A little of this can be good…but a lot is bad

Over the past few months I’ve been talking about back injuries in firefighters. First I cleared up a few myths about back injuries (see myths). Now I’m going over exercises that firefighters should AVOID. (See those I’ve discussed so far: sit-ups, back extension machine, prone hyperextension and the calf raise machine.)

Nobody wants to be counterproductive when they exercise. When you put the time and effort into working out, you want it to be effective, and you certainly don’t want it to be actually causing harm as opposed to strength gains.

One exercise I see people doing incorrectly most of the time is working the abs while twisting: typically in a sit-up position, vigorously rotating from side to side, often using weights or a medicine ball.

I suspect that many people are under the impression that you have to rotate your torso in order to work your obliques. First of all, it takes very little rotation to do so. See the picture demonstrating a “bicycle” exercise for the abs/obliques. The very small amount of rotation that she is demonstrating is all that’s needed.bicycle exercise stockphotosforfree.com

In fact, over-rotation ends up recruiting different muscles and decreases the work that your obliques are doing. Secondly, you don’t even have to twist to work your obliques – you can do a side plank.

More importantly, yarding your torso around doing aggressive twisting exercises wreaks havoc on your back. The joints of the spine, especially in the low back, have very little rotation capability – so forcing a lot of rotation on them can be damaging and over time increase your risk of back injury.

You may even want to avoid twisting while stretching. Some people who suffer from back pain find relief when they stop doing stretches that involve excessive twisting. Like many things, a little rotation can be good…but a lot is bad.

Are you guilty of doing this exercise or any others I’ve discussed in this series? If so, what do you plan to do in place of them? Let me know in the comments below.

If you’re not on my list to get more health tips like these, enter your name and email below.

By | 2018-06-01T07:12:51+00:00 May 20th, 2014|Uncategorized|8 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Karlie Moore has a PhD in Exercise Science and Nutrition and specializes in firefighter health. She has conducted fitness testing on hundreds of firefighters and has created the most comprehensive online wellness program for fire departments called the FitCulture program. Dr. Moore is also married to a firefighter and so understands their lifestyle and the health challenges associated with it.


  1. Brett May 21, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    What do you think about Steam Engines as an alternative.


    • Karlie May 22, 2014 at 4:53 am

      That still looks like a lot of unnecessary rotation to me. If you really wanted to do this exercise perhaps you could modify it and just rotate slightly.

  2. Clark December 17, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Standing upright and bending sideways is difficult for me….it feels unnatural and awkward for me…is it me or is this exercise a no no.

    • Karlie December 17, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      Hey Clark, if it doesn’t work for your body then definitely don’t do it!

  3. Anonymous October 25, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    What are your thoughts on a weighted back extension machine like the LifeFitness that are commonly found in gyms ??https://primofitnessusa.com/product/life-fitness-signature-series-back-extension/

    • Karlie Moore October 25, 2018 at 5:41 pm

      This one looks a little different from the ones I’m use to seeing. If you are sitting with your knees under a pad, and there’s a pad on your upper back which you push back, that is fine as long as you don’t overdo it with weight. They call this a “back extension” machine but it’s not referring to extension of your spine, rather extension of your entire trunk. In that case, the spine stays neutral and therefore the exercise is fine.

  4. Shane October 28, 2018 at 7:23 pm

    Are there any studies that I can reference regarding stress on the spine with exercises like the “Russian twist”? I’m trying to find something tangible to show how problematic it can be for my fellow firefighters.

    Thank you.

    • Karlie Moore October 31, 2018 at 9:17 pm

      yes, lots of work by Stuart McGill. Here is a pretty comprehensive article: The biomechanics of low back injury: implications on current practice in industry and the clinic. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9109558

Comments are closed.