Back issues and the wrong exercises
Published: March 6, 2023
I oftentimes see people make some terrible choices when selecting exercises, specifically people with one or more orthopedic back issues who randomly choose exercises that are back unfriendly.
And unfortunately it’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed for decades.
So with that as the theme today, I’m going to offer up a list of some the most common wrong-choice exercises for “bad backers,” and then I’ll suggest some back friendly alternatives.
Wrong Choice 1: Straight leg and bent knee sit-ups
Now I get that everyone craves six-pack abs, but these particular exercises are definitely the wrong way to go if you have low back problems. That’s because the spine takes a beating when you go from a lying position to an upright 90-degree position. It only makes back pain worse. What’s more, you newbies who jump straight into these sit-up variations likely posses weak abs. And when that’s the case the poor old lower back ends up doing the lion’s share of work––not the abs.
Alternative 1: Half or quarter crunches
Keep the knees bent/feet flat on the floor, and instead of sitting up to 90 degrees, just crunch up to 20-30 degrees, bringing the shoulder blades some four to six inches off the floor.
Wrong Choice 2: Superman
This is a wonderful back strengthening exercise, but if you have disk issues it can further exacerbate disk bulging.
Alternative 2: Quadraplex
I often have my seniors perform this exercise - aka the Birddog. Here the spine remains neutral while at the same time they’re working a plethora of core musculature.
Wrong Choice 3: Squat and deadlift
If you’ve got sciatic, disk and/or spinal stenosis issues, then these are two exercises you’ll probably what to avoid. Near impeccable form is critical during these lifts, yet far too often I see people rounding their backs when performing them. You can sneak by with bad form if you’re not hindered by back problems but when you are your chiropractor could be awaiting you after the gym session is over.
Alternative 3: Leg press machine or hip sled. These exercises will strengthen quads, hamstrings and glutes just like deadlifts and squats but the back remains in a neutral position, and bad form is thereby neutralized. There’s also a more technical alternative, the Zercher squat, a front-loading variation of the back squat that permits one to maintain a neutral spine.
Wrong Choice 4: Dumbbell and barbell shoulder presses
I love these exercises, but if you have back problems they can be sketchy at best. Understand that overhead lifts tend to put a lot of stress on the spinal disks. Moreover, I can’t tell you how many times I see people arching their low backs when performing these exercises, which in and of itself is a major league way to blow a disk.
Alternative 4: I, Y, T shoulder raise
Never heard of it? This is a dumbbell combo exercise that entails one front raise and two side raises variations performed consecutively. Now it might entail low-weight but believe me, it’s quite challenging. This exercise targets the rhomboids, rear deltoids and rotator cuff muscles all in one fell swoop.
Wrong Choice 5: Burpees
Yup, they’re a major calorie burner for sure, but if you have back issues these explosive, high impact movements could very likely put you in the hurt locker, the wrong kind of hurt locker.
Alternative 5: Short 2-3-minute aerobic HIIT intervals
These could entail fast walking or jogging on the treadmill, stationary cycling, or the elliptical. Performing them briskly will get that heart rate up just like the burpee without punishing the back.
Wrong Choice 6: The plank
Again, another great core exercise, but so many folks perform it incorrectly by doing what I call the “helium butt,” (pointing the rear end high in the air), or by sagging like a wet noodle at the midsection. In both cases the poor old back suffers yet another indignity.
Fix 6: Dead bug
Your back’s supported in this exercise, but make sure to keep that low back pressed to the floor such that you can adequately target those ab muscles properly.
As you can see, unwittingly choosing the wrong exercises can often exacerbate back problems, but if you begin the selection process by exercising that muscle in your head…you’ll find there’s a safe alternative for just about anything.