Why People Get Upper Back Pain with the Rowing Machine and How to Prevent It!
Updated: Apr 10
Do you ever struggle with upper back pain during or after using the rowing machine? Or maybe you have some back pain and wonder if the rowing machine is bad for your back. This leads to a question I get really often with my clients, which is "how do I not hurt my back on the rowing machine?". and surprisingly the answer is really simple, but it's really difficult to implement on your own sometimes. So let's dive into why you might get upper back pain on the rowing machine and how you can stop hurting your back on the rower as well. The rowing machine doesn't need to hurt your back and sometimes rowing can even be good for back pain. So let's go!
We are going to talk about the most common reason it happens.
"Why does my upper back hurt when I use the rowing machine?"
I get this question so often that I thought a blog post and YouTube video might help some of you out.
First, it really all comes down to your form. I know, you're probably tired of people telling you to focus on your form, but it's so true and I'm going to explain WHY!
Upper back pain with rowing can happen for a lot of reasons, but the most common reason has to do with poor form at different parts of the rowing stroke.
For example, if you hunch really far forward at the catch, you're putting a lot of extra strain on your upper, mid, and low back without really realizing it. Think about slouching in a chair and how you might have been scolded at school to "sit up" or you'll end up with a hunch back. Well...rowing is a sitting sport and if you slouch at the front, catch, position (when you are all scrunched up near the monitor), your muscles aren't really activating to do much work for you. Then you use your arms to hold onto the rowing machine handle and start pushing with your legs. Well, if the muscles in your upper back and shoulder aren't activated and engaged, then they can't really help you engage your core and you end up just relying on your bones and tiny muscles around the spine to help you do the most important and forceful part of the rowing stroke. So next time, try sitting up a little straighter, and rounding your back at the catch a little less to avoid that upper and lower back pain from happening.
There are a lot of reasons that people may lean more forward and slouch more, so figuring out why can really help you work on this as well.
You can see some of this in this YouTube video where I explain some of this blog post.
Sit up straight, but not too straight!
I know I just said to not slouch at the front, and to sit up straight, but you don't want to overcompensate and sit up too straight either. If you sit up too straight, you will actually be pushing your back into a position that isn't optimal either. This happens often when we "sit up straight" in a normal chair. Often we might overextend our low back, which can lead to more strain on the back muscles and ligaments and might lead to more back pain instead of less from the rowing machine.
So find that spot in the middle, we call it neutral spine in the Physical Therapy world, and try and keep that more than going to either extreme. Finding that middle spot will help your back feel better with rowing on the rowing machine.
Upper back soreness versus pain from rowing
Something important to consider is whether what you are feeling is back PAIN or back soreness. Sometimes this can be really hard to distinguish. I would recommend starting with, when is it hurting, how long does it last, do any other activities bother it, and what does it feel like. Tuning into some of those things might be able to help you figure it out or know what is going on so you can ask someone.
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.
Okay, now that my disclaimer is out of the way, tuning into your body and the problem can help you figure out if you need to see someone or adjust something. Pain that stays for a while, or that comes with other activities, might not be solely from the rowing machine and might be something to watch. If you get stabbing behind the shoulder blade, I recommend checking out this video on rib pain and rowing as it might help point you in the right direction.
In other words, it really depends on what and where you are feeling something and what the rest of your day looks like. Then, what does your form look like? Slouching with rowing can really contribute to upper back pain with the rowing machine, so it could definitely be part of it if you are guilty of doing that.
Something else important to consider is that if you are a person who is focusing on good form and sitting up straight, this means you are engaging muscles that you don't often use, and usually for a long time, while doing a dynamic hard activity like rowing. This can often lead to soreness in the postural muscles in the upper back and means you are working those muscles. That's a GOOD THING! So tune into the pain or soreness and see if it is something that might be you using the muscles and good, or might not be. If it feels like you do when you do a little more activity than you are used to, back muscle soreness might be something to consider.
If you want to know more about whether it's pain or soreness, check out this YouTube video on back pain versus soreness.
Is the Rowing Machine Bad for your upper back?
Not really, but it can be. If you don't focus on form and repeat non-optimal patterns over and over with each stroke on the rowing machine, then it's possible you could cause more harm than good. However, if you focus on your form it can be very beneficial for your upper back and for your posture and really, your whole body. So yes and no!
So how do I stop having upper back pain with the rowing machine?
Focus on your form. Focus on how much you are sitting up, how much you are slouching, and even where you are pulling the handle too, as sometimes this can effect the position of your arms, which can contribute to your upper back too! I know we didn't talk about the arm position, but checkout the youtube video that goes with this post (below) for more info on it.
So now you know, but how do you know if you are doing it "right"?
Many classes like Row House and Live2Row have guided classes with sintructors that go through some form of rowing form training. The down side is that you're in a class and many of the cues they give might not apply or help you get into the position that is best as they have to generalize their cues to a class, but many times they come around and give you guidance as you go, which is great. So if you are a member and aren't sure, ask them before class to come take a look at your rowing and get some feedback.
If you aren't a member, try recording yourself rowing from the side and then take a look at the video. See if you notice anything I mentioned. If you still aren't sure, I recommend following up with a rowing instructor or expert and getting a rowing analysis, form check.
I offer rowing form checks and it's one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes what we think we are doing and what we are actually doing, are two completely different things. Getting and outside perspective on your rowing machine form can really help tune into why you might be having back pain with rowing and give you some actionable steps to start working on right away! If you are interested, you can find out more info and sign up here.
I hope this helps and let me know if you have any questions! Always happy to help.
And if you are curious on some exercises you can do to help stop upper back soreness or pain, checkout this YouTube video on some exercises to do.