Are Rowing Machines Bad for Your Back and How to Avoid Pain?

Woman outside on a rowing machine straining

Rowing movements have been used for propelling boats ever since humans were navigating bodies of water.

More recently, though, rowing has become a tool for fitness. And indoor rowing machines have made this form of exercise more accessible to you and me. 

However, especially if you have experienced back pain from exercising, you might ask yourself, “are rowing machines bad for your back?” Simply put, no, rowing machines are not bad for your back but…

…there are some important factors to keep in mind to avoid pain and make rowing exercises an effective part of your routine.

Indoor Rowing – The Form – Fixing Common Mistakes

Bad form is perhaps the leading contributor to pain with any exercise.

“Good form” is hard to define and without a trainer to help it often comes down to common sense.

Correct form is proper body mechanics whilst performing a move. The move should be carried out with control, but also with intention.

While the adage “no pain, no gain” is commonly used in cardio or strength training and is true to an extent, pain is typically a sign of stress on your body.

This proves especially true if you have bad form. Here are some of the most common mistakes we see with rowing exercises:

Failure to Maintain a Neutral Spine

This is easily the leading cause of back pain for fitness enthusiasts.

Very few exercises require movement of your spine because the lower to mid-back muscles are typically used for stabilization, not motion.

In rowing movements, the neck and spine should be neutral at all times.

Improper Sequence of Movements

There are many moving parts in the rowing exercise. This can make it difficult to master the proper sequence of joint movement.

Many will start pulling with their arms too early or too late. A proper row will start with the legs pushing against the machine’s pedestals, starting the exercise’s momentum.

When the legs reach full extension, the body hinges on the hips from about 1 o’clock to 11 o’clock.

Then the rowing movement with the arms begins, concluding the drive phase.

So the drive is legs, body, arms and the recovery phase is arms, body, legs.

Excessive Torso Movement

While the torso will move to an extent in a proper row, many will extend their torso excessively at the end of the rowing exercise, resulting in an almost lying position.

This is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. The majority of movement should be in the legs and arms, with a smaller torso movement.

Partial Range of Motion

Another common mistake seen in too many exercises is a partial range of motion.

In an attempt to perform more reps than one can properly accommodate, many will sacrifice form and range of motion.

With rowing exercises, this might mean an incomplete extension of the legs or partial flexion of the arms.

In a proper row, the end of the movement should see full extension of the legs and full flexion of the arms (the rowing handle will touch your sternum).

Indoor Rowing – The Complete Technique

Although not difficult, indoor rowing for fitness does require a little expertise in the 3 phases of technique: the setup, the drive and the recovery.

Executing the rowing technique properly will mean less likelihood of injury and a better level of performance.

The first image in the sequence is the setup followed by 3 images of the drive, followed by the recovery or the return to the neutral stage.

Note the flat back in all phases with a small angle of hinge at the hips.

Thanks to BritishRowing.org for the sequence below

Sequences for the technique of indoor rowing

Other Factors that Contribute to a Healthy Back

A healthy back is important for optimal performance in exercising and working out.

But a pain-free back is essential for the day-to-day functions of living.

While implementing the proper technique in exercises is important, there are some other factors to consider. Here are a few:

Mobility

Sometimes, proper form is not possible because of a lack of mobility. This means your joints are not flexible enough to perform an exercise with proper body mechanics. 

Regarding rowing exercises, mobility issues likely exist with the hips. If your hip mobility is lacking, it will be impossible to maintain a neutral spine throughout the entire movement, resulting in back pain.

This could stem from tight hamstrings, gluteal muscles, or hip flexors. 

It is vital to work on mobility in these areas, even after achieving the mobility necessary to perform exercises with proper form.

Strengthening of Stabilizer Muscles

When starting a workout routine, “strengthen the stabilizer muscles” is typically not at the top of anyone’s list. Even experienced athletes may neglect this vital aspect of physical fitness. 

When it comes to functional back health, these smaller muscles count.

Luckily, because of the role of these muscles, many compound movements, like rowing, will contribute to their development without the need for isolation exercises.

Everyday Habits

The primary reason so many people today suffer from back pain is not a failure to perform an exercise correctly.

It is everyday habits like sitting for hours on end, bad posture, improper diet leading to excessive weight gain, and a lack of physical activity. The correction of these habits will contribute to a healthy back.

Like many people, I have had instances, events that have caused back trauma. These accidents are unavoidable but care should be taken as complications may arise later in life.

Advantages of Rowing Exercises

Is rowing actually good for your back?

Rowing is a great addition to anyone’s fitness routine. Here are some reasons why:

Rowing Is a Compound Movement

Why is this significant? Well, for one thing, compound movements are efficient. Many joints are in motion, meaning several muscle groups contribute to the exercise. 

With rowing, the quadriceps, calves, gluteal muscles, the latissimus dorsi, scapular muscles, trapezius, rear deltoid head, biceps, and forearms all come into play.

So with one exercise, you get an almost total body workout. 

Compound exercises also promote the release of hormones that are vital for muscle growth.

Rowing Exercises Are Functional

As was mentioned earlier, rowing has been used since very early on in human history as a means of travel.

While we may not row to get from place to place anymore, the practicality of the rowing movement remains. 

Rowing is a combination of extending your legs, flexing your arms, and keeping a tight core.

These are functions of the body that are very commonly used outside of rowing.

Furthermore, performing these movements together is great training for the nervous system, which is responsible for the coordination and overall muscular function.

Rowing Is a Great Cardiovascular Exercise

Rowing is, first and foremost, a cardiovascular exercise.

The load is typically less than that of other lifting exercises, but rowing is performed over an extended period.

So, in addition to utilizing most of your body’s muscles, rowing strengthens your heart and lungs, making this one of the most efficient exercises.

In addition, unlike running, there is no unnecessary stress on the joints from the low impact nature of rowing.

FAQ

What is the best kind of rowing machine?

In terms of resistance, there are four kinds of rowing machines: hydraulic, magnetic, pneumatic, and water.

Which machine is best for you will depend on the space available, your budget, and your noise tolerance.

If you need something compact, magnetic rowers are the best choice. They also create the least amount of noise.

If space, budget, and noise level are not important, pneumatic or water rowers are the way to go. They best simulate the resistance of rowing on water.

Hydraulic rowers are now considered outdated and are not usually recommended unless space and budget are your main concerns, in which case magnetic rowers are still preferred.

Can a rowing machine provide a full workout?

As was mentioned earlier, rowing is primarily a cardiovascular exercise.

While it does involve most of your body’s muscles, you will want to implement strength training in your routine, like squats, deadlifts, and pressing exercises.

Many will conclude their workouts with rowing, as cardiovascular exercise performed after anaerobic (exercises like rowing or running are aerobic, while exercises like squats and push-ups are typically anaerobic) exercise is more effective for burning fat.

What muscles are used in rowing exercises?

Rowing will utilize almost your entire body. The quadriceps, gluteal muscles, core, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, scapular muscles, deltoid, biceps, and forearms all contribute to the rowing movement.

So Are Rowing Machines Bad For Your Back? Final Words

If you are unsure about any persistent back pain you are experiencing on or off the indoor rowing machine, please consult with your medical professional.

In our modern day, rowing is no longer essential for getting around – it is a sport or culture-orientated activity.

But the rowing action and the associated effort of the body as an exercise is beneficial for many reasons.

When performed properly, rowing can actually contribute to a healthy back.

But otherwise, use some of the suggestions above, and don’t be afraid to give rowing a go if you are not familiar with it.

Is a rowing machine bad for your back? With the right technique (see above) the most likely spinal accident will occur from setting up your nearly acquired rower.

So with the proper form and care; no. As with any new discipline start slow and easy.

Penny Cooper

Penny Cooper

Penny is a Personal Trainer currently training as a wellness coach. Redundancy from retail management meant an enforced move from helping women with sports shoes and apparel to helping people get fit and well.