Proper Stroke: Avoid Rowing Injuries


Aerobic conditioning is a major key for longevity and in maintaining a healthy body. A great exercise for this, with high muscle group involvement, is rowing. In fact, rowing has a reputation of being one of the most rigorous and intensive activities, allowing one to burn 250 calories in just 6 minutes. Although low impact, rowing’s repetitive motion exerts stress on forearms, elbows and the low back which can cause injury, so proper form is absolutely necessary.

Rowing offers a wide array of physical benefits including muscular development of the extremities, arms and legs, and back. Additionally, rowing provides significant cardiovascular improvements. Higher bone density, in the bones of the spine, have been attributed to longtime rowers. These muscular, cardiovascular and bone density increases last well into old age as long as activity is maintained at a consistent rate throughout one’s life span.

Technique is fundamental and extremely important in rowing, even when using an indoor rowing ergometer. Incorrect form leads to injury and pain in key joints and muscle groups like hands, wrists, elbows, hamstrings, knees and the lower back.

Proper rowing technique requires that power is generated from the hamstrings and glutes muscles. If form is executed correctly, the back and upper body provide only 25% of the power during the stroke motion and should be loose and relaxed during all other phases of motion. Regardless of the environment, whether on water or a fixed indoor machine, basic rowing motion involves 3 phases of action; the catch or push-off, the drive and the finish.

The catch is the leadoff motion where legs are bent into a crouched position and the upper body is flexed about 15 degrees forward at the waist, with the arms extended. Phase 2, the drive, begins with a sharp push-off motion from the foot pads, from which the feet are placed, while the arms remain extended and the back remains straight, until the legs flatten or straighten out. Finally, the finish, where the legs extend and the back extends just slightly or about 15 degrees backward. The arms are brought in toward the torso, midway between the abdomen and the pectoral muscles.

It’s not uncommon to find seniors, both men and women, well into their upper 80’s, still rowing and even competing at a recreational level, as rowing has long been considered a lifetime sport. Male rowers, in fact, experience little to no decline in performance with age. A 65 year old man can perform at 85% capacity of his younger self. And because rowing is geared towards improving one’s strength and conditioning, it provides numerous health benefits, both physical and mental, that allows users sustained participation through old age.

Poor mechanics, overuse and overload make up the majority of rowing related injuries. Even though rowing is considered a low-impact sport overtime it produces significant wear and tear on the tissue, ligaments, joints and muscles of the body.

In 2014, injury data collected from 500 rowers concluded that 75% reported overuse injuries. In fact, 1 in 1000 men and 3 in 1000 women suffered from injury. Acute training related injuries of the wrist, knee and low back accounted for 30% of all rowers polled, while 41% of traumatic or acute injuries during competition were to the low back. Risk factors included inexperience, overloading and overtraining or exceeding more than once training session per day.

The most common injuries to rowers, competitive and recreational, include hamstring strain and tendinitis. This can be caused by an imbalance between the quadriceps and hamstrings. Rowers have highly developed quads and anterior hip and thigh pain is generally a result from an unbalanced anatomy configuration and or training and technique. Hip flexor tendonitis, also referred to as snapping hip comes from inadequate flexibility of the anterior hip musculature. Hand blisters are another major problem for rowers, caused by holding on too tightly to the oar handle or grip.

Inflammation of the wrist tendons or crossover tendonitis, also referred to as tenosynovitis, is caused by a tight grip or repetitive feathering. Treatment includes rest and cold therapy. Anti-inflammatory medication or an all natural topical analgesic will reduce pain and inflammation as well as a proper physical therapy regimen.

Lower back injury is generally a sign of poor technique. The back is engaged too heavily during the stroke which leads to injury.

If and when the arms become locked or hyperextended it can causes an elbow injury. Elbow injuries can be easily prevented with proper form, which includes maintaining a slight bend in the elbow at the catch and then bring the arms in toward the chest at end of the stroke. Should an elbow injury develop, proper treatment includes; strengthening the forearm muscles, using a lighter grip on the oar handles, cold therapy after each exercise session, a topical analgesic and proper bracing during activity.

Stress fractures of the rib cage are also a common occurrence during long periods of high-intensity training. These stress fractures are commonly misdiagnosed and can progress into sharp pain, exacerbated by coughing, sneezing and deep breathing. If a stress fracture is detected modify activity immediately and rest until there is little to no pain. Cross training is permitted to maintain basic aerobic fitness, but avoid high-impact activities and loading.

It’s important to understand and assess rowing injuries and their patterns. Compare and correlate them with daily training to avoid early onset and longterm chronic problems. Younger athletes may be more prone to certain injuries during times of rapid growth so differentiating between pain associated with training and pain associated with injury in important as longevity in sport and life is the ultimate goal.