Exercises that are bad for your back

Written by nick tumminello
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To avoid a battered back, avoid these common moves

Exercises that are bad for your back
Back Pain (Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images)

Current research has shown that the superman exercise and several of its variations have little or no benefit on back strength and posture.

— Mel Siff, "Fact and Fallacies of Fitness"

Have you ever thought about why you do the exercises in your current workout routine? Probably not. Because the fact is, most people, even personal trainers, learn their moves from coaches or from a book, or maybe even from an online video and continue doing these exercises indefinitely. It's always a good idea to occasionally stop and evaluate the worth of an exercise, assess its risk to reward ratio. After all, a few of the commonly included moves in yoga and Pilates classes, along with those in the "core training" or "functional" strength programs of many personal trainers, aren't really that great at all. In fact, you might be surprised to discover some of these exercises are not only ineffective but could actually cause an injury to your lower back. Take a look at the following three exercises, for example. You and most people you know have probably done these exercises at one point or another. And yet, based on the latest science, as well as on the bio-mechanical design of the body, these moves may be far more dangerous than beneficial.

The prone superman

You'd be hard pressed to find an exercise book or video that doesn't include the prone superman. Not only is the exercise a familiar and enduring fitness training tool, it's also frequently used by physical therapists. But most trainers and therapists eliminate this move once they're informed of its inherent danger.

The setup for the prone superman is to lie face down on the floor with your arms extended in front of you, resembling the position Superman takes when he flies. To perform the exercise, you lift both of your arms and both of your legs off the ground simultaneously.

Issues with the prone superman begin with its limitations. The range of motion in this exercise is so narrow that you'll never strengthen the muscles of the lower back, glutes and hamstrings in any significant way.

In his book "Fact and Fallacies of Fitness," Mel Siff says that "current research has shown that the superman exercise and several of its variations have little or no benefit on back strength and posture," adding that "it's not uncommon for this exercise to cause acute back pain and spasm."

If you're looking to strengthen your lower back, glutes and hamstrings, replace the prone superman with deadlifts, good mornings, back squats, Roman chair back extensions, ball leg curls and machine leg curls.

Lying torso twist

The lying torso twist is another exercise that just about everyone, from beginners to personal trainers, seem to use as a staple in their abs workout or core training program. The move entails lying on the floor, with your legs up, and twisting your hips from side to side. There are two variations of this exercise: One version is done with bent knees, while the other, tougher, version is done with straight legs.

But according to Shirley Sahrmann, a professor in the program in physical therapy at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, movements like the prone torso twist, as well as its variations, contradict the natural biomechanics of the lumbar spine. Sahrmann notes in her book "Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes" that "rotation of the lumbar spine is more dangerous than beneficial, and rotation of the pelvis and lower extremities to one side while the trunk remains stable or is rotated to the other side is particularly dangerous."

Sahrmann goes on to explain that the thoracic spine, or the middle of the spine, is where the greatest amount of rotation occurs in the trunk, not in the lumbar, or lower, spine. When you practice rotational exercises, therefore, you should, as Sahrmann advises, think about the motion occurring at the chest-level area, not lower.

On the other hand, it is important to include rotary training movements in your workout. These movements are highly beneficial and very functional, but you should perform them in an upright position.

Siff points out that standing rotational exercises are safer on your back and certainly have more functional carryover to sports than the practice of lying on the ground. He writes, "A certain degree of compressive preloading locks the facet assembly of the spine and makes it more resistant to torsion. This is the reason why trunk rotation without vertical compression may cause disc injury, whereas the same movement performed with compression is significantly safer."

Some examples of upright torso rotation exercises are cable chops, medicine ball twists and medicine ball rotary throws against a concrete wall. You could also sign up for a group boxing or kickboxing class. Each time you punch or kick, you rotate, effectively using all the muscles around your torso.

Yoga scorpion pose

As the name implies, the yoga scorpion pose, another trunk rotation exercise, was originally intended as a yoga pose. It's showing up more and more, though, in fitness and performance training programs, either as a dynamic warm-up stretch or as a "core exercise" performed on a Swiss ball.

A look at the movement confirms there's no sport or activity in daily life that even remotely resembles the body position and action of this exercise. And not only does the yoga scorpion pose look unnatural, it's also invalidated by the science of human biomechanics, which shows the exercise has the potential to damage your lower back.

In his book, "The Malalignment Syndrome: Implications for Medicine and Sport," Dr. Wolf Schamberger points out the major flaw with the scorpion pose is that it requires you to simultaneously extend and rotate your spine. This type of motion can cause stress to the spinal facet joints. Schamberger writes, "The facet joints are stressed non-specifically on side bending, back extension alone and back extension combined with rotation to the right or left."

The danger is further confirmed in a 2007 "Neurosurgical Focus" article by Hassan A. Serhan et al., titled Biomechanics of the Posterior Lumbar Articulating Elements, which states, "Loads on the facet joints of the lumbar spine may play a major role in low-back pain."

The article goes on to point out that facet joint compression, the very stress and compression that is placed on the facet joints during movements like the scorpion pose, can lead to at least three causes of back pain: spinal osteoarthritis, bulging and herniated discs, and nerve root impingement.

If you're performing the yoga scorpion pose as part of a stretching routine, replace it with the traditional chest doorway stretches and quadriceps heel-to-butt stretches.

If you're using the scorpion as a dynamic warm up to "activate" your glutes, replace it with single leg glute bridges instead.

And if you're performing the scorpion as a part of your yoga class, you should approach your instructor and request that the pose no longer be included. Talk about the research or offer to email this article so your instructor can read it. But if after reading about the dangers, your instructor still insists on continuing the pose, or claims "it's just how we've always done yoga," you may want to find a new yoga teacher. After all, no matter how highly you may think of your instructor, the health of your back comes first.

Tips and warnings

  • Just because a certain exercise hasn't hurt you or caused any damage yet does not mean it never will. Keep in mind that a good exercise program places minimal stress on the joints while placing maximal stress on the muscles.

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