Five Exercises You Must Avoid If you Have Back Pain

It is great that more people are starting to realize that their sedentary lifestyle is killing them. Its also good that they realize that diet alone is not the answer. They understand that even women could benefit from weight training along with the many benefits of weight training for children. Unfortunately, the world is filled with many mis-guided exercise advice that could harm you in the long run. The following exercises are ones you must avoid at all cost if you are currently dealing with low back pain:



No, not this superman


I’m referring to THIS superman exercise

This is a very popular exercise subscribed by many “rehab” clinics worldwide ESPECIALLY for back patients. But according to Dr. Stuart McGill’s research at University of Waterloo, this exercise will exert approximately 6000 Newton worth of force on a hyper flexed lumbar spine. i.e. a horrible exercise for those already with compromised back.  It’s true that those with spine injuries (facet joint irritation, end plate fracture, disc bulge etc) could do better with better back muscle endurance. But there are better exercises out there with less risk. You can read more of it on his book Back Mechanics. Of course, if you are pain free and you want to gain increased athletic capability, its your choice to consider the risk and reward.

2. Sit Ups

090611-N-3271W-003 CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (June 11, 2009) Local area children test their fitness skills during a Junior Seal Fitness Challenge at Warner Park organized by the Navy and the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department. The event is in conjunction with Chattanooga Navy Week, one of 21 Navy Weeks planned across America in 2009. Navy Weeks are designed to show Americans the investment they have made in their Navy and increase awareness in cities that do not have a significant Navy presence. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward/Released)

Yes, we get it, you want a 6 pack to impress that hot chick at the gym/office/mall or whatever. And if you google search on “6 pack exercise”, all top 10 links will show sit ups and its variations on their list (crunch, weighed sit up, etc.). But are you dealing with back pain right now? Muscle soreness is good. But joint soreness is bad. And that lower back soreness you experience after doing your sit ups and crunches are not from the muscle, it’s from the over stressed disk you tortured while doing your sit ups and crunches. In fact, this exercise is so harmful that the Canadian Armed Forces completely took sit ups off from their fit and proper test.

Trust me, there are better ways to train your core without sacrificing your back. Dr. McGill had it all written down in his book Ultimate Back Fitness which he already used these methods to train injured world class athletes so they can compete again after they finished being treated by Dr. McGill.

3. Yoga

OK, I might be kicking on a hornet’s nest here so before we go too far, let us compare these two images:

yoga wheelbarrowyoga wheel

Notice anything different between the two of them? If you had done the Iyengar yoga teacher training by Ann Barros, or you had an equally good training in the past, you would have realized from the images alone that one might be correct while the other will wreck your lumbar spine, we are talking about risk of pars fracture etc here. And if you have a good yoga teacher, he or she should tell you which muscles to engage while you are in the correct posture to ensure you do not injure your lumbar spine and knees while doing this movement (hence I said “might” on the prior sentence).

Unfortunately, based on my experience, quite a lot of “certified” yoga teachers at boutique studios don’t even know which one is right and which one is wrong. I can tell you that even some women’s fitness magazine put up the wrong picture. And if you happen to practice your yoga in a commercial gym, I can guarantee that your yoga teacher that must do x number of poses in a 30+ people room would not care about the fat guy at the corner. So my conclusion is that over 90% of you would not get proper yoga training and will ended up worse than before you started in terms of dealing with your back pain. Hence my recommendation that you stay away from this one. Its an entirely different matter if you got a great teacher that can make sure that all your poses are correct or modify the poses to suit your injury and biological limitation, and you are firing the right muscles.

4. Russian Twist

russian twist

Yes, this exercise and its variations are extremely popular among the meatheads. But if you are already dealing with disk bulges, generating power (strength and speed at the same time) with spine twist will cause even worse damage to your disk than simple sit-up. More scientific explanation in this is also explained in Back Mechanics.

If you want to train your obliques, there are better ways to do it without harming your spine, especially considering that your core musculature was designed to create stiffness, not promote mobility.

5. Bear Crawl

bear crawl

Along with the rise of trends like calisthenics, crossfit,  bootcamp, and the weird “primal patterns” movement, we get this metabolic conditioning exercise. Yes, its good to train your muscle coordination, gives full body workout and raises your heart rate fast. But do you feel that dull pain on your lower back after you finish doing this exercise? Same with after doing sit ups? Its probably because most people (including this youtube fitness guru whose image I used) don’t really have the hip mobility needed to do the bear crawl without putting high pressure on their lumbar spine disk. Of course there is a way to modify the bear crawl to ensure no undue pressure is put on your lumbar spine, but hey, does your trainer knows about it?


Some trainers go by mottoes like “pain is weakness leaving the body” and other macho sentences. And I get it, as a former martial artist myself, in a fight, you must have the grit to fight through pain in order to win the fight. Hence during your training, you should get accustomed to it.

However, as I often mention, there are different kinds of pain, and your body heals at different rate depending on the tissue being injured. Repeatedly injuring a tissue that has yet to heal will not make you stronger, it might make you crippled. And if you are already dealing with pain, and not a spring chicken yourself, you should follow Dr. Gray Cook’s advice, “move well, then move a lot”.

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