Worst Leg Exercise for Low Back (NOT WHAT YOU THINK ARE THINKING)

A little time for a quiz here. If I were to ask you which leg exercise has led to more low back problems than any other in the gym, what would your answer be? Now, likely the top two answers are probably squats, and deadlifts. I am absolutely going to disagree because those well-executed exercises do far more good for your entire body, than they are damage. I’m actually talking about the exercise right here. For those of you that know I don’t really like the leg extension, that’s not even what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the other version of this. I’m talking about the hamstring curl. The hamstring curl, ironically, is one of the exercises that well-intentioned people do to strengthen their hamstrings, and it screws up more people’s lower backs than any other I’ve seen. As a matter of fact, the irony behind the entire exercise itself is, they’re doing it to strengthen their hamstrings, but when we talk about function – when we talk about training athletes – very rarely, in function, does an athlete ever need to have overwhelming strength of the knee-flexion component of a hamstring’s function.

We talk about hip extension, that’s a whole other ballgame. That’s something you really want to focus on, but doing something that isolates knee flexion here, under heavy load is not going to do the trick. It is going to screw up your low back. This is why. I literally had to dust this damned thing off. You can see, Jesse, all the dust particles all over this thing? See them floating gall over the place, in the air? Because it’s been in my basement. It never officially made it to the gym for the official move. But I still have it for demo purposes.

What we do is get down here, get into position to do the exercise, and this is what causes all the problems. When I’m down here and I start to move heavier weight, or get fatigued, what do we do? We start to – as we’re trying to pull up – we start to lift our butt up into the air. Some machines even place us in that position to start.

They keep us up with our hips elevated, which is even worse. But when we’re doing this here, and we start to do this, what’s really problematic about that is what’s causing that. Why do we do it? We do it because we know that we’ve got to get our heels toward our butt. Get the heels up toward our butt. When we start to have problems what we do is say “If I can’t get my heel to my butt, I can get my butt to my heel.” So, if I lift my butt up I’m going to shorten that distance and make it easier, but what I’m also doing is shortening that moment arm to make it a little bit easier on the hamstring itself, to execute that motion.

That’s all well and good, but what it’s actually doing is, to cause this lift I’m driving with my hip flexors into the pads. Right here, I’m driving up. We know that if my hips are driving, actively into this pad I can’t move them anywhere because they’re stuck. They’re stuck in place here on that pad. So, if I can’t bring them through like this, what I could do is, it will bring my body up, and back in that direction. That is the recipe for disaster because what happens is, as you really press hard on those hip flexors to drive up and help those hamstrings work you can most often cause some pretty significant spasms, or unwanted tension into the hip flexors themselves.

It goes through the body and attaches right down into the lumbar vertebrae causing all kinds of low back spasms, and pain, and strain, and everything else you don’t want there. That could be pretty longstanding. You may have actually experienced this after having done some leg curls and getting up, even if not just right away, maybe later on that night, or the next day your back is killing you. This is what’s happening. It’s no better if we try to do the standing leg curl. If I do – come on this side – if I do the standing leg curl, the same deal is, I still have my leg anchored in here, and as I try to get my heel up I try to lift and push into the pad here as well.

The same thing is happening on that hip flexor, up against that pad. What could we do instead? Again, let’s be a little more athletic about it. Let’s not focus on strengthen the knee flexion component of our hamstrings. Again, if we were trying to do something athletic, and I want flexion, normally any athletic movement on my feet, all I have to do is let gravity win. Meaning, if gravity wins I bend my knees.

I don’t have to actively pull myself down to get there. So, we don’t need that so much. Even for the people that might argue “Well, when I’m running, doesn’t your leg come up?” Not really. When you’re in stance mode, if I’m running, as I get here, through mid-stance, and I pass through; the leg is actually being brought and powered through with the hamstring into hip extension. But then it’s a momentum where my leg continues to go up into the air and kick past there.

But you certainly don’t need a lot of power and force to lift up against the force of gravity here. So, we want things that are going to allow two things. Number one: A little more athletic where we can get co-contraction of the glutes and hamstrings at the same time. I’ve covered this before on an exercise like the glute-ham raise. What we have with the glute-ham raise is the ability of the hamstrings and glutes to work at the same time. Now, properly executed is the key. You don’t want to do what I’m showing you here. Which is, once again, shortening that movement and doing the same thing where you drive your knees into that pad. If you maintain a long torso and come all the way up, now you’re actually making sure that the hamstrings are doing their job, but they’re getting a heavy dose of work, and assistance from the glutes.

If you have to do anything here to help yourself up you just use your hands as a self-spotting technique, but you don’t compromise and start driving those knees into the pad, causing the same problems with hip flexion. But you can actually do a better thing here by lying on the floor and doing alternative exercises. Like the barbell hip thrust. A great exercise for athletes because we’re taking away the opportunity for the hips to be driving isometrically into some pad that would cause the low back to start having problems. We can even do this with no barbells at all by doing these bridge curls. We’re basically allowing ourselves to let the legs slide out, and then bring them back in again. Again, always trying to focus on keeping the pelvis up high to make sure the hip extension component of the hamstring strengthening is key.

Finally, we can even do this with a physio ball if we need the extra assistance here and to make it a bit easier. But no matter what we do we want to train like athletes, guys. The focus is, you’ve got to get the things that matter the most when it comes to training a muscle and try to discard the things that don’t work. Here, I know it’s a popular exercise. I know it’s something we always do. But why? You have to ask yourself that question sometimes. If the answer doesn’t really line up with the science, then maybe you’ve got to rethink your training. Guys, if you’re looking for a program that puts the science back in strength, as a physical therapist and someone that has to prioritize the things that work because I’m applying it to real athletes and real situations where they have to thrive; that’s what ATHLEANX is all about. You guys can train the same way. Train like an athlete over at ATHLEANX.com. If you’ve found the video helpful leave your comments and thumbs up below. Let me know what else you want me to cover and I’ll do my best to do that for you in the days and weeks ahead.

All right, see you soon. .

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