Last updated on October 23rd, 2022 at 03:13 pm
Allow me to answer the question, “Why Do My Shins Hurt on the Rowing Machine?”
I know I’m not the only one who suffers with shin pain whenever I use the rowing machine.
And as it turns out, this is mainly due to what you’re doing with your feet.
That being said, there are a number of “feet errors” that can cause shin pain.
So, I’d like to cover each of these technique flaws individually.
Why Do My Shins Hurt on the Rowing Machine?
The main reason your shins hurt on the rowing machine is because your feet are going through dorsiflexion. In other words you are raising the feet, especially the toes, towards the shins. This generally occurs if you are pulling yourself back to the starting position with your feet, if you have the feet strap too low, or if you are leaning too far back after the initial leg drive. You should always push through the balls of your feet and use your core to return to the starting position. This is best achieved by going strapless on the rowing machine.
1. You Are Pulling Yourself Back With Your Feet
So, I’ve mentioned that the main reason your shins hurt on the rowing machine is because of what you’re doing with your feet.
The most common mistake is that you’re pulling yourself back to the starting position by using your feet.
Basically, your feet are strapped in, you start the rowing motion with a drive of your legs and then pull with your arms.
Once your legs are fully extended you are then pulling yourself back in with your feet.
By doing this your feet go through dorsiflexion, so your toes typically come away from the feet pad and point towards your shins.
This immediately activates the tibialis anterior, or the muscle located on the front of the shin bone.
Now imagine performing this same movement approximately 300 times in 10 minutes and you’ll soon understand why your shins feel sore.
The aim is to keep your toes flat on the pads, plus you shouldn’t be using your feet to bring you back in anyway.
2. You Have the Foot Straps Too Low
Something else that leads to dorsiflexion is having the feet straps too low.
There is a tendency to have the feet straps about an inch or two lower than they should be.
You’ll typically place the straps over the widest part of the feet.
However, this can actually limit the movement of the heel whenever you row.
Once again, this will typically lead to feet dorsiflexion, which of course will activate the muscles in front of the shin bone.
Realistically, the straps should cross in line with the balls of the feet.
This is actually where the feet naturally flexes in order to raise the heel.
So, prior to starting your rowing workout make sure you have set the correct height for the feet plates, and that the straps are set in line with the balls of your feet.
3. You Are Leaning Too Far Back
After the initial leg drive to get yourself into motion you will pull the handle to activate the upper back muscles.
Once your legs are fully extended and you bring the handle towards your midsection you will generally lean back ever so slightly.
However, far too often I see people excessively leaning back at the end of the drive phase.
In reality, you should actually be using your core muscles to return to the starting position.
But this is very difficult to do the further you lean back.
In effect, you almost have to perform a type of crunch to get yourself back to a more upright position.
Okay, this may actually activate and stimulate the abs and core more, but this can also be hazardous for the lower back.
This is especially true when you’re rowing at a fast pace.
Furthermore, if you are leaning back too far you have no other option to pull yourself back in by using your feet.
So, yet again you are using dorsiflexion to haul yourself back to the starting position.
And as you now know this will activate the tibialis anterior.
The result of this repetitive motion is of course sore shins.
The Official Rowing Form Checklist
4. You Are Rushing The Return Phase
I generally like to view the return to start of the row as the recovery phase.
You are initially driving through your legs and then pulling with your arms until your legs are fully extended.
As I’ve mentioned, you should then mainly use your core muscles to return to the starting position.
So, in effect, your arms, legs, and back are all “resting” during the return phase.
However, in an attempt to row faster you may find that you’re rushing the return phase.
In fact, you’ll often see people row in a frantic manner.
Their thinking is that faster is better.
Basically, the faster I row, the better it will be for cardio and conditioning.
But, this certainly isn’t the case.
Just as with any exercise you should always adhere to good form and perfect technique.
If you do this with the rowing machine you will definitely hit the cardiovascular system hard and get a great conditioning workout.
So, always treat the return to start phase as a recovery phase.
Your aim is to go as hard as possible on the initial leg drive/lat pull phase.
And then ease yourself back during the “recovery phase”.
5. You Aren’t Pushing Through the Balls of Your Feet
The final “feet issue” will be the part of the feet that you’re initiating the leg drive through.
In fact, I think this is where many people go wrong with the rowing machine, and it is because of this that they suffer with sore shins.
I would hazard a guess that you mostly want to push through the toes initially.
Then again, there are some who try to drive through the heels.
Unfortunately, both ways are wrong.
You should always push through from around mid-feet level, but more through the balls of your feet.
In fact, if you have the feet straps aligned correctly then you’ll know exactly where you should initiate that first push.
With that being said, I would also argue that the feet straps can often be more trouble than they’re worth.
Having your feet literally fastened into place is what is typically causing feet dorsiflexion, and therefore leads to shin pain.
So, my recommendation would be to go strapless.
In fact, this is the best way to hone your technique on the rowing machine.
This will ensure that you push through the balls of the feet, while keeping your toes pressed against the feet plate.
It will force you to use your core to return to the starting position.
Plus, when you initially go strapless it will be harder to row at break-neck speed, so you won’t be rushing the recovery phase.
I would even say that once you get used to rowing without the feet straps you should remain strapless for good.
I can tell you now that it’s perfectly possible to complete a sub 1min 40sec 500m without feet straps.
So, as you can see the main reason your shins hurt on the rowing machine is because you’re allowing your feet to go through dorsiflexion.
This generally occurs if you try to pull yourself back to the starting position by using your feet.
You will also notice the same thing happens if you have the feet straps too low, if you lean back too far once your legs are fully extended, or if you rush the recovery phase.
Plus, remember to always push through the balls of your feet when rowing.
You can actually counteract all of these factors by rowing strapless.
This will allow you to adhere to perfect form without using your feet incorrectly.
And this of course means happy shins.
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.