Worst Exercises for Lower Back Pain (Avoid these Ab Exercises)

If you have lower back pain (or want to avoid hurting your back), then these are the worst exercises you’ll want to avoid.

You could be unknowingly hurting and worsening your lower back pain during your workouts. You’d be surprised how many popular exercises are actually very bad for your lower back and can cause an injury.

In my nearly 20 years as a personal trainer, I’ve found these exercises to be the worst if you have chronic back pain or want to prevent lower back pain. The exercises below that ruin your lower back will surprise you.

Exercises That Hurt Your Lower Back

If you have lower back pain, then you know any wrong movement can feel like somebody stabbed you right in the back. Avoiding the exercises that put your lower back into a bad position that could hurt it is critical.

In my early years as a personal trainer, I suffered through a few big back injuries that happened working out. I didn’t know what was causing it at the time, but looking back I want to ask myself what in the heck I was doing.

Turns out, I was doing the absolute wrong exercises for my body at the time. I was really “playing with fire” with my lower back by doing these exercises. I ended up paying the price being bedridden for weeks while trying to let my back heal.

Physical therapists have a saying to avoid movements with B.L.T.:

  • Bending: don’t want a significant amount of spinal flexion
  • Lift: don’t want to perform flexion-extension against a resistance
  • Twisting: don’t want to rotate and shear the spine

These big 3 movements can put stress and strain on your lower back. You’ll want to skip these exercise movements if you have a bad lower back or want to avoid hurting it.

Avoid These Worst Lower Back Exercises

Keep in mind that not all the exercises should be avoided by everyone all the time. This worst list is for those suffering from lower back pain or who want to avoid hurting their lower back.

Some of the exercises below can be performed safely by some, and they have their benefits. But if you’re trying to heal your back or prevent back pain, then these are the exercises to avoid.

So many don’t realize how much they’re hurting their lower backs while trying to strengthen their core. Here’s what not to do if you have lower back pain or want to prevent it.

Running, Jogging, Jumping

Running, jogging, and jumping are high-impact physical activities that aggravate back pain. As your foot hits the ground with this higher force, it will send the shock up your legs and right into your lumbar spine.

You’re repeating this high-impact shock hundreds or thousands of times with running and jogging. And if you’re running out on the street, then the hardness of the cement also worsens the impact.

Switch to low-impact alternative cardio exercises such as walking, swimming, and biking. Avoid twisting movements such as butterfly and freestyle that require more trunk rotation for swimming. Instead, go with backstroke and breaststroke swimming exercises that stabilize the trunk.

Side Bends

side bends exercise

This is a very common exercise, even one I used to do to train the obliques (love handles). But bending your body to the side puts a lot of stress on your lumbar spine discs (the gel-like cushions between the spine’s bones) and joints.

Our core (abs, obliques, hips, lower back muscles) aren’t really meant to bend over to the side like this. When in life have you ever naturally bent over to the side like this to pick something up?

The core is meant to stabilize and prevent excessive movement in certain directions. Stability is just the ability to control changing movements. So bending your core to the side like this not only isn’t a great way to work out your core, but it also places a lot of unneeded force on your lower back.


superman back extension exercise

If you heard that the Superman exercise is bad, then you heard right. Superman back extensions do strengthen your lower back, but this exercise also puts stress on your lower spine.

Even back expert Stuart McGill, says Superman back extensions is one of the most compressive exercises for the lower back. This high compression on your lumbar spine discs can cause a herniation or disc bulge.

When you reach your 50s, excessive disc pressure can even start to break down weaker bones in your spine. If you have osteoporosis, this is definitely something you want to avoid.

Toe Touches

toe touches stretch exercise

Leaning forward and bending at your trunk with the standing Toe Touches hamstring stretch puts a great amount of stress on the discs and ligaments in your spine. If you have a herniated disc (or on the verge of getting one), then Toe Touches are going to worsen it.

As you bend forward, standing Toe Touches cause you to round your lower and upper back. This position puts a lot of torque pressure on your lower back.

It can also overstretch the ligaments in your lower back. If these ligaments get too stretched out, they’ll cause instability in your lower back. Your core wants stability to protect your spine.

Stretching your lower back if it hurts isn’t a bad idea when done correctly and in the right situation. But it’s best to avoid toe touches and stretch your hamstrings instead, such as by lying or standing hamstring stretches.


windmills exercise

I remember doing the Windmill stretching exercise to warm up in gym class. While young kids aren’t likely to get hurt doing it, those older and with tight hips, a weak core, and an unstable spine aren’t so lucky.

This stretching exercise is similar to Toe Touches, except you’re also twisting your spine. So you’re not only bending forward and putting pressure on your lower spine but also twisting and torquing it.

If you have tight hamstrings, then a lot of the stress will pull on your lower back. It’s best to avoid Windmills if you have any back pain or tight hamstrings.

Roman Chair

roman chair

The Roman Chair exercise puts a lot of pressure and compression on your spine. If you have a history of low back pain then the Roman Chair can place unnecessary tension on your lower spine.

But when done correctly, the Roman Chair exercise can strengthen your lower back. Place the hip pads below the top of your pelvis. Keep your back straight, tighten your abdominal muscles, and gently bend forward at the hips.

The Bird Dog exercise is a much better alternative for strengthening your back and core muscles. To do it, get on all fours, lift one arm and the opposite leg up, and straighten them in line with your torso. Pause briefly, then bring them back down and repeat on the other sides.

7 Worst Ab Exercises (with Lower Back Pain)

Sit-ups & Crunches

sit-ups exercise

You might have heard that sit-ups are bad for your back, and that’s true for most people. Crunches can also cause lower back pain.

You’re stressfully bending your lower spine repeatedly back and forth doing sit-ups and crunches. This puts excessive pressure on your lower spinal discs, which could lead to a herniated disc.

When most people do sit-ups, they end up engaging their hip flexors and making them tighter instead of working their core muscles. Sit-ups also put unnecessary pressure on your vertebral discs.

Sit-ups with keeping your knees straight are the worst for your lower back. But even sit-ups with knees bent are also very hard on your discs and lower back.

Planks are a much better alternative to sit-ups and crunches for an ab exercise. They are okay for your back as long as you keep your hips level with your shoulders and spine in a neutral position. Planks will train your deeper core muscles in addition to the

Russian Twists

russian twists exercise

Twisting movements are terrible for your spine and lower back. With Russian Twists, you’re in a semi-reclined position, which puts a lot of pressure on your lower back and spinal discs.

Then when you add the twisting motion, you’re adding even more pressure to your lower back and spinal discs. If your deep core muscles aren’t strong enough to properly support your spine during this exercise, then this will also place more strain on it.

It’s common to hold a weight while doing Russian Twists, but this only increases the pressure on your lower back and discs. And with the dynamic nature of this exercise, it can easily displace your spinal discs and cause a herniation.

Double Leg Lifts

double leg lifts exercise

Double leg lifts can put too much pressure on the core muscles and stress the spine.

If you have weak lower abs, then your hip flexors will take over and dominate the exercise. This causes your lower back to round and come off the floor, which increases pressure on your lower spine.

If you are going to Double Legs Lifts, at least have your pelvis titled upwards and place your hands underneath your hips. This will put your hips and spine in a neutral position while providing support.

Ab Roller

The ab roller will place a lot of stress and strain on your lower back as it rolls forward away from you. As you roll forward, pressure builds in your lower back causing a “pinching” pain, especially if your core isn’t strong enough to handle the load.

If you are going to do the ab roller, then be sure not to allow the ab roller to go too far forward to the point you feel pain in your lower back. Keep your abs tight and don’t let your hips dip down. Keep a straight line from your shoulders down to your hips.

You can use a wall in front of you to keep the roller from going too far. The wall will block the roller once it reaches the maximum distance before your back hurts.

Hanging Knee Raises

hanging knee raises exercise

The repetitive hip flexion and extension of Hanging Knee Raises tightens your hip flexors and can put too much strain on your lower back. If you have chronic lower back pain, avoiding this exercise is a must.

If you have tight hip flexors and/or sit a lot throughout the day then avoiding hip flexion is crucial. Your hip flexors (psoas) connect into your lower spine. So if your hip flexors are already tight and shortened, then exercising them more will stress your lower back and tighten even more.

Bosu captain's chair exercise machine
The Captain’s Chair has lower back support

Instead of Hanging Knee Raises, you can alternatively try the Captain’s Chair. With this, your forearms are supported, and there’s usually a pad for your lower back. This helps to keep your lower spine in a neutral position. But you still have to be careful if you’ve had low back pain symptoms.

Decline Sit-Ups

decline ab sit-ups

The problem with the decline sit-up bench is it causes shearing in the lumbar spine. It’s far too easy to use more of your hip flexors to pull yourself up, which places further force and stress on your lower back. This happens even more so when pushing yourself past the point you’re able to do the exercise with proper form.

The decline sit-up can be quite effective when done correctly with proper form. Those with the core strength and stability can benefit from decline sit-ups, but it’s best to avoid it for those with lower back problems.

GHD Sit-ups

ghd machine

If you have chronic back pain, then doing GHD Sit-ups will put a lot of pressure on your lower back. As you lean back over the pads into hyperextension, there is a lot of pressure in your lower spine.

With GHD sit-ups, you’ll lower your torso past the point of extension by leaning back over the pad. Then, you’ll primarily use your hip flexors to bring yourself back up, which places further pressure and tension on your lower spine.

World-renowned back expert Stuart McGill says, “When you repeat high force and velocity through collagenous disks, they will delaminate and bulge.” GHD Sit-ups fit this description to the letter.

Worst Exercise Machines & Gym Exercises

Back Squats

When done with poor form, back squats are an easy way to wind up with more pain than gain after a gym session. If you have chronic back pain or stenosis, then you should not load your back with weight.

The most common mistake is rounding your back when doing a back squat. If you are going to do back squats, keep your back straight and do not stick your chest out. Don’t go too low to the point your lower back starts to round out.

Goblet squats are a better alternative that won’t load your lower back with weight. Back squats can be a very effective lower body exercise if done correctly, especially if you have a healthy back and strong core. But if you have a history of back pain, then it’s best to do an alternative exercise like Goblet Squats or split squats.

Leg Presses

The Leg Press machine can put your back into an awkward flexed position. The added force of the inclined weight combined with your lower back in a flexed position can increase the chances of a back injury.

It’s not advisable to do leg presses if you have chronic lower back pain. The seated position in Leg Presses forces your body into an anterior curve of the spine. Then, the high force of the weight is a recipe for a herniated disc.

But if you are going to do Leg Presses, then make sure you don’t go too deep to the point your hips curl and lift up off the pad into a flexed position. Keep your lower back flat against the pad at all times. This will help to keep a neutral spine.


If you have chronic pain in your lower back, deadlifts can make it worse and even cause a herniated disc. Deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts all place a lot of pressure on your lower back.

When you bend over to pick up a weight, you don’t only compress the discs in your spine but also cause sheer force (the discs want to slide forward). And lifting the weight causes your back muscles to tighten, which can cause more pressure on your lower spine.

If you allow your spine to round during this exercise, your lower back will do all the work. Instead, perform this move properly and focus on keeping the core tight and your spine in a straight, neutral position. When lifting the weight past your knees, use your hips to pull up, not your back.

A trap bar deadlift or sumo deadlift are better options if you still want to deadlift. Keeping your back in a neutral position is easier without as much sheer force on the spine.

Ab Crunch Machine

These machines have you in a seated position with your hips flexed. Then, you push forward with your upper body against weighted resistance. Bending forward with your hips flexed against resistance puts a lot of pressure on your lower spine.

Ab crunch machines promises to deliver the American dream of getting six-pack abs while sitting on your rear end. But there are far better exercises that train your abdominal muscles without the unnecessary force on your lower back.

Bent Over Rows

The major pitfall in bent over rows is forcing your back and not your hips to do all the work. It’s too easy for your lower back to round with improper form and/or if you have weak core strength. This will put a lot of pressure and stress on your lower back.

Try maintaining better form by keeping your back in a straight neutral position with your head up and butt down. When lifting, keep your eyes forward, looking down will force your back to round. Concentrate on pulling your elbows back into the body to keep the focus on your back.

Heavy Overhead Lifts

When lifting a weight overhead, allowing the lower back to arch will put too much compression on your spine. If you’re lifting too heavy a weight then it’s easy for your legs to straighten and upper body to lean forward. 

If you lack shoulder mobility, this can cause the weight to go too far in front of your body. This causes your lower back to compensate by holding the weight overhead, which can make your back pain worse.

If you have a pronounced back arch, try strengthening your core. Plank variations will strengthen your abs and core, allowing you to keep your pelvis in a neutral position through the contraction.

Leg Extensions

If you lack hamstring flexibility, your pelvis curve will change as you lift weight. Your pelvis will tilt back, and your lower back will flatten out. This will expose your back to unnecessary pressure, which can lead to back pain and even a lower back injury.

Improve hamstring flexibility if you feel your lower back hurting or tightening up when doing leg extensions. Be sure to lean back while doing leg extensions to lengthen your hamstrings and place more emphasis on your quadriceps muscles.


If you have a bad back, then avoiding these exercises will be crucial to not reaggravating it. If you’ve recently hurt your back or have a history of back injuries then it’s best to skip these exercises and stretches to not risk hurting it again.

The 3 main causes of lower back pain are a weak core, tight hips, and poor movement mechanics. If you have sit a lot throughout the day then this tightens your hips more, can place your lower body out of alignment, and puts outward force your lower spinal discs.

Having severe lower back pain can be debilitating to the point you’re not even able to walk. I no longer do the above exercises even when my back is feeling great. There are other alternatives you can do that won’t place unnecessary strain on your lower back.

But with that said, there are still benefits to many of the above exercises that a healthy individual with proper form can do. This “worst of” exercise list is for those who are in lower back pain or want to avoid it. And if you fit in that category then the above exercises are the worst offenders.