Can You Beat Back Pain With These Five Exercises?

One day, my wife, Ellen, came home and said, “Hey I brought something home for you.”

I’m thinking, “Hmmm, iPad maybe? New book? Head phones?”

And she hands me a flier to a fitness bootcamp.

“I thought you might want to check it out since you’re in the same sort of business. These people spoke at our office today. Seems popular.”

And on the front of the flier is this picture (not this exact picture but it was the same drill):

Exercise that can cause low back pain

The Russian Twist

This is one of the worst, riskiest, what-the-hell-are-you-doing exercises you can do for your back.

There are a lot of exercises promoted as anti-back pain; exercises to “strengthen the core”, when, in fact, they have a great chance of giving you back pain.

Here are five commonly suggested back exercises for strengthening your back that you should avoid:

1. The V-Sit Twist. This is the drill above. Sometimes referred to as the “Russian Twist”. To do this, you have to flex your spine, hold your legs and your trunk off the ground, and then layer on top of that a twisting motion. This is like wringing out a dishrag only the dishrag is your lumbar spine. High levels of disc compression blended with flexion and rotation are exactly the combination of forces that place you at risk of an injury.

2. The “Good Morning”. I’ve written about this one before. Nothing “good” about it. A flexed spine with a high load in a vulnerable position.

Good morning back exercise

3. The Prone Superman. Another drill that is very commonly used to “strengthen” the back muscles. superman-ex exercise). You lie face down, lift both arms, head, trunk and both legs off the floor. Stuart McGill, PhD – the master of all things spine and science – has shown that the internal spine pressures created by this exercise exceed the safety limits established by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This move creates over 1300 lbs. of force. Anything over about 740 lbs. correlates highly with increased risk of lower back injury. This level of force can damage ligaments, joint surfaces and even rupture your disc (McGill SM 2006. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance (2nd edition) Wabunu ).

4. Sit Ups. Hard to believe that people still use this exercise (or any of its variations). Once again, Dr. McGill gives us some solid data on the reason why you should drop this from any routine. A sit-up generates approximately 786 pounds of force.

5. The Roman Chair. For those of you who don’t know this drill, here’s a short video:

And the spinal forces on this one? Nearly 1000 lbs. Yikes.

Some people argue that because they don’t feel anything wrong, they don’t hurt, then the drill is safe.

Well, that mindset is shortsighted.

That’s what people said fifty years ago about smoking cigarettes. And we know what happens to people who smoke for years. When you do drills like the ones above, you expose your spine to very high levels of force and risk.

Why do this? When you have so many other options to train the core, abdominals, and spine muscles?

And, should you decide to use these drills, you have to be in exceptional physical condition when you do the drill. These are not drills to get yourself into shape.

Another Way

warrior-3 pose

Here’s a drill from my book, Build a Rock Solid Core, that does a couple of things for you.

This drill is often used in yoga – the Warrior III pose (and in the book, there’s an example of how to do this using a resistance band to help you). You’ll challenge your balance, flexibility and core strength all at once. And it’s spine friendly.

They key is keeping your spine still as you bend forward. The arms held out in front add load to your spinal muscles. You can reduce the load by bending your elbows. If you have difficulty maintaining your balance, you can perform the drill using a resistance band as described in my book.

Hold the position for five, deep, slow breaths on each leg. Repeat five times.

When it comes to strengthening your back, be careful about the drills or exercises you choose. Some are more helpful than others.

photo credit: Arya Ziai via photopin cc

Omar says

Here is a thought DK. You have done a great job of deconstructing a number of drills and grading their safety. What do you think of the idea of similarly grading various other movement related activities such as sports moves or daily chores? Maybe there are things people do on a daily basis that are unwise. Or alternately you could judge the needed capacity for such movements, propose self-tests and then, of course, starting points on Fusion to get you there!

    DD Kelsey says

    Thanks for the suggestion Omar…I’ll look into it.

Kay Y. says

Yikes is right. I think a lot of these new cardiofit programs are dangerous. I know a few fit people that have ended up with injuries from some of the above exercises. Laymen just don’t know they can cause injury, and we depend on our teachers to help us.

    DD Kelsey says

    Thanks Kay – completely agree with you. Exercise is controlled trauma and unfortunately a lot of people and trainers just don’t know enough about how various movements put your body at risk. But we’re doing our best to help that situation. Thanks for commenting.

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