Rowing 101: How to Avoid Injuries on the ERG


Rowing is one of the components of the heart rate-based high intense interval training that you will find at Orange Theory Fitness and most Cross Fit boxes. There are many benefits of rowing on the WaterRower, also known as an ergometer (ERG) or indoor rower. Rowing works the entire body, challenges the upper and lower body stamina, burns calories, and builds serious cardiovascular fitness all with minimal impact on your joints because you are sitting, and overtime enhances flexibility. Many athletes who compete in different sports events also use rowing machines for cross training. With all of the benefits the ERG delivers, the machine can be intimidating, and optimizing form and rhythm can be challenging.

Most injuries from rowing are overuse injuries. Poor form can overload existing injuries or create new injuries over time, so it is essential to use proper form when on the rower. Rowing does not have to be painful! If you are feeling muscle strain or joint pain while rowing in your neck, shoulders, wrists, back, hips or knees, ask your OTF or Cross Fit coach to check your form. If your pain persists even after correcting your form, you can seek care from a Physical Therapist who can identify the source of the pain and begin treatment immediately to get you back to your workouts without pain! Below are a few tips to improve your rowing form and efficiency so you can row faster, longer, and pain-free while preventing common injuries that result from poor technique.

Know the Lingo (Or At Least the Concepts!): The Basics of the Rowing Phases

Rowing consists of a series of positions and transitions, and it is important to have great form in each position. Sequencing between the four positions described below takes some practice and coordination, but is essential to rowing without pain.

  • The Catch Phase. To get into the first position, or the Catch, place your feet securely in the stirrups. Bend your knees so that your shins are almost directly vertical. Keep your chin up slightly, engage your core to keep your back tall, and lean forward from your hips so that your shoulders come just past your hips. Grab the handle with an overhand grip and keep your arms fully extended. Think of this position as the wind-up phase to generate power.

  • The Drive Phase. This is the power-generating phase. Keep your core engaged and your arms straight as you push back through your legs until they are just about straight. Then, hinge from your hips to lean your torso backward as you begin to pull the handle toward your chest so that your upper body gradually takes over the leg drive. The key to a powerful drive phase is that you must drive with your legs.

  • The Finish Phase. Keep pulling the handle toward your lower chest. You may feel your shoulder blades come together behind you. Your legs should be straight and torso relatively straight while leaning back. Keep your chin tilted slightly up, and core engaged to prevent your back from curving too much. You can pause in this position for a second before you begin your recovery phase.

  • The Recovery Phase. To return back to the catch phase, first begin to straighten your arms, then hinge your torso forward from the hips. Your core should still be engaged. Just as the handle passes your knees, your knees should bend again getting you ready for the next drive phase.

The two most important things to remember while rowing: 1) Just remember to drive with your legs, then torso, then arms and recover with your arms, then torso, then legs, and 2) it’s not necessarily about how many strokes you take while on the rower or how fast your body is moving, it’s about how powerful each row is. If you really focus on a powerful leg drive and lean back and pause for a second during each drive, you will definitely hit your orange zone.

How can I stay injury-free and pain-free while rowing?

Now that you know the basics of each position, follow the tips below to avoid getting injured while on the ERG.

  • Back Pain. Curving your back too much or leaning your torso back too far during the drive and finish can result in back pain. To correct and prevent back pain, always keep your core lightly engaged to keep a straight back, which ensures that the hinge of your torso comes from your hips and legs.

  • Wrist Injuries. The way to prevent wrist discomfort is to make sure you have a good grip with a “neutral” wrist position throughout all the phases of rowing, meaning the top of your wrists should not bend up or down. Repetitive motion at the wrist can cause carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis. Make sure you keep a neutral wrist by always keeping your second knuckle facing forward towards the wall in front of you and palms facing down. Your grip should be somewhat loose, with your fingers curving over the handle and your thumbs on the underside.

  • Shoulder Pain. Proper rowing form and sequencing can prevent common shoulder injuries such as impingement and rotator cuff strains. Make sure to keep your shoulder blades down and back as you move through your drive phase and avoid the shoulders rolling forward or creeping up to your ears during the catch and drive phases. Engaging your core to maintain a stable upright posture also helps to set your shoulders in an optimal position to stay pain-free.

  • Blisters. Blisters form when friction causes the upper level of your skin to be damaged while fluid collects underneath. Blisters are especially common if you’re newer to rowing and the skin on your hands hasn’t toughened up yet. Maintaining a proper handle grip is the best defense to prevent blisters. Your grip should be relaxed and your wrists should not bend too much forward or back. If you do develop a blister, the best thing to do is to let it heal on its own, keep the area clean, and protect your hands in the meantime with tape or moleskin and pick up a pair of non-slip gloves to help pad your hands (available at sporting good stores or online).

I already have pain, what can I do?

Just because you have pain now does not mean your time on the ERG is over forever. Try icing the painful area for no longer than 20 minutes at a time, check with your coach that your form is good. But keep in mind that pushing through pain or injury can make things worse, so if you are unable to manage the symptoms on your own, set up a consultation with a Physical Therapist. In most states, including Georgia, you don’t need a Physician referral to see a Physical Therapist, so don’t delay your care! Physical Therapists are trained as movement specialists, and their job is to get you back doing the activities that you love and keep you healthy - like rowing! Visit www.apta.org to find a licensed Physical Therapist in your area to help you get back in the seat or ask around…a member at your OTF or Cross Fit Box may be a Physical Therapist or know of one!

Dr. Baudo Marchetti is a Board Certified Sports Clinical Specialist at One on One Physical Therapy, a multidisciplinary private practice in Atlanta and a member at OTF Emory Point. For nearly five years she was a full-time sports physiotherapist for the WTA Tour and is a tennis medicine and sports medicine expert. She teaches a Sports Physical Therapy course and assists in teaching orthopedics within the Division of Physical Therapy at Emory University. Learn more by visiting www.onetherapy.com or email Dr. Baudo Marchetti at Melissa@onetherapy.com. Special thanks to Leanna Racine, DPT for her assistance in preparing this article.


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