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Hi everyone, Kathleen here.
I clearly remember getting my first indoor rowing machine. I was so excited to try it out and start whipping my body into shape, dropping those excess pounds, and wearing really short skirts next summer! I had been bikini shopping for weeks, I was so excited!!
Imagine my surprise when, after less than a half-dozen rowing sessions, my lower back started aching like heck!
What causes rowing machine back pain? I can give you two rowing-related causes- overuse or overtraining and incorrect rowing form. Poor posture, whether on and off the rower, is also notorious for causing upper or lower back pain.
Rowing machines are supposed to be the best form of exercise, so how can it be that rowing causes back pain? Do the pro athletes have a secret or what?
Actually, there is a secret to avoiding lower back pain, but you won’t hear about it from the pros. I had to find out when I went to physical therapy.
If you experience low back pain when you row, I really do feel your pain. Even if its upper back pain you’re feeling, or shoulder pain, elbow or wrist pain, I still feel your pain!
Can you find pain relief? Do you need to sell your rowing machine? Yes to the first and no to the second question. Folks, help is on the way!
The good news here is that you don’t have to live with sore back muscles forever. I’m going to tell you the secret (well, OK, there is more than one) to avoiding back pain and enjoying your rowing machine.
Are you ready to take a little ride down your spine and find out what is going on?
Hop on, it’s going to be a bumpy but interesting ride.
Table of Contents
Why Does My Lower Back Hurt After Rowing?
First, just let me say that I am not a doctor or a chiropractor, so if you feel pretty intense pain that is interfering with your daily activities, you should see your doctor, chiropractor, or other health practitioners right away.
Now, let’s get right down to business, shall we?
Although low back pain can happen for other reasons, for the sake of this article, let’s assume that your pain is caused by your rowing activities.
When you get a new rowing machine, or if you’re new to rowing and using a rower at the gym, chances are that you are anxious to really sweat off those calories and get in shape.
Rowing machines have so many benefits that I couldn’t wait to take advantage of them all as soon as possible!
That was definitely the case for me. I would do at least two intense 30-minute rowing workouts each day, and if I had a spare 15 minutes during my day, I would hop on the rower and go to town for those 15 minutes!
While the weight did drop right off, my back pain soon became so unbearable that I went to see a physical therapist.
Here are the 3 main reasons behind your low back pain:
Like everything in life, moderation is important, including how you use the rowing machine. Over time, if you gradually build up your muscle strength to withstand those 1-hour rowing sessions every day, you should be fine, but doing an hour or more a day when you first start is a big mistake. Trust me, I’m talking from experience here!
Poor rowing form
This is another big problem, especially for beginners like I was. We tend to round our backs like a big letter C, which puts extra pressure on the lower spinal area. Hunching over when rowing makes your back do most of the work, not your legs and core muscles. Most people hunch because they have weak core muscles. Strengthen those abdominals and you will find that proper rowing techniques are easier to do. We hurt those lower back muscles (the latissimus dorsi muscles) when we lean too far back and try to use the handle as a brace or a crutch. Lean back only up to the 11 o’clock position and use your core muscles to pull your torso upright again.
For many of us, the majority of our day is spent sitting. We sit at our computers at work, we sit on our commutes to and from work, we return home only to sit some more. Most of us didn’t listen to our mothers, and so we slouch with poor posture. This can also lead to back pain all by itself, but when your back is already weakened due to poor posture, you only add to the pressure on the lumbar spine by improper rowing form or excessive overuse of your rowing machine.
You might not think that these things matter very much or that you aren’t guilty, but if you have no other health problems with your spine (such as arthritis, or disc degeneration), then you need to take a good look at both the amount of time you spend on your rowing machine and your form while using it.
Why Does My Upper Back Hurt After Rowing?
This may not be as common as low back pain, but upper back pain is certainly not unheard of.
You may also be experiencing shoulder, bicep, or neck pain at the same time. The majority of upper body pain is due to improper rowing form or some bad habits you picked up while rowing.
First, don’t keep a death grip on the handle. Hold on to the outermost edges of the handle and don’t hold it any harder than you need to.
Also, you should not be showing us the “chicken wing” when you pull on the handle. This means that your elbows should stay close to the rib cage, not sticking out like a chicken trying to fly.
Don’t lean forward too much on the Catch phase. Make sure that your shoulders are down and back and not hunched up around your ears.
The same is true on the Finish. Don’t pull your shoulders up and around as you pull on the handle. Pull back on the handle to your chest and keep your shoulders down. In fact, check out this video and the tips they offer- it can really help!
Last, if your rowing machine is one of the connected rowers with a screen, make sure that you aren’t looking up or down at the monitor. The monitor should be positioned so that it is directly in front of you.
Speaking of those connected rowing machines, check the instructional video section. I believe that the majority of these machines have instructions on how to have the proper rowing form. Some of them even have other exercises off the rower, such as yoga or Pilates.
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How Do You Prevent Back Pain When Rowing?
If you’ve read the top two questions, you probably already have a good idea about how you can prevent hurting your back muscles when rowing, but let’s break it down a bit further.
There are two parts to injury prevention when doing your rowing workout.
1. Practice the proper rowing technique
I know you are anxious to get on your rowing machine and knock down those meters, but your form is far more important than your speed. Speed will come with experience, but you must learn the proper form if you want to avoid injuring your major muscle groups and causing rowing machine back pain.
I highly recommend ergometer training at your local gym or watching some videos online and using a mirror to see yourself in action.
I took a few beginner classes at my local gym and was amazed at how quickly I learned. The instructor offered me some great tips and helped me correct my form.
2. Strengthen your core muscles and practice good posture
The rowing machine does work your core muscles, but if yours are weak ( I know mine were), you will become tired very quickly on the rowing machine and lose your form, which will cause back pain.
Working on your core muscles off of the rowing machine will be far more beneficial than waiting for the rowing machine workout to make them strong.
Get in some regular physical activity that includes core work, such as yoga, or regular exercises such as the plank. Kettlebells and resistance bands can also work your core muscles, so get in some core strength using these other methods, and you will quickly find yourself doing better when you row.
Is Rowing OK for Lower Back Pain?
If you have low back pain due to other issues, such as a herniated disc or spinal stenosis, you should first speak with your doctor. Generally speaking, however, if you can use the rowing machine and don’t experience pain, then you should be good to row!
Be sure to use the correct form as you do the rowing strokes. This will help build a strong core and protect the lumbar spine from damage.
If you are certain that you’re doing the strokes correctly but continue to feel lower back pain, speak to a health care professional. There are rare instances when rowing won’t work, and for that, you need a doctor to evaluate and determine the suitability of this workout for your condition.
Is a Rowing Machine Good for Your Back?
You bet it is!
The spine itself is supported by, and connected to, a wide range of muscles in the body.
When these muscles are flexible, lengthened (through stretching), and kept strong, they are capable of supporting the spine to prevent or relieve pain.
Since rowing works 86 percent of the muscles in the body and every major muscle group, regular use of your rowing machine will actually prevent back and hip joint pain. (Also check out my article on the best massage gun for lower back pain)
That is why this total body workout is so perfect! You can strengthen all the major muscle groups and prevent injuries at the same time.
Rowing is a low-impact exercise, so you can use it without worrying even if you have bad knees (learn more here), bad hips, or lower spine issues.
Indoor rowers are the most perfect pieces of exercise equipment, and if you take a few rowing training classes, you will have the best form of exercise on the planet.
The Final Takeaway
Remember that you should always warm-up before and cool down after your rowing workout.
During your rest days, I recommend that you get in some good stretching exercises to help keep your muscles and connective tissue flexible. Try some yoga, Pilates, or even Tai Chi for a nice change of pace to help you prevent injuries.
My last word of advice is to take it slow. I did way too much too soon and had poor form while I did it. This put a huge strain on my back muscles! You will reach your fitness goals in time, just have a little patience.
I really love my rowing machine and bet you will love yours too once you learn the proper way to do the rowing stroke and stop straining your lower back.
So let’s follow our mother’s advice: Sit up straight, no slouching, and don’t forget that regular exercise is the best medicine!
Written by Kathleen Langdon – TheHealthPot.com Founder
Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Certified Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES)
Kathleen, a mother of two, struggled with ongoing weight and health issues. She created this website after she turned her life around. She built Thehealthpot.com to help inspire and motivate others with their fitness goals. Read more about Kathleen here.