is rowing bad for herniated disc

Is Rowing Bad for Herniated Disc Issues?

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Hi everyone, it’s your favorite cardio queen Kathleen again with some interesting facts on your back.

If you’ve read some of my blog posts previously, then you know that I got into rowing because I wanted to stay fit and didn’t have a lot of choices after I injured my back.

Remember that no two persons suffering from back pain (be it a herniated disc or another) have exactly the same condition, so it’s best to refer to your doctor first about this.

Low-impact exercises are generally beneficial and well tolerated, and in my case, rowing was one of the exercises that my back could take. As long as you don’t overdo it and you apply the correct form and technique, rowing is good for preventing back pain (read more) and helping you recover from a herniated disc.

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Herniated discs are no fun, and many people think that without surgery, their lives are over, but that’s just TV advertising drama, right?

I mean, in all honesty, just look at me! I lost the weight I picked up while my back was recovering, and now you would probably never guess that I ever hurt my back when you see me on my rowing machine or other cardio equipment.

Is it safe to use a rowing machine if you have a herniated disc? Safe is a relative term, right? I mean, it’s perfectly safe for me to walk through a spider web, but can you say that it’s safe for flies?

In today’s article, I want to talk about disc herniation, back pain, whether rowing is bad for your back, and other facts about back or neck pain (learn more here).

Let me say right up front that I am not a doctor, nurse, physical therapist, or chiropractor (although I’ve seen all of the above!), so this article should not be considered professional medical advice. Always consult with a trusted medical professional if you’re experiencing pain.

Can Rowing Cause a Herniated Disc?

If done incorrectly and repeatedly, yes, it can.

Then again, consider that darn near anything can cause a herniated disc and back pain, including driving your car and sitting in an office chair!

man rowing with herniated disc

Most people experience herniated discs due to a variety of reasons that, when combined, cause problems for those little pillows in between the vertebrae of your spine.

Some common causes of herniated discs include:

  • Being overweight
  • Sedentary lifestyle (especially when you spend most of your time sitting)
  • Age-related wear and tear
  • Smoking
  • Genetics
  • Accidents (such as car or motorcycle accidents, slip and fall, or other trauma-related accidents)

Yes, there are other causes, such as weak core muscles or lifting incorrectly, but according to the Mayo Clinic, the above are the worst offenders.

As you can see, rowing is not on the list, but you can herniate a disc if any of the above facts apply to you and you aren’t practicing the rowing strokes properly.

Can People with Back Problems Use a Rowing Machine?

This answer to this is a big “probably”.

I don’t want to commit myself to say yes and then someone discovers that they have some unique back issue that makes rowing dangerous.

In my case, the fact was that rowing was just about the only form of cardio I could do that didn’t hurt my back! Rowing and some seated ellipticals, like the Teeter FreeStep.

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This doesn’t mean that everyone can use a rowing machine, however. I highly recommend that you speak with your chiropractor or physical therapist before you try rowing and be sure that you are NOT using a poor technique when rowing.

Most gyms have rowing machines, so if you are certain that you know the proper form for the rowing strokes, and if your doctor has given you the OK, you should give it a try!

If you are new to rowing, don’t jump right on and go to town with that poor technique, you will really regret it! Ask about classes or check out some of the videos online about rowing techniques.

If you experience pain, double-check your posture and technique. If you still feel pain, stop rowing immediately.

Pain is a sign your body gives you to tell you something is wrong or injured. Always listen to your body!

What Activities Should You Avoid with a Herniated Disc?

Everyone is different and what is OK for one person may NOT be OK for someone else.

Your experience will depend on which discs have been injured, how long ago you were injured, and the root cause of your injury.

If you’ve been doing anything on the following list without pain, then it’s safe to say that the activities below are OK for you.

Generally speaking, you should avoid the following:

  1. Gardening/Yardwork ( Because this usually involves lots of bending and twisting)
  2. Prolonged sitting
  3. Any activity that involves really bending over, such as picking up items off the floor, mopping and vacuuming, playing with your pets, or picking up/putting away groceries
  4. Exercises that make you bend, twist, or pick up heavy weights, such as sit-ups, crunches, deadlifts, hamstring stretches
  5. Running
  6. Golf
  7. Contact sports such as football

It’s also not a good idea to spend a lot of time in bed or on the sofa. Immediately after your injury, you will need to spend a few days recovering, but after 3 or 4 days, you are only causing yourself more harm by letting the muscles in the body become weak. This will make recovery take even longer and it will be more painful.

If you suffer from intense lower back pain or continual discomfort, speak to your doctor about physical therapy.

If you feel back pain doing other things, then you should stop doing them! This can be difficult when you have small children or if you live alone, but disc herniation will require about 6-8 weeks to heal. After this amount of time, the muscles in your body will be weak so take things very, very slowly.

So Is a Rowing Machine Bad for Your Lower Back?

No, in fact, the opposite is true. When done correctly, the rowing strokes can actually strengthen both your lower back muscles and core muscles, which support the spine itself.

Avoid long training sessions until you are stronger and you have the OK from your doctor.

How to prevent herniated disc pain when rowing

Remember that after your injury, your muscles are weak. Give yourself time to strengthen your muscles. The great thing about a rowing machine is that it is a full-body workout. It will engage about 86 percent of all the muscles in your body, so in a few weeks, you’ll find your strength and endurance returning.

While professional rowers can hurt their lower back, it is usually due to overtraining and not due to the sport itself.

What Activities Will Make a Herniated Disc Worse?

This will depend on which discs have been damaged and what kind of physical shape you are in to start with.

Immediately and for a few weeks after the disc ruptures, most people find that nearly any type of activity will hurt, including walking, coughing, driving, sitting, sneezing, and even sitting on the toilet!

Physical therapy will show you ways to do things differently (such as getting out of bed without screaming in pain), and the therapists will show you how to exercise and move to avoid low back pain.

Your regular physician should give you some pain medication if the pain is intense (and it can be extreme). I know some people don’t like taking prescription meds, but I would prefer that to needless suffering.

Doctor discussing rowing and lower back pain

Try doing the exercises recommended by your physical therapist. The more you move around, the faster that herniated disc will heal.

In the meantime, activities that will only make things worse include:

  • Shoveling snow ( or shoveling anything for that matter, including picking up after your dog, horse, or cat)
  • Any strenuous exercises (such as jumping rope, kettle ball, or crunches)
  • While stretching can help with pain, you don’t want to stretch too far or too hard. If it hurts, stop.
  • No dancing or high-impact aerobics
  • Avoid running or jogging

Small amounts of stair climbing are OK, but don’t use the Stair Master at the gym!

Low impact exercises, such as rowing, walking, or swimming are your best choices.

How Do I Protect My Back While Using a Rowing Machine?

You can actually experience back pain anywhere along the spine, or even in the neck, when rowing, but it is generally caused by other issues and not by the rowing machine itself.

  1. The most common area is low back pain. You can prevent low back pain by using better posture when rowing and even when you are not rowing. Poor posture over long periods can wreak havoc on your back! Remember your mama’s advice and sit up straight whether you’re sitting in your office chair, watching TV, or using your rowing machine.
  2. If you’re certain that your rowing form is correct, you may be over-training. Overuse can cause inflammation, which is the main source of pain. Cut back a bit on your training and see if this helps.
  3. Be certain that the rower is properly positioned for you. Most rowing machines have adjustable seat heights and adjustable monitors. Make sure the monitor is right at eye level so you aren’t forcing your head up or down to see it.

Lady learning Correct form for rowing at gym to prevent disc pain

You should also start practicing some form of stretching. Yoga is especially helpful and can help relieve pressure on the spine when the other muscles in the body, especially the lower body, are stretched and flexible.

Your rowing machine, when not used excessively and when good technique is used, can prevent back pain and help your herniated disc to heal.

The Final Takeaway

The TL:DR version of this is basically-

  1. If you feel back pain, stop doing whatever it is that you are doing and consult with your doctor.
  2. Rowing should be fine and is a great way to strengthen your lower back and help prevent and heal a herniated disc.
  3. If you feel pain when rowing, check your form.
  4. If you still feel pain when rowing, stop and follow #1.
  5. Avoid anything that gives you back pain, especially exercises or activities that make you bend over or twist from side to side.

It may be very difficult to force yourself to get out of bed or off of the sofa, but you will be really happy later that you did.

Here’s to living a happy, healthy, UN-herniated disc life free from lower back pain or back pain in general!