The rowing machine, also known as the indoor rower or ergometer, is the greatest mix between cardio workouts and resistance training. It helps improve endurance and works about 80% of the body, engaging the upper and lower body muscles in each stroke.
Yet, even with all these benefits, the rowing machine stands as a hot button among athletes. Some would go to the end of the earth recommending it for back health, while others go around warning about the back pain associated with it, even for healthy people.
If you find yourself standing confused between both parties, we’ve come to your rescue. In this blog post, we’ll explain whether rowing exercises are good for your back. Then, we’ll discuss how back pain arises with rowing and how to prevent it. So let’s get started!
Are Rowing Machines Good for Your Back?
Absolutely! Rowing machines aren’t only good for your back; they go as far as prevent back injury, protect the structures in your low back, and improve your overall performance – but only when used right.
To make a point of what we’re saying, let’s explain how a rowing machine works.
Your body craves balance. The idea behind the rowing motion is that it disturbs that balance, so your body exerts more effort and engages more muscles to regain its stability and equilibrium. Therefore, it works your whole body, including your core, glutes, and the muscles around your spine.
If you suffer from poor posture due to working or sitting for a long time in front of a screen, the full-body workout that rowing provides will help reinforce your gluteal area and reduce stress on your back, improving your form.
Also, for people whose lives are filled with labor work and need to prevent back pain, the rowing machine can help them strengthen their back by building a strong core.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s natural for beginners to feel some lower back pain at the outset of their training. With the tension working on a group of muscles for the first time, it’s inevitable to feel some strain. Moreover, it takes some time to perfect the proper technique of rowing, so there might be some mistakes at the beginning that will reflect on their lumbar areas.
Does Rowing Damage Your Back?
Rowing is mostly core and leg work, with the back engaged at the end of each stroke to drive your body back smoothly.
Theoretically, it shouldn’t hurt your back. So then, why do beginner and professional rowers complain about back pain? According to the site of the pain, there are reasons for it.
Lower Back Muscles
Also known as lumbago, lower back pain is more commonly associated with professionals than amateur rowers. It’s a pain that stems from the lumbar area and spreads to your gluteal region (buttocks). It becomes more apparent when you extend your leg and lean backward by the end of the stroke.
There are two reasons for this type of pain, the first of which is overtraining. Putting tension on your back for long periods prompts pain in your lower back. This may make you feel like you can’t move your back for a few seconds while rowing.
The second reason is not having the required core and glutes to perform such an intense lower back workout.
The thing is, your core and buttocks are the strong foundation of your form. A weak butt or weak core muscles won’t be able to support your body in a rowing position, so you’ll direct your weight to your lower back, causing muscle tension there.
Upper Back Muscles
Upper back pain, on the other hand, is more common in beginners who haven’t mastered the proper form of rowing yet. It affects the thoracic region (the area from your neck to the bottom of your rib cage) and happens due to engaging your upper body the wrong way.
Your neck and shoulder should be relaxed when you bend your hips forward. If you flex your neck and bend your shoulders, you focus the tension on these areas, causing pain in your upper back.
Causes and Solutions for Rowing Back Pain
There is a saying that goes: “the only rowing that’s “bad for your back” is bad rowing!” And that’s entirely true. As you can see, the key to reaping the many benefits of rowing and preventing back pain is to exercise correctly.
So let’s take a look at some common mistakes people make and how to fix them to get a bulletproof lower back exercise on the rowing machine.
A common mistake when rowing is overexerting yourself from the beginning or jumping from a low intensity to a higher one without gradually easing your body into it.
Rowing may be a low-impact exercise, but it still works the largest muscles in your body, so you want to be careful not to strain them too much. If you do so, you risk injuring the disks between your vertebrae.
As with any dynamic sport, you should start slow until you build up your stamina and endurance, then put more time into your training. Another good piece of advice is to stop rowing when you feel too tired to maintain a good posture.
Also, don’t mix a challenging rowing machine workout with weightlifting or other exercises that exert your arms and back. Although these exercises are recommended to strengthen your core and improve your rowing performance, it’s not recommended to do them on the same day as your rowing exercise.
2. Rounded Shoulders and Improper Rowing Form
Using an improper technique will ruin your posture and cause back pain when using the rowing machine.
See, the challenge with rowing is to keep your back straight for the length of the exercise.
We tend to feel the exertion in our core faster than in our back muscles. So after rowing for a while, you’ll find yourself relying more on your back to pull your weight than your abdominal muscles. When this happens, you overstrain your back, which leads to pain and injury. This is also the hallmark of “improper posture” as you hunch your back and tilt your shoulders.
Another mistake that many rowers make is to press their legs and lean back simultaneously or pull their arms before pushing their legs, which causes them to ruin their posture involuntarily.
The solution here is to follow the correct technique for indoor rowing.
First, adjust the rowing machine to your height so that you can head forward without pushing your kneecaps outward to avoid hitting your arms.
Second, to initiate the movement, start by pushing with your legs. Then, swing your body backward using your abdominal muscles before pulling your arms. That’s the right sequence of the drive motion.
Finally, ensure that you’re engaging your core at all times. If you find it difficult to keep tabs on all these instructions, ask your personal trainer to watch your form and correct your movements while rowing until your body gets the hang of it.
3. Swayback Posture
The final phase of the rowing stroke requires you to lean back slightly, which is called the “layback” motion.
The thing about the layback is that the larger it is, the more power you generate with each stroke, which enhances your rowing performance. That’s why many rowers make the mistake of leaning back extremely at the finishing phase.
Why is that a mistake? Because an overly large layback requires an unnatural amount of flexibility to keep your back straight while doing it. If this amount of flexibility isn’t present, the layback will cause a swayback posture, which hurts the back.
The correct layback should put your body at 1 o’clock; don’t try to lean back more than that. For a pain-free exercise, your hip joint should be able to take control of this movement instead of your back.
4. High Resistance Setting
You might be intrigued to increase the resistance setting of the rowing machine, thinking that it’ll lead you to lose weight and build muscle strength faster. What happens instead is that you just exert your body quickly and hurt your back.
Take it slow. If you’re a beginner, keep the resistance in the 3-5 range to reap the aerobic benefits of the rowing machine. And even if you’re a seasoned rower, don’t set the flywheel resistance at the highest level unless you’re doing a strength-oriented workout.
No Pain, No Gain? Not Always
So are rowing machines bad for your back? Quite the opposite, actually. They reinforce the supporting muscles in your back, increase your blood flow, work several joints, and enhance the muscle tone of your arms and core.
If anything, rowing is a great workout that burns calories and builds stamina. Yet, there are some precautions you should take to ensure you don’t hurt your back while exercising. Also, we recommend doing some stretches before and after rowing to improve your posture and reduce back pain.
Emma James, 29 years old professional fitness trainer with Bachelor’s degree in Physical Fitness Technician from Boston University.