I’ve had a number of athletes tell me that when they row, their low back starts to hurt. Watching them for a few seconds on the rower, I can usually point out the source of their problem. There are a number of technique flaws that can play out in the low back. These include: poor posture, over-reaching, seat and handle inconsistencies, and damper setting. Unfortunately, an athlete is often unaware of their flaws and that is why it is so helpful to have a trained eye guiding proper technique. Think of how many strokes you do during a rowing piece. If done improperly each time, that is possibly hundreds of bad strokes being reinforced. Videotape yourself in slow motion and see if you are committing any of these errors that might give you a back ache. Better yet, find a certified rowing coach to teach you the basics and get that technique dialed in.
Posture – The Turtle Back
When you sit on the rower, how do you position yourself on the seat? Do you slouch with your tailbone curving under you like the picture above? If that is the case, you will NEVER get a good position at the catch because your back is in a chronic state of flexion. It’s like you have a permanent “butt wink” throughout the rowing stroke. Never heard of butt wink? That’s the softness someone gets at the bottom of a squat when the lumbar spine starts to curve and you lose extension. Would you deadlift with this back position? Never. Next time try this. Sit on the rower like your grandma is telling you to sit up straight. That means tailbone points back, not under you and you are sitting on your sit bones. Scoot toward the back of the seat. Sit up tall and lean in as if you were lowering a deadlift. That’s the posture I’m talking about. This is a much stronger position and will allow you to be more powerful with your legs and hips on the drive. If flexibility is your issue, check your foot stretchers and possibly lower them down to give you a little more room at the catch, so you don’t feel like you have to reach. Remember “tailbone back, sit tall, back flat”.
Over reaching at the catch – The “OverReachiever”
When you come into the catch, your body should be positioned in a forward leaning angle, like about 1:00 on a clock. Once you set that back angle by about 1/2 slide on the recovery, leave it there. Don’t try to go for extra length at the catch by reaching further in and compromising your back position. It won’t help you. You need strong spinal erectors to help brace and stabilize your core so you can have that powerful leg drive at the catch. If you are over reaching past 1:00, your posture is now out of alignment, and your back is in flexion. Lots of no-no’s. In the picture above, you can see where this guy might be getting a backache. I’d tell him to lower his foot stretchers and roll in a little closer until his shins are vertical. That might help this OverReachiever.
Seat moving on the drive while the handle stays still – The Stripper
Sometimes, in one’s mission for a strong, aggressive drive, an athlete will “shoot the tail” which means the legs and seat begin to push back while the handle stays out front. Once again, this can be hard on the lower back. The handle and seat always move together in sync to get the most power out of the stroke. Create a feeling of “suspension” off the handle as you drive the feet into the foot stretchers. I always say, “Push and pull with the same force”. Doing the stripper is like lifting your hips up first in a deadlift and then pulling the bar off the ground. Reeks of inefficiency.
Too high of a damper – The Damper Devil
If you come into the gym and automatically push that damper up to 10, then you are asking for a back ache. So many people think that rowing at a damper 10 will give them a better workout. Couple that with some of the technique flaws mentioned above and you’re really looking for trouble. The damper setting gives you the feel of a “heavier boat” at damper 10 and a “lighter boat” at damper 1-2. A higher damper setting basically opens up the flywheel, allowing more air into the housing. The more air, the more work it takes to spin the flywheel against the air. More air also slows the flywheel down faster on the recovery, requiring more work to get it going again on the next stroke. The excessive biomechanical load that comes with rowing at a 10 can lead to injury because of the greater stress on the muscles and supporting tissues. Try working between 3-5 while you improve your technique and power application. Then work at different dampers to see which one feels best to you – and your back! For more info on damper settings and finding one that works for you, check out this article from UCanRow2 and this one from Tabata Times.