Three of the most common exercises purported to reduce back pain actually can cause more harm than good. In fact, some of these exercises are downright dangerous. Given the frequency with which these harmful exercises are prescribed, it is not surprising that most people experience back pain at some point in their life and typical medical treatment is not effective for reducing the pain.
The first harmful exercise is the “Superman”, which involves laying down on your stomach and lifting up your arms and legs. This causes a strong contraction in the lower back.
The primary reason that this exercise is dangerous is that any time you hyper-extend your spine, the facet joints (one of the joints between adjacent vertebrae) are compressed in a compromising position. The facet joints are incredibly sensitive and often the site of many people’s back pain.
Adding a muscular contraction in this position can result in forces in excess of 6000 Newtons (a Newton is a unit of force). To get an idea of what this type of force means, the NIOSH, which is a safety organization run by the American government, states that the maximum allowable force in the workplace is 6700 Newtons.
The deceptive thing about this exercise is that usually motion (of any kind) provides relief at first, so this exercise might temporarily reduce pain. However, given the damage it can cause to the facet joints, this exercise is bound to increase back pain levels over time.
The second harmful exercise is the crunch or sit-up. It does not matter whether or not this exercise is performed with the knees bent, straight, as a full sit-up, just a crunch, or on a Swiss ball; this exercise will inevitably cause damage to the spine.
This is counter-intuitive as the popular belief is that increasing “core” strength will reduce back pain. The truth is that increasing abdominal strength is not associated with back pain at all (however, muscular endurance does protect against back pain).
The problem with the crunch is that lab research has discovered that the easiest way to herniate a disc is to repetitively perform flexion (flexing) to extension (straightening back to normal) movements (a crunch involves flexing then extending the spine repeatedly).
As a result, performing crunches can increase disc wear and tear in addition to ultimately creating or worsening herniated discs.
The final exercise is the side-crunch. This exercise for the obliques involves holding a dumbbell or weight in the hand and then bending down to the side and back up. This is bad for the back for the same reasons that a crunch is: repeatedly flexing and extending (straightening) the spine is liable to herniate a disc.