Recently we received an email from one of our readers asking for help and exercises to help rowers with lower back injuries or who are in danger of developing such injuries.
“I have a couple of athletes that have low back injuries or are on the verge of injury due to lack of glute and hamstring strength. I think that this issue is common with rowers. I was hoping you would consider writing an article addressing this, with similar videos of exercises for them to do like the core exercises posted in the most recent newsletter.”
What is the cause?
My first reaction was to wonder what was causing these injuries. Targeting the cause of common injuries is always beneficial in the long-term than just treating the injuries themselves. Lower back injuries are common in rowers but the reasons for these injuries developing are varied. It may be that a programme doesn’t develop flexibility, strength, or posture and technique to properly support the lower back.
Without seeing the athletes who are affected, and seeing their training programme, it is difficult to determine what the problem is, but over the next two weeks I will explore some of the most common causes of lower back injuries and how they can be managed or avoided.
The most common cause of lower back injury in rowers is incorrect posture.
Typically, rowers develop lower back injuries by putting too much pressure on their spine while it is in a weak, unsupported position during the rowing stroke (either on the erg or in the boat). This usually occurs when rowers get their forward body angle by bending the back, over-reaching at the catch, or collapsing the lower back at the finish.
Core exercises, such as the static and dynamic exercises detailed in my previous articles, can help to provide support for the back, but correcting bad posture is the best solution to reduce risk of injury in the long-term. Work to improve a rower’s posture should be done in conjunction with developing strength and flexibility to allow them to achieve the correct positions during the stroke.
At the finish, the lower back should be supported and not allowed to collapse. The rowers will feel the difference here as a supported lower back will keep them sitting taller and sitting on their ‘sit bones’ instead of slouching with weight on the buttocks. Imagine holding the rib-cage high and keeping the chest up. This straightens the lower back and uses the core for support.
Rowers should obtain their forward body angle by a rotation of the pelvis and a hinge from the hips. This keeps the spine in as much of a neutral position as possible, reducing the stretch on the back. Back muscles will tire less quickly, allowing them to be used for longer to maintain good support of the spine. The stretch should be felt on the hamstrings rather than the mid or upper-back. Visualise the pelvis rotating forward and the coccyx being brought forward so the base of the spine moves towards a forward angle. Sit on your sit-bones and rock your weight towards the front of the seat. Hip and hamstring flexibility will improve forward reach over time – more on this in the next article.
Forward body angle which is achieved in this way creates a much stronger position at the catch where the force generated from the legs connects to the handle through a straight back, rather than an arched lower back. The forward body angle should be achieved early (arms, body, slide) and maintained into the front end of the stroke. Into frontstops the rower should think about keeping the chest up (just as when doing a dead-lift) and not reaching for extra length. I tell my rowers than any length from body-reach which they don’t have by quarter-slide they shouldn’t reach for into frontstops. Maintain the body angle and use leg compression to get your length. Work on hip and hamstring flexibility off the water to get a longer stroke. This creates a strong base stroke which can be lengthened, rather than a long weak stroke which leaves rowers vulnerable to injury.
In the boat or on the erg rowers can practise finding the correct position through good movements by performing the ‘Hinge’ or ‘Rock-Over’ exercise. Sitting at backstops and keeping arms straight, rowers hinge from the backward lean at the finish (lower back supported) to forward body position. This should be done with no attempt to move the boat or pull the erg handle, just moving lightly through the positions.
On the water this is done with feathered blades with a small amount of weight pressing down on the handles to allow the spoons to skim across the water.
On the erg, have someone place their index finger on your spine where it is level with the top of the pelvis and their thumb two or three vertebrae above this. If you hinge properly you shouldn’t feel the distance between these points stretching as you hinge forward as the spine is pivoting rather than stretching. If you are reaching with your back and not your hips these points will stretch apart as the spine arches over.
In my next article I will demonstrate some strength and flexibility exercises to improve lower back support and stroke length with correct posture to avoid lower back injury and manage existing problems.