Fitness and health experts tend to agree that certain machines at the gym may actually cause or worsen lower back problems.
Besides placing unsafe amounts of pressure on your back, the movements associated with some of these machines aren’t ‘functional’, meaning they don’t replicate anything you do outside the weight room.
Without further ado, here are 5 gym exercise machines that should be avoided if you have lower back pain symptoms.
1. Roman chair
The ‘Roman Chair’, or back extension machine, aims to activate the lumbar (low back), thoracic (mid back) extensors and abdominal muscles at a cost of 4000 Newtons of spinal compression, according to Prof. Stuart McGill, Director of the Spine Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Waterloo.
This is above the spinal load limit (3300 Newtons) recommended by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Instead, try this: Banded hyperextensions.
2. Leg Press
Leg presses create tremendous compression of the lumbar spine and discs.
‘Although this machine is meant to work your legs, your lower back takes on a lot of the stress from lifting the weight.’ says Dr Michael Gleiber, an orthopedic spine surgeon focusing on injuries and diseases of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine.
‘This causes the lower back to flex, which could put you at risk for a herniated disc or exacerbate other lower back problems’, he explains.
Instead, try this: Goblet squats.
3. Loaded Standing Calf Raise
With each repetition, the added weight that a loaded standing calf raise machine puts on your shoulders travels down and compresses your spinal column.
This negates any benefits that these machines may offer and increases the potential of hurting your back.
‘This machine is intended to work your calves, but the weight rests on your shoulders during the workout’, says Dr Gleiber.
‘While it may make regular calf raises more challenging, having all of that weight on your shoulders puts too much stress on your spine’, he explains.
Instead, try this: Single-leg calf raises.
4. Hip Abductor
According to Dr. Gleiber, the squeezing action associated with hip abductors ‘can strain the spine as you work to squeeze them together or pull them apart while using the machine’.
To make matters worse, regularly lifting heavy loads on this machine ‘can make the IT band so tight it throws the knee cap out of place’, says Rebecca Woll (M.A. Motor Learning and Control, CSCS).
Instead, try this: Standing hip abductions, lateral lunges or single leg squats.
5. Seated Torso/Abs Rotation
All twisting or rotational exercises must be considered with caution, warns the Spinal Research Foundation (SPINERF), as these types of exercises create high compressive forces on the spine.
‘The load bearing ability of the disc is substantially reduced with twisting, as half of the fibers become disabled due to their oblique orientation. Yet with rotation, there is an increase in lumbar muscle co-activation resulting in greater spinal compression on the discs that are already weakened in their twisted state.’
As Dr. Shirley Sahrmann, professor of physical therapy at Washington University put it in her book Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes:
‘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’.
Instead, try this: Pallof Press, named after physical therapist John Pallof.