Why Superman (The Exercise) Needs to Be Stopped!

The Superman Exercise has become very popular in the fitness world. I see it at the gym, online and as a part of new fitness trends. I even see it in rehab now and then. However, this move is  dated. And, Just. Plain. Bad. Yes, I know it is known to strengthen the back and, some claim, the glutes. And, it is a body weight exercise, so that gives it extra points, right? Um, no. Please stop. There are much safer exercises to strengthen the back. And, they will do a much better job than Mr. Superman.

 

The Superman Exercise

Here’s how to perform the exercise.superman exercise bad

  1. Lay on your stomach with your legs straight and arms out in front.
  2. Lift both of your legs and arms at the same time.
  3. Hold for 1 sec to 1 min.

 

Is there anyone out there that has done this exercise and thought: “Wow, that feels amazing on my back!” Probably not. When I educate patients about this exercise they immediately respond with: “Yes, thank you. It always hurt my back, but I thought it was supposed to.” Remember, appropriate and healthy exercise does not “hurt,” it feels like muscles are being trained.

The Back Extensors: Erector Spinae Muscles

superman exerciseThe Superman Exercise is targeting a group of muscles known as the erector spinae. This group of muscles includes (outside to inside): iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis. These muscles have an important function. They extend our back. If you bend over and touch your toes, the erector spinae bring you back up (along with your core, of course). When you need to lean back and look at something, these muscles extend your spine to complete the task. These are important muscles and should be trained. But, why are we training them in such a vulnerable and short-range position?

multifidusIn addition to the erector spinae, research supports the Superman Exercise activates the lumbar multifidus. This is a very important spinal stabilizer. However, Superman is not training the multifidus for its stabilizing ability. It’s just taking it along for the ride in extension. Is extension the most important action of the multifidus? Heck no. The multifidus is an intersegemental stabilizer that attaches vertebrae to vertebrae. It’s a super cool muscle and more important than most people realize. We know from research that the lumbar multifidus likes to go to sleep with chronic low back pain. But if you had low back pain, would attempting the Superman Exercise sound like a fun?

WHY Superman Is Not The Best Exercise

Please note: spinal extension is a normal functional movement and important for a healthy spine. When we reach up to stretch in the morning, we extend our spine. This doesn’t hurt or feel overloading to our spine. We are lengthening while moving our spine into extension. It’s functional. It’s safe. Keep doing it. 

The initial concern with the Superman Exercise is that most people are already positioned in an extended spine. If we have any “cushion” over our belly area (let’s face it, most of us do), lying flat on our stomach predisposes our spine to extension. Because of this initial position, the spine is instantly set up for compression. Compression of what? Our nerves.

superman exerciseTechnical blurp for those interested: The picture on the left shows the nerve root coursing through the foramen (the hole or opening). This hole is formed by the spinal joints (facet joints). During spinal extension (backward bending) our spinal joints “close down” and decrease the hole or foraminal space. In a spine with degeneration or other issues, this can be a HUGE deal and quite painful. In a healthy spine, this may not be painful at first, but repetitively loading the spine in this manner may cause early degeneration.

Now let’s think about the long body position during this exercise. The back is trying to lift the trunk with the arms reached out. This is termed a long lever and it increases the workload on the erector spinae. This increased workload can increase the compression moment. Ouchy.

Is it functional to train the erector spinae in such a small range of motion?

superman exercise badConsider this. We all know our abdominals are meant to move our trunk forward. Imagine forward bending until you are almost at your endrange (your hands are on your knees or maybe your shins). Now, engage your abdominals to bend forward more and perform “a crunch”. Is this the optimal way to train our abdominals? Of course not. So why are we doing it for the back extensors?

The final piece. The legs are lifted to engage the glutes. Are the glutes engaged? Maybe. I would wager that most people are lifting their legs from their back. This is not a normal function of the back, but I see this ALL the time in the clinic. Most people don’t really know how to activate their glutes. Instead, they use the next closest muscle group: the back.

Let’s put this all together. The Superman Exercise:

  1. Predisposes the low back to spinal compression
  2. Requires a long lever body position to make the erector spinae work really hard
  3. Assumes the legs are being lifted from the glutes, but it’s likely the erector spinae…and they’re already overloaded from #2!

Your back is screaming: “Please stop hurting me with this exercise!”

Safer Exercises to Train Erector Spinae

Back extension over the Physioball

safe-back-extension

  • Begin by flexing your trunk forward so your nose is close to or touching the ball
  • Keep your feet on the ground
  • With your arms at your side or behind your head, extend the spine up to a NEUTRAL spine position.
  • Repeat 8-10x

 

Bird Dog- Alternating Arms and Legs

bird-dog

  • Begin on your hands and knees. Hands under shoulder, knees under hips
  • Engage your core and lift one leg to hip height (you do not need to lift the hip any higher. That will cause compression!)
  • Now lift your opposite arm to shoulder height
  • Alternate side to side 5-8x

This is an excellent alternative to Superman. Erector spinae activated? YES! Lumbar multifidus activated? YES! Good ratio between lumbar multifidus stabilization and erector spinae activation? YES! (Majaki M et al, 2015).

Majaki M et al also found that moving the opposite leg and arm out to the side (abduction) elicited the best response for lumbar multifidus, and the ratio between the multifidus and erector spinae activation.

For more specifics on bird dog, here is a link to a previous post: Bird Dog.

Final Thoughts

Is there an exception for when Superman might be a good exercise? I am unable to come up with a yes.

Football players are constantly pushed into spinal extension. It’s imperative for them to have very strong erector spinae to protect the spine. But, I doubt a lot of them are on the floor flying like superman. It’s not functional for them. They are using weight machines and Pilates (yes, Pilates for NFL players!) to strengthen their spine and body.

Dancers, experienced yogis and Pilates students will also train their spine into extension. But, they are doing it with length, control and mindful movement. And, it’s an adaptation that occurs over time.

I can not think of one functional, sport or mindful movement that requires the superman exercise. So, please stop. Find another exercise to strengthen your spine. I promise your spine will thank you.

© 2015 and Beyond. ALL BLOG CONTENT at duncansportspt.com by Lori Duncan PT


Lori Duncan, DPT, MTC, CPT is a respected Physical Therapist, Manual Therapist and Pilates instructor in Lafayette, CO. Lori is passionate about preventive physical therapy and education and is a nationally recognized presenter. She can be reached at [email protected] You can also follow Duncan Sports Therapy + Wellness on Facebook & Instagram for more free tips and information.


Research

Comfort P, Pearson SJ, Mather D. An electromyographical comparison of trunk muscle activity during isometric trunk and dynamic strengthening exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2011:25(1);149-54.

Masaki M, Tateuchi H, Tsukagoshi R, Ibuki S, Ichihashi N. Electromyographic analysis of training to selectively strengthen the lumbar multifidus muscle: effects of different lifting directions and weight loading of the extremities during quadruped upper and lower extremity lifts. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2015:38(2);138-144.

 

33 Comments

  1. Anne on October 2, 2016 at 3:41 PM

    Thank you! I’ve been following a video on YouTube for strengthening my lower back, and I kept wondering why this was included. It ALWAYS hurts. The other one is similar, only you lift your opposite arm and leg (kind of like a swimming superman). I never saw those in any recommended exercise to help with back pain. Everything else seems to be fine.

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on October 27, 2016 at 2:56 PM

      Hi Anne! Sorry for my delayed response. WordPress did not inform me…:). Thanks for reading and I’m so happy your internal “radar” went off that the exercise was not that awesome. Exercise should never really hurt…just work our muscles. Hope your back feels better. Thank you for your comment!

      • Stacy on April 15, 2018 at 2:55 PM

        I recently joined farrels gym and while doing a superman felt a pop right before my left breast. I don’t know if i cracked a rib cage but 5-6 days later still have pain. At one point the pain went around to my back but now still just in front. Any ideas what i may have injured?

        • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on April 16, 2018 at 12:43 PM

          Hi Stacy,

          It sounds like your rib is involved. Likely shifted forward. I doubt you cracked it with that move (not enough force), but if your instinct says otherwise, go get it checked. I would recommend seeing PT who can help you stabilize that rib. May only be 2-3 visits if that’s all it is.

  2. Lea on June 20, 2017 at 9:21 AM

    Finally it all makes sense. This is my 3rd time doing Jillian Michaels 30 day shred. In level three one of the strength moves is the superman. Each time I’ve done this workout DVD I always have to take a week off around level 3 due to back pain, and I couldn’t pinpoint why. I thought my body was just weak and susceptible to injury from any form of exercise ???? I’ll try substituting that exercise out with one you suggested and see if I have any improvement!

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on June 21, 2017 at 3:53 PM

      Hi Lea,

      So glad it makes sense! Yes, please stop doing this exercise and try strengthening your core with the other one. Thanks for reading!

  3. Leanne on June 24, 2017 at 6:15 AM

    THANK YOU!! I work in a PT clinic (office mgr not PT) and when I was telling them how I got a sharp pain in my lumbar spine the other day (during a Shaun T workout video) while going into a squat, they, like me, thought it was odd since I’ve NEVER had issues w/squats. I’ve been icing and taking it easy since Thursday, and last night it hit me: Superman Speedbag move. Your illustrations show exactly where my pain is, and it all makes sense. I’ll be replacing with bird-dog from now on, as I don’t have a physioball. 🙂 Thank you for your PT wisdom!

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on July 8, 2017 at 7:12 AM

      Hi Leanne,

      You are welcome! Thanks for reading and happy you will give the alternatives a try.

  4. Lalit Chadha on June 25, 2017 at 10:08 PM

    Hi Lori,

    I write from India!

    Was interesting reading your blog about the Suoerman exercise.
    I have been (hate to use the word) a lower back medical condition since almost an year now. Took guidance from our Doctor who recommended only this and nothing else.

    It hurt to the extent I could not fit it in my regime, felt guilty when I saw Doc again and that’s that. No improvements! Super frustrating I say.

    I must share a book I came across and purchased (Amazon) that made much more sense. Btw…To my utter surprise “Superman” doesn’t feature in there at all and this book is like dedicated for low back pain, so I kinda question the wisdom of Superman and that’s where your blog comes in handy.

    I am in the second week of my Exercise regime now ‘by the book’ Low Back Pain by Sherwin Nicholson and I feel better mobility though I know it’s gonna be a while when I am cured of this!

    I would like you ask on your thoughts about this book and your advise preset put up on not following Superman (happens to be one of my favourite Superheroes though!!)
    Thanks

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on July 8, 2017 at 7:16 AM

      Hi Lalit,

      Hello from India!! Without owning the book, it is hard for me to comment. But, the rule is: exercise should never cause you pain. EVER! You may feel some muscle soreness, but it should never cause back or joint pain. So, if any of the exercises in the book do, please stop. Good for you for listening to your instinct that the exercise was a poor choice and looking for an alternative. Thanks for reading!

  5. Lydia on September 26, 2017 at 12:41 PM

    I disagree on this. I had debilitating back pain for almost a year and a half, went to countless doctors who prescribed pain pills, nasal sprays and stomach meds because my whole left side of my body was inflamed. It was so bad, I had earaches, jaw pain, headaches and prsoriatic arthritis on my left hand that no cream could tackle. I was desperate and even thought of suicide because no one could help me. I started to watch countless YouTube videos and did every stretch and exercise in the book. This superman stretch did something no others did from the first time I tried it. About three days later I heard something pop in my back on my left side and everything started to improve. I am now so much better and still working on it. When people are desperate, sometimes they have to take matters into their own hands. Doctors are definitely not Gods. This stretch gave me my life back!!! It is my go to when my left side starts to get painful from the nerve pain.

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on September 26, 2017 at 8:07 PM

      Hi Lydia,

      That’s just fine if you disagree. For most people, this is a source and culprit of back pain, not a reliever. It does make me think your spine like the extension bias more than the exercise itself, but so happy you found something that works for you. Thanks for reading and your comment.

  6. Julie on September 27, 2017 at 10:00 PM

    As a clinical student, this was so helpful. Thank you for sharing! Patients in the clinic always look so uncomfortable performing the superman exercise, and if I’m being honest, I’m uncomfortable when I have to demonstrate it. I think the bird dog and different variations of the bird dog are much kinder on the lumbar spine.

    • Julie on September 27, 2017 at 10:05 PM

      Theoretically speaking, when performing the superman, do you instruct patients to arch at their back while completing the exercise (anterior pelvic tilt increasing lumbar lordosis and spinal extension), or do you ask them to maintain a neutral spine (engaging abdominals and relative posterior pelvic tilt)? Is there a therapeutic difference between the standard 2 arms 2 legs up superman and the alternating arms and legs superman? Looking forward to your response. Thanks!

      • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on September 29, 2017 at 11:56 AM

        Hi again,

        I don’t instruct it, but if I had to it would be to engage their core (neutral spine) and lift the legs from the glute while lengthening the spine and lift the arms from the lat. The arms/legs lifting will create and APT (they should because they are curving the spine into extension). There should be no pain in the back. Unfortunately, it is always cued from the spine and not the anatomy that actually moves the arms/legs up down. The alternating pattern is a little more kind on our spine and will trigger more rotational multifidus activation, but it’s still not one I use. Hope that helps!

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on September 29, 2017 at 11:52 AM

      HI Julie,

      Yes, there are just better options to train our back muscles! Thank you.

  7. William Bennett on November 6, 2017 at 4:31 PM

    Hello Lori,

    As someone who has suffered from chronic back pain (L4-L5 – have very little disc left – but have avoided any surgeries at all) and who practices yoga regularly – Superman has always felt more like kryptonite to my body, so thank you for this information!

    Wondering – would you consider Locust pose in the same light as Superman? Any other similar poses?

    I’ve been really modifying my practice lately, and after another bout of extreme back pain 5-weeks ago that has me gingerly practicing only certain yoga poses, I’ve cut out poses that I feel are not beneficial. Wheel is another one, as well as Camel, that while I have the strength to do – my back screams – No!

    Thanks…

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on November 8, 2017 at 6:54 AM

      Hi William,

      Locust pose- it depends. By the time it is usually cued in Yoga, the spine is warm with intent to lengthen while extending. Different intent than Superman to strengthen and compress the lumbar spine. But, if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it. 🙂

  8. P flaherty on November 14, 2017 at 7:47 AM

    Hi,thank you for your article,I’ve been doing the superman with an exercise ball for about a year
    My lower back started to hurt so I stopped
    But now what? Do I just wait for it to go away
    It’s a mild pain but still it’s been about 2 weeks
    Still hurts ,thank you

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on November 15, 2017 at 7:50 AM

      Hi,

      I would stretch forward (bend over) to relax that area, try massage and if not better go see a PT in your area. Don’t let it go much more than another week. The longer you wait, the longer it takes to feel better. Hope you get relief soon.

  9. Janet on December 4, 2017 at 7:35 PM

    My chiropractor told me to do to strengthen my shoulder and neck and the core .. but it’s hard to get off the floor when I’m already In pain.. so what other exercises can I try

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on December 6, 2017 at 1:13 PM

      Hi Janet,

      I like bird dog a lot. Neutral spine, neck in neutral and truly works the core stabilizers. And, the opposite arm lift will give some strength to the shoulder/lat. It’s hard for me to comment much more since I’m unsure of your diagnosis, but try bird dog. Exercise should NEVER hurt (besides muscle working hurt). Remember that!

      • Janet on December 6, 2017 at 4:23 PM

        I have arthritis in my lower back and I am pretty sure I probably have some in my neck but I have a not have an x-ray on that yet. I’m at the chiropractor a lot because my neck is always out of place and I have headaches and she wants me to do the superman to try to strengthen my upper back and shoulders and neck

        • Janet on December 6, 2017 at 4:24 PM

          I also have a hard time laying on the floor because then my lower back hurts

        • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on December 11, 2017 at 6:30 AM

          Hi Janet,

          If it hurts, DON’T do it. Seriously, we now know too much about pain science and pain does nothing for healing. We are past the “no pain no gain” phase. Bird dog is a much better choice to strengthen your deep spine muscles. And try some shoulder blade exercises (rows, scap squeezes) for neck support.

  10. Eugene Mabille on December 27, 2017 at 12:56 PM

    Hi Lori, I’m realy glad I found your post, because I also tried the superman to no avail. I was told by my chiropractor that I have a military back. It doesn’t have the nice curve at the lumbar that it should. I also had a pectus excavatum operation when I was 3 years old, so my chest is even more flat than my stomach, which is very flat indeed. So when I’m lying face down on the ground, my chest isn’t even touching the floor…which makes is impossible for me to do this superman exercise. I had lower back pain since high school when I played hockey and it has gotten so bad that I had to quit my job as mechanic. I’m 39 now! I bought me an exercise ball and now I’m going to try your exercises. I don’t even want to do exercises anymore, cuz like that one person said, if I do a workout, I need to take a week off from work to recover my back. So now more trying to do supermans! Thanks again!

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on January 2, 2018 at 6:24 AM

      Hi Eugene,

      Yes, exercise should never “cause” pain, besides muscle pain. We should never have joint pain from healthy exercise. I sure hope this exercise feels better on your back. It should!

  11. Marty Taylor on April 16, 2018 at 7:50 AM

    Hello Lori,

    Thanks for your discussion on superman. I’ve been doing a modified superman (arms out at 90 degrees rather than straight ahead.) While holding that for 2 minutes I also do neck rolls left and right.) Nothing hurts and it seems to help strengthen my back. Still my erector spinae aches on long hikes. I’m 70 and had lower back pain for years until I began exercising. Any suggestions? (I do not have a gym membership or equipment.) Thanks.

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on April 16, 2018 at 12:47 PM

      Hi Marty,

      I’m glad you feel stronger, but this exercise is not good for anyone. Your back aches because your deep stabilizers and core do not have the endurance. Work on Pilates-type movements. If you love this move, do it over a ball so you work on trunk flexion to extension instead of just trunk extension into hyperextension.

  12. Brandon on May 21, 2018 at 7:54 AM

    Hi Lori,

    Hopefully, I won’t annoy you too much by reviving this old thread. Just want to know about breathing during the back extension over the ball – exhale while rising and contracting erectors, and inhale on eccentric, or the other way around?

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on May 27, 2018 at 7:42 AM

      Hi Brandon,

      Not annoying at all! Sorry for the delay. Busy week. Great question. I would inhale because you are lengthening and it will facilitate a more natural core activation.

  13. Brandon on May 21, 2018 at 8:20 AM

    Also, would the back extension over ball be a good exercise for people that are (hyper) extension-intolerant? I’m hesitant to attempt it because extension hurts me and i used to be erector dominant with inactive glutes, but correcting that seems to have compromised my lower back’s ability to perform functional movements so im thinking it needs some training…

    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on May 27, 2018 at 7:43 AM

      You don’t have to go into hyperext. Moving from flexed over the ball to neutral is activating the back extensors. So that range of motion should be plenty. You may respond better to a bird dog, even bird dog over the ball for more multifidus activation along with the erector spinae. Hope that helps!

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