Injury prevention for rowers

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Every year at our clinic we start to see young rowers coming in with persistent low back pain. Often it starts at this time of year when the pressure is on to be ready for the AON Maadi Cup.

I recently watched a lecture from the current Australian rowing team physio about low back pain in rowers and how to prevent it. Today I want to share key points from that lecture and provide a few exercises to keep your body going all the way to upcoming competitions, including Maadi Cup.

First of all, low back pain is common in rowers. The muscles of the back work pretty hard during the rowing stroke, thus tightness and fatigue is a normal part of a rower’s life.  However persistent debilitating pain in the back is not normal and should not be ignored.

There are four key things to look for that should sound alarm bells.
1. Any sharp stabbing pain
2. Pain that gets worse throughout the session
3. Pain that persists after the session
4. Pain lasting longer than 48 hours

If you are getting any of the above symptoms it’s time to see a physio who understands the rowing stroke, the load a rower’s body experiences and the common causes of low back pain in rowers.  With regards to treatment, one key point that was brought out in the conference was that as the team physio she hardly ever actually treated or touched the low back, because the site of the pain is never actually the cause of the pain.

The two most common causes of low back pain in rowers come from poor pelvic control and tight hamstrings and hips. Fixing the flexibility first and control of the pelvis second will remove the true cause of a rower’s low back pain.

Here is a simple test to see if you have the flexibility and control required to row correctly and protect your low back.

Hip hinge with straight legs and straight back. If the back rounds or the knees bend, you have some work to do. The picture below is correct and the one of the left is incorrect.

In order of importance, to maintain optimum performance with a rower one should address flexibility first, core stability second and strength training last. I see too many rowers smashing it at the gym and getting strong, but also getting tight and then injuring their backs. 


Below are three stretches that every rower should be doing.

Hold each one for two minutes each side. Ideally your stretch session is at the end of your training when you are warmed up and can get maximal stretch.

Working hard at flexibility will pay dividends on the water.

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