It has to be the most commonly-asked question about rowing, “Why Are My Knees Sore After Rowing Machine?”
I’m sure you’re aware of just how fantastic a workout you can get from the rowing machine.
In fact, if you’re looking to lose weight, burn body fat, or simply to improve your overall conditioning, then the rowing machine is a must.
However, this doesn’t mean that rowing doesn’t come without its potential issues.
And one such problem that many people experience is sore knees.
So, allow me to explain why your knees hurt when you row and what you can do to fix this.
Knees Sore After Rowing Machine
There are various reasons your knees could be sore after using the rowing machine. However, this typically comes down to either overcompressing or overextending the knee joint. When you come back in towards the catch you should ensure that your shins don’t go beyond vertical, as this will overcompress the knees. Additionally, when you push back out you should ensure that you only lean back as far as your abs allow you. If you go back too far you’ll overextend both your knees and lower back.
1. Your Shins Are Vertical at the Catch
One of the major reasons why your knees are sore after using the rowing machine is the position of your shins.
Basically, you must ensure that your shins do not go beyond vertical at the catch.
There is a tendency when you come back in towards the catch to get as far forward as possible.
This will typically involve your shins angling forward and your knees excessively extending forward.
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This is actually quite similar to a technique you’re generally told to avoid whenever you squat.
By this I mean that you should avoid letting the knees pass your toes whenever you squat.
This could be absolutely fine for some people, but for many it can lead to knee issues.
The exact same can be said for when you use the rowing machine.
In truth, you shouldn’t allow your shins to go beyond vertical when you row, so it could be a case that you’re reaching too far forward.
Remember, that coming back in on the rower is generally viewed as your “rest” and all the effort is put in when you push back out.
2. You’re Overextending the Knees at the End of Each Stroke
Something that will clearly cause sore knees is overextending at the knee.
This is especially true if you are doing this over-and-over again, as you might do on the rowing machine.
The first push on the rowing machine is always through your feet, thus allowing you to use your leg power to complete the stroke.
However, you need to be wary of how far you go back during the stroke.
So, there is a chance of sore knees if you come too far in (allowing the shins to go beyond vertical), and the same can be said if you push too far back.
What I’ve often seen is people overextending their knees throughout the stroke, and then leaning back so much that their lower back also ends up overextended.
Firstly, you’ll always want to keep some slack in your knees.
Once more, this is much the same as whenever you perform any weighted exercise, you should always keep a slight bend in the knees.
The same principle applies to the rowing machine.
Secondly, allowing your lower back to curve places pressure on your spine, so it may not be just your knees you’re worrying about soon.
Furthermore, you should only ever lean back on the rowing machine as far as your abs are able to hold this position.
Once you go too far your lower back takes over and it’s likely that you’ll end up fully extending your knees.
In effect, you are jarring your knees at the top with every single stroke.
3. Are You Experiencing Patellofemoral Pain?
There are a couple of potential injuries/syndromes that could be the route of your sore knees on the rowing machine.
Firstly, there is patellofemoral pain syndrome.
This is typically a pain just behind the kneecap or even around the kneecap.
Additionally, patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) may also cause your knee to click whenever you row.
This is actually a tendon injury which is quite common among cyclists and runners.
However, quite clearly, it is something that can occur to you if you row fairly regularly.
You’re also likely to notice PFPS during most training activities, especially those that involve using your legs and extending at the knees, e.g. squats.
What’s happening here is the patella tendon, which is connected to your femur (thigh-bone), isn’t running smoothly, thus causing you sore knees.
PFPS can be a common occurrence if you consistently over compress your legs at the starting position/catch.
In other words, if you’re allowing your shins to go beyond vertical.
A good rowing motto to remember is “knees over ankles”.
In other words, never let your knees go past your ankles when you’re coming back into the catch.
In order to treat PFPS you need to stretch and strengthen the muscles around the knee.
Believe it or not, squatting can actually be a great cure, and will definitely improve your rowing.
Additionally, for any pain I would recommend anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, as well as plenty of rest.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome – Evaluation & Treatment
4. Are You Experiencing IT Band Friction Syndrome?
Another potential knee injury to consider is iliotibial band (IT Band) friction syndrome.
This is actually exactly as it sounds.
The IT band will glide over the outside of your knee whenever it bends.
As the name suggests, there is friction being caused between the IT band and your knee.
And this is especially true when you perform repetitive exercises that involve bending at the knees, e.g. rowing.
This will usually cause pain and inflammation on the outside of the knee.
However, the pain has also been known to extend to the hips as well.
So, if you’re feeling soreness on the outside of the knee, as opposed to behind or to the side, it’s due to friction with the IT band.
You can treat IT band friction syndrome by regularly stretching your IT band.
As for pain and inflammation, you can use ice packs, tape your knees, and obviously rest the affected area.
I will also say that IT band friction syndrome can often be a sign of weak gluteal muscles.
So, it could be a case of focusing more on strengthening your glutes.
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So, as you can see, there are a few reasons why your knees are sore after using the rowing machine.
However, in the main, this comes down to either overcompressing or overextending the knee joint.
Basically, when you come back in towards the catch you don’t want to overcompress your knees, so ensure that your shins don’t go beyond vertical.
Additionally, on the way back you should always keep a slight bend in the knees.
But, if you end up leaning back further than your abs can hold your torso, you’ll typically overextend your lower back, as well as your knees.
Therefore, this is literally a double-chance of pain, discomfort, or injury.
Through repetitive use and poor form you may eventually end up with patellofemoral pain syndrome or IT band friction syndrome.
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Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.