This Workout Will Save Your Back (It’s Worked For Everyone Else)
Here’s why your exercise routine may be causing your back ache—and how to stop it
There are thousands of reasons to work out. Maybe you want to lose weight or bulk up. Maybe you want to have more energy. Or maybe you just want to keep up with your kids. Whatever your motivation, you expect to feel better after the gym.
So why does your back hurt so damn much?
Turns out, the thing that’s suppose to keep you healthy—exercise—may be to blame for your pain, says Stuart McGill, Ph.D., professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the author of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.
“Coach potatoes typically don’t get back pain,” says McGill. “It’s a problem for the desk jockey who works out.
It sounds illogical. After all, you’re building strength at the gym so you don’t get hurt. So why can increasing your fitness ultimately decrease your back health?
Say you head to the gym for an hour every day. Whenever you pick up a weight—light or heavy—the vertebrae in your spine compress under the load, says McGill. That’s no big deal—as long as you don’t sit for hours before and after the workout.
But if you’re like most men in today’s world, you probably sit—at work, in a car, on the couch—for extended periods. Your spine is flexed a large portion of the day. Then, at the gym, you perform loaded exercises like the deadlift, squat, kettlebell swing, or shoulder press. If your back rounds at all during those exercises, you’re setting yourself up for back trouble.
Here’s why: Each vertebral disc in your spine is made of layers of collagen rings with a gel-like nucleus in the middle. When flexed under load, those rings become stressed and begin to loosen up and divide. Do this often enough, and the gel begins to work its way out of those layers, explains McGill.
“Imagine your disc like it’s a hamburger with lots of mustard,” says McGill. “When you squeeze the bun on one side, all the mustard shoots out the other.”
If you never loaded your spine, the gel would stay safely contained in the tough collagen rings. However, sitting all day, plus flexing your back during exercise causes the nucleus to squeeze through the loosened collagen layers, he says.
Eventually, enough gel seeps through creating a disc bulge that presses on a nerve. Your body deals with the pain by initiating an inflammatory response, which can cause muscle spasms and sometimes lead to excruciating pain. Suddenly, it hurts to bend over to tie your shoe.
And every time you hurt your back, your body responds by growing vascular tissues—nerves, and little veins and arteries—where the bulge was located. “So you know what? The next time it happens, you’ll feel it even more,” he says.
Obviously, stopping exercise isn’t the answer. But you should stop assuming that your current workout staves off pain.
“Getting fit doesn’t prevent back pain,” McGill says. “It’s how you get fit that does.”
Besides limiting the amount of time you spend sitting, your workout needs to build core stability for maximum protection. “It’s nonnegotiable,” says McGill. A trunk that is stabilized by muscles in the front, the sides, and the back won’t bend under heavy loads or multiple reps. And the stiffer your core, the faster and more powerful your arms and legs will be, he says. You’ll be able to lift more, run quicker, throw faster, punch harder, and kick farther.
But you can’t just perform any core routine. You need exercises that are easy on the spinal discs while creating as much stability and endurance as possible, says McGill.
Twelve years ago, Men’s Health asked McGill for a back-saving workout, both to relieve current back pain and to reduce your chances of a future back pain. He gave us four exercises—the cat-camel, the bird dog, the side plank, and the McGill curlup—based on his knowledge from working with real-life, active men and professional athletes, as well as authoring hundreds of studies on lower-back injury and rehabilitation.
Today, he offers up the same exercises—with a new rep scheme. “It’s hard to improve on something that has such a solid, scientific foundation to begin with,” McGill says. “The exercises hit the front, back, and sides of your core, while removing gravity and supporting your spine at both ends.” Watch the video below to see how to perform all four movements.
McGill recommends adding these exercises before your usual workout. “We’ve recently found that if you do these exercises, you’ll actually feel tighter and stiffer in your core for a period of time afterward,” he says.
Start watching your back. Add the following four exercises to your routine today to prevent a back attack tomorrow.
Do this: Perform up to 10 reps of the cat-camel. When you’ve finished the cat-camel, do the bird dog, side plank, and McGill curlup. For each movement, perform six 10-second holds on each side (do all your holds on one side, and then switch sides). Rest for 20 seconds, then perform four 10-second holds on each side. Rest for 20 seconds, and then perform three 10-second holds on each side. Finish all the reps and sets of one movement before moving on the next movement.