Rowing Machine Knee Pain – The Ultimate Guide

The rowing machine is good for bad knees and it can often be used as a rehabilitation and recovery machine for physical therapy. As a low-impact exercise, rowing doesn’t put too much stress on the joints and is even recommended for people with arthritis.

Then, why do people complain of rowing machine knee pain?

In this article, we’ll explain why rowing is good for the knees but also why and when it may cause knee pain. We also made sure to include some tips on how to avoid knee pain when rowing.

Are Rowing Machines Good for Knee Pain?

Yes, rowing can help rehabilitate knee injuries, as well as strengthen your joints. But first, let’s explain some basics of the human joints. 

A joint, like the knee and elbow, is a complex structure made up of bone, muscles, synovium, cartilage, and ligaments designed to bear weight and move the body through space. 

The knee is the largest and most complex joint in the human body. As such, it receives a lot of tension from any movement and more so during moderate and high-intensity physical activities. 

Human Knee ligaments locations
The Human Knee is made up of bones, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.

Of course, not all physical exercises have the same impact on the knees! For instance, each rowing stroke mobilizes the knee as we compress and extend the legs, but, compared to running, rowing is actually low-impact and doesn’t place as much stress on them.

5 Reasons Why Rowing Machines Are Good for Bad Knees

Read along to learn 5 reasons why rowing is great for knee pain!

1. Rowing Is Low-Impact

Rowing, as a low-impact exercise, puts little to no strain on the knees, ankles, hips, elbows, and shoulder joints because your feet, hands, and hips are stationed in the machine. As your legs fold and extend, your body remains stable and does not require additional stabilizing efforts from your knees.

Rowing Machines Are Good for Bad Knees

The rowing stroke is a much smoother and safer motion than cycling or running, and it really does give your knees a break while building strength and muscle.

So, if you’re looking for an exercise machine that will not hurt your joints in the long term while also being efficient, the rowing machine could be the best cardio and strength training machine out there. 

2. Rowing Is Both Aerobic and Anaerobic 

Studies show that a combination of aerobic and anaerobic training is far superior when it comes to preserving optimal bone and joint health. And rowing is the best of both worlds since is both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. 

In other words, with every rowing stroke, depending on the pace and intensity of your workouts, you’ll improve both your cardiovascular endurance as well as strength. 

Additionally, the rowing machine works 86% of the muscles in the body, like few, if none, cardio machines. This way, you can avoid using other high-impact machines that increase the risk of a knee injury.

3. Rowing Builds Muscle Mass and Strength

According to a review by Mayo Clinic, any exercise that builds muscle mass helps protect the joints. That’s because muscle mass acts like a protective layer that will relieve tension in the knees, making it easier for them to balance and stabilize the body.

The rowing machine is arguably the most efficient low-impact cardio machine that can build muscle in the entire body. It goes without saying, you must put in some constant effort in your workouts and nutrition as well. 

Furthermore, a 2019 study found that not having enough muscle mass, or losing it, as it happens with age, is a risk factor for the development of Osteoarthritis, a “wear and tear” condition of the knee joint.

4. Rowing Is Mostly Leg Work

We already established that the best thing you can do for your knees is to strengthen your muscles, especially those that support them; So, strengthening your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and glutes. 

Since it consists of 65-75% leg work, rowing does a fantastic job of strengthening your lower body muscles. The leg power will provide support and absorb the forces that impact the joints, reducing the amount of wear and tear caused by the joints’ use over time.

Strong hip muscles (also known as glutes, despite the fact that they include more muscles) will keep your knees from collapsing inward, twisting, or generally wobbling. Regular rowing workouts will not only strengthen your lower body muscles but also your tendons, and ligaments, as well as increase the density of the bones. 

5. Rowing Is Great for Weight Loss

Knee pain is closely associated with being overweight, and a study even measured that with each pound of weight lost the load or tension in the knee joint decreases by 4 pounds. So, losing excess weight is a major factor in maintaining your knees healthy, recovering from injuries, or avoiding them. 

Rowing helps you burn around 300 kcal in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity workout (calculated for a ~185 lbs. person). 

Nonetheless, as you might know, dieting and being in a caloric deficit is the main thing you should take care of if you want to lose weight. But, rowing can aid in burning those calories without feelings of fatigue or putting too much stress on the joints!

If you have constant knee pain even when you are not physically active, we believe rowing will help you. It will keep you active without putting too much strain on your knees since the entire workout is seated and low-impact. The rowing machine also has the benefit of being suitable for people of all fitness levels.

Here are all the unique benefits you’ll get from rowing regularly!

Can Rowing Machines Cause Knee Pain? 

Yes. Knee pain is a complaint among rowers as well, even though it is thought of as a side effect of running. Rowing machine knee pain can happen for many reasons but the most common include faulty form and technique, as well as overtraining.

Joints play an important role in our overall mobility and tend to deteriorate over time, just like bones, muscles, and other organs. Unfortunately, the more we use them the more they degrade in their functionality, increasing the risk of injury as well. 

Nonetheless, participating in any sport or recreational activity increases the risk of a knee injury more so.

In the case of the knee, we’d like to bring two types of injuries to your attention. The first one is called traumatic injury and it can happen during strenuous exercise or if you slip, just to give two examples. 

The second type of injury is known as “wear and tear” which is the corrosion of the joint’s structure due to mere usage. Wear and tear happens gradually over time, rather than all at once.

Osteoarthritis, for example, is a type of knee “wear and tear.” While you cannot entirely avoid it, you can do your best to strengthen your knee, bones, and muscles to keep them functional and healthy for longer. That’s why protection from injury is as important as properly strengthening your joints through physical exercise.

2 Types of Rowing Machine Knee Pain

Two of the most common syndromes of knee pain when rowing is: patellofemoral pain syndrome and iliotibial band friction syndrome. 

Pain Behind the Kneecap During Rowing – Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is a pain behind or around your kneecap

Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is a pain behind or around your kneecap, and in more severe cases, it can travel to your thigh or shin. A sign of this kind of knee pain is experiencing a clicking and pain especially when you walk up and down a hill or stairs.

The main reason you feel pain is because your kneecap (patella) doesn’t run smoothly against your leg bone (femur). The constant rubbing between the two irritates your kneecap and causes pain. 

One thing that can help you in this case is to be constant in your warm-up and stretching routine before and after rowing. You can also include some flexibility and balance exercises to help correct muscle imbalances.

Lateral Knee Pain When Rowing – Iliotibial Band (ITB) Friction Syndrome

Iliotibial Band (ITB) Friction Syndrome

Another common knee pain experienced by rowers is iliotibial band friction syndrome (ITBFS). The iliotibial band (ITB) is a tendon that can get irritated when it rubs against your hips and knee bones and cause pain.  

This syndrome is also called lateral knee pain and it is felt outside of the knee, especially when you bend it. While it can become very annoying and serious, this kind of pain is also very common among (overweight) people when they start working out.

Exercise may cause inflammation because the knees might not be used to the extra tension that the repetitive movements put them through. So, during the first weeks or months, you might feel a clicking or pain in the outside of your knees.

6 Main Causes of Rowing Machine Knee Pain

If you’re experiencing knee pain during or after your rowing workouts, you should first try to understand why it’s happening. We will go through the major common causes of rowing machine knee pain and offer some ways to fix it. 

But if your knee pain is persistent and serious, it might be better to consult a doctor or physical therapist and get checked.

1. Overtraining 

Many people are unaware that when they exercise, they are actually doing more harm than good to their bodies. They become so preoccupied with achieving a particular goal—be it muscle mass, strength, or weight loss—that they ignore feelings of fatigue.

Prolonged periods of heavy training can cause a rowing machine knee pain even among professional rowers. Even though the human body can adjust to great levels of stress, it doesn’t always show obvious signs of being overworked. Knee pain can be such a sign of the body asking you to slow down.

Main Causes of Rowing Machine Knee Pain

Generally, you shouldn’t do more than 3 high-intensity workouts per week, and you should alternate between strength and cardio rowing workouts. Another way to prevent severe sores, knee pain, or other discomforts is to give yourself enough time to recover and take care of your nutrition, especially your protein intake.

2. Faulty Rowing Form and Technique

Unlike cycling or running, rowing requires a technique that is unquestionably more challenging to master. The fact that it takes time to learn how to row properly is one of the main reasons people stay away from rowing machines. 

And as a result, a lot of people either learn how to row incorrectly or never make the effort to improve their form. If you’re experiencing knee pain when rowing, you might benefit from correcting these common mistakes we explain below.

3. Overcompression of the Knees

Overcompression occurs when your legs are folded more than they should be, to the point where your ankles are behind your kneecap. Another way to see if you are overcompressing the knees is by checking if the level of the knees exceeds past your toes.

The optimum compression during rowing is to have your knees above your ankles, which requires your shins to be almost fully vertical to the ground.

Maintaining control of your rowing stroke and keeping your body stable at a certain pace is what matters the most during rowing. If you find it difficult to slow down and maintain control of your body when you compress during the Finish phase, try lowering the level of resistance. 

The opposite can also be possible; So, if that level of resistance is too low for you, increase it until you are exerting enough effort and have complete control over the rowing stroke.

4.  Hyperextension at the Drive or the Finish 

The opposite, which is also very common, and not only in rowing, is fully extending your knees during the Drive and Finish phase to the point where the knees get locked. This is a sure way to cause traumatic injury on the spot, especially if you’re dealing with heavy weights, or wear and tear of the knee. 

In addition, locking your knees makes it harder to use your legs to propel you forward, reducing your leg power as well as the efficiency of the rowing stroke to build strength.

Over time, hyperextension of the knee is quite dangerous, and besides localized pain and swelling it can cause knee instability and decreased mobility. The fix is simple, keep your knees slightly bent at all costs. Take your time to master the technique, and position yourself properly and comfortably on the rowing machine. 

5. Improper Foot Placement

Improper foot placement when rowing is another factor that can result in knee pain. This one will contribute to your kneecap being out of alignment, which will not only affect your comfort but also cause knee pain. While a lot of things go into proper foot placement, we will mention common mistakes and fixes related to knee pain.

In general, the proper rowing foot position includes placing your feet shoulder-width apart. Also, the foot strap should be placed across the widest part of your foot, over the ball of each foot.

Bad training shoes can also cause poor foot placement. Always train in proper trainers, preferably ones with a flat bottom and a secure placement of all points of contact in your feet.

If you want to learn more about foot placement on the rower, watch this video.

6. Lack of Warm-up and Stretching Routine

Warming up and stretching is a must before and after any workout. In less than 3 minutes, you can optimize your muscles to train more efficiently and avoid any injury or stiffness. Regular stretching will loosen your body up, allow your blood to circulate better to your joint and muscles, and increase your range of motion. 

Start by incorporating low-intensity stretches and movements that help your body loosen up and gain flexibility. A lot of people try to stretch their hamstrings at a maximum every time. Remember, for now, you’re just getting started and easing your body into the workout. 

Aggressive stretching is out of the question especially if you’re already experiencing knee pain. Here are some stretching movements to help you with knee pain:

7 Tips to Avoid Any Rowing Machine Knee Pain 

Finally, we’ll go through some tips or steps to ensure rowing won’t cause you any pain or injury in your knee. Here’s what you should do:

  1. Enroll in a rowing class, take coaching sessions, or watch videos online to make sure you understand the proper form and technique 
  2. Record yourself rowing from different angles and try to find any mistakes in your form and technique
  3. Take time to position yourself in the machine and find the best way to sit there, the optimal foot placement, etc.
  4. Warm up and stretch properly before and after rowing,
  5. Take time to recover between sessions and schedule rest days.
  6. Stay hydrated and take care of your nutrition, especially protein intake.
  7. Variate your training routines with yoga, weightlifting, swimming, and walking.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can rowing cause knee pain?

Rowing does not cause any knee pain because it is a low-impact exercise that doesn’t stress the joints. Regular rowing strengthens the lower body muscles that protect your knees. But if you overtrain or row in bad form you increase the chances of knee injury or pain.

Can you use a rowing machine with arthritis?

Yes, rowing is a low-impact cardio workout that is considered great for arthritis. It will help you build endurance and strength while optimizing your knee health. Check with your physical therapist before booking rowing sessions.

Takeaway

Rowing is a low-impact workout that can help you recover from knee pain while also strengthening your muscles, joints, and bones. To reap all of the benefits of rowing, you must take care of the form and technique during rowing sessions, the recovery and rest time, as well as your diet.

Perfecting your form and learning how not to overcompress and overextend your knees will guarantee you circumvent any rowing machine knee pain. This way you’ll keep your knees healthy even as you get older.

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