Chiropractors have, quite literally, got your back. The spine-focused pros learn everything they can relating to back and neck pain, all in the quest to help you have the most healthy stack of vertebrae possible. So when a chiro tells you that there are certain fitness exercises that she considers to be the worst for back health, you listen right up.
“This is something I talk about a lot,” says Kirstie Griffiths, DC, a chiropractor and yoga instructor who teaches yoga programs specifically meant to combat back pain. According to her, the most common back aggravating exercises tend to target the core. “You’ve probably heard that when people have some sort of a back injury, they’re told to strengthen the core because there’s a weakness there,” says Dr. Griffiths. Often, core weakness can lead to back tension and woes.
That said, Dr. Griffiths points out that traditional core work can be “really high risk” for getting a vertebrae disc injury and can even make back pain worse. And sit-ups happen to be the worst culprit of this. “What happens with a sit-up, in particular, is that you have all this core activation happening, but it tends to strengthen a muscle called the rectus abdominis, which is a superficial muscle that doesn’t really give stability to the spine,” she says. “On top of that, you get this rounding motion where you go from lying flat on your back to rounding up through the spine, which puts a lot of pressure and force through the spine that places you at risk of a disc herniation.”
Your spine can also get hurt when doing the Superman exercise. “This is another classic core exercise that gets thrown into regular fitness routines,” says Dr. Griffith, who is not a fan of the ab-strengthening move. “You experience the same issue as you do with a sit-up when you are lifting the arms and legs from the position of lying on your stomach. It’s a high level of compression through the spine—way higher than what you should be sustaining, especially if you have had a back injury already or have risk factors for it.” Though she says that the exercise fires your extensor muscles, which are really helpful for your posture and strengthening the back, you run the risk of overdoing it. Keep scrolling for her spinal health-approved core exercise alternatives to try instead.
Instead of a sit-up, Dr. Griffiths recommends this similar exercise since it’s safer for the spine. “Rather than sitting up all the way, you’re basically lying on your back with your hands either underneath your buttocks or lower back, and only lifting up your head and shoulders,” she says. “No part of the lower back is rounding at all.” Actually, she notes that this makes the exercise more challenging since you’re only lifting your nose up towards the ceiling, and you’re not getting any of that high compression on the spine.
In place of Superman, Dr. Griffith turns to the yoga pose known as cobra. “The main difference here is that the legs are staying on the ground and it’s just the head and chest that are lifting up,” she says. “You’re still getting the activation of those muscles on either fside of the spine, which is good because we want to keep those strong. But keeping your legs on the ground lessens your chance of back injury.