Four exercises to avoid if you have back pain – and what to do instead

Date:  June 17, 2020


Four exercises to avoid if you have back pain – and what to do instead

Physical activity is a great way to prevent and treat back pain – but did you know that some exercises can do more harm than good?

To avoid putting too much strain on the joints, ligaments, and muscles in your back, here is a list of exercises to avoid, as well as some alternatives. Talk to your chiropractor to determine which exercises are right for you.

AVOID: Superman back extensions

In this exercise, you begin by lying face down, simultaneously lifting your arms and legs off the ground and holding that position. Most people experience quite a bit of discomfort with this exercise, and research has shown that it creates the highest amount of stress to the joints of the low back.1


The bird-dog exercise is commonly recommended to strengthen and stabilize your low back without overloading your spine. Start on your hands and knees and engage your abdominal muscles with deep, steady breathing. Slowly lift and extend one leg behind you to hip level without tilting your pelvis. Raise and extend the opposite arm to shoulder level. Hold for 10 seconds, then return to starting position. Repeat 8–12 times, then switch to the opposite leg and arm. Be careful not to let your low back sag during this exercise. For beginners, try extending only one arm or leg at a time while continuing with deep, steady breathing.

AVOID: Sit-ups

Although sit-ups may strengthen the abdominal muscles, they can also put a lot of pressure on your spine, increasing the risk of disc herniation injuries.

TRY INSTEAD: Partial Crunches

Partial crunches are better at isolating your abdominal muscles without risking injury to the low back. Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Put your hands behind your neck, tighten your abdominal muscles and raise your shoulders off the floor, being careful not to use your arms to pull your neck off the floor. Hold, and slowly lower your shoulders back down. Repeat 15 times, or as recommended by your exercise plan. It might be helpful to have your hands placed under your low back to maintain the lumbar curve and support the pelvis.

AVOID: Double leg raises

Having a strong core is a key component of managing back pain. Double leg raises (lifting both legs together while lying on your back) puts a lot of demand on your low back.

TRY INSTEAD: Single leg raises

While lying on your back, bend one knee with your foot flat on the ground and keep the other leg straight. Slowly lift the straight leg up and hold. Lower your leg slowly. Repeat 10 times (or as recommended by your exercise plan) and repeat with the other leg. Remember to keep your back flat on the floor the entire duration of the exercise.

AVOID: Standing toe touches

Stretching is important to prevent injury and reduce muscle soreness after working out. It is quite common to have tight hamstrings (the tendons at the back of your thigh) and that may contribute to back pain. However, standing toe touches may aggravate an existing back injury by compressing the spine beyond what it can safely manage.

TRY INSTEAD: Towel hamstring stretches

Lie on your back with one knee bent. Wrap a towel around the foot of your other leg and use it to pull the leg up. Straighten the knee as you bring that leg up. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the other side. Be sure to keep your back flat on the floor during this stretch.

Don’t let pain stop you from moving! Talk to your chiropractor if you have any questions or concerns.


1 Callaghan JP, Gunning JL, McGill SM. The relationship between lumbar spine load and muscle activity during extensor exercises. Physical Therapy. 1998;78(1):8-18.

2 McGill SM. Low back disorders: evidence-based prevention and rehabilitation. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2007.


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