How Somatics Can Help Rowers Relieve Muscle Pain

Rowing is one of the oldest sports in the modern Olympic games. It is still popular today in high school and collegiate sports (more commonly known as crew), and as a workout routine at the gym. There are two different kinds of rowing:

  • Sweep rowing, in which the rower has one oar, held with both hands, and rows on one side of the boat
  • Sculling, in which the rower has an oar in each hand.

Sculling is the form of rowing most of us are familiar with. It's the rowing used at gyms on rowing machines. When you add the element of competition - or the goal of getting a workout through vigorous repetition, there are several things to watch out for in order to prevent injury or muscle strain.

Most rowing injuries are caused by poor technique or overuse. Overuse can cause Sensory Motor Amnesia.

The repetitive action of rowing can cause low back pain, knee problems, shoulder pain (rotator cuff), arm and wrist pain, sciatica, rib stress fractures, and chronically tight quadratus luborum (QL - "hip hiker") muscles.

Rowing is a wonderful full body sport, using the muscles of the back, lats, quadriceps, abdominals, biceps, triceps, rhomboids, trapezius and gluteal muscles. As the legs extend and push forward, the abdominals, arms, lats, rhomboids, and shoulders contract to pull the oars to the chest. Those who work out with rowing machines will likely not row with the same speed, force, and duration as collegiate rowers. However, since the muscles involved in both "gym rowing" and competitive crew are the same, proper technique and rhythm is critical no matter what your goal if you want to prevent an overuse injury.

This video explains proper rowing technique for "gym rowers" using the same technique used in competitive crew.

There is a lack of full extension through the front and back of the body in rowing.

As in cycling, the body contracts forward into a Red Light Reflex, but with full extension of the legs and trunk, due to being in a seated position. Here's an excellent slow motion video that demonstrates proper sculling. While smooth and powerful, notice how the muscles of the front and back of the body never fully lengthen. The chest muscles never fully expand, and the oblique muscles of the waist are slightly contracted; this causes the intercostal muscles between the ribs to become tight and the ribs to pull down toward the hips.

Low back pain, tight shoulders, and tight hips are common in rowing.

It's pretty clear that the repetitive pulling of the oar forward will, over time, cause the rhomboid and trapezius muscles to stay tight. If one rows with an arched back, or a twist in the pelvis, as with "sweep rowing," strain is put on not only the shoulders, but the low back and hips as well.

In the photo at right, notice the torque of the trunk to the left in the first rower. Here's a video that shows the same torque that occurs if you're "sweep rowing." The muscles of the waist and trunk rotators repetitively contract in the "catch" phase of the stroke. Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) in the QL's (quadratus lumborum) and a slightly hiked left hip would not be a surprising outcome for this rower after  an extended period of training.  This is a classic trauma reflex - habituated SMA may be useful for crew perhaps, but potentially painful and disruptive for daily movement and a smooth walking gait.

Sensory Motor Amnesia can develop due to repetitive movement, even if the movement is done properly. In order to prevent SMA, try incorporating Somatic Exercises into your daily workout routine.

Somatic Rowing warm-up:

Somatic Rowing cool-down:

For pain in the arms and wrists, refer to this video and blog post.

Contact Martha for information about how Hanna Somatics can help your collegiate or professional sports team prevent overuse injury and recover faster from workouts.

Many thanks to Kanwei Li, a former collegiate rower, for his photo and input.