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Rowing Machine and Degenerative Disc Disease – Is It Safe to Exercise?

Rowing machine and degenerative disc disease

As we age, nearly everyone suffers from some type of back problem, even if it’s just a strained back. In fact, some studies suggest that about 80 percent of the world’s population will experience back pain at one time or another in their lifetime.

If you’ve discovered that you have degenerative disc disease or other back problems, you’re probably ready to throw in the towel and forget about buying one of the new, exciting rowing machines that are available, but is this really necessary?

Here’s what you need to know.

Rowing can actually help many people who have back problems, even those with spinal stenosis, herniated discs, sciatica, and degenerative disc disease, sometimes called DDD. 

Want to know more?

Keep reading and discover how the pain and discomfort of DDD or other back problems can actually be reduced by working out on a rowing machine.

Can I Use a Rowing Machine with Degenerative Disc Disease?

First off, let me say that I am not a doctor or a chiropractor. This should not be considered medical advice, only general advice between friends.

Always seek out your primary care physician, chiropractor, or physical therapist before you start or stop any workout routine.

In between each vertebrae are small, gel-filled cushions called discs, which prevent the bones of the spine from bumping against one another as we walk or run.

As we age, these discs become harder. They can crack and become brittle. Degenerative disc disease is not actually a “disease” like cancer, and the true cause is unknown.

Some doctors believe it has a genetic factor, but in most cases, age and trauma, such as a car accident or a serious fall, seem to start the process.

You might have DDD and not even be aware of it. Some people have zero symptoms, while others feel common symptoms such as:

  • Pain when sitting
  • Pain that worsens when twisting or lifting an object
  • The pain subsides when you stand, walk, or even run
  • Changing positions frequently or lying down also relieves the pain

Everyone’s body responds differently, and what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. In fact, many people find that physical movement and exercise, such as rowing, actually relieve the pain. I know people who were unable to row in a kayak or a boat but had no problem using a rowing machine.

This story from John Hopkins is a good case in point. While the subject did have surgery, he was able to row before surgery and afterward.

If rowing hurts, speak to your doctor as you may have other issues. If it doesn’t hurt, you can row to your heart’s content.

Read All About the Best Interactive Machine to Keep You Motivated – Click Here!

Learn More – Watch our Youtube video below by Rowing Instructor & Coach Max Secunda:


How Can Rowing Help with Back Pain?

The spine needs support to prevent injury and pain. Many muscles are attached to the it, including the abdominals (core muscles) and back muscles.

When you exercise and strengthen these muscle groups, you’re doing something that helps support the spine.

The muscles of the body are also attached to one another in astonishing ways.

For example, tight hamstrings ( the big muscles on the back of the thighs), which are attached to the hips, are often the cause of low back pain. Simply by stretching these muscles, you can relieve the stress they are placing on the lower back and reduce overall stiffness.

Rowing will stretch and strengthen the quads, which can greatly reduce back pain.

The gentle movement of the hips when rowing is also a great way to keep yourself flexible and prevent a stiff or weak back.

What Is the Best Exercise for Degenerative Disc Disease?

Aerobic exercise is the best type of exercise for those with DDD or back pain from other injuries or health problems.

Your doctor or physical therapist may have suggested some to you already, such as swimming, walking, or low-impact aerobics, but when you consider that rowing is a low-impact aerobic exercise, using your rowing machine makes perfect sense.

The human body was made to move, so strengthening the core muscles and stretching/strengthening your leg muscles on a rowing machine will actually help to support the spine and reduce the discomfort you may be feeling.

If you should feel pain, especially in the beginning, make sure that you are performing the rowing stroke technique correctly and maintaining good posture when exercising on the rowing machine.

Watch Rowing Expert Rachael Taylor’s Top 10 Rowing Machine Tips:


It’s also a great idea to speak with your doctor if you experience pain to be sure that using a rowing machine is OK for your particular case.

Frequent stretching of the legs and other parts of the body is also extremely beneficial for relieving back pain. While you might think that rest will help, the exact opposite is true.

You can reduce back pain, whether it’s from DDD, pain in the joints, hip pain, or arthritis by strengthening the muscles supporting the spine. That will not happen if you lie on the sofa most of the day.

Learn about the Hydrow Rowing Machine

What Exercises Should I Avoid with Degenerative Disc Disease?

While you want to strengthen your core and leg muscles, there are some exercises and motion that you want to avoid, including:

  • Crunches
  • Sit-ups
  • Toe touches
  • Twisting the spine
  • Double leg raisers
  • Spinning classes
  • Mountain bike riding
  • Heavy weight lifting
  • High-impact sports, such as football or soccer

It’s always best to create a workout plan and then consult with your doctor or physical therapist. This is doubly important if you have an injury or are feeling pain when exercising.

Always keep your posture in mind, even when you’re sitting down, lying on the sofa or in bed, or doing other life-related tasks. You never want to twist the spine or bend down with straight legs if you can avoid it.

If you have a sit-down job, take pressure off of the spine by taking frequent breaks. Even if you simply stand up for one minute every 15 minutes or so while you’re working, it will do a world of difference to your body!

The Bottom Line

Soreness in the body, especially after you’ve started a new workout program, is very normal. Try to notice the difference between soreness and actual pain.

Always respect your body’s limits and pay attention to the signals it gives you. Don’t attempt to do too much at one time. Begin slowly and have confidence that your body can recover from almost anything thrown at it, even DDD.

If you do experience strange sensations, continuing pain, or increased pain, stop your workouts until you can consult with a medical professional. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please feel free to pass it along to your friends, family, or co-workers who might benefit from this information. If you would like to see our best budget rower be sure to check out our other article.

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