Almost any treatment plan for lower back pain designed by a qualified medical practitioner includes some form of physical exercise, and for good reason. With a regular schedule of cardiovascular, strengthening, and flexibility exercises, sufferers gain the ability to manage their pain (especially the chronic type) much better than those with a sedentary lifestyle. In the long run, training the right muscles correctly will maintain the back functioning properly and help correct any problems from which pain occurs.
But how do you know which muscles to train? Many people don’t check with an experienced trainer to show them what exercises are appropriate for their condition and may end up performing movements that can exacerbate the pain and limit their range of motion. To make sure you’re not causing your back more harm than good, we’ve put together a list of ten most common physical exercises that should be avoided by back pain sufferers. Read on.
Once a favorite of all those seeking a six pack, crunches are now deemed by most trainers as completely ineffective and even dangerous, especially for the spine. For one, crunches ignore the natural curvature of the spine by requiring people to remain in a “flattened” position for the duration of the exercise. In time, this may result in poor posture as those with regular abs training are inclined to “tuck their hips under,” which also creates tension and restriction in the neck and hips. Worse yet, crunches disregard the connection between the abs with the rest of the body, zoning on surface muscles instead of promoting real core strength.
The alternative: front planks, stability ball planks, side planks, stability ball pike, bridge, and others.
#2. Behind-the-head lat pull-downs
Pulling the bar behind the head down to the upper back is a non-physiological exercise that is extremely difficult to perform correctly. Most gym machines are not ergonomically designed to allow and sustain optimal body positioning, so an individual doing this exercise will have the tendency to lean forward, which puts excessive stress on the shoulder muscles and tendons. Repeated exposure under heavy load may increase the risk for shoulder impingement syndrome and glenohumeral joint laxity, which can be very damaging to an athlete’s career. Other negative effects of this movement include neck pain and limited range of motion in the cervical spine and forward head posture.
The alternative: Instead of pulling the bar behind the head, try pulling it in front of the head, down to the collarbone. You will obtain the same results in your back muscles, but with far lower risk for spine damage.
#3. Double leg raises
Double leg raises are done approximately the same as straight-legged sit-ups – and are equally bad for your back. The main problem with this exercise is that it hyperextends the hip flexors (psoas muscles) as they pull on the front of the lumbar vertebrae to lift the load of the feet. This leads to the compression of the lumbar segments, shearing them forward with extreme force. And since they barely work the abdominal muscles, double leg raises are not only dangerous for lower back pain sufferers, but also completely useless for strengthening the abs.
The alternative: Single leg raises with the opposite knee flexed.
#4. Torso twists
This type of exercise and its variations are a staple in almost any Yoga or Pilates class, and many personal trainers include them in their workouts for eliminating love handles and strengthening the obliques. However, this is another move that contradicts the natural biomechanics of the human spine as it requires the individual to twist only the upper body while maintaining the trunk stable and facing forward. Not only is this an awkward movement that causes discomfort when performed, but it also applies excessive rotational force on the lumbar spine, which in time may lead to disk-related injuries and nerve damage.
The alternative: Standing rotational exercises such as cable chops, medicine ball twists, boxing/kickboxing moves.
A few decades ago, deadlifts were considered the king of compound movements, with top powerlifters lifting as much as 900 pounds off the ground. This type of exercise is classed as one of the big weight-lifting exercises, along with bench presses and squats, and for a long time it was considered the ultimate full-body workout among athletes and fitness enthusiasts due to the many types of muscles it engages at once. However, the dangers of doing deadlifts – and especially doing them wrong – far exceed the benefits. Here are some of the most common:
- Their back rounds and compresses the front part of the intervertebral discs
- Their back arches and compresses the back part of the intervertebral discs
- They don’t bend at the knees and put further stress on the lower spine
- They are lifting and lowering the bar away from the body instead of straight up and down, which is harder on the spine
The alternative: Bird dogs work the buttocks and the hamstring, as well as the muscles around the spine, without the risk for injury.
Any exercise selected for a training routine should have an underlying value and, most importantly, not exacerbate any existing conditions. Work with your local chiropractor to design an exercise program that will not only improve your flexibility and strength, but also protect you from future pain and injury.
About the Author
Dr. Marc Browner is the Founder of iChiropractic and Wellness in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida in 1991, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life Chiropractic in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.