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the good, bad and ugly when training with a bad back

5 Things Guaranteed to Lead to Injury During a Workout

We need healthy back muscles to squat, to press, to pull, to push. And for anyone who’s been sidelined by a back injury, you know how important proper back rehab exercises are. Even if you’ve never had back trouble, it’s never too soon to adopt a spine sparing, core and back routine to prevent future trouble.  

SEE ALSO: 3 Tips to Get Rid of Back Pain

Dr. Stuart McGill, Professor of Spine Biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo Ontario, has devoted his career to researching and developing the safest and most effective core exercises to address low back pain. Dr. McGill has rehabbed the backs of some of the world’s greatest athletes, taking them from immobilizing pain to pain-free performance. 

Unfortunately, too many lifters are performing exercises they are led to believe are good for the back, when in reality, they can actually contribute to new or recurring lower back pain. What are they? According to McGill, these four rank as some of the most troublesome movements that should be avoided.

Rock Hard Abs in 3 Moves

The Bad

1. Swiss Ball Crunch: Similar to the movement pattern of the ab crunch machine, the Swiss ball crunch places the same compressive load on the low back with the added risk for disc injury.

2. The Ab Crunch Machine: This motion pulls your back into flexion, placing substantial compressive force on the low spine. Performed repeatedly, this exercise increases the likelihood of disc problems.

3. The Torso Rotational Machine: Repeated side to side twisting around the waist wears down the outer layer of the disc. This heightens the risk of the gel-like substance inside the disc to seep out and rub against the spinal nerve causing substantial pain in the low back.  

4. The “Superman” movement, which targets the muscles that run the length of the back, imposes a nasty 1400 lbs of pressure on the hyperextended spine, making it an especially problematic exercise for anyone, with or without back trouble, to perform.

To counter these risky movements, Dr. McGill has developed his signature “Big Three” exercises that keep the spine in a neutral position, eliminating compression on the low back and reducing the possibility of injury.

See The Good moves on next page.

Farmers Walk

The Good

1. Loaded carries turn on the core muscles to create more stability and stiffness while protecting the back.

How to perform: 

  • Pick up a heavy object (dumbbells, kettlebells) with one or both hands, hold it, and walk for distance or time.

2. The Side Bridge works the obliques without any of the risks from rotational twisting

How to perform:

  • On your side, prop yourself up on one elbow and use feet for support
  • Top foot should be placed in front of the bottom foot

3. The McGill Curl-up: Replace the ab crunch machine with the McGill curl-up. This movement blasts the rectus abdominus without any flexion to the low spine.

How to perform:

  • Lying on your back, place hands under the small of your back
  • One knee is bent, one leg extended
  • Keeping the head and neck in locked position, slightly raise the shoulders off the floor, making sure not to round the shoulders

4. Stir the Pot: Ditch the stability ball crunch and “Stir the Pot” instead. This movement hits the rectus and the obliques while keeping the spine in neutral.

How to perform:

  • From a push-up position, start with forearms and elbows on the stability ball
  • Rotate the ball in a circular motion, controlling the core so it does not move
  • Repeat clockwise and counterclockwise

Putting it all together                                                           

Perform each movement using the abdominal-bracing technique to ensure that loads are transmitted through your core and not lower back. To brace properly, imagine being punched in the gut. Your core muscle will automatically stiffen. Brace with every repetition.

Rep/set scheme. Use a Reverse Pyramid routine. Choose number of sets and perform reps in descending order; i.e. set #1, 8 reps, set #2, 6 reps, set #3, 4 reps, etc. This method prevents muscle fatigue from setting in with each successive set, ensuring good form is maintained with every rep. 

Time under tension. Hold each rep for 8-10 seconds. Any longer, oxygen demand exceeds supply, resulting in muscle fatigue and loss of form.


For more advanced progressions of these exercises, check out Dr. McGill’s book, “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.”  And for more information on how to self-treat low back pain, check out his new book, “Back Mechanic,” available on Dr. McGill’s website:  www.backfitpro.com


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We Love Fitness - 2013