If you haven't tried the superman exercise, you definitely should.
When I was younger, I had sciatica, which bedeviled me for months. I was later prone to sudden stabbing pains in my lower back that left me wincing and limping for hours. For these reasons, I have worked hard over the years to strengthen my lower back and core and have not had an issue for a gratifyingly long time. I believe this is due in larger part thanks to exercises such as the superman.
Read on to find out more about the benefits of the superman exercise, and what happened when I added 30 to my morning routine for a week. Looking for more weird and wonderful workout inspiration? Read what happened when I did 50 bird dogs a day for a week.
What is the superman exercise?
The superman name is a good indication of what this exercise involves. Lie down on your front, stretch out your arms and legs, and imagine you are Superman flying through the air with the greatest of ease. Picture the beloved Christopher Reeve incarnation, as the special effects restrictions in the late 1970s ensured we could see him in full flight. In the recent films, Henry Cavill just moves too darned fast, but that’s CGI for you. You will not need a cape for this exercise.
What does the superman exercise do?
This is a surprisingly wide-ranging exercise. Let’s start with the back: The erector spinae muscles are located on either side of the backbone and run from the base of your skull to your hips. These large muscles straighten and strengthen the back, and help with rotation. It was in the lower section of these muscles where I felt the immediate impact.
But I also noticed that the superman exercise worked parts of my trapezius muscles, which extend from the neck, across the shoulders, and down the back, forming a triangular shape.
One of their many functions is aiding good posture (opens in new tab), which aligns with one of the roles of the erector spinae muscles — this is great move for overall back strength, increasingly important at a time when we spend so much of our waking hours sitting at desks, in the car or on the couch, a lack of activity that means many of us suffer from chronic back pain (opens in new tab).
What surprised me was how much the move worked my external obliques, the muscles that cover the sides of the abdomen, from just under your arms to the pelvis. They don’t get much attention, so I was glad to be doing an exercise that brought them into play. They help rotate the trunk and are crucial for overall core strength. In short, for an exercise with relatively little movement (unless you are extremely flexible), the superman does a lot.
How to do the superman exercise
I advise you to use a padded mat for this exercise or do it on a carpeted floor. I first tried it on a thin yoga mat on bare floorboards but found it too uncomfortable. Lie face down on the floor, legs straight and arms extended in front of you. Don’t worry if you can’t get your arms completely straight, but do reach out as far as is comfortable. Don’t raise your head to look forward, as this will put a strain on your neck.
Inhale and raise your arms and legs as high as you can without discomfort, keeping all four limbs as straight as possible. You may not be able to lift them more than a few inches. Again, don’t let this bother you. Try to raise your belly button from the floor. You should be engaging your glutes, erector spinae, core and trapezius muscles.
Hold this position for a couple of seconds, breathing normally, then slowly lower to the ground. That’s one rep. Aim for three sets of 10 reps.
I did 30 supermans for a week and this is what happened
Day one is when I learn, usually to my disappointment, my range of movement for a particular exercise. At first, I found it hard to raise my legs while keeping them straight, but it was worth the effort. Do not give in to the temptation to bend your knees slightly. Does Superman do this when he flies? No, he does not. Also, doing so means you are not working your glutes, lower back or core, so you may as well just be lying on the floor, asleep. I managed 30 reps, feeling the effort mostly in my lower back.
Day two was a repeat of one, though my breathing was better. The chief drawback with this exercise is the lack of movement, so you may be inclined to think there isn’t much going on. There is, trust me. That said, I tend to find the first two days of these week-long tests the least satisfactory.
On day three I noticed a marked improvement (told you!). My form was better; I could raise my legs slightly higher by focusing more on my glutes, and felt my shoulders and core working harder. My arms were straighter, too. I hit 30 reps and jumped to my feet. I felt energized because I had worked out the proper form, and because I felt looser and stronger. I also felt mentally sharper — that I can’t explain.
On day four I noticed the effects more in my shoulders than in my lower back, which made me feel my body was sharing the load more effectively. As I tried to get my arms as straight as possible, they were still inclined to move apart. Watch for this, because holding them straight and close improves the impact of the move. Aim to keep your upper arms close to your head. Also, try to ensure your legs don’t drift too far apart.
By day five I didn’t have to think about form or effort. I managed 35 reps but then my dog came in and tried to sit on my back. Session over.
Day six brought a new sensation: I felt the move powerfully in my external obliques, as if they had finally woken up, or, more accurately, as if I was learning to properly involve them.
By day seven, I still did not feel I was lifting my arms and legs far off the ground, but that didn’t matter. If you watch videos of this move, don’t feel you have to emulate the hyperflexible types who can almost make a C shape with their body. This is not how Superman flies.
There are several benefits to this move. The first is that it suits all exercise levels (though if you have any concerns, check with a medical professional first). It is also convenient, requires no equipment, and does not take much time. It won’t wear you out but it will work a range of muscles to aid your posture and help prevent lower back injury.
The one disincentive is that it is not dynamic; you will not feel you are doing much, as the amount of movement is minimal. But it works. You will never be able to take on Lex Luthor and you will probably never rock a kiss curl, but the superman is a winner.
Inspired? Check out what happened when our fitness editor tried Chris Hemsworth's 250-rep dumbbell workout and we also tried his 200-rep bodyweight workout. Here's what happened when we tried Lily James' 600-rep ab workout. Looking to build strength from the comfort of your own home? We've also hand-picked the best adjustable dumbbells on the market here. Also check out what happened when I did 50 sumo squats every day for a week.