Are Rowing Machines Bad For Your Back?

Rowing machines have become a popular choice for fitness enthusiasts looking to get a full-body workout. With their ability to engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, they promise increased stamina, improved cardiovascular health, and lean muscle development. However, a question that often arises is – are rowing machines bad for your back? While the debate continues amongst fitness experts, this article aims to delve into the intricacies of this question and provide a comprehensive understanding of the impact of rowing machines on your back. We’ll explore the potential risks and benefits, and offer guidance on how to use these machines safely and effectively to avoid any undue strain or injury.

What is a rowing machine and how do they work?

rowing machines
Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

A rowing machine, also known as an indoor rower, ergometer (or more simply an erg), is a piece of exercise equipment designed to simulate the action of watercraft rowing. It’s a comprehensive tool that aims to replicate the physical demands of rowing a boat, providing a robust workout without the need for actual water or a boat. The machine works by creating resistance against your movements, thereby engaging multiple muscle groups across your body, including your arms, legs, and core.

The operation of a rowing machine is an intricate process that involves four distinct phases. Mastering these phases can ensure maximum effectiveness and safety during your workouts. Here are the four phases of the rowing movement:

  1. The Catch: This is the beginning of the stroke where you are positioned at the front of the machine. Your knees are bent and close to the chest, your arms are straight and reaching forward to grasp the handle, and your body is slightly leaning forward. It’s called the catch because it’s as if you’re catching the water with your oars in actual rowing.
  2.  The Drive: The drive is the actual work phase of the stroke where power is generated. It begins with pushing off the footrests using your legs, then swinging your back into a more vertical position as your legs extend. Lastly, you pull the handle towards your lower chest by bending your elbows and drawing your hands back.
  3. The Finish: Also known as the release, this is the end of the drive phase. Your legs are fully extended, your shoulders are slightly behind your pelvis, and your elbows are bent with the handle held lightly at your lower ribs. This phase signifies the completion of one full stroke.
  4. The Recovery: This is essentially the rest phase where you return to the catch position. It should be a mirror image of the drive but performed in a controlled and relaxed manner. Extend your arms out first, then pivot from the hips to lean your body forward, and finally bend your knees to glide up to the catch position.

Each of these phases plays a crucial role in the overall movement, and understanding them can significantly improve your rowing technique, efficiency, and the fitness benefits you reap from the rowing machine.

Exploring the risks of using a rowing machine

The use of rowing machines has been linked to various risks and injuries, with a significant concern revolving around their impact on the back. Despite being an excellent tool for full-body workouts, rowing machines can potentially lead to injuries if not used correctly. The repetitive rowing motion, especially when performed with improper form, can strain the lower back and cause lumbar spine injury. Pain radiating from the buttocks, pulled or sprained muscles in the arms and lower back are common issues reported by users.

However, it’s important to note that rowing machines aren’t inherently bad for your back. Most back-related problems arise from incorrect usage or overcompensation with certain muscle groups due to poor posture. In fact, when used correctly, rowing can strengthen the back muscles and improve postural stability. Therefore, learning the proper technique, maintaining good posture, and avoiding overuse is crucial to minimize these risks. Regularly alternating rowing with other forms of exercise can also help prevent overuse injuries. As always, it’s advisable to consult with a fitness professional or physiotherapist if you have pre-existing back conditions before starting a rowing regimen.

Assess the benefits of using a rowing machine

rowing machines
Photo by Andres Ayrton on Pexels

While there are potential risks associated with using a rowing machine, especially when it comes to back health, the benefits of this exercise equipment can be substantial when used correctly. In fact, rowing machines can provide a significant boost to your overall health and fitness, including strengthening your back muscles and improving your posture. Rowing machines offer a full-body workout, engaging all major muscle groups, including the legs, arms, back, and core. This comprehensive engagement helps to increase body strength and endurance. Furthermore, the rowing motion can significantly benefit your back by strengthening the muscles that support the spine, which in turn can help prevent back pain and injuries.

In addition, rowing is a low-impact sport, reducing the risk of damage to weight-bearing joints such as hips, ankles, and knees. This makes it a suitable option for those who may have issues with these joints but still want a rigorous workout. The postural benefits of rowing can also help counteract the negative effects of sitting at a desk all day, a common cause of back issues.

However, it’s crucial to learn and maintain proper form while rowing to reap these benefits and avoid any potential harm to your back. Incorrect form or posture can lead to unnecessary strain on the back and other parts of the body. Therefore, beginners should consider seeking guidance from a fitness professional to ensure they’re using the rowing machine correctly.

How to use a rowing machine safely

Rowing machines can be a fantastic tool for overall fitness, but improper use can lead to back issues. If you want to reap the benefits of a rowing machine without risking your back health, it’s crucial to understand how to use it safely. Start by positioning yourself correctly on the machine. Your feet should be firmly strapped into the footrests with the strap positioned over the balls of your feet. When you grab the handle, hold it loosely but securely with straight wrists. Your back should be straight and your core engaged throughout the workout.

The rowing motion consists of four phases: the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. It’s critical to maintain proper form throughout these phases. Keep your arms straight until the handle passes your knees before you bend your arms during the drive phase. Letting your body pull forward too quickly or hunching your back can strain it. Remember, the power in rowing comes from your legs and core, not just your arms and back.

Finally, incorporating a warm-up before you start can prepare your muscles and joints for the workout, reducing the risk of injury. Similarly, cooling down afterwards allows your body to gradually return to its resting state. And as with any form of exercise, if you feel pain, particularly in your back, stop and seek professional advice.

The importance of rest periods between workouts

Rest periods between workouts are an integral part of any fitness routine, and their importance should not be underestimated. These periods allow your body to recover from the strain of workouts, repair muscle tissue, and strengthen itself. The process of working out essentially involves breaking down muscle fibres, and it’s during rest that these fibres rebuild themselves, becoming stronger in the process. Without adequate rest, your muscles don’t get the necessary time to repair and grow, which can lead to overuse injuries, decreased performance, and fatigue.

Furthermore, rest periods also contribute to maintaining a healthy balance in your body’s physiological systems. Exercise stimulates the body’s nervous and hormonal systems, and rest allows these systems to return to their normal state. This is particularly crucial for maintaining immune function and managing stress levels. Overtraining without sufficient rest can compromise your immune system and increase cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which may lead to negative health effects. Therefore, integrating rest days into your workout regimen is as important as the workouts for optimal health and performance.

Summing up, rowing machines can indeed be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they offer a comprehensive, full-body workout that can strengthen your back muscles, improve posture, and boost overall fitness levels. On the other hand, incorrect usage can lead to back problems and other injuries. However, the key lies in understanding how to use these machines properly and safely, maintaining good form, and ensuring adequate rest between workouts.

So, while the question “Are Rowing Machines Bad For Your Back?” doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer, it’s safe to say that with the right approach, rowing machines can be a beneficial addition to your fitness regimen without jeopardizing your back health. As always, if you have any pre-existing conditions or concerns, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare or fitness professional before starting a new exercise program.


Q: Can using a rowing machine cause back pain?

A: Yes, using a rowing machine can potentially cause back pain if not used correctly. Incorrect form or posture during the rowing motion can lead to unnecessary strain on your back. However, when used properly, rowing machines can actually strengthen your back muscles and improve posture.

Q: Are rowing machines good for overall fitness?

A: Absolutely. Rowing machines provide a full-body workout, engaging all major muscle groups including the legs, arms, back, and core. They can help increase body strength and endurance and also offer cardiovascular benefits.

Q: How often should I rest between workouts on a rowing machine?

A: The frequency of rest days depends on your individual fitness level and goals. However, as a general rule, it’s important to allow your body adequate time to recover between workouts. This could mean taking a day off after a particularly strenuous session or alternating between high-intensity and low-intensity workouts. Always listen to your body and consult with a fitness professional to create a balanced workout regimen.