A strong core and back signals more than six-pack abs. Working out these muscles also increases your body's flexibility and balance and provides extra stability for your spine. So whether you're kicking butt in a bootcamp class or shoveling snow at home, your body will be performing movements more effectively, says Pete McCall, a San Diego, CA-based exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise.
But there's a problem: when performed incorrectly, these otherwise effective moves can pull your spine out of alignment, put too much pressure on the disks, pinch a nerve -- or just give you unnecessary back pain. Mix in a few reps of exercises that work both your back and shoulders with bad form, and your sweat session might be causing you more harm than good.
Is your favorite move on our naughty list? Check out our tally of the 10 worst exercises for your back--and better, safer options.
A well-executed straight-leg deadlift is a fitness powerhouse: it works all the major muscle groups in one single movement. But if you allow your spine to round out during the exercise, your lower back will wind up doing all the work.
To perform this move properly, focus on keeping the core tight and your spine in a straight, neutral position. (Search: Proper spine alignment) When bringing the weight up past the knees, use your hips to pull up, not your back.
The bent-over row targets your back, core, biceps, and shoulders--not bad for one exercise. But similar to the straight-leg deadlift, the major pitfall in this exercise is forcing your back and not your hips to do all the work.
To maintain correct form, keep your back in a neutral position, with your head up and butt down. When lifting, keep eyes forward; looking down will force your back to round. Concentrate on pulling elbows back into the body to keep the focus on your back.
Once a favorite of those seeking a flatter belly, situps have been given the boot by trainers. While doing hundreds of reps can certainly make your midsection feel like it's getting a workout, this move works only about 20 percent of your abdominal muscles. Adding insult to injury, the move strains your entire back. Pulling on the neck while crunching hurts the upper portion; your lower back gets hit when as your hip flexors pull on the spine to raise your upper body off the ground. McCall's advice? Don't waste your time with this largely ineffective move and opt for a (well-done) plank instead, which works your entire body while carving out your core.
Behind-the-neck lat pulldowns are actually quite effective in working out the back. So what's the problem? They're extremely bad for the shoulders. "Consider the shoulders part of the back," says McCall. Proper alignment is the major issue with this move. Most people's shoulders aren't flexible enough to keep their spine straight while performing the exercise, and the odds of hurting your shoulder or tearing your rotator cuff are high. A safer alternative is sticking to doing the pulldown in front of your body, rather than behind your neck. This decreases your risk for injury and works the same muscles more effectively.
The squat is another one of those terrific all-in-one moves. When done correctly, it works all the muscles of your lower body and the core. But when done with poor form, it's an easy way to wind up with more pain than gain after a gym session. The most common mistakes are rounding the back instead of keeping it straight and not sticking your chest out, which causes tension in the lower back.
To execute the perfect squat, start with your feet a bit wider than hip-width apart. Keep your head looking forward, your chest out and your weight back in your heels, not the balls of your feet. During the squat, make sure thighs are parallel to the floor and your knees aren't extending past your toes. Keep your core tight while you squat, making sure your spine is in a neutral position and not arched. The first few times you do a squat correctly, it might feel a bit strange, but that will ease as your body becomes used to the motions.
One of the most effective ways to strengthen your core and work your way toward six-pack abs is the plank. There are tons of plank variations, but the regular old plank is McCall's go-to favorite--when it's done right. To execute the plank correctly, lie face down on the floor, raising onto your toes and resting on your elbows. Draw in your belly button, then hold the position. Easy, right? While in the plank, make sure your core is tight, you're looking straight forward (not down!) and, most importantly, your spine is neutral and hips aren't sagging down. While lowering your midsection might make the plank feel easier, it makes the move less effective and puts increased strain on your back and neck.
A good triceps dip will help build the muscles in your chest and arms. Unfortunately, there are lots of bad dips going on. Without proper technique, dips can put loads of stress on your back and shoulders. To minimize injury, use two chairs or benches on either side of your body instead of just one. This puts your body in a more stable position and provides extra shoulder support. Bend your elbows until they're at a 90-degree angle, and then press back up. As you get stronger, transition into parallel bar dips. These keep your shoulders in a more neutral position, and provide better results.
When your fitness instructor orders your class to do pushups, chances are you'll hear a collective groan--which is a shame, because it's one of the most effective bodyweight exercises you can do. (Related: 27 No-Equipment Exercises You Can Do at Home!) A well-executed pushup works the entire body, but a bad one can hurt your back and shoulders -- and prevent you from reaping all the benefits the move provides. When doing a pushup, keep the core tight, pelvis tucked in and spine flat. Your head, back, and butt should all be in a straight line. Keep elbows tucked in and, as you lower your body down, keep hips level with the rest of your body to avoid back pain.
Those looking to carve their obliques often turn to the torso twist machine at the gym. But you might get more than you bargained for. Not only is turning your upper body while keeping your lower body forward an awkward movement, but it puts stress on the spine and can eventually cause nerve damage. A better option to shave off the muffin top is focusing on side plank oblique crunches. Lie on your side with your lower arm bent at the elbow supporting your upper body and upper leg stacked on the bottom leg. Keep your upper hand on your waist or at the ear. Tighten your core while you shift your hips up and down, keeping your spine neutral the entire time.
The double leg lift is touted as a core and lower back strengthener. More frequently, however, it causes lower back pain. For most people, it's nearly impossible to keep the back from arching as both legs rise and lower. When that happens, the back hyper-extends, placing stress on the spine and increasing the risk of injury. If you're set on doing double leg raises, try placing your hands underneath your lower back for added support, moving in a slow, controlled way. A safer option is doing single leg lifts, keeping one leg flexed while raising the other.