Considering Superman is known as the man of steel, it makes sense that a move named after him would give you muscles of steel throughout your core. Having a strong midsection can be a major game changer when it comes to staving off back pain and increasing mobility in day-to-day life.
The Superman exercise—some version of which has a home in exercises from Pilates to HIIT classes—involves lying on the ground and engaging your core to lift your limbs so that you look like you’re flying. It’s a trainer favorite, thanks to the fact that it challenges multiple muscles without the use of equipment, and it can be used as a dynamic warmup or a full-body workout in any routine.
Though we often think about our core in terms of our abs, it actually encompasses a system of muscles through the front, sides, and back of your body. The Superman exercise hits them all— including your obliques and the oft-ignored muscles in the back of your body—as well as some hard-to-reach spots in the backs of your arms and legs. “A ‘Superman exercise’ is a very effective bodyweight movement that can work the muscles along the posterior chain, including lower and upper back, hamstrings, and glutes,” says ACE certified trainer Sean Alexander, co-founder of Model Trainers.
Because the move targets all 360-degrees of your core, it can be helpful for protecting you from injury, particularly in your back. It works to strengthen your lower back (more specifically, the erector spinae muscle) and increase mobility in your thoracic spine, which can help alleviate back pain if done regularly.
The Superman exercise is low impact and generally safe for everyone, regardless of their fitness level (especially if you take the time to build up to it). However, Alexander warns that for anyone with pre-existing back conditions, the move may place too much pressure on the spine, low back, and neck, so you may want to opt for a modified version instead.
The biggest mistakes people make when doing a Superman exercise
Though it may seem pretty simple, there are a few easy (and common) ways that can mess with your form in a Superman exercise. A few trainers see all the time?
1. Going too fast: “This particular movement isn’t meant to be performed at a quick tempo,” says Alexander. He suggests holding for one or two seconds at the top of each repetition, and trying to increase your range of motion with each consecutive repetition.
2. Looking up: A big rule for this one? Never stop staring at the ground. “Keeping your eyes up can lead to neck pain during the movement,” says online fitness coach Nicole Ferrier. To prevent this, keep your chin tucked toward your chest the entire time.
3. Holding your breath: When you’re in the middle of a particularly hard workout, continue purposeful inhales and exhales to reap the full benefits of the move. “While performing this exercise, it is advised and necessary to make sure that you breathe in and adequately,” says Sandra Gail Frayna, PT. “If you hold your breath, you will not benefit from the Superman exercise efficiently and properly. Inhale as you raise your limbs, and exhale as you lower.
4. Performing it on a hard surface: Since the move requires you to press your hips into the ground as you lift, Alexander suggests doing it on top of a yoga mat or some other soft surface (instead of, say, a hardwood floor) to avoid hurting or bruising your hip bones.
5. Overextending your arms and legs: If you stretch out your limbs too far, you risk putting undue stress and pressure on your lower back. To avoid this, Frayna advises keeping a slight bend in both your arms and your legs as you raise and lower them.
How to build up to a Superman exercise
Since the Superman exercise hits so many different muscles, you’ll want to build up the strength to be able to do it properly. Three moves that can help you get there?
1. Bird dog: This move will work your core as well as your upper and lower body in one fell swoop. Start on all fours and lift your opposite arm and leg (for example, your right arm with your left leg) up toward the ceiling. Return to start and repeat on the other side.
2. Alternating Superman: If lifting your arms and legs at the same time (the way a full-blown Superman exercise requires you to) is too challenging, Frayna suggests starting with the modified version. Instead of lifting all four of your limbs at once, you’ll lift your opposite arm and leg together, then switch and repeat on the other side. Cycle through three sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side.
How to do a Superman exercise
1. Begin lying with your belly on the floor, your head in a neutral position, and your arms extended over your head to create a straight line from the tips of your fingers to your toes.
2. Slowly lift your arms and legs off of the ground at the same time, squeezing the muscles in your butt as you lift. Hold for one to two seconds at the top of the move.
3. Slowly lower back down to the floor.
How to amp up your Superman routine
Once you’ve got your standard Superman exercise down pat, Frayna suggests mixing things up to make things more challenging. A few 2.0 levels of the move she loves?
1. Reverse Superman: Otherwise known as a hollow hold, this move flips your usual Superman upside down. Instead of lying on your stomach, lie on your back and use your core to lift your arms and legs toward the ceiling at the same time. Hold for 30 seconds.
2. Superman ball lift: From your original Superman exercise position, add a stability ball between your feet and squeeze to bring it with you when you reach your arms and legs off of the floor. “This challenges those hard-to-reach lower abs, and the butt muscles just above your hamstrings,” says Frayna.
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