If there’s one ailment that everyone can relate to, it’s back pain. While it can come in different forms and different places along our spine and from several different causes, it’s likely we all experience some sort of back pain from time to time.
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While there are also a variety of treatments, there are a handful of easy-to-perform movements that can help relieve some tension and aches. And one, in particular, is pretty, well, super: the Superman stretch exercise.
To better understand back pain, the Superman stretch and other ways to take care of your backaches, we spoke to sports physical therapist Daniel Hass, PT, DPT.
The common causes of back pain
“Low back pain is common and, for most people, there is not a known specific pathology, like a vertebral fracture, tumor or infection,” says Dr. Hass.
But there are a few causes of back pain that are common and frequent:
- Muscle strains: Whether it’s a stretch gone wrong, sleeping in a weird position or improper form when trying to lift something heavy, chances are you’ve experienced a muscle strain in your back at some point.
- Nerve pain: Degenerative changes or disk injuries can put pressure on the nerves that run down your spinal column, leading to low back pain or leg symptoms. Keep in mind, however, that a bulging disk on an imaging study is fairly common, and may be unrelated to the back pain you are experiencing.
- Degenerative disk disease: Reduced disk height and other forms of spinal degeneration (typically referred to as arthritis) may sound scary, but it can be a normal part of aging. Contrary to popular belief, degenerative disk disease is not the cause of pain but might be a factor to consider in your rehabilitation program.
Even if you don’t experience much back pain, though, that doesn’t mean you’re not at risk. According to a 2018 study, says Dr. Hass, the greatest risk factors for low back pain are obesity, smoking, physically demanding jobs and physical and mental comorbidities.
Exercise to help your back
While it seems counter-intuitive, one way to help ease lower back pain is through continued activity and movement. Whether it’s a series of exercises and stretches or directed physical therapy, movement helps loosen and strengthen muscles while being sedentary can lead to them becoming stiff.
It’s all within reason, of course. Some soreness is ok, but you don’t want to do anything to exacerbate your pain. “The general rule is if your pain is mild, and the exercises don’t worsen your symptoms, it’s ok to give it a go,” Dr. Hass says.
“However, if symptoms are persistent or worsen with self-directed exercises,” he adds, “it’s best to seek the advice of a physical therapist who can perform a thorough examination and prescribe a specific rehabilitation program to meet your needs.”
The Superman exercise
One self-directed exercise that can help is called the “Superman.” A strengthening and stability exercise, the Superman exercise is a low-intensity exercise that can be performed daily, says Dr. Hass. It also strengthens your lower back which can prevent pain. Just be sure to make it part of a more comprehensive routine rather than perform it on its own.
To execute the Superman:
- Start by lying on your stomach with your legs straight and your arms stretched over your head with the elbows at your ears.
- Next, activate your core muscles and slowly lift both arms and both legs straight up into the air, keeping your knees and elbows straight. This position is where the exercise gets its name: You look just like the famous red-caped superhero when he’s flying.
- Keep your neck in a neutral position, meaning you’re still looking down either at the ground or 6 to 12 inches in front of you.
- Once you’re at the top position, hold for a few seconds before slowly lowering your legs and arms to the ground.
But, Dr. Hass adds, don’t rest and relax yet. “Maintain tension in your muscles, and slowly raise back up to perform another repetition,” he notes. “And it’s important to go slow, and focus on good form as opposed to rushing through the exercise.”
Perform two sets of 12 to 20 repetitions to complete your session.
What does the Superman exercise do for your back?
While it may not be able to make you leap a tall building in a single bound, there’s still plenty of benefits in making the Superman exercise part of your workout routine.
“The Superman exercise is designed to strengthen and improve stabilization of your lumbar and hip extensors,” says Dr. Hass. “Because you’re also raising your shoulders in an ‘I’ formation, it’s also a useful exercise for improving strength and stability in your shoulder girdle and upper back musculature.”
Because this exercise involves a spinal extension, it can strengthen your larger, global extensor musculature, such as the paraspinal muscles (the muscles that run up and down along your spine) and your gluteus maximus (the large muscles that make up your butt). “These muscles,” says Dr. Hass, “are important for global movements like standing and walking.”
“But you’re also still activating smaller, deep lumbopelvic muscles that are important for stabilization,” he adds.
Don’t power through the pain
The most important thing to not do with this — and any other exercises — is to work through the pain, especially if you have an acute injury.
“Some injuries may be exacerbated with extension-bias exercises like this one,” says Dr. Hass. “This exercise may potentially make your symptoms worse, so start slow and let pain be your guide.”
If you have numbness or tingling or any pain in the legs (radicular pain), stop and talk to your healthcare provider or physical therapist.
What not to do
Again, remember to keep your neck in a straight, neutral position. Looking up could cause serious strain to your neck. Dr. Hass recommends placing a folded towel on the ground for you to rest your forehead on.
Additionally, don’t go too fast and don’t use jerky motions. Keep your motions slow, controlled and smooth to get the most out of the exercise and avoid injury.
“It may be advisable to keep the upward movement of this exercise to only a few inches at first, to make sure you maintain good form and don’t over-strain,” Dr. Hass suggests. “And you may want to place a pillow or two under your stomach so you begin in a slightly flexed position.”
The bottom line: Stay active and healthy
The Superman exercise is just one piece of what should be a larger, holistic exercise picture for you. “The biggest piece of advice I can give to help with back pain is to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” Dr. Hass says.
“Stay active,” he adds. “Exercise is effective in reducing low back pain. While it’s not clear what form of exercise is most effective, activity is still the key. Find something active you love and stick with it.”
And, he says, be sure to check in with your healthcare provider or physical therapist to find the approach that’s best for you.