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Rowing machines offer a low-impact workout.
Rowing machines offer excellent cardiovascular workouts while providing resistance for your upper and lower body, but they aren't right for everyone. The repetitive motion of bending your knees as you row can help build strong muscle around the knees, but it can also cause pain in people with certain conditions. Ask your doctor if rowing is the right exercise for your before climbing on the machine.
Rowing machines strengthen muscles around your knee joints. However, repetitive bending and straightening of these joints can make conditions such as arthritis, worse.
Focus on the Positive
Rowing machines help build strong knees by working the quadriceps in the front of the thighs and the hamstrings in the back. When these muscles aren't worked equally, an imbalance in their strength can lead to pain in your knees or other areas, such as your back. Rowing provides resistance to both in continuous motion, so it can help prevent knee pain if you aren't currently experiencing any.
Know the Negative
Rowing machines can make existing knee problems worse, particularly if you have trouble with arthritis or other pain that's not muscle-related or if you're currently recovering from a knee injury. At the minimum - with the least amount of resistance programmed into the rowing machine - you're pushing your full body weight with your knees. Adding resistance to that can stress your knees even more. The repetitive motion combined with the deep knee bend required on a rowing machine can make arthritis and existing knee pain worse.
Reduce Pain with Proper Form
After checking with your doctor to ensure rowing is safe for your knees, ask a trainer to teach you the proper form for the machine. Pushing from your heels rather than your toes helps reduce the risk of knee pain as you row. You should keep your back straight and move your legs in a full range of motion - extend them fully as you push back, for example, rather than leaving your knees slightly bent. When you enter the recovery phase of the move, which is when you're moving forward and bending your knees again, allow your arms to straighten first until the bar reaches your knees before you bend them. This helps you keep the proper body position and cadence to your exercise.
Consider Other Exercise Options
When using the rowing machine isn't the best choice for you, several options exist to take it easy on your knees while still burning calories. In the gym, seek out an elliptical machine, for example, which is lower impact even than walking - although walking is another exercise option. Swimming and water aerobics take pressure off your joints, helping you exercise without stressing your knees. A stationary bicycle might be the best choice for a resistance workout that's not weight-bearing. You can control the pedal resistance without pushing against your body in any way.
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