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Rowing Machine and Herniated Disc Injury – Is It Safe to Row?

Is it safe to use a rowing machine with a herniated disc injury

If you have ever injured your back, even in the slightest, you know how terribly painful, not to mention debilitating, back injuries can be.

For those who have actually herniated a disc, you probably remember the white-hot pain it caused and then the continual discomfort afterward.

Some people are under the impression that after you have herniated one or more discs, your exercise days are over. Oh, you might be able to do some walking, but that’s where an exercise routine should begin and end.Is this really true, however?

Is it safe to row with a herniated disc?

Can you make things worse by rowing or doing other types of exercise?

rowing machine back pain - is it safe?

In today’s article, I want to talk about herniated discs, what they are, and what your exercise routine will consist of afterward. When it comes to spinal health and exercise, there isn’t a one size fits all answer.

Keep reading so you can be better informed and make smart choices regarding your health.

Please keep in mind that I am not a doctor and I cannot give medical advice. Think of this article as some lifestyle suggestions. Always consult with your physician or health care professional if you have questions about back pain or before you begin any exercise routine.

What Is a Herniated Disc in the Lower Back?

The spine consists of small bones called vertebrae. To prevent the bones from rubbing together or pounding on one another as we walk or run, there are small cushions in between each vertebra called discs.

image of herniated disc and spinal cord

Think of each disc as a small pillow, which cushions the bones. With age, or with abuse or due to injury, the spine can start to pinch those cushions on one end. When the disc bulges out past the bone, it’s called a bulging disc.

With time and some rest, a bulging disc will return to its normal shape and position.

However, when the disc receives enough pressure over time, or from blunt force trauma due to an injury (such as a car accident or a fall) the disc breaks open and the jelly-like material inside squishes out.

If you had a tube of toothpaste and you stepped on it, the toothpaste would squish out all over the floor. This is similar to a disc herniation.

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Will a Herniated Disc Heal on Its Own?

Yes, and no.

The breaking open of the disc isn’t what causes us pain. What causes such intense back pain is when the compound inside the disc comes close to or touches a nerve.

person with lower back pain

The nerve knows that this substance should not be where it is, and so it sends you pain signals to tell you something is wrong.

You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, the same way that you can’t put the jelly-like compound back into the disc. The body can, however, become accustomed to the situation.

Some nerves will simply stop sending signals after a few weeks. Other times, doctors will inject cortisone to deaden the nerve so it stops sending pain signals.

In a few instances, the disc compound requires surgery to be removed, but that is not very common.

This is why some people experience back pain off and on, even years after a disc herniation.

Is it OK to Workout with a Herniated Disc?

The answer here is yes. And no.

While most people with herniated disc can, and should, work out to strengthen their core and back muscles, there are some exercises you should avoid.

person stretching to prevent rowing back pain

What Exercises Should I Avoid with a Herniated Disc?

If your doctor or chiropractor hasn’t told you, the following is a list of exercises or movements that you should avoid if you have a lower back herniated disc or other spinal injuries:

  • Any high-impact activities, such as stair climbing, step aerobics, or running
  • Movements that cause your back to make a “C” shape, which would include sit-ups, toe-touches, or bending over to pick something up (bend your knees, not your back!)
  • Twisting should be avoided as much as possible
  • Avoid sitting (especially with poor posture) for long periods of time

You can also get herniated discs in the neck and upper back, but those are not as common.

Watch our full video by Rowing Expert & YouTube Influencer Max Secunda:


Can I Row with a Herniated Disc or Low Back Pain?

You should always speak with your physician or chiropractor about whether rowing and other sports are safe for you after a herniated disc.

man showing how to exercise correctly to prevent lower back pain on a rowing machine

For the majority of people, it is safe to go back to rowing after a few weeks of rest or recovery period.

Rowing is actually good for the back and can strengthen the back and core muscles.

Rowing machines aren’t just good for your core and overall fitness routine; they provide a full-body workout and help you in strength training.

You need strong muscles in the back and the abdomen to prevent the worsening of a herniated disc or additional herniated discs.

When it comes to back pain or lower back pain, it is vital that you protect the lower back through safe exercises that will strengthen the core muscle and back.

During your rehabilitation, you may have received physical therapy for your disc pain, you may want to speak to them about rowing and whether it is safe for your unique situation.  Side Note:  See our rowing machine back workouts by our expert rower Max Secunda.

Two Important Things to Know Before Rowing

man rowing correctly with a with a herniated disc

It’s vital that you follow two steps while rowing with a herniated disc:

  1. You MUST do the rowing strokes correctly. If you fail to do the movements correctly, you’re only inviting low back pain and injury. If you’re new to rowing, ensure that you have the right technique and are engaging the correct muscle groups.
  2. You MUST stop if you feel pain and immediately see your doctor.

Of course, you might feel small amounts of pain or discomfort while rowing and that is fairly normal, what I’m referring to is more of those sharp, stabbing pains that make you take a deep breath and probably curse out loud.

This is actually true with any sport activity or movement. If you experience pain, you should stop.

While rowers can support the back and prevent back pain, long training sessions without rest or poor technique can cause additional symptoms of a herniated disc, such as back pain or a backache.

doctor explaining to patient about disc issues and exercise

If you experience those types of pain, take a pause and see if you’re performing the strokes correctly, or stop entirely and refer to your doctor.

The Bottom Line

In a nutshell, rowing is fine for a majority of persons. After a few weeks of recovery, you can return to rowing, as long as you practice proper form and technique. Stop if you experience any intense pain or continual pain, such as a constant low backache that doesn’t go away.

Take good care of your core and your back, work toward strengthening them, and you can enjoy rowing for many years to come.