While it's nice to be able to show off those well-sculpted back muscles in a dress or tank top, exercises that target your back actually serve a more important purpose that has nothing to do with strength gains. A strong back helps improve your posture by preventing the shoulders from rounding forward, and it makes activities of everyday living that involve lifting, bending and twisting easier to perform. Given the fact that up to 80 percent of adults will experience low-back pain at some point in their lives, strengthening your back to help prevent pain and injuries is crucial.|
However, not all back exercises are created equal.
Whether you've struggled with back pain in the past or are hoping to avoid it completely, some exercises are better for the back than others. Familiarize yourself with these exercises that are either ineffective or carry a higher degree of risk so that you can decide which to include and which to skip when putting together your next workout.
1. Oblique Side Bends
Dr. RJ Burr, founder of Start Standing, cautions against oblique side bends to challenge the core. "The core isn't meant to drive movement; it's meant to create stability," he explains. By performing exercises that encourage stability, this helps your body be prepared to resist forces that act upon it or try to rotate it in a way that it can't move safely.
Instead, Dr. Burr recommends modifying the positioning of a traditional plank to target the obliques more effectively. If you're involved in sports that require more rotation through the trunk, such as golf and throwing sports, you can more effectively strengthen your oblique muscles by incorporating the half-kneeling chop/lift into your routine.
Similarly, crunches and sit-ups are exercises that require a significant amount of spinal flexion, which can put unnecessary pressure on the lower back. These exercises target the abdominal muscles in isolation, which isn't how they are used in everyday life. Any activity of daily living that requires stabilization of your core (such as picking up a heavy box from the floor or pulling a heavy door closed) force your muscles to work together. When choosing core exercises, it's better to pick those that use the entire core while putting less pressure on your back, such as planks.
Certified strength coach Jill Brown says the risks associated with doing burpees incorrectly puts you at risk for back pain and injury. "I love them because they burn more calories per minute than any other bodyweight exercise and you need no equipment, but the risk versus reward factor needs to be assessed."
The biggest issues Brown sees are people bending over to reach the floor instead of squatting with a straight spine, and then hyperextending the spine when they thrust their legs back into the plank position. "This 'softening' of the spine from flexing forward then hyperextending can make back problems worse," she explains. "I say do them properly or just don't do them." If you can't imagine a workout without this classic cardio challenge, Brown's tutorial on how to do bear or frogger burpees offers a less risky alternative to traditional burpees that is easier on the back.
If bear or frogger burpees are too challenging to attempt, Brown suggests triple extension squats. After standing up from a traditional squat, come up onto the balls of the feet fully extending the hips, knees and ankles. "I follow that with a set of pushups and planks. After all, a burpee is really just a squat to a plank and a pushup. [With this variation,] I just take out the jumps," she says.
3. Russian Twist
While it's a popular core move, chiropractor Mathew DiMond cautions against the Russian twist as a preferred exercise for the back. "[When performing the exercise,] patients often become fatigued and lose form which results in flexing their spines," he describes. "Combined with holding weights, the rotation of the exercise places increased load on the vertebral discs which can lead to injury."
Instead, DiMond recommends anti-rotation exercises such as the Pallof Press. "Not only will this exercise yield the same benefits attributed to the twist, but it can also be made progressively more difficult to [accommodate] a wide range of fitness levels."
4. Lying Leg Raises
Leon Turetsky is a personal trainer and founder of Back Intelligence who does not recommend lying leg raises to his clients. "This exercise is usually done to strengthen the abs, however, what most people don't realize is that it primarily works the hip flexors or iliopsoas muscle," he explains. "This [can be] problematic because most people's hip flexors are already too tight and don't need strengthening. Tight hip flexors can cause posture problems leading to back pain."
Instead, Turetsky recommends planks, which will engage the core muscles in a safer way. Planks do not require flexion of the spine, which can be an issue for anyone with disc issues or pre-existing back pain.
Most exercises are perfectly safe when performed correctly. When proper form becomes an issue, though, there are certain exercises that carry more risk than others. According to Dr. Alice Holland, director of Stride Strong Physical Therapy, one of these problematic exercises is the deadlift.
"Typically, the person has a barbell on the floor with weights on it, bends over [by] hinging at the waist, then picks it up and lifts it up to their hip," Dr. Holland describes. "Then they lower the bar, hinging at the waist again and repeat the lift. Bending over with a weight puts a lot of pressure on lumbar discs, [and] this is made worse with hinging at the waist, which typically stresses one or two vulnerable levels of discs." Dr. Holland cautions that disc herniations and bulges are very difficult and painful to treat.
"For those who want to strengthen their backs, I prefer gentler and endurance-based exercises because that is what back muscles are for—endurance to keep your trunk upright," she says. Instead of deadlifts, Holland recommends supermans for beginners. "The key to back health is increasing endurance."
Proper Form is Paramount
Most exercises aren't inherently dangerous for the back. The issue is that some exercises, when performed incorrectly, present greater risk than others. Brittany van Schravendijk, a personal trainer at Living.Fit agrees that proper form is key. "Someone might hinge from their lower back instead of their hips while doing a deadlift, and, if they load too heavy, [they are] at risk for a back injury," she explains. "However, for someone who has learned to control their spine and knows how to hinge from the hips properly, the deadlift is an excellent exercise that can strengthen the back."
"Similarly, if a person is not able to brace their core from the floor, it's highly unlikely they'll be able to do so during an explosive standing movement," van Schravendijk cautions. "For example, a kettlebell swing can be a dangerous exercise if the person doing the swing has not learned how to properly tense their core muscles, and will therefore overload their lumbar spine. However, for a person who knows how to brace and create tension, a kettlebell swing is an incredibly effective exercise for the entire body."
Before attempting new exercises, van Schravendijk suggests that an individual be assessed by a fitness professional to determine if they have the prerequisites—mobility, coordination, stability and strength—required to properly perform the exercise without risk of injury to the back. "Once an individual has been properly prepared for a particular movement, there is no reason they should not be able to execute the movement without risking their back health," she explains.
When considering an exercise to add to your strength training routine, take into account not only the specific muscles it targets, but any supporting muscles that could be affected. By taking a holistic look at your routine, it's easier to identify potential issues so that the routine you create maximizes results while minimizing your risk.