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This one exercise can save your low back

This is an excerpt from Elite Physique by Chad Waterbury.

It’s almost certain that you’ve experienced low back pain at some point in your life. (And if you haven’t, know you’re one of the lucky few.) Without a doubt, low back pain is a significant problem around the globe, even if hard numbers across different populations are difficult to determine (Trompeter, Fett, and Platen 2017).

Two of the most common causes of low back pain are disc herniations (i.e., bulging discs) and spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal canal. Herniated discs can be especially painful when the bulge presses against a spinal nerve. When that occurs, it is often beneficial to perform a movement that extends the spine (Alhakami et al. 2019). One of the most popular extension-based movements goes by three different names: McKenzie extension, sloppy push-up, or cobra. We’ll refer to it here as a cobra since it sounds the coolest of the three options.

I prescribe the cobra for both rehabilitation and prehabilitation purposes. After a disc herniation, the cobra can be a great rehabilitation exercise to restore range of motion and reduce pain. Importantly, if you have low back pain you must first see a licensed physical therapist or orthopedic doctor to diagnose the underlying problem, which might not be a disc problem. Don’t try to self-diagnose because your source of pain might actually worsen with a cobra, which is usually the case when you have spinal stenosis.

If you’re currently not suffering from low back pain, use the cobra as a prehabilitation exercise to keep your discs healthy. I often program 10 to 15 repetitions of a cobra after each set of an exercise that stresses the low back, such as a deadlift or barbell back squat. It is also a great exercise to perform after you’ve been sitting for long periods of time. That’s because sitting causes the following problems: shortening of hip flexors, shortening of abdominals, loss of spinal extension, and increased pressure on the discs. The cobra reverses those ill effects through one simple move:

  1. Lie on your abdomen on the floor. Place your hands directly below your shoulders, or wherever feels most comfortable (see figure 12.2a).
  2. Push your chest as far away from the floor as possible by straightening your arms (see figure 12.2b). Lower to the starting position. Keep your hips and legs relaxed throughout the movement.
  3. Perform 10 to 15 repetitions after each set of an exercise that challenges your low back, and every hour while sitting.

Figure 12.2 Cobra.
Figure 12.2 Cobra.

More Excerpts From Elite Physique