Just like any other gym equipment, a rowing machine could hurt you if used in the wrong way. Many gym visitors use these machines without optimal guidance, which makes them vulnerable to injuries. If someone is at risk of injury (Owing to frequent back pain upon lifting, posture problems or previous injuries in the back), rowing machines could turn out to be dangerous. Does that mean that rowing machines should be avoided altogether? The short answer is no.

Let’s dive deep into what rowing machines are, how effective they are in workouts and their role in back pain.

What Are Rowing Machines?

Rowing machines are low intensity workout equipment that can help you tone your lower body. It also works on your core as well as your arms, providing variable levels of resistance and intensity. The best thing about rowing machines is that they don’t put excessive pressure on your body. At the outside, it looks like a difficult workout for your arms. However, in reality it is simple and works on the entire body, specially your legs. In fact, 60% of your energy used in rowing machines comes from your legs.

You can use rowing machines to build endurance. It is a perfect cardiovascular exercise as well. Does rowing have a major role to play in back pain? Yes. At any given time, 3 to 18 percent of the world population will report lower back pain. However, rowers will likely to experience lower back pain more than the general population. About 30 to 50 percent of the rowers will experience lower back pain.

Does Lower Back Pain Have a Direct Relationship With Rowing?

Yes. Rowing will create unusual strain on your back muscles. Therefore, the chances of injury or development of lower back pain become higher than expected. Also, we must understand that there is a technique error involved in development of pain. If you row without supervision, you will likely end up with a bad back sooner or later. In fact, you could experience sharp pain in your back while rowing as well. This is a sign of an injury.

If technique is the major problem behind lower back pain, why do rowers experience it? While rowers have a better rowing technique, they train for hours. As a result of this, they will likely be putting enormous pressure on their backs for longer durations. Hence, they experience back pain. For the general population, it could only take one rowing session with the wrong technique to damage lower back muscles.

Should You Avoid Rowing Altogether?

If you don’t want to take any chances, avoiding rowing altogether is a good option. However, we would suggest this extreme step to people who are already vulnerable to back pain. This includes people with a back injury, those who have had a surgery in the past 6 months to a year and people who have a bad posture. If you are obese, or carry most of your weight around the abdominal region, you can think about giving rowing a miss.

If you are middle aged or older, then you should avoid rowing as well. There is another particular group of people who are an increased risk of lower back pain. These people often tighten their back muscles unconsciously. Some do it under stress while others simply do it out of habit. If you are one of those, you could also end up with back pain after knowing. Check if you feel back pain after doing other kind of exercises too. if you do, then you should avoid rowing.

How to Use Rowing Machines the Right Way?

Rowing machines are all about the right technique. Here is what you need to do.

  • Step 1- Set the resistance of the machine low and latch in your feet perfectly on to the machine.
  • Step 2- Hold the handle firmly. Make sure that you are not holding on too tightly. Your grip should be firm not tight. Ensure that you have an overhand grip, just like you would ride a bike or a jet ski.
  • Step 3- Pull the handle and use a thrust of your hips to move back at the end of the machine. Keep your legs straight and make sure that your knees are not bending.
  • Step 4- Lean back and pull the handle slightly to the back. Do not move too far back behind. Your hands should move up to the chest.
  • Step 5- Now gently your move upper body to the front. At the end of step 4, your body was slightly angled to the back but in this step, your body should lean to the front. Lean forward and slide to the front. Your legs will be bent and your arms will be extended as well.
  • Step 6- Push on the machine with your feet, so you slide to the back. Your arms should still be extended and your body should still be leaning to the front.
  • Step 7- Now, move your back (lean backward like step 4) and pull on the handle so your arms mimic the pulling action of the oar. Your arms should come back to your chest, pulling on the handle. Again, you don’t have to pull on the handle too hard.

Now, you need to repeat these steps. Note that steps 1 to 4 will only get you started. You have to repeat from steps 5 to 7 to continue your workout. Make sure that you follow only the correct method of rowing in order to avoid any injuries. Make sure that you continue practicing at very low resistance for some time. This will help you in gaining more resilience over time and avoiding any kind of injuries as well.

How to Make the Most of Your Rowing Machine Workout?

If you use rowing machines perfectly, you will be able to avoid any injuries. Your machine will include many functions. It has a screen right in the middle of the foot paddle which helps you in monitoring your results with ease.

Here are the numbers you will see on the screen and how to use them properly to your advantage.

  • Strokes per minutes– This is the most important number of your screen. You should not use this speedometer to challenge yourself and improve the number of steps. You should consider your strokes per minute as the number of reps you do. Make sure that you are not moving beyond 30 strokes per minute. You should always try to ensure that you give yourself time to recover after each stroke. You are not entering a competition. Therefore, it will be worthwhile to work on your muscles slowly but surely, instead of going too fast and getting injured.
  • Timer button– The timer button is extremely helpful in deciding whether you are good at rowing or not. Once you have started to use the rowing machine at a steady SPM, you should use the timer button to log in as many meters as possible. Your strokes per minute should not increase. The timer button provides you 30-second intervals to work on your strengths.
  • Split time– Split time can be used for ensuring that you get a great workout without injuring yourself. One split is counted as 500 meters. Ideally, you should be able to do 500 meters for 2 minutes at 26 to 28 SPM. If you are able to achieve this number, try to be consistent for some time. After a couple of consistent sessions, do the same exercise but drop the SPM to 22 or 24.
  • Distance– this button allows you to set goals for covering distances in a set amount of time. Increments come in 50-meters. You should try to use this button to set your goals at 26 SPM. Then, slowly try to increase the number of meters travelled at consistent speed but in lesser time.

Note that rowing is all about trying to maintain a consistent SPM. You may feel tempted to increase this number, thereby increasing your intensity. However, 26 is the ideal SPM number for most healthy individuals. You are not a part of a championship rowing race. You are simply working out in the gym, trying to achieve maximum benefits possible. Restrain is the name of the game.

What to Do When Your Back Hurts Upon Rowing?

rowing-back-painMost people who use a rowing machine for the first time are simply overwhelmed at the amount of work they have to put in to get this exercise right. There has to be commendable co-ordination between your limbs in order to pull off a great rowing session. However, with a little practice, everything should go well.

It is likely that your back hurts when you first start rowing. If such is the case, you must immediately get off the machine. We suggest that you do not indulge in any other exercise for some time and simply go home. If the pain doesn’t subside, you can use hot or cold compresses. If this fails to help, visit a doctor. If it does reduce pain, think about taking a couple of days off the gym. You should not overexert yourself while exercising.

There could be two likely causes of your pain. First, you have the wrong technique. Second, you do not have enough core or leg strength to pull off rowing. We have solutions for both the issues.

If Your Rowing Technique Is Wrong

rowing-techniqueIf there are problems with your rowing technique, you should think about working with a good instructor. It isn’t worthwhile to opt for any exercise, no matter how simple it seems, without able supervision. Talk to your gym instructor and think about focusing on your technique.

If you feel uncomfortable or do not understand it still, you should watch a few videos on YouTube and try to understand the technique fully. Rematch the videos until you fully comprehend what is needed to achieve the right technique.

You should try to do it slowly first. There is no point of hurrying when you first learn to row. Remember, it is an important low-intensity workout and you don’t want to get yourself injured. So, start slow. Once you have understood the technique fully, you will be able to do more strokes per minute, almost as an instinct. With a good instructor by your side, you will learn rowing in just one day.

If Your Core Muscles Are Not Fit

core-muslesIf you are healthy and have no back-pain history, but are still unable to do rowing for long, the problem could be with your core. People who have weaker core and thighs often end up with back pain, even if they have a good technique. If you are a part of this group, you should first do exercises to strengthen this region of your body.

It may look like you need strong upper body and muscular arms to pull this exercise off. However, the reality is quite difference. With a weak core and weaker thighs, you will not be able to row properly and cause back pain. The best thing for you is to do exercises that help build your muscles in this region.

Planks are your best choice in this case. Sit-ups do equally well. You can even do crunches to work on the abdominal region or do light stretching exercises to strengthen your thigh muscles. Follow this routine for a few days and you can start exercising on the rowing machine again.

Common Mistakes People Make With a Rowing Machine

Before beginning a workout on any machine, you should understand how it works, what’s the right way to use it and what are the common mistakes you should avoid while using it. A workout only provides benefits when it is being done correctly. If you are working out on a rowing machine, watch out for these mistakes.

Upper Body Jerk

Most people who use rowing machines commit this mistake. They shoot their butt too far back in the machine and then have to jerk their upper body in order to move as far back. This creates tremendous pressure on their lower back. Moreover, jerking the upper body will cause extra strain on this region and even make you tear a muscle. Your muscles should move in coordination while making these movements. If you ever have to stop in between the stroke, you should not be in an awkward position where your bottom is too far behind on the machine but your hands are pulling on the handle, stretching your arm muscles.

In order to remove this problem, you should be working on your technique. Follow the leg-core-arm method of doing this workout. Your bottom should slide effortlessly to the back of the machine. It should be followed by a slight lean back and then the arms should pull back, with the handle moving right to your chest. Following this plan will help you in avoiding any jerks in movements. Try to glide instead of making it too hard for you to follow. Remember, no jerk.

Stretching the Whole Body at Once

We suggested you not to move your body in awkward steps. However, it is equally important not to move your whole body on the machine at once. This will also put unnecessary pressure on your back and cause pain, even after a little workout. The right way to train on a rowing machine is leg-core-arms. Your legs should move back first, followed by the core and then the arms. When moving inside, the motion should be reversed. Your arms should move in first, followed by the core and then the legs. Though this looks like three different steps, it is actually done very quickly and you glide along the machine.

However, those who stretch their bodies all at once are doing themselves a huge disfavor. Your arms will be feeling the most pressure in this case while your bottom will move along more easily. As your arms stretch more and more with each stroke, the back muscles will also stretch, causing pain. You must perfect your technique and learn the order of the muscle use before doing any exercise. We would like to mention again that 60 percent of the energy used in this workout should come from your legs. Core and arms only contribute 20 percent each. Hence, make sure that you work on your technique.

Forward Jerk

This problem arises with people who are using rowing machines to win an imaginary competition in their mind. In the section above, we talked about maintaining a steady SPM (stroke per minute) count, preferably between 25 to 30. However, some people are more focused on ensuring that they travel a faster distance or do rowing as fast as possible. They are possibly trying to mimic the action of professionals or athletes. This could lead to injury and extreme fatigue as well.

While rowing, you are not just using your muscles for a low-intensity workout but also ensuring that you always get a small recovery time after stretching the muscles. When you move back on the machine, you are stretching the muscles but when you are moving forward, you are giving your body some time to recover. When you try to row too fast, you may end up with an injury to the muscles as your body is not getting enough time to recover.

You can see if you are moving too fast if your SPM count is nearing 30 or goes beyond it. You should never go beyond 30 SPM. For the most comfortable workout, you should be opting for 26 to 28 SPM. If you are doing 29 to 30 SPM, you could be nearing exhaustion. Take it as a warning sign if this happens.

Another red flag while rowing could be sliding off the machine too fast. Many people who are using too much force on the machine or those who are moving too fast will hit the machine’s front. Many people will create a lot of noise and they are moving uncontrollably fast towards the front of the rower.

Ideally, you should try to stretch the muscles whole you are moving back and try to recover while moving in slowly. The ratio between the two is 1:2. This means that you should be taking twice as much time to come back to your starting position, which you did to move at the back of the machine. If you are trying to row too fast, you will likely end up with 1:1 ratio of stretch and recovery time.

This would lead to burn out and injury of your back muscles. So be careful. Try to maintain more restrain over your movement. You have to come back to the original position very slowly. This will help you gain better control over your workout and also avoid injuring yourself.


Rowing machine workouts are great for people who are looking for low intensity cardio exercises. This workout can really help you feel the benefits of a comprehensive upper and lower body workout without having to put too much pressure on the joints. Rowing machines helps you get the benefits of an aerobic workout as well.

However, if you are using this machine wrong, you could end up with an injury. Whenever you are using a machine at the gym, make sure that you ask the trainer how to use it. There are several videos available on video sharing sites like YouTube where you can learn the right way of using these machines at the comfort of your home. Use these resources to your advantage and you will be able to get toned legs and arms and an extremely strengthened core. When done right, rowing machine should not put excessive strain on your back.

Whether you are using rowing machines already or want to get started with this fun way to work out, you will find this post extremely helpful. Let us know your experienced with this machine and how you have been able to benefit from it. If you have any questions, feel free to ask us in the comments.

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Matt Williamson
My name is Matt - fitness freak by choice. I intensively study and write about nutrition and health related topics. After reading and researching intensively on human health, I aspire to proliferate the wisdom that I acquired in a simple way.