The knee joints perform important movements that enable mobility. The joint must also bear weight while remaining flexible. Knees consist of both cartilage and bone, and they have the support of surrounding ligaments and muscles. Injuries can occur with overuse and overstress while doing daily activities, exercise, or sports. To avoid knee injuries, it’s important to perform activities carefully and correctly. Rowing is a low-impact cardio activity that people can perform either in a boat in a natural setting or indoors on an ergometer. Rowing involves the entire body. Because rowing involves the legs, arms, and core, it can be an effective way to build strength and burn calories, but to avoid injury while rowing, people must follow guidelines for proper technique.
Rowing is beneficial because it strengthens the muscles surrounding the knees. During the rowing stroke, the quadriceps above the knee extend. Hamstrings and gastrocnemius muscles also flex with contractions during the rowing movements. As these muscles grow stronger, they can support the knee joint more effectively. Some people may experience a reduction in chronic knee pain as a result of stronger leg muscles.
Rowing involves four separate movements that combine for the stroke. The movements include the catch, the drive, the finish, and the recovery. During the catch phase, the knees are in a flexed position, so this is a common point for injury. If the rower bends the knees too much during the catch phase, it’s possible to experience patellofemoral stress syndrome or iliotibial band syndrome. Patellofemoral stress syndrome involves pain in the kneecap, and iliotibial band syndrome involves pain in the outside of the knee.
Many rowing injuries occur due to overuse or poor body mechanics during the exercise. An exerciser’s knee condition is also a factor in whether rowing will be beneficial or whether it will lead to more pain. If a knee already has some type of issue or injury, it’s possible that rowing could irritate the joint or exacerbate symptoms. If knee pain occurs for the first time after rowing, explore possible issues with strength and flexibility in both the knees and the hips. The rower may need to perform additional exercises with free weights to build strength and flexibility in these joints. Improper foot position on the machine could also lead to pain.
To avoid injuries while rowing, rowers should warm up before engaging in the exercise. Warmup exercises should include sustained stretches to prepare muscles, ligaments, and joints for the movements. Proper rowing technique is also vital to avoid injuries. At the point of the stroke when the knees are completely bent, rowers may experience pain if an injury has occurred. Proper technique involves sitting upright at this point with the shins in a vertical position. It’s common for people to try to rush this stage of the stroke, however. When rushing, over-compression of the legs could occur. This could lead to an excessive stretch of tendons, with muscles working overtime to come back from this overstretched position. As this happens, strain of the muscles surrounding the knees can occur. It’s also possible for compression of the kneecap to occur. Another point of injury could happen when legs are in the full extension position. If the rower is tired, it’s common to lock the knees at this point. Locking the knees should never occur with proper rowing technique because this could lead to injury. For best results, the rower should always keep knees at least slightly bent to ensure that the muscles stay engaged.
If knee pain occurs, the rower should stop rowing immediately. Pain is an indicator that some sort of injury is occurring. Continuing to try to work through the pain is inadvisable because this will likely make the injury worse. A knee injury that is not muscle-related could be especially problematic. In this case, the injury could involve tendons or cartilage, which might require extensive treatment that could even involve surgery. Applying ice to the injury site is beneficial. An injury that involves the ligaments surrounding the knee could bring significant pain, swelling, and the inability to bear weight. In this case, rest will be mandatory for healing. A physician could also prescribe a brace to support the joint.
Learn about proper rowing technique and common knee injuries by visiting these resources:
- Rowing Handbook (PDF)
- Common Rowing Injuries (PDF)
- Rowing Injuries
- Overview of Common Rowing Injuries
- Rowing Technique (PDF)
- Healthy Living: Rowing
- Rowing: Preventing Injury
- Avoiding Rowing Injuries Through Correct Technique
- Injury Prevention: Rowing (PDF)
- Rowing Injury Prevention (PDF)
- Common Rowing Injuries
- Better Machines for Bigger People
- Muscular Analysis of Trunk and Lower Extremity Exercises (PDF)
- Use of the Rowing Ergometer
- Choosing and Using a Rowing Machine (PDF)
- Erging, the Beautiful Indoor Cardio
- Rowing Machines (PDF)
- Contraindicated and High-Risk Exercises (PDF)