How to Avoid Rowing Machine Low Back Pain - Top 5 Tips in 2023!
Updated: Jun 26
Why does my low back hurt with rowing and how do I avoid hurting my back on the rowing machine? These are the two most common questions I get, almost DAILY! So let's chat about why you might get back pain with the rowing machine and how to avoid it.
This is the perfect place for you if you have had back pain, are worried about getting back pain, or simply want to avoid having back pain when using the rowing machine. Low back pain is the most common injury in rowing, however you CAN avoid back pain with rowing just by knowing what the most common causes of it are when rowing. 1,2
1. What is rowing machine back pain and is it hurting your back?
First, figuring out if your back pain is soreness or actual pain is key. As you may have heard,
rowing works a ton of muscles, especially in the back of your body. But how do you figure out if the pain is good, or if you might be hurting yourself?
Let's start with your back anatomy. Your back can be thought of as having three parts: upper, mid, and lower back.
The upper back is like your neck, which is called the cervical spine. Sometimes this feels like neck, or upper trap pain in your upper shoulders. Your mid back is between your shoulder blades and basically the area of your back where your ribs are, which is called the thoracic spine. This can often be pain more between the shoulder blades, or even in the back of the shoulders. The lower back is called the lumbar spine, which is lower than the ribs, and goes to your buttocks. This usually presents as pain in the buttocks, or just that general area where the photo says lower back. When rowing, first figure out where on your back you are feeling some pain or soreness. This alone will likely help you figure out some things. In this post we are talking more about the lower back area. Stay tuned for a neck post, but checkout this post on mid back pain and how to fix it! There are some videos below if you are feeling neck pain or mid and upper back pain that you can check out as well.
After you have figured out where you are feeling back pain, pay attention and see when in the stroke you are feeling it. Is it at the beginning, catch, position? Is it in the middle of the stroke or at the end when you are leaning back? Are you having back pain after rowing and not during? Is it hurting the next day? Are you getting back pain after 10 min of rowing, but are okay for the first 10 minutes? All of this will help you gather information to tell you a little more about what is going on.
Next, figure out what you are feeling. Does it feel like a soreness you get from doing squats or say bicep curls? Is it muscle soreness where it feels like you worked the muscles? Or is the back pain more of a stabbing, shooting, aching pain that makes you stop the activity? If it's muscle soreness, that's different than something stabbing. Soreness is usually something good, you are working the muscles, but it could also be your muscles are overworked. However this is just a blog post and not medical advice, so if you are having pain that continues for multiple days, please feel free to reach out to me or another medical provider, or physical therapist. If it's something stabbing or shooting, it's likely not something great and you want to stop, keep reading this post, and please reach out if it continues.
If it's soreness...first watch this video where I go into depth on what is more likely soreness, and what isn't. Then...keep reading.
2. What are Common Causes of Getting Rowing Machine Back Pain and What To Do!
Leaning Too Far Back
Leaning too far back happens at the finish, when your legs are straight and your arms are in near your body. This is probably the most common thing I see people doing who are having lower back pain with the rowing machine. If you think of your body as a clock, up towards the ceiling is 12:00. If you are leaning to a position closer to a 2:00, that requires a ton of core stability and can put extra strain on your lower back when rowing. Try to stay closer to the 1:00 position, like in the picture and this will take some pressure off of your back when rowing. If you aren't really sure what you are doing, record yourself from the side like in this picture. Just prop your phone up from the side view, click record, and then take a look at it when you are done rowing. How far are you leaning back? If you really want to experiment, just go into this position and see where you are comfortable. Record that, then record yourself actually rowing. Do those two position match up? If you notice you lean far back, try rowing without the straps on your feet...you might be shocked that you can't go as far back. Give it a try!
Research shows that increased extension when in the finish position might be a contributor to low back pain, so definitely record yourself and see if it's something you are doing. 1
Leading With Your Shoulders
During the rowing stroke, you start in the front position, then you push with your legs, then open your hips up, and then lean back and bring your arms in. Leading with the shoulders means that when you start pushing with your legs, you also open up your hips and find your shoulders are behind your hips (see photo below).
When you open your hips early and have your shoulders lead, it puts a lot of extra strain on the low back. I talk all about it in more detail in this video.
Rounding and Hunching or Over Reaching
Sometimes this can cause rowing machine back pain in the lower back, but usually this causes pain in the mid or upper back. However, it can contribute to lower back pain too. Checkout image/video below. You can see in the top photo that my back is more in a line, and in the bottom one it's more rounded. I am reaching really far at the catch and my back is now more curved. This curvature is greater in the mid back, however that contributes to more of a flexed, bent position in the lower back as well. If you are feeling discomfort in this position, try sitting more upright, gently pinching your shoulder blades together. Sometimes this also occurs from being more fatigued, and might occur more towards the end of a rowing session. 1
Having The Damper Setting Too High
First, not all machines have this. If you are curious about your rowing machine, check out this post that explains a bit on the types of rowers. With a machine with water, like the WaterRower, it's usually the amount of water in the tank. On a machine like a Concept2, it's the fan looking thing on the side. Sometimes this is a knob near the handle on machines as well. It is very common for people to put this up to the highest setting because it makes you feel like there is more resistance and you are doing more work, however it really is about learning good form. Once you learn good rowing form mechanics, you can row on low settings and get a great workout. Most people who row competitively and use the rowing machine for training, don't go above a 5 on the damper setting. The damper setting can get really complicated, but if you are looking for more info, I recommend you check out this article from Concept2. If you are struggling with back pain and have this setting as high as it goes, please reach out, or try rowing at a lower setting and that might help.
3. Relieve Your Lower Back Pain From Rowing With Some Proper Setup
If you've been reading, you might have gotten that low back pain from rowing is often because of poor rowing form. However, did you know that sometimes this can be fixed by just setting your body up for success as soon as you sit down on the rower? It's true!
Next time you get on the rowing machine, pay attention. Do you sit, strap your feet in, grab the handle, and start rowing? Or do you pay attention to your butt position? Sometimes our lower back get more rounded with rowing, mentioned above with rounding the back, just because our pelvis isn't in a good position. Research shows that people without low back injuries when rowing have their pelvis in a more neutral or anteriorly rotated position. 1 If we are more tilted or rotated backwards, this can also often lead to tailbone pain. If you have tailbone pain when rowing, definitely check your booty position. Often people jump straight into buying a seat cushion like this one, but sometimes, you may not need it. Watch the video on booty position as it's way easier to see the difference than to explain it here, and don't worry, the video has captions if you aren't able to listen.
Also, don't get me wrong, seat pads are great, and I will do a whole post just on those, but they won't always fix your problem. Sometimes it might mask the issue, if you keep rowing in a bad position for your pelvis and back, but aren't getting the pain anymore, it might come back later. So just something to pay attention to.
4. Warm Up Your Body To Stop Back Pain With Rowing
Rowing is a sport! It may seem easy because you are sitting on your booty, but it's an olympic sport and takes practice to get good at and it is demanding on your body. Back pain often can get better with movement, and rowing is fantastic for that, when done with proper form. But if you are about to row for 30 min or say do a 5 or 10k, and you just jump right on the rowing machine and know that you often get back pain when rowing, try warming up your muscles first. It's like going and running 30 minutes without doing any training. Most people have to work up to running 30 minutes, and rowing is no different.
There are tons of warmups you can do for rowing, here is a quick 8 minute off-the-rowing machine warmup you can do. It doesn't need to be long, just use the muscles you are going to be using when rowing (most of them) and get those muscles and joints ready to work for you after you've been sleeping or sitting. Wake them up gently, then jump on the rower and get rowing!
5. Stop Rowing Machine Back Pain by Getting OFF the Rower
If you look at most rowers, they don't row EVERY SINGLE DAY. They take some days off to either rest, do a different activity with an active rest day, or do strengthening off of the rowing machine. Doing the same movement over and over can take a toll on your body and lead to muscle imbalances. Rowing works a ton of muscles, but it doesn't work them all. Get out and hike, do some yoga, or do some strength workouts. It will not only help your back feel better, but it will also likely make you a stronger rower. Doing exercises like planks, or banded hip strengthening can help you build your core and help work muscles in different directions than you get on the rower.
If your core is weak, you are more likely to compensate and your lower back will likely take the beating. Doing things like planks can help build a stronger core and add stability for your spine. It also help with shoulder strength, yay! If you are new to this, start small (15 sec), and even go onto your knees if you need to. Work your way up to longer periods of time, and then eventually you can make the movement even more challenging by adding a dynamic component to the movement. There are also tons more core exercises you can do, but this is a great start!
These are by far the most common reasons people have rowing machine back pain, but if you are uncertain or still struggling, please reach out and I'd be happy to help you with a rowing analysis.
Checkout these videos for more info on rowing and back pain!
Rowing and back pain do NOT need to go together. This video goes over a visual on a lot of what was talked about in this video, with ON-Rower examples.
Have you had back surgery and curious if rowing is good or bad for your back? This video is the one for you.
If anyone is looking for an easy gift for a rowing friend or looking to learn so much more about rowing, this is a great book to help you get started, Beginner's Guide to Indoor Rowing!
I hope that helps you out and found this information useful.
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1. Nugent FJ, Vinther A, McGregor A, et al. The relationship between rowing-related low back pain and rowing biomechanics: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2021;55:616-628.
2. Rumball, J.S., Lebrun, C.M., Di Ciacca, S.R. et al. Rowing Injuries. Sports Med 35, 537–555 (2005). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200535060-00005