I spend a lot of time talking about what is good to do in the gym for spine and overall health, so I thought I would say a quick word about a few things you should avoid. With some exceptions, such as training for a specific sport or certain rehab protocols, these exercises should be avoided when trying to achieve overall health.
Sit-ups: If you were to set out to design an exercise to ruin lumbar discs, the discs in your low back, you would be hard-pressed to design one more effective at that task than sit-ups. Why? Repetitive flexion aka forward bending and twisting damages the discs in your low back. Sit-ups and sit-ups with rotation reproduce these movements exactly. Instead, try crunches, like a sit up but your low back doesn’t bend, and planks with short isometric holds.
Upright Rows: This exercise places the shoulder into internal rotation, putting the supraspinatus and its tendon at serious risk of injury over time. It also places a lot of stress on the cervical spine. Instead, do “full can.”
Behind the Head Lat Pull-down: This one places the shoulder in a vulnerable position, which can lead to injury of the rotator cuff and shoulder joint. It also puts enormous strain on the cervical spine (neck) because of the forward head position. Instead try Lat pull-down to the chest or pull-ups if possible. Also, try alternating between standing Lat pulldowns and seated Lat pulldowns to activate more of the core and gluteal muscles.
Rotations from the Waist with Band, Cable, or Medicine Ball: As mentioned, sit-ups, rotation, or twisting of the lumbar spine can lead to disc degeneration and/or herniation over time, especially with load. Twisting from the waist will get your oblique ripped but at great expense to your low back. Instead, rotate from the hips. This strengthens the hips instead of the spine and is a great exercise. It also trains you how to move in your day-to-day life, avoiding low back injuries.
Smith Squats: Smith machines were designed to help people squat with heavy load while minimizing the risk of the lifter collapsing due to a built-in catch mechanism. The problem with doing Smith Squats is that the machine guides the bar in one plane of motion, which won’t allow most people to do a functional squat on it. The squat is a very complicated and important exercise for back health. It is crucial that one masters squat mechanics before applying load. Most people need to work with a trainer in the beginning to master this move. Since all people’s bodies are different, the one size fits all approach of the Smith Machine doesn’t work and creates poor squat patterns, which can lead to knee, hip, and back problems down the road.
As always, feel free to send us a message with all your questions about spine health and fitness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!