This information has been around for a long time, and yet is not common knowledge. Astounding!
Let's look at three of the worst exercises for your back, which people commonly do as part of their regular workout.
1. Sit-ups (or curl-ups)... STOP THEM FOREVER!
It is well established in spinal research that flexing your spine back and forth will create a disc herniation over time. We have a finite number of these bending forward movements before discs become damaged and herniated, so it is absolutely essential that you spare this motion where possible for longevity.
Optimal performance and spinal health, generally speaking, are achieved when the motion is limited and braced by our core muscles, so that effective power and motion can be generated from the legs and arms.
"So how I do build up my abs?", is a common question I get asked when I recommend people away from sit-ups. But don't be concerned… there are exercises you can do that will build stability, tone, or a ‘six-pack', which won't ruin your back.
2. Toe-touches... NO MORE!
Bending down to touch your toes as an exercise is a bad idea. For the same reasons as not doing sit-ups, it puts unnecessary loading into the lumbar discs, and we need to spare our discs where possible.
Doing this exercise is even more potentially damaging when done first thing it the morning. Your discs are fully hydrated after a night's sleep, so there is much more pressure in the core of the disc (nucleus pulposus) at this time. When you flex forward, there will be greater pressure transferred through the nucleus to the outer fibrous disc wall (annulus fibrosis).
It is recommended to limit flexion during the first hour of waking, as 90% of the fluid will leave the disc during this period of time (1).
3. Knee to Opposite Shoulder... DON'T DO IT!
Many people complain of tight gluteal muscles especially (2), and this exercise will feel good at the time because these muscles are tight. One of the big causes of this tightness is due to stresses and strains of ligaments around the pelvic joints. Over time misalignment can occur around the pelvis resulting in inflammation, pain and irritated nerves.
Nerve irritation around the 'sacroiliac' (SI) joint can often result in inhibition of a large number of important muscles, including the gluts. Inhibition of a muscle means that even though if feels tight, it is essentially weak.
A gluteal muscle suffering from inhibition may be clinically described as not activating properly, or even termed having ‘gluteal amnesia'. These muscles feel tight, but they also become weak. If you stretch them in this way, they only get weaker, resulting in more instability, and SI joint dysfunction.
Again, relief is temporary, correcting the pelvis is often necessary, and exercise needs to be aimed at stabilisation.
(1) Conditioning for Strength and Human Performance, Chandler & Brown, 2008, Lippincott
(2) Muscles respond to pain, inflammation, and/or injury with weakness. Panjabi M. A hypothesis of chronic back pain: ligament subfailure injuries lead to muscle control dysfunction.