Is the superman exercise really super?

One of the common statements that I get when speaking with an adult suffering from sciatica pain is that they need to work on their core strength; or their doctor/physical therapist said that they need to build their core strength. So these folks begin a “core strength program” which would often consist of planks, bird dogs, side planks, and superman raises. While there are a lot of valid reasons as to why planks and bird dogs are helpful with strengthening the core, the superman exercise may cause more harm than good. And here’s why:

For starters, you have permission to stop doing the “superman” exercise. If you don’t know what that is, it is when you are laying face down and you lift both your chest and thighs off the floor. This exercise is theorized to strengthen the back extensors, which are often thought to be weak in people experiencing back and sciatica pain. However, if you are not folded over like a piece of paper at your back, your core is actually plenty strong.

The act of lifting both the chest and thighs off the ground facilitates an “extension” or “leaning back motion”. Theoretically speaking, back extension is designed to reduce the bulge of a disc (you see the disc will move in the direction of least resistance).  However, what this doesn’t account for is the compressive and shear forces that happen when the back muscles are contracting aggressively into the extension. 

The repeated chest and leg raise actually increase shear forces at the back, and if there is instability of your spine, the superman exercise actually perpetuates it. So save yourself some time and pain by stopping this exercise. But the question then becomes, how can we strengthen our back extensors? How can we make it so that our core is strong and doesn’t get injured or further injured?

Two simple ways. 

1) Brace. This simple way to contract your entire core (abs, obliques, and back extensors) to create tension throughout the area between your hips and shoulders. This was designed to resist motion, not create extra motion. If you are going to be pushing or exerting yourself, every force should be generated at the midline (hence bracing your abs and core)

2) Hinge at the hips. It is easy to let the chest stay up when picking things up from the ground. In fact, you have permission to lean forward, so that you can use your abs as they were designed to do: support your spine. This is something that you can do whenever you pick something up from the floor. It may sound counter intuitive, but letting that torso lean forward results in more butt and hamstring tension, which will protect your back.

What exercises are you doing to strengthen your core? I’ll share some more with you tomorrow.


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