Amanda Painter Diver
Is a rowing machine bad for your knees?
Yes and no. I know, that’s not an answer, but keep reading to see why I say that.
It really depends on how you are rowing. The rowing machine by itself is not inherently bad for your knees, however there are three common things that happen on the rowing machine that can hurt you knees and possible be “bad for your knees”.
How do you protect your knees on a rowing machine?
First is knowing what the common things that cause knee pain are and second is being able to notice if you are doing them. The three common things that cause knee pain on the rowing machine are:
- over compressing your knees
- having your knees push out to the sides
- overextending your knees too much
These three things could cause pain or aggravation to your knees. For some people there are no issues, however if you do have some things going on with your knees, these are the main things to pay attention to.
So how do you stop this from happening and how do you know if you are doing things that could be hurting your knees? Let’s dive deeper into what each of these three things are.
Why do your knees hurt when using a rowing machine?
These are the three common reasons.
1. First, over compressing your knees. This happens at the front, catch position when
your knees are scrunched and bent to their fullest. If you are pushing your knees together as far as they can possibly compress, this is possibly causing some over compression. There are a couple of reasons that this could cause some knee pain or aggravation.
Think about squatting down with your knees bent the same way they are on the rowing machine. So your butt will basically be pretty close to the ground. Some people call this a 3rd world squat as it’s often a position you use to go to the bathroom with a toilet that is a hole in the floor. Moving on from that image, if you get in that position, now I want you to stand up. Chances are it either was hard, didn’t feel great, took a ton of effort, or you did something like a sway or moved your legs out or some other type of compensation to get up more easily. If you have no idea what you did, try it again and pay attention to what you do. Everyone will handle this a little different, but now, if you are comfortable and not causing pain with it, go into that squat again. This time on the way up I want you to really push through your feet and stand up, like you are exploding upwards by pushing your feet into the floor. This is just like the beginning of the drive in the rowing stroke when you push with your feet on the footplate. Now, our knees when they are bent to the extreme like this, they are not in their optimal position to use the muscles and explode with power. This is because the muscles are just pulled so much that it makes them really difficult to start working in that position.
Now try squatting to halfway between 90 degrees and that full squat you were at. Then explode up through your legs. Did it feel different? Now try the same thing with your knees bent to 90 degrees. How did that feel? I am betting that one of those felt the best, barring you don’t have a knee injury. If you do have a knee injury that acts up sometimes or all the time, then the 90 degree position still might hurt or it likely felt the best.
The key is to find the position on the rowing machine that feels comfortable for your knee with the amount of knee bend that feels good to you. So when you are rowing, don’t go as far up and stop when your knee wants to stop. That will stop the over compression and take some pressure off the knee as well as allow your muscles to be in a more optimal position to work for you during the drive.
This video talks a bit about how the squat impacts your rowing and how your foot placement can also contribute to how your knees are feeling.
2. Next is pushing your knees out. This often happens if you lack ankle mobility and are
trying to get your knees more bent at the catch, or if you have a belly or big thighs because your legs just get in the way. The goal for this is the same as for over compression. Don’t go as far froward and stop at a comfortable position for your knees, thighs, and belly to all fit. Now, this doesn’t always cause aggravation at the knee, but sometimes it can at the hip or ankle as well. Sometimes it doesn’t cause any pain.
A good way to see if it might be contributing to your knee pain is if you take a look at your feet when you are rowing. When you are at the catch, are your feet rolled so that more of the
outside of your foot is touching the footplate as opposed to your whole foot? You also may not be able to see this with your shoes, so feeling where the pressure is on your feet can also help you determine if you are doing this. If you are, decrease how far froward you are going so you can get more weight on more of your foot. If you rely on pushing more through the sides of your feet, more pressure is put on your ankles, knees, and hips and this can cause things later as you row more and more.
Checkout this video to see more about knees popping out to the side and what to do.
3. Overextending the knees. A good way to tell if you do this is to stand up in front of a mirror. Stand sideways so you are not facing the mirror. Now stand straight and lock your knees. Does it look like your knees are going backwards? If so, then it’s possible you are overextending your knees in both standing and when rowing.
Now get on the rowing machine, strap in, and straighten your legs (without holding the handle). Do your knees look SUPER straight like when you were standing? If so, I’d recommend not letting this happen when you row. So, to do that I want you to think of having a slight bend in your knee when you get to the finish part of the stroke. It will feel awkward and might be over-exaggerated, but the goal is that your body started to learn where it is in space, which is what we call proprioception. With time, it will get more comfortable and you will start to find the middle straight spot where your knee isn’t going backwards, but also isn’t bent. You have to teach your knee this position. Working on this when standing will also help. When you are just standing or rowing with your knee overextended, you are relying more on your bones and ligaments to do the work, and the muscles are not helping to support your knee as much, which can cause some aggravation.
Check out this video for a bit more on foot position and how it impacts the knees as well as a bit more about the leg being fully straight and what to do.
Remember all of these are things that might cause some knee pain or aggravation, but for others it might not. So that answer really depends on you, your body, and your history with knee pain. But hopefully this is a good starting point to help.
If you are looking for more videos that might be helping, here is one on rowing and knee pain and here is one on some exercises that you might find helpful if you are having some knee pain with the rowing machine.
If you need more help with your rowing form, here is a blog post with more information.
If the pain is also in your shins, checkout this article.
Happy rowing and wishing you a pain free rowing experience!
If you found this helpful, you can grab a copy here of my book, Beginner's Guide to Indoor Rowing for more info on how to adapt the rowing technique for you and common things to look for that might cue you into adaptations you might want to make to avoid getting hurt.
You can also join our community of rowers!
Please remember, this is NOT medical advice, and is a forum. If you would like medical advice, please follow up with a healthcare provider or feel free to reach out to me and we can chat on how I might be able to help or help you find someone who can.