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Why THIS Low Back Exercise Is Bad

Screen Shot 2021 04 04 at 9.46.55 AM - Why THIS Low Back Exercise Is Bad

I think social media can be an infinite resource to inspire ideas of what great content to share with you. In all honesty, I see the good and bad of social media like everyone else, but sometimes something happens that is just too good not to share in order to help drive home a point. Last week I shared a great post by DVRT Master, Cory Cripe that you can see below in discussing a common low back exercise and why it isn’t good.

I know that people get really wound up when you tell them an exercise they may be familiar with and even use isn’t great, in fact, even say it is “bad” (something I will definitely expand on). As you can see, it did overall get a very positive response, but there were a few that were just really “confused” by the whole thing. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to discuss a few ideas at once.

-What is good versus bad low back exercise selection

-What could make an exercise bad

-Is there even such a thing as bad movement

So, let’s hit it!

Why is the superman exercise stated to be a bad low back exercise? I thought it was actually more simple and I was going to spend more time explaining why the other DVRT exercises are much better (something I will do), however, a few people seemed to get really triggered by the idea of the superman being a “bad” low back exercise. Up front I want you to know that I have done the superman, I have recommended the superman, so, it isn’t like I am pretending to be smarter than everyone else even though I have made the same mistakes. What I did though was learn the problems the superman poses and made changes to both what I did and recommended based on that, amazing concept right? However, others seem to struggle with the same. Let’s be clear though why I came around to the superman being a bad low back exercise.

It starts with the idea that everyone has a certain level of spinal tolerance and capacity. Think of tolerance as “does a movement hurt?”, simply, can you tolerate the movement, the speed, the load, the range of motion, etc. Now capacity is more of how MUCH can you tolerate, a great example for our discussion is the sit-up controversy. When many coaches point to sit-ups being “bad” they point to the very high forces on the. spine that the sit-up causes in a flexed spine position (a position that is easier to herniate discs of the spine). Of course the defenders of the sit-up use great science in the line of, “well, I know this guy and he has done a million sit-ups and never had an issue!” (you can substitute “some guy” for themselves too).

This is where the lack of understanding comes into play about capacity. All our tolerance and capacity is different, people like renown spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill are well known for making strong models predicting these things (because ethically you can cause pain to people in studies so you need to create models). Dr. McGill shares that all of us have a finite amount of flexion movements of our spine, some have a lot, others have much less. We know that people with low back pain usually have a reduce tolerance and capacity of the spine for a lot of things, so there is no way to test how much capacity you have other than doing a certain number of repetitions of something and seeing if you have pain. Of course that pain doesn’t have to happen after one workout, it may come after many. In other words, you are simply playing Russian roulette with one’s spine.

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How does this relate to the superman being a bad low back exercise? As easy as it is to bash on sit-ups, it is actually potentially EASIER to do so for the superman when you see the information about loading on the spine during the superman as you see below.

low back exercise

It is obvious that the sit-up can create a heck of a lot of compression force, but the superman (described as back extension arms and legs) is almost TWICE as much! Now, these numbers don’t mean anything if we don’t have some context for them right? So, let’s give them that. The National Institute of Occupational Health (sounds important right?) recommends not exceeding 3400N of compression force to keep workers safe. You can see that the superman BLOWS that recommendation out of the water. Oddly, this did not dissuade some people, some tried to be smarter about it and brought up an interesting discussion.

What about a low back exercise like the deadlift? Doesn’t that exceed this 3400N of force recommendation too? Yet, deadlifts can be a good low back exercise, so what gives? It is true that deadlifting even a 50 pound box can create 6000-7000 N of compression load and some have measured maximal effort deadlifts as high as over 18,000, so how can I say a deadlift is a good low back exercise and the superman is bad? Well, we have to get dorky for a second, so hang in there I’m confident you will follow this logic.

Compression force can be created through different means. In the case of the deadlift, those high compression forces are mostly attributed to core stiffness created by the lifter during the movement. A good reason you see as loading goes up, so does the compression forces because the lifter is creating more core stability through higher core tension, but there really isn’t much at all in ways of spinal movement. Conversely, the superman is creating most of its compression force through spinal extension. One of the areas that can get heavily impacted in a negative way are the facet joints of your spine, it isn’t limited to your facet joints though as it can also negatively impact your ligaments, muscles, even certain pain receptors.

facet joints - Why THIS Low Back Exercise Is Bad

Facet joints are small, but can be VERY painful.

Now this is REALLY important because it will help us discuss the fact there are actually bad exercises and this is definitely a bad low back exercise. EVERY exercise has an inherent risk and the reason we use them is that risk is rather small and it is mitigated by much larger benefits (especially benefits that can’t be found in other exercises that make the risk smaller). It is strange that even professionals in the industry will claim there are no such things as bad exercises. They often believe that you either just “adapt” and/or if you don’t get hurt right away how could it be bad?

Honestly, I don’t understand that mentality. If we put it into two other examples, it seems almost impossible to defend such a belief. Let’s say you are using to making 20,000 dollars a month (that would be awesome right?), one month though you only make 2,000 dollars. Now, in both cases you made money, but would it not it be common to see that the 2,000 dollar month was far less productive to the baseline you were use to, dare I say you would say that was a “bad” month?

We can get closer to exercise by using a medication example. If you are sick and I present you with two drugs let’s see what your perception of them becomes. Drug A solves your condition with an 80% success rate and only 10% risk of side effects, Drug B solves your condition with a 10% success rate, but has an 80% chance for side effects. I hope I don’t have to ask which drug you would choose, but why would you not choose drug B? I’m guessing you would say it was a “bad” drug even though both have some level of success in helping your condition. You see how most think bad in an odd way of either you get hurt that movement or not, when bad is much bigger in context.

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Exercise IS a prescription, not terribly different from medication.

Back to our low back exercise discussion of the superman, that exercise can only be considered “bad” if I can’t offer you something better, like significantly better right? Well, how about that, it is rather easy to do! As Dr. McGill points out, instead of doing a superman we can use the bird dog for a MUCH better low back exercise. How does a bird dog equal a superman though as we aren’t stressing the back in the same way right?

This gets into the bigger understanding of what a low back exercise that helps low back pain actually does! Research time and time again fails to point to strength of the low back, and not even mobility of the spine, as well correlated factors to helping low back pain.

low back exercise

This kinda information frustrates a lot of people because we are so programmed to believe training a muscle makes the body work better. In a very limited number of cases overall this is true, but especially helping injury it is far more limited and often not the case. When creating a low back exercise that accomplishes the goals of working towards helping low back pain we need to know a few keys…

-Spinal Stability/Stiffness: Spinal stability is achieved when all muscles of the core work at the same time to create a stiffness to the core that creates that stability. It isn’t one muscle or two, but about 30 plus muscles that have to work together and the right time. That is why a plank done well can be a good core stability exercise. However, a bird dog could be even better because we have to learn not only to create this stiffness, but do so while resisting forces that are trying to pull our body out of position.

-Proximal Stability: Probably the issue that frustrates so many professionals is that there is very little research to point to low back strength being helpful for low back pain, BUT core endurance and proper timing of the use of the core muscles have very strong relationships. A lot of people don’t like such information because you have to be more thoughtful about which exercises you use and how you use them instead of just saying, “you gotta get strong brah!”

Proximal stability in the bird dog is a good example of both these qualities. Bird dogs are often done slowly, have holds up to 10 seconds used, and because of the moving arm and leg, you have to reflexively stabilize and have proper timing of the core muscles (this is why doing a bird dog row is really a cheat because having the leg already extended creates stability that take reduces the stability demands).

ultimate sandbag core exercise

A bird dog as Greg Perlaki shows above is ideal, while Jessica below is cheating with the leg already extended and is forced to put the arm in an awkward position. There are much better progressions of this GOOD low back exercise we can use instead. 

low back exercise

The last part is to understand that any exercise can be done poorly and oh man, the bird dog gets abused A LOT! So, how do know the right intentions before we build progressions? Physical therapist, Jessica Bento, helps me break them down below as we will offer some great progressions. As you go through these I hope a few things came about from this discussion. One, you understand what a good low back exercise is and is not, you learned what can make for a bad exercise and can make better decisions, lastly, don’t rely even people with great credentials to always know better, debate concepts and information, not people. I hope this helps and you are always welcome to ask questions!

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Check out the great progressions Sarah Rippel breaks down and try them in your workouts.