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
- Lay on your stomach with your legs straight and arms out in front.
- Lift both of your legs and arms at the same time.
- 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
The 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?
In 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.
Technical 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?
Consider 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:
- Predisposes the low back to spinal compression
- Requires a long lever body position to make the erector spinae work really hard
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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.