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Rowing Machines and Lower-Back Pain

You have a variety of rows to choose from when you train. Historically, they began with the barbell bent-over row. That quickly led to the dumbbell row. Then a trainee put one end of a bar in a corner and loaded plates on the other end and pulled the rig to his chest—hence the origin of the T-bar row, which evolved into the T-bar device we know today. Weight stack machines were then developed, and the seated cable row became a mainstay of heavier gyms.

Many trainees either have back problems or develop lower-back pain. Often, one of the first exercises to be dropped from a routine is the barbell row. One rarely sees a veteran trainee performing T-bar rows. The seated cable row is usually the substitute—at least for a while. The dumbbell row typically remains in the program and rarely causes lower-back pain.

So many trainees had back pain that the seated row machine with a chest pad was created. The chest pad prevents the trainee from leaning forward and stressing the lower back. It’s also vertical, so he or she avoids the bent-over rowing position. A large contingency of trainees like to “isolate” muscles as much as possible and feel that this type of seated row machine achieves that.

Seated row machines usually have several handles, which enable the grip to be close and vertical, close and horizontal or wide and horizontal. They are easy to use, and most trainees feel they get a good back workout from them. They’re also easy for a training partner to force a couple of reps without risking injury.

The training world believes that the seated row machine is a great addition to any gym. It doesn’t cause much lower-back pain, as the lower back isn’t engaged much. That’s a good thing—or is it? I certainly don’t advise trainees to perform movements that cause pain—joint, back, neck or any other kind. Some trainees certainly wouldn’t be able to row at all if it weren’t for that piece of equipment. We can be thankful for that, but what about the trainees who really need to strengthen the muscles along the spine? Trainees who need more lower-back strength are deprived of the stimulus that a seated cable row could provide. Performing seated machine rows could prevent them from advancing as they should because their spinal muscles aren’t involved.

If you’re able to train your back more but are afraid because you had a strain or sprain of your lower back once 10 years ago, you can include more than one type of row in your program. Your back workout could include pulldowns, seated cable rows and seated machine rows. You could also do other back and hip-strengthening exercises, such as hyperextensions, deadlifts, Romanian deadlfts, stiff-legged deadlifts, reverse hypers or glute/ham raises. Avoiding lower-back strengthening is not necessarily beneficial. While the seated machine row is a good piece of equipment, we rarely load the pulling muscles without engaging the spinal muscles and hips.

It all gets back to one main question: Why are you performing the exercise? If we know why we are doing an exercise and what we expect from it, we can better guide the direction of our training. If you’re looking for a little extra back work—lats, rhomboids, middle traps—then the seated machine row is excellent. If you want to avoid a lower-back problem, it’s also excellent. If your lower back is healthy and you think it’s a good middle- and lower-back-strengthening exercise, you made the wrong choice.

A few trainees feel the seated machine row is a little easier on their shoulder than very heavy dumbbell rows; however, the dumbbell row is usually a pretty safe exercise for most trainees and most joints.

Train smart, then train hard.


Editor’s note: Visit for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and the 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008, or


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