Exercises that are bad for your back

Written by nick tumminello
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Exercises that are bad for your back
Back Pain (Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images)

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.

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"

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

Exercise risk vs. reward

All exercises have both a risk and a reward. Choose exercises that pose the least risk while offering the most benefit. Don't do an exercise just because it looks cool or because that's what you've always done. Remember, your primary goal is to not get injured while getting into shape.

You can quickly and easily evaluate any exercise by asking yourself this question: "Does the exercise make both common sense and scientific sense?"

The common sense part is simple. You can determine that by just looking at the movement. If it looks natural or seems similar to an action used during normal daily activities or for a specific sport you play, it may be beneficial to perform the exercise.

Use common sense about how the exercise feels, too. If it feels natural -- not uncomfortable or awkward -- it may be a better option for you than other movements that might not feel as natural.

When trying to determine the scientific sense of an exercise, you'll need to do a bit of basic research. Read all that you can about the exercise and see what various, legitimate exercise experts and researchers have to say about the movement.

Nearly all exercises have both risks and benefits. Certain sports or competition programs demand many of the higher risk exercises, such as heavy lifts; fast, or explosive, lifts; and specific, possibly unnatural, postures. These moves are a part of the training your body needs to be prepared for the specific demands of the given task or sport.

As long as the risk does not outweigh the rewards, you're probably on the right track.

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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