The right kind of lower back pain exercises can give you relief, but the wrong moves can leave you in even more agony – and possibly send you on a trip to the ER.
Here are 6 exercises that can do more harm than good if you’ve got a bad back, and should be avoided until you feel better.
Recommended spinal load limit
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The lower limit of spinal compression has been recommended by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to be 3,300 Newton (730 lb or 336 kg of force).
As a result, doing exercises that impose more than 3,300 Newton of compressive force on the spine may worsen or increase the chance of a back injury.
The popular Superman exercise aims to activate the lumbar, thoracic and cervical (neck) extensors at a cost of 6000 newtons of spinal compression.
This is among the highest amounts recorded by Prof. Stuart McGill, director of the University of Waterloo’s Spine Biomechanics Laboratory, who conducted studies to determine how much spinal compression occurs during common back and abdominal exercises (see table above).
Supermans result in ‘compression on a hyperextended spine, crushing the facets and interspinous ligaments’, says the Spinal Research Foundation (SPINERF), placing it high on the list of exercises to avoid if you’ve got lower back pain.
It’s time to ditch the sit-up, an outdated exercise today viewed as a key cause of lower back injuries.
According to Harvard Health Publications, sit-ups ‘push your curved spine against the floor’, imposing more pressure on the vertebrae than the limit recommended by NIOSH.
They also work your hip flexors, which run from the thighs to the lower back. ‘When the hip flexors are too tight or strong, they tug on the lumbar spine, which can cause discomfort.’
Even the U.S. Army has acknowledged the dangers that sit-ups pose, and is slowly phasing it out from their training programs and Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), with the Marines and Navy likely to follow suit.
3. Leg raises
Like sit-ups, the muscles primarily responsible for raising the legs are the hip flexors, not the abdominal muscle.
Doing leg raises is ‘only going to make your hip flexors tighter and put you at risk for back pain’, says chiropractic physician Dr. Leonard Lopez.
This applies to both lying and hanging leg raises, which he explains are essentially ‘the same thing as straight-legged sit-ups, done in reverse’.
4. Toe touches
Former U.S. Navy research scientist Dr. Jolie Bookspan says that while the toe-touch ‘does stretch your back and hamstrings, and may feel good, it is terrible for your back’.
‘Many people hurt from excessive forward bending. Unfortunately, many exercises they do for their back often involves more forward bending’.
Instead, she suggests that ‘it is important to strengthen the muscles that pull the back the other way. These are the extension exercises’.
Dr. Michael Yessis, an expert on biomechanics and kinesiology, agrees that standing (and seated) toe touches can be dangerous. ‘As a result of doing such stretches over a long period of time, you will have permanently stretched back ligaments that create a loosely held lumbar spine that becomes prone to injury’, he explains.
Based on a detailed analysis of the burpee exercise by Dr. Christopher Notley, a chiropractor and athletic therapist, two parts of this popular routine could lead to back pain – the transition from the squat to pushup position and back again.
He explains that during these transitions, ‘a large amount of hip flexion is needed. If performed without adequate hip mobility, the lower back will have to flex’.
‘If the lower back flexes (bends) excessively, the facet joints can become irritated’, thereby increasing the chances of hurting your lower back.
In the event that you can’t get down to a full squat, then consider using an aerobic platform stepper (such as this one) to put your hands on rather than on the floor to help lessen the amount of flexion required.
6. Overhead weightlifting
Exercises where weights are lifted overhead should be avoided because ‘they can axially load the spinal column’, according to Dr. Jason Highsmith, a neurosurgeon whose practice encompasses the entire field of neurosurgery, from brain tumors to pinched spinal nerves.
He explained that these kinds of routines can ‘compress the spine from the top’ and goes on to suggest that if your back hurts, exercises like ‘military presses and weight-assisted lunges are not recommended’.
With any form of exercise that involves overhead weightlifting, you also risk overextending your lumbar spine. Overextension of the lumbar spine can cause facet joint damage and pain to the lower back.