
- You can increase the intensity of this exercise by holding a dumbbell at chest level.
- Perform 3-4 sets of 20 reps.
- Lie on a hyperextension machine with your ankles under the ankle pads and your torso hanging over the bench pad. Place your hands alongside your ears.
- From a hanging position arch your lower back and pull up to a horizontal position.
- Lower and repeat.
- Do 3-4 sets of 10 reps.
- Lie on the floor on your stomach with your arms extended above your head and your legs out straight, feet together.
- Simultaneously arch your back as you lift your hands and feet into the air. Your body should form a banana shape in this position.
- Hold the arched position for 5 seconds.
- Lower and repeat.
- Do 3-4 sets of 12 reps.
Stretches to Combat Rowing Machine Back Pain
The following dynamic stretching exercises will provide a good warm-up prior to your rowing workout. You can also do them first thing in the morning to help weaken the muscles and prepare them for the day ahead.
- Get down on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders. The points of contact should be your palms, knees, and toes.
- Simultaneously extend your left arm and right foot up and out horizontally to full extension. Maintain a straight line through your body, with a natural arch in your spine.
- Hold for 3 seconds.
- Lower and repeat. Do all of the reps on one side and repeat on the other side.
- Do 3-4 sets of 10 reps on each side.
- Get down on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders. The points of contact should be your palms, knees, and toes.
- Round your lower back and pull in your belly button as you lift your hips. In this position, your body should resemble that of a scared cat. Hold for 2 seconds.
- Reverse the movement as you arch your back and push your stomach down to the floor. Hold for 2 seconds.
- Perform 3-4 sets of 12 reps.
Though its main benefit is cardiovascular, rowing will also work most of the muscles of your body. Rowing will strengthen all of the muscles that make you back, including the last and the erector spinae.
To avoid back pain while rowing, maintain an upright posture, don’t hunch your shoulders, avoid leaning back too far in the finish position, and don’t set the tension or damper level too high.
Does rowing damage your back?
No, when done properly, rowing does not damage your back. It is only when you use poor exercise form that you may damage your back. The most common poor form habits are hunching the back, swinging the back during the rowing stroke, and setting the tension or damper too high.
Is rowing good for lower back pain?
Yes, rowing is good for the lower back. It will help to strengthen the erector spinae muscles which run alongside the spinal column. Rowing will also strengthen the abdominals, which will make the entire core area stronger, taking pressure off the lower back.
Is rowing hard on the lower back?
Rowing is only hard on your lower back when you fail to use the proper technique or use too high a rowing machine resistance setting. So long as you sit with an upright posture, don’t hunch your shoulders, and avoid leaning too far back in the finish position, this exercise will not be too hard on your lower back.
Do rowing machines strengthen your back?
Yes, rowing machines can help to strengthen your back. Repeated rowing action will help strengthen the erector spinae muscles of the lower back. It will also strengthen the latissimus dorsi, or lat, muscles, as well as the trapezius teres major and minor and the infraspinatus.