Are Rowing Machines Bad For Your Back? (Pros & Cons)

Rowing machines provide a great low-impact, full-body workout that you can use to shred body fat or build muscle mass. As with many full-body exercises, rowing involves the spine, causing some people to wonder: are rowing machines bad for your back? 

It depends on your current fitness, injury history, and your form on the machine. It’s unusual but not impossible for rowing exercises to cause discomfort but are rowing machines bad/good for your back overall? 

Find out the answer to is rowing machine good for you back and everything else you need to know about how you can reduce the risk of low back pain during rowing in this guide. 

Back pain has many causes, but here are some of the most common ones: 

  • Bad Posture  
    Hunching or curving your spine for long periods puts strain on your back and cuts off its blood supply, both of which can lead to acute or chronic pain. Regular muscle strain is often the result of poor sitting posture. 
  • No Supporting Muscles 
    If you don’t exercise the muscles that support your spine like the core and erector spinae or muscles like the latissimus dorsi that prevent weight from transferring onto the spine directly, then your back will be at a higher risk of painful injury whether you’re working out or not. 
  • Muscle Strains Or Sprains  
    The muscles in the lumbar section of your spine can be torn or stretched just like any other muscle can. A strained muscle in the right place can cause significant and lasting back pain. Similarly, sprains in the connective ligaments in your spine can also be painful. Both sprains and strains can be caused suddenly or gradually over time. 
  • Other Conditions   
    Outside health issues like obesity and arthritis can make back pain more likely. Many people don’t realize it, but even stress can negatively impact your back health. 
man using a rowing machines with proper form

Can You Use A Rowing Machine If You Have A Bad Back?

Not only can you use a rowing machine with a bad back, but in some cases, it might even be able to help alleviate some of the pain. It really just depends on the reason why you’re experiencing back pain in the first place.  

Specifically, if you have back pain from rowing or using a rowing machine, you should not use a rowing machine to try and improve the pain. A history of lumbar spine injury and exercise intensity make back pain more likely during machine rowing exercises.  

The good news is that back pain from bad posture, a sedentary lifestyle, and possibly even small sprains and strains can be helped by rowing exercises. Of course, it's always best to check with a doctor before starting a fitness routine, especially if you're already experiencing some kind of pain, but rowing could fit right into your recovery plan. 

You should only try to use rowing machines when you have a bad back if you know how to use one properly. You should be able to maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise to prevent your spine from bearing the load. If you’re having trouble, find a personal trainer.  


Do Rowing Machines Help Prevent Back Pain? 

Rowing is one of the best compound exercises because it activates muscles and builds joint strength all over the body. By some estimates, 85% of your body’s musculature is used when you row. That exact number has been called into question, but rest assured, tons of muscles are involved. 

That includes the muscles that support your spine. The first part of a row (the ‘catch’) involves your lower body, which means your glutes, quads, and hamstrings get stronger. Your glutes in particular help support your lower back and upper body and facilitate energy transfer across the waist. 

Your lats and shoulders also get a workout. They’re the ones that will prevent pressure on the arms from landing squarely on the spine. If you want these muscles to be targeted most effectively, though, you have to make sure you’re rowing with the proper form. 

Namely, you have to make sure you keep a neutral spine and lean forward in the early stages. Then, when you reach the end of the move and you’re back at the end of the machine, don’t lean back - the spine should still be neutral even when it’s at the 1 o’clock position. 

man using a concept 2 rowing machine

Causes Of Back Pain While Rowing (How To Fix It)

Lower back pain is by far the most common following a rowing routine. That’s because most people sit back in the seat and let the pressure from the handles pull their shoulders and head forward so that their back is hunched and the lower back takes the brunt of the weight.  

If this happens, you can expect generalized pain throughout your lower back. But remember that pain is not normally caused by rowing. Your back should not hurt during or after rowing. If it does, one of the following errors is most likely the cause: 

Overtraining 

Even if you're a professional rower and have been building strength in your back muscles for years, you can exhaust them with too much exercise. Listen to your body, and it will tell you when you're training too much or too often.  

If you don’t rest enough, hypertrophy won't kick in, and your muscles will wind up exhausted and more than likely injured. 

Many beginner rowers try working out with more than they can actually handle in the pursuit of mega gains. This is especially a problem with exercises like rowing, where the lower body does most of the work for part of the movement. You don't have to row every day. Instead, restrict yourself to a few days a week and see if your body can handle more. 

Improper Rowing Form 

Research shows that rowers without a history of low back pain have “neutral or anterior pelvic rotation at the catch, greater hip range of motion, [and] flatter lower back spinal position at the finish” alongside less activity in their flexor muscles.  

What does all that mean, exactly? The catch is the first stage of rowing - your shoulders should be over your hips and your torso leaning forward at the 11 o’clock position. It’s before you push off with your legs. At this stage, your pelvis should be neutral, meaning neither leaned forward nor backward.  

The hip joint and surrounding muscles should be flexible and powerful enough to power the rowing motion without relying on your lower back at all. Consider including hip flexor exercises in your routine if you aren’t already.  

Finally, avoid curving your lower back. This should be easier to do if you keep your pelvis neutral.  

Improper Posture On The Rowing Machine 

Your back should not curve at all during the rowing exercise. Many people let it curve unconsciously because the machine puts pressure on your body and makes it want to bend forward to compensate.  

A neutral pelvis will help you keep your back straight; just make sure your spine is also neutral. Locking out your back will only make injury more likely in the long run. Also, make sure you aren’t resting back on your glutes in the seat. Some trainers even advise you to pull your glutes back to get into the right position. 

Leaning Back 

This is primarily a problem at the back of the move. When you get the seat as far back as it goes, you’ll naturally want to continue the motion by moving your torso backward.  

To some extent, your torso will move. But the limit to this movement is 1 o’clock - meaning you’re moving from 11 o’clock at the beginning of the exercise to 1 at the end. Sitting straight up would be high noon, so your torso isn’t moving a great deal. 

Incorrect Rowing Machine Setting 

We all want to build up tons of muscle and functional strength, and that makes us overdo it from time to time. With rowing, that usually means you're putting the resistance setting up too high.  

The flywheel doesn’t have to be at its highest resistance setting for you to get a great workout. Rowing for longer at a lower resistance setting could be more beneficial for your muscle stamina and general strength.  

man doing exercise on rowing machine

People Also Ask (FAQs)

Are rowing machines good for spinal stenosis? 

Rowing is a low-impact exercise, which means it shouldn’t put any pressure on your joints or spine. That makes it a great exercise for people suffering from osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis as long as the act of rowing doesn’t cause them any pain. 

How long should I exercise on a rowing machine to prevent back pain? 

In a regular routine, you'd aim for half an hour at a time, at least a few days a week. If you can handle that schedule with your back pain, that’s how long you should work out on the rowing machine. 

What is the best exercise machine for bad lower back problems? 

The jury is out on this one. The best exercise for back pain changes with the individual. For some, it’s the recumbent exercise bike, while others prefer the rowing machine. 


Conclusion

Rowing machines are a great exercise for many people suffering from back pain problems. As long as you can do them with the proper form, you should be able to build strength in your back and hopefully reduce back pain in the long run.