Is rowing bad for your back?

Are Rowing Machines Bad For Your Back?

I’m no stranger to back pain. Being over 6-feet-tall, I often find myself in compromised positions to fit places. Add being a father of rambunctious twin boys – well, that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s why I’m always considering how a certain exercise might improve or worsen back pain. So, are rowing machines bad for your back? Or does rowing improve lower back pain?

Rowing machines are a popular choice for those looking for a full-body strength and cardio workout. Due to the repetitive nature, the seated positions, and the constant flexing of the back muscles, it can look kind of painful. Leaving people to be concerned about the impact that rowing can have on their back.

In general, rowing machines are not inherently good or bad for your back. Like other forms of exercise, improper form and technique are usually the culprit and can lead to strain and injury. Done correctly, the rowing machine is actually great for strengthening the core, and lower back muscles to avoid back pain.

Rowing Machines and Back Pain

First, it’s important to understand how a rowing machine works. Rowing machines simulate the motion of rowing a boat, which involves bending forward at the hips and pulling back with the arms and legs. This motion engages the muscles in the back, shoulders, arms, and legs, making it an effective full-body workout.

However, if not used correctly, a rowing machine can put unnecessary strain on your back. Here are some potential risks to keep in mind:

Poor form: If you’re not using proper form when rowing, you may be putting unnecessary strain on your back. For example, if you’re hunching your shoulders or arching your back, you could be putting too much pressure on your spine.

Overuse injuries: Like any exercise, using a rowing machine too much or too frequently can lead to overuse injuries. These injuries can include strains or sprains in the back muscles or ligaments.

Pre-existing back problems: If you already have back problems, using a rowing machine may exacerbate your symptoms. In some cases, it may even cause further damage to your spine.

Is Rowing Bad For Your Back?

So, are rowing machines bad for your back? The answer is, it depends. If used correctly, a rowing machine can be an excellent way to strengthen your back muscles and improve your overall fitness. However, if used incorrectly or if you have pre-existing back problems, it can be detrimental to your back health.

How to Avoid Back Pain from Rowing

Prevention is the best approach to back pain in rowers, and rowing machine sessions should be treated with respect and not used excessively. While most episodes of low back pain will resolve on their own, it is important to seek medical attention in cases of significant leg pain or other complications.

Here are some tips for using a rowing machine safely and effectively:

Use proper form: When rowing, keep your shoulders relaxed and your back straight. Don’t hunch your shoulders or arch your back.

Start slowly: If you’re new to using a rowing machine, start slowly and gradually increase the intensity of your workout over time. This will help you avoid overuse injuries.

Listen to your body: If you experience any pain or discomfort while using a rowing machine, stop immediately. Don’t push through the pain.

Stretch before and after your workout: To prevent muscle strains and sprains, make sure to stretch your back muscles before and after your workout.

Consult with a professional: If you have pre-existing back problems, consult with a healthcare professional or a personal trainer before using a rowing machine. They can help you determine whether it’s safe for you to use this equipment and provide guidance on how to use it safely.

What the science says about rowing and lower back pain?

There are many studies to suggest rowing both improves and causes lower back pain

Back pain is a common problem among rowers, with 30-50% of rowers experiencing an episode of low back pain in a 12-month period. While low back pain is also prevalent in the general population, it is more common in rowers despite the absence of common risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and inactivity. Studies have identified factors that increase the risk of back pain in rowers, including longer sessions on the indoor rowing machine, higher training volumes, and years of rowing experience.

Undoubtedly, Rowing works the muscles in the back, which can help to strengthen and stretch them. The repetitive motion of rowing targets the lats, rhomboids, and the lower back. Strengthening these muscles improves posture and decreases the risk of back pain. The core strength provided from rowing can help to stabilize the spine and improve posture, reducing the stress on the muscles and joints in the area and decreasing the risk of back pain.

The general advice, is to perform rowing in moderations, with plenty of rest and cross training.

Choosing the right rowing machine

When looking for a rowing machine, it is important to consider the seat height and the footrests. The seat should be adjusted so that your knees are slightly bent at the bottom of the rowing motion, and the footrests should be adjusted so that your knees are not too high. This will help to reduce strain on your lower back while you row.  

See also: Best Rowing Machines Under $500 

It is also important to focus on using proper rowing technique. Keep your back straight and engage your core muscles as you row. Avoid jerking or pulling with your arms, and instead use a smooth, fluid motion. Keep your shoulders relaxed, and avoid hunching forward.

Here’s a great video demonstrating rowing form

Add a few minutes of light cardio or dynamic stretching as a warmup and a cool down to help recover.

Sample Warmup

  1. Start with a 5-minute jog or brisk walk to get your heart rate up and blood flowing.
  2. Next, do some dynamic stretching exercises, such as leg swings, arm circles, and trunk twists to loosen up your joints and muscles.
  3. Then, spend a few minutes rowing at a low intensity to gradually increase your heart rate and prepare your muscles for the workout ahead.
  4. Finally, do a few short, high-intensity bursts of rowing to get your body ready for more intense efforts.

It’s worth noting that there are different types of rowing machines available in the market, some of them may have different designs that can be better for your back.

Rowing machines with a sliding seat and a fixed handle are good choices for people who have back issues because it allows for a more upright posture and reduces the amount of flexion in the lower back.


Rowing machines are not bad for your lower back, but improper form and technique during rowing can lead to strain and injury. To avoid this, it is important to choose a rowing machine that is the right size and fit for you, and to use proper form and technique when rowing. If you have a pre-existing back condition, it’s best to consult your doctor before starting to use a rowing machine.