Rowing machines are low-intensity pieces of exercise equipment that simulate rowing on a boat. They also engage a broad range of muscle groups and are therefore great for muscle toning, cardio, and fat loss. But many seem to avoid them, for its reputation as a back-breaker.
And the reputation is justified: at any time, 3-18% of the world population suffers from back pain, but among rowers, it’s 30-50%. Why is this? And can anything be done about it?
Watch your back!
As they’re low-intensity, rowing machines are occasionally recommended as good injury-repairing exercises. This is particularly true for your upper body – contrary to popular assumption as 60% of the effort comes from the lower part of your body, and successful rowing depends on strong legs and core.
Rowing is however probably not an ideal choice of exercise for those already vulnerable to back pain or already struggling with it, especially as these people have an unfortunate tendency to tighten their back muscles subconsciously, either in reaction to pain or in anticipation of it.
Rowing does put strain on your lower back muscles and it’s probably not a good choice of exercise for those already vulnerable to back pain or already suffering from severe pain, especially as these people tend to have developed an instinct to tighten their back muscles subconsciously, either in reaction to pain or in anticipation of it. Middle-aged people and older are also particularly vulnerable to back pain.
Many first-time rowers are shocked at how exhausting rowing machines can be. They may risk back pain after their first few sessions by misjudging the power needed to perform a stroke, and accidentally wrenching their upper body backwards rapidly as they send their upper body backwards to catch up with their lower half.
This may result in teared muscles. Even then, expert rowers to whom rowing is familiar, and know their proper posture, will still get back pain – they row for exercise a lot, and their back muscles will protest from the stress.
If this happens to you, you should hold off rowing for a while to let your back heal. Do some planks, sit-ups and crunches over a few days alongside some light stretches to help ease your back into operation.
Treat it with respect
So what can you do to ensure you don’t do your back in when using the rowing machine? It’s an excellent choice for cardio, fat burning and muscle building, after all, and it would be a shame to shun it. The point is to treat the machine with respect and work on your technique and posture.
It’s important to get right if you want to keep your back pain-free. First, be honest with yourself and make a frank assessment of your skill at rowing and set the damper resistance accordingly. Resist the temptation to push yourself too hard too soon.
So what is proper rowing technique? First, place your feet squarely in the middle of the machine’s footpad. Hold the handle overhand, firmly but not too tightly. Then, pull the handle and use your hips to move back to the end of the rowing machine, keeping your legs straight and not bending your knees.
Lean back, bring your hands up to your chest. Next, move your body to the front, leaning forward slightly as you roll forward. Your legs will be bent slightly and your arms extended. Your movements should always be fluid and coordinated, and nothing should be pausing to let the rest of your body to catch up.
This series of movements will mitigate stress on your lower back, but if you have trouble following it, speak to your gym instructor. Have them watch your stroke and give feedback. They should also be able to tell you the make and model of the rowing machine you are using and help you adjust to it.
Alternatively, check out some videos online that demonstrate rowing techniques by seasoned trainers. Take it slow at first – get the technique down, and when you’re ready, you can move on.
Over time, your lower back muscles will strengthen, making it more resilient to injury. Your muscle memory will improve too, meaning you’ll instinctively avoid movements that could injure your back. You’ll then be ready to up the challenge through the damper or speeding up your stroke.
The rowing machine is too good a machine to pass on, but the risk to your back cannot be denied. It’s a demanding machine that can abuse you if not taken seriously, so take the time to understand what it is doing to your body and how to work with, not against it.
Work on your stroke carefully, and don’t be afraid to call in outside help to assist you to develop your stroke. This way, you will learn to get the most out of the rowing machine without injuring your back.
Great exertion and long sessions will invite back pain however, and you should stop using the rowing machine and find an alternative workout until your back heals.