Back Exercises

The Good, Bad, and Ugly When Training With a Bad Back

We show you the moves to avoid, and those to perform to strengthen your back muscles.


Farmer's Walk

The good

1. Loaded carries turn on the core muscles to create more stability and stiffness while protecting the back.

How to perform: 

  • Pick up a heavy object (dumbbells, kettlebells) with one or both hands, hold it, and walk for distance or time.

2. The side bridge works the obliques without any of the risks from rotational twisting.

How to perform:

  • On your side, prop yourself up on one elbow and use feet for support
  • Top foot should be placed in front of the bottom foot

3. The McGill curl-up: Replace the ab crunch machine with the McGill curl-up. This movement blasts the rectus abdominus without any flexion to the low spine.

How to perform:

  • Lying on your back, place hands under the small of your back
  • One knee is bent, one leg extended
  • Keeping the head and neck in locked position, slightly raise the shoulders off the floor, making sure not to round the shoulders

4. Stir the pot: Ditch the stability ball crunch and “stir the pot” instead. This movement hits the rectus and the obliques while keeping the spine in neutral.

How to perform:

  • From a pushup position, start with forearms and elbows on the stability ball
  • Rotate the ball in a circular motion, controlling the core so it does not move
  • Repeat clockwise and counterclockwise

Putting it all together                                                           

Perform each movement using the abdominal-bracing technique to ensure that loads are transmitted through your core and not lower back. To brace properly, imagine being punched in the gut. Your core muscle will automatically stiffen. Brace with every repetition.

Rep/set scheme. Use a Reverse Pyramid routine. Choose number of sets and perform reps in descending order; e.g. set #1, 8 reps, set #2, 6 reps, set #3, 4 reps, etc. This method prevents muscle fatigue from setting in with each successive set, ensuring good form is maintained with every rep. 

Time under tension. Hold each rep for 8-10 seconds. Any longer, oxygen demand exceeds supply, resulting in muscle fatigue and loss of form.


For more advanced progressions of these exercises, check out McGill’s book, “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.”  And for more information on how to self-treat low back pain, check out his new book, “Back Mechanic,” available on Dr. McGill’s website:

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