Last updated on March 7th, 2023 at 12:54 pm
Rowing is a fantastic exercise that provides a full–body workout.
However, many users who regularly use the rowing machine complain of mid-pack pain.
So, allow me to reveal why this occurs and how you can fix it.
Mid-back pain from the rowing machine typically comes down to you using your spine rather than your hips. When you come back in towards the catch you should hinge at the hips, as opposed to leaning forward from your torso. This could also be a sign of weak pull-based muscles, especially your rhomboids. Furthermore, mid-back pain can be exaggerated if you have poor posture, especially if your shoulders are slouched forward when you row.
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You’re Using Your Spine Not Your Hips
The main reason you’re experiencing mid-back pain from the rowing machine is that you’re moving your spine, as opposed to your hips.
In truth, most people pull far too much with their arms and backs when it comes to rowing.
Realistically, only 20% of rowing should be powered by your arms and back.
The main power output, of approximately 60%, is generated through the push of your legs.
And the remaining 20% power output is achieved through bracing your core.
However, I would hazard a guess that many rowers are achieving the vast majority of their power output through pulling with the arms.
What generally happens here is that your arms will fatigue fairly quickly.
So, in order to continue rowing you’ll typically use your back and spine when coming in and pushing back out.
In reality, you should actually be performing a type of hip-hinge as you come back into the catch.
Yes, this is the same type of hip-hinge that is more commonly associated with deadlifts and kettlebell swings.
However, using the same movement pattern as you come into towards the catch when you row will definitely protect your mid-back, upper back, and lower back.
Plus, when you hinge forward at the hips as you come forward, you are more likely to use your legs as the primary power output as you push back out again.
That being said, you’ll need to be wary of exactly what your legs are doing, as powering through your legs when you row can lead to overextension of the knees.
You Have Weak Scapula Stabiliser Muscles
Another reason that you have mid-back pain from the rowing machine is due to weak scapula stabiliser muscles.
In layman’s terms, the muscles that are connected to your shoulder blades are weak.
This means the trapezius, rhomboids, levator scapulae, and serratus anterior.
The pain that you’re feeling is likely located in the rhomboids.
In fact, this type of mid-back pain can be fairly common when performing a wide variety of pulling or pushing exercises.
Unfortunately, far too many of us in the modern day and age tend to have weak pulling muscles in comparison to our pushing muscles.
So, you’ll often get “found out” when you perform any type of pull-based exercises.
Therefore, the repetitive nature of the rowing machine can often lead to mid-back pain if you have a weakness in this area.
There are various exercises you can perform to work these muscles.
Plus, in truth, you don’t have to even lift heavy weights to strengthen this area of your body.
In fact, some of my favourite exercises for working these muscles require nothing more than a cable machine and a resistance band.
Personally, I like to perform cable machine face pulls and band pull aparts on a very regular basis.
And I do this whether I’m rowing, performing a pull-based workout, or just about any other form of training.
So, you don’t need to simply stick to doing these exercises when you row, but rather make them a regular part of your weekly routine.
Not only will exercises like face pulls and band pull aparts help to strengthen the scapula stabiliser muscles, but they’ll actually help with many other exercises.
In fact, believe it or not, this is one of the best ways to warm up for the bench press.
You’ll be able to stretch all the way through your lats and properly retract your shoulder blades when you bench.
So, you may even notice that you’re lifting more weight.
When it comes to the rowing machine, once more, you have opened up and stretched all these muscles, thus allowing you to row pain-free.
I would also suggest that you regularly foam roll this entire area of your body.
You’ll often find that the muscle fibres around the trapezius and rhomboids can get tangled or trapped.
This of course can be extremely painful.
You Have Poor Posture
I’ve already spoken about many of us potentially favouring push-based exercises over pull-based ones.
And unfortunately, if your training is uneven, this can lead to muscle imbalances and even poor posture.
In fact, you may even have noticed this yourself, especially if you find that your shoulders are rolled forward and you seem to slouch at the neck and shoulder.
That being said, poor posture has almost reached epidemic proportions in the modern day and age.
And this is true whether you regularly exercise or not.
If you consider the use of smartphones, our computer habits, and driving, it’s easy to see why this has happened.
Basically, we spend far too many hours a day either sitting down or simply looking down (text neck anyone?)
So, you may automatically have this unwanted slouch forward in your shoulders and upper back.
Now, one of the main cues for rowing is to maintain a straight back and ensure that your upper back remains upright throughout.
As soon as you start to round the upper back you are placing repetitive flexion and extension on the upper back.
And this usually means that you’re placing far too much emphasis on a small muscle group, such as the rhomboids.
Regardless of whether you have poor posture in everyday life or not, you must maintain proper posture while using the rowing machine.
I’ll be honest and say that this is actually quite exhausting, so it does form an important part of your rowing workout.
Once more, performing lots of scapula work and pull-based exercises can help to fix your posture issues.
So, as you can see, there are various reasons why you get mid-back pain from the rowing machine.
That being said, the most obvious of these is that you’re using your spine rather than your hips when you row.
When you come in towards the catch you should hinge at the hips, as opposed to bending forward at the torso.
This will ensure that the main power output when you row comes from your legs, and not from your arms and back.
It is also likely that you have weak scapula stabiliser muscles, especially the rhomboids.
In fact, the mid-back pain you’re feeling is likely to stem from your rhomboids.
Plus, this can actually be made worse if you have poor posture.
Next, you may also be interested to discover why your shins hurt whenever you use the rowing machine.
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.