Rowing machines provide excellent workouts. They burn fat, strengthen the legs, torso and shoulders and increase your overall stamina. Since the motion of rowing is primarily at the knees, some people worry about developing or exacerbating knee problems. But rowing doesn't have to cause stress or injuries -- in fact, in some instances, it helps damaged knees.
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Knee injuries caused by rowing machines include twisting the knee, irritating the muscles at the kneecap and straining tendons or ligaments. Some rowers twist a knee because they don't strap their feet in properly. For others, the iliotibial bands, muscles that run from the hips to the knees, may rub against the knee bones and become irritated from repetitive stress. The most serious injuries happen from hyperextension, at the end or finish of the drive or power stroke.
Rowing injuries are usually unique to rowing machines. In boat rowing, the seat deck prevents twisting and hyperextension. According to "Rowing News," the coaches of serious rowers sometimes build a block under the seat carriage of a rowing machine to prevent hyperextension. This can be difficult for those with no modification experience and may void any warranties on your rowing machine. The magazine instead recommends asking a trainer to watch and correct your form and stay aware of the potential for injury.
The best way to avoid or correct knee problems when rowing is to use proper form. Rowing strokes consist of two parts -- drive and recovery. The drive is the portion of the stroke you power by pulling back. Keep the head, neck and shoulders relaxed and lean your upper body back a bit as you reach the finish or full extension. The recovery is the release and rest before the next stroke. Bend your knees as the oar and your hands clear them.
Rowing machines can be beneficial to people who require rehabilitation after an autologous chondrocyte implantation or ACI, a common knee surgery that replaces damaged cartilage. Researchers at London Metropolitan University recommend that in rehabilitation, stress during a range of 40- to 70-degree flexion of the knee is minimized, but not avoided. They found rowing machines rely on that range for less than half the power required in the drive part of a stroke. Compared to cycling and other traditional knee rehabilitation -- and when hyperextension is avoided -- rowing is a favorable post-surgery strengthening exercise.