Do This, Not That!

Have you seen those, “Eat this, not that!” articles as it relates to nutrition, weight loss tips, and health news?

Let’s apply that principle to exercises.

How many physical therapists, personal trainers, or coaches have had their athletes do the Superman exercise? How many of us do this exercise ourselves?

The “Superman” exercise is one that I remember doing well before I started PT school in 2008. I still see it done at the gym on a frequent basis. I remember being told it is a great way to exercise the muscles that support the spine, so I understand why many people still do the exercise. At the time, I didn’t think about what biomechanically is going on with the exercise and whether it was safe to do.

The Superman exercise is when you lie on your stomach and lifts both arms and legs up to train the spinal extensors, gluteal muscles, and secondary muscles as wellsuperman-core-exercise. According to Stuart McGill, who is an expert on low back disorders, the Superman exercise creates nearly 6000 N of compression to a hyperextended spine, transfers the load to your facets, and crushes the interspinous ligaments (You can see all his work in his book: Low Back Disorders: Prevention and Rehabilitation). Simply put, it’s really bad for your back when done repeatedly. For perspective, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did research and testing regarding the maximum disc compression levels that your back can safely tolerate. They found that level to be 3425 N, or about 770 pounds of force.

If we do some simple conversions knowing that 1 newton = 0.22 pounds, than we see that the Superman exercise at 6000 Newtons is equal to 1349 pounds of force to the lumbar spine. That exercise exceeds the safety guidelines by nearly 600 pounds of force!

So what to do? A core exercise that I think is challenging, but also more safe is the forearm plank.


Although I haven’t seen research on the levels of compression during a plank, Dr. McGill has found that the side plank creates a force of about 581 pounds to the lumbar spine, and being in a push-up position leads to 413 pounds of force. The more traditional plank is listed under one of his advancements of the side plank exercise, so I am inclined to believe it is still well below the 770 pounds of force noted by the NIOSH to correlate with risk of back injury.

5 Exercises to Avoid Following Acromioclavicular (AC) Joint Injury

Several weeks ago, a mid-60’s male came to the clinic presenting with an AC Joint separation after falling from his mountain bike (that’s what we get for trying to take advantage of the mild Michigan winter!) This patient is very active; he regularly participates in a men’s competitive soccer league and mountain biking. After suffering the injury and experiencing signs and symptoms of pain, decreased range of motion (ROM), and weakness of the shoulder, the patient assumed surgery was his only option.

Prior to beginning therapy, the patient had consults with three different orthopedic surgeons, all of whom recommended physical therapy as an initial treatment. Upon meeting him, hearing how he injured his shoulder and the activities he wants to return to, I knew his personality type as one to push through the pain when exercising.

I asked the patient what, if anything, he has been doing at home after the injury—either to decrease pain or improve function. He mentioned that he would attempt to apply an aggressive cranially directed force to the shoulder in an attempt to correct his step deformity that was present after injury. He made a point to mention how much he visually disliked the look of the step deformity that was present after injury! When I looked at his shoulder and the amount of vertical displacement present, I presumed hat he had a grade 3 separation at minimum.

“Did that help?” I asked.

“Ehh…I’m not too sure, but it does push it back up and makes it look nicer”

Physical therapy treatment always includes education on injury prevention. I told him that what he was doing to fix his step deformity was a major no-no. In fact, what he was doing would likely make things worse over time. We discussed how the bony surfaces of the AC joint surfaces are sloped in nature of articulation, which makes the joint more inherently susceptible to dislocation. When the force applied to the region exceeds the tensile strength of the ligaments, further injury can occur. Although the coracoclavicular ligament was likely already completely torn, it didn’t seem like a good idea to repeatedly perform a maneuver that leads to further AC joint pathology as a means of treatment.

We also got to talking about exercise—what he enjoyed doing, what he was able to do pain-free, and what exercises were being performed when painful. I provided him with feedback on the exercises and described how we would create a treatment plan that would safely strengthen his shoulder with respect to the severity and limitations of his injury prior to the follow up appointment with his surgeon. Here are 5 exercises that I instructed him to avoid initially.

Dumbbell-Chest-Fly.jpg1) Pectoral flys: When AC joint pathology is suspected, PTs perform a horizontal adduction test in order to provoke symptoms. Pain when moving the arm across the body (horizontal adduction) is indicative of a positive test. The pec fly exercise replicates the horizontal adduction test and should be avoided to prevent further damage.

seated_front_barbell_press_2) Overhead press: The closed pack position of a joint is the the point at which the joint surfaces are maximally congruent, and the ligaments are most pulled taut (i.e. less space in the joint for smooth movement). The closed pack position for the AC joint is 90 degrees of shoulder abduction. The closed pack position of the glenohumeral (GH) joint is 90 degrees abduction and external rotation, or maximum abduction and external rotation depending on the source. Overhead press can lead to shearing between the lateral end of the clavicle and the medial aspect of the acromion. It also takes the shoulder through ranges of the closed pack position repeatedly. We also know that the articular disc of the AC joint is already susceptible to age related degenerative changes which can lead to AC joint arthrosis, even without a pre-existing injury.


3) Lateral pull-downs: This exercise requires starting with the arms outstretched in an overhead position and moves downward to the sternum. As mentioned above, this movement goes through the closed pack position of both the AC and GH joint and also creates repeated shearing of the AC joint.

4) Wide-grip bench press: It seems to be one of the primary complaints of people with AC joint injury. Pain when performing this exercise occurs for the same reasons listed above. Mechanically, it puts an unfavorable amount of stress and impact to the injured AC joint.

5) Tricep Dips: TrChair_Tricep_Dipicep dips apply additional, unwanted pressure to the anterior capsule of the shoulder. This can lead to anterior instability and laxity of the anterior capsule, which is the most common direction of instability of the shoulder. During the triceps dip, similar forces occur as with the example given above when my patient was trying to push his arm up to make the step deformity look better. There are safer ways to strengthen!

Cervical pain and Cell phones, continued

Previously, we discussed how repetitive cervical strain, which has been termed “text neck” in recent years, has become more of an issue. Just a few years ago, the phrase “text neck” was virtually unheard of. However, in reality, the issues with sustained and repetitive cervical flexion have been around for a very long time–they have just been given the fancy “text neck” moniker recently.

If we consider how common it is for teens, adolescents, and adults to spend several hours a day on the phone or send several thousand text messages a month, one can imagine that over the course of 20 years, the repetitive strain can lead to changes in the normal curvature of the spine. Beyond the musculoskeletal aches and pains associated with the change in spinal curvature, it can have further implications on lung capacity and create a greater workload on the cardiovascular system. Dr. Bolash of the Cleveland Clinic describes how the impaired lung capacity from sitting in a slumped posture restricts oxygen and causes the heart to work harder to distribute more oxygen-carrying blood through your body.

This is further highlighted when considering how similar forces occur with several other daily activities such as reading, writing, and meal preparation. Ultimately, some of these positions are not avoidable. The point to be made is to be more aware of our postures, avoid positions of undue stress and take proactive steps to strengthen and stabilize the muscles of the cervical spine.

We discussed how looking down while texting can equal upwards of 60 pounds of force to the cervical spine, which would be the equivalent of a 5 gallon jug of water hanging from your neck and then adding a 20 pound car tire hanging from that. (Here’s an abc news report on the issue). So the question now is what can we do to help prevent these degenerative structural changes in our neck due to repetitive overuse of our cellphones?

Let’s start with some of the easier fixes:

  • Limit your usage of cellphones and other electronics.
  • Bring the cell phone or tablet up to eye level during use; if reading use a book stand to elevate the book to eye level.
  • If you are sitting and must keep your phone down low, hinge more at your hips, keep your spine (back and neck) neutral and simply look down with your eyes
  • Utilize voice to text technology
  • Do strengthening and stretching exercises to target muscles of the cervical spine.
  • Visit a physical therapist to implement a more client-centered and extensive treatment plan. Remember that the same rules don’t apply to everyone. Each of us are at a different level of postural awareness, have different muscle imbalances, and varying levels of joint mobility. A physical therapist can help identify the appropriate program for you.

The key is prevention. Technology will continue to improve and make life easier than ever before. When I was in school, the teacher would always say to the class “you won’t have a calculator everywhere you go, so you need to learn how to do this!” Funny how that worked out! 10 years ago, I never would have thought to be able to read a 300 page novel on a 4.5 inch iPhone screen, but the option is now available. Technology will keep changing, its up to us to make sure we use these new conveniences in a safe and comfortable way. 

The Truth About Text Neck Syndrome

“The human head weighs 8 pounds!”

Remember that quote from the movie Jerry Maguire? 

In all actuality, the human head weighs closer to 12 pounds—and even then, that is only true when the neck is at neutral (i.e. looking straight ahead). So why does any of this matter?

Well, take a moment and look around. Everybody has their heads down! Texting. Sending emails. Browsing the internet. The ever-increasing access to technology, more specifically smart phones, has undoubtedly simplified our life. But it also comes with some major negative side-effects. And I’m not talking about cell phones, radiation, and cancer risks—that’s a whole different topic, and one, that I frankly don’t know enough (or really anything) about!

However, what I do want to discuss is the alarming amount of stresses that are impacted upon our cervical spine, ligaments, muscles, and nerves when you are flexing your neck down to use a smartphone. As mentioned above, the human head weighs 12 pounds at neutral, 27 pounds when flexed down 15 degrees, 40 pounds when flexed down 30 degrees, 49 pounds when flexed down 45 degrees, and 60 pounds when flexed 60 degrees! Think about that—60 pounds of force is more than a 5 gallon jug of water hanging from your neck! In fact, it would be a 5 gallon jug of water hanging from your neck…and then adding a car tire to that water jug. If you think like I do, that should freak you out. If you don’t think like I do, maybe you should consider the advice of Kenneth K. Hansraj, M.D., the Chief of Spine Surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine who recently published a short study entitled: “Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head.”

In the study, Dr. Hansraj discusses that “text-neck” (not to be confused with the similarly painful ailment, shoe-shine neck) has become a current epidemic and will have a more profound impact going forward. So what’s the end result if we stay flexed down and glued to our cell phones, creating a force of nearly 60 pounds of force on an area intended to withstand roughly 10-12 pounds of force? Well for starters, a whole lot of neck pain, which will keep physical therapists like me busy for a very, very long time. But just calling it neck pain is way too simplistic. It’s not only the neck pain, but rather, the constant stress, repetitive strain, and shearing against your vertebrae, muscles, ligaments that can lead to a loss of normal cervical spine curvature, increased laxity of ligaments, cervical disc herniations, nerve irritations, and changes in quality of muscle tissue—whether that be short and tight, in spasm, or the development of trigger points causing a referred pain to other areas of the body. Not to mention a progressive rounding of your thoracic spine with the shoulders rolling forward.

Here’s some insight, for much of the population, curvature of the upper back tends to increase with age…let’s not do anything to help it happen much quicker! In my next post, I’ll provide helpful hints on a safer way to use your phone and how to avoid neck pain from “text-neck”

These are just my “2 cents,” let’s hear yours.