Once you master your exercise form and advance to incorporating weight into your bodyweight movements using dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells, it’s tempting to forsake equipment-free workouts and solely focus on heavy weights that require intense effort. After all, even performing a few repetitions with these substantial tools can make you feel incredibly strong. However, bodyweight exercises should not be disregarded, regardless of how skilled you become in your fitness regimen.
One bodyweight exercise that deserves recognition is the superman exercise. This isometric exercise offers numerous advantages for the muscles at the back of your body and plays a crucial role in preventing injuries and discomfort.
Here, Anne Reuss, a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) based in Atlanta, comprehensively explains (and demonstrates) how to properly execute the superman, or superhuman, exercise, along with providing adjustments and progressions to customize the exercise according to your needs and goals. Additionally, she reveals the major benefits that the superman exercise offers and suggests incorporating it into your routine to develop unparalleled strength.
How to Perform the Superman Exercise
Fundamentally, performing the superman exercise involves lying face-down on the floor with your arms extended above your head, then lifting your legs and arms a few inches off the ground and briefly pausing at the highest point of the movement – assuming a position that resembles the flight of a superhero.
A. Lie on the floor with your face down, keeping your legs straight, toes touching the floor, and arms extended overhead. Your palms should be facing each other, and your pinkies should be resting on the floor.
B. Keep your neck in a neutral position and direct your gaze towards the floor. Engage your back, core, and glutes, and gradually raise both your arms and legs a few inches off the floor.
C. Pause at the highest point for one to two seconds, then gradually lower your arms and legs back to the starting position.
The Key Benefits of the Superman Exercise
Despite relying solely on your body weight, the superman exercise can assist you in developing the strength and flexibility necessary to prevent discomfort and pain. Here’s how it accomplishes that.
Assists in Preventing Injuries and Lower Back Pain
To effectively perform the superman exercise, you activate your back, core, and glutes. Consequently, you strengthen the components of your posterior chain, the muscles located along the back of your body, as highlighted by Reuss. “These muscles are all fundamental for everyday movement patterns such as squats, hinges, pushes, pulls, and carries,” she explains. For instance, you utilize your glutes to rise from a sitting position on the couch and your erector spinae (also known as the back extensors, which enable you to extend your trunk) to stand up straight after bending over to pick up an object from the floor, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
(BTW, the erector spinae are essential muscles within your core.)
Just as importantly, regularly training your rear muscle group can help prevent injury and reduce discomfort in your lower back, adds Reuss. When you primarily train your front muscle group — the muscles on the front side of your body, such as your chest and quadriceps — and neglect the rear muscle group, muscle imbalances can develop, which may ultimately result in an injury, Harley Pasternak, a well-known trainer and nutritionist, previously told Shape. Additionally, if your glutes (muscles within the rear muscle group) are weak or inactive during forward movements, you may compensate with other muscles (like the psoas major muscle — a hip flexor that connects the lower back to the upper leg) to accomplish the task. This added stress can eventually cause lower back pain, according to ACE.
Enhances Posture and Respiration
Performing the superman exercise regularly can also help you maintain an upright stance and avoid slouching, thanks to its ability to strengthen the rear muscle group, says Reuss. “You spend a lot of time in a bent position [while] sitting in cars and [at] your desk, so your rear muscle group usually doesn’t receive as much attention as it requires,” she explains. In this hunched-over position, the mobility of your diaphragm is reduced, hampering your breathing capacity, says Reuss. However, training your rear muscle group helps fortify your back so you can retract your shoulder blades and maintain an upright posture, Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., the founder of Training2XL, previously told Shape. Consequently, you’ll breathe more effectively and be able to “gaze at your reflection and genuinely feel like a superhuman,” says Reuss.
In addition to building strength in your back, the superman exercise also aids in improving flexibility in your middle spine, says Reuss. This segment of your spine starts at the base of your neck and extends to the bottom of your ribs, and the joints within it allow for movement in various directions, including rotation, bending and straightening, and side bending, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The issue: If the middle spine doesn’t rotate properly, the lower spine (the part of the spine in the lower back) has to rotate more to compensate for the movement, which could lead to lower back pain or injury, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Fortunately, notwithstanding, the superhuman exercise can assist in maintaining the flexibility of your vertebral column.
Superman Exercise Muscles Engaged
As indicated previously, the superman exercise primarily targets the muscles in your posterior chain, according to Reuss. The hamstrings and glutes, specifically, engage to keep your legs raised off the ground, while your posterior deltoids work to move your arms backward or, in this instance, raised toward the ceiling. The erector spinae and thoracic spine also come into play, says Reuss, as they assist in extending your back throughout the movement.
Targeting these muscle groups can have advantages both in and out of the gym, states Reuss. Along with enhancing posture and preventing injuries, the superman exercise can help establish a connection between your mind and muscles, she explains. “Being aware of the location of all those small muscles will assist with other movements, such as deadlifting,” says Reuss. During this exercise, you’ll rely on some of the same muscles as those utilized during the superman exercise — including the erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings — to complete the motion. By practicing how to activate them during the bodyweight superman exercise, you’ll remember how to properly engage them during these intense lifts and, consequently, maximize the effectiveness of your workout.
Variations of the Superman Exercise
Whether you’re a novice looking to refine your technique or a seasoned pro wanting to take the move to the next level, you can adjust and advance the superman exercise accordingly.
Modification: Altering Arm and Leg Movements
If the traditional superman exercise causes back discomfort, you can reduce the intensity by lifting only your arms off the ground or by lifting one arm and the opposite leg at a time, suggests Reuss. Both variations will alleviate some pressure on your back, she explains. Additionally, if you have limited shoulder mobility, you can position your arms out to the side with your elbows bent at 90-degree angles to increase comfort, she adds. Pregnant individuals unable to lie on their stomachs, as well as those who dislike the pressure on the front torso, can opt for the quadruped superman — also known as the bird dog exercise, according to Reuss.
Progression: Increasing Time Under Tension and Adding Dynamic Movement
Once you have mastered the traditional superman exercise, you can intensify the challenge by holding the top position of the movement for up to eight to 10 seconds, rather than one to two, advises Reuss. This progression, referred to as an isometric hold, increases the duration of time your muscles are contracting against an external resistance, according to ACE. Increasing time under tension leads to greater muscle breakdown and metabolic fatigue and, with proper recovery, can result in enhanced muscle growth, according to ACE.
For a more lively choice, you can “dive” by alternating elevating one arm and the contrary leg, all while executing an isometric hold, she mentions. “Interchanging extremities will test your midpoint of gravitation, urging your profound abdominal muscles to exert more effort in maintaining your midpoint and core supported,” suggests Reuss.
Traditional Superman Exercise with Reverse Snow Angel for Shoulder Activation
To ignite your shoulders, you can also try the traditional superman exercise with a reverse snow angel, according to Reuss. At the pinnacle of the movement, extend your arms outwards to the sides and downwards towards your buttocks. Bring your hands together at the top of your glutes, and then slowly lower your limbs to the floor.
Building Core Endurance with Supermans
To enhance core endurance, incorporate a few repetitions of supermans into your routine. After completing the initial supermans, while maintaining the pose, roll your body over to the side until you’re on your stomach again. Then, perform a few more reps. According to Reuss, this movement requires mastering abdominal control and engages all core musculature in various planes of movement. To conclude the roll, she suggests performing a hollow hold, which is the opposite of a superman.
Common Mistakes in the Superman Exercise
Despite its seemingly simple nature, there are several common mistakes that can make the superman exercise painful, less effective, and exhausting, warns Reuss. One significant error she often observes is excessive movement of the neck instead of keeping it in a neutral position. To avoid this, she advises envisioning holding a lacrosse ball under your chin. This helps maintain a neutral neck and minimizes strain on the neck and shoulders.
Another crucial aspect to consider is breathing. Reuss explains that it is essential to avoid holding your breath during the exercise as it can lead to quick exhaustion. Instead, she suggests breathing purposefully by inhaling as you lift off your limbs and exhaling as you return to the starting position. Counting the reps can also serve as a helpful reminder to breathe properly.
Lastly, it is important to perform the superman exercise at a controlled pace. Rapidly completing the repetitions may reduce its effectiveness by minimizing the time spent under tension. Reuss recommends holding the position for about one to two seconds during a standard superman exercise.
Incorporating the Superman Exercise into Your Routine
Before adding the superman exercise to your training regimen, Reuss suggests checking your ability to comfortably raise your hands overhead from a prone position. If there is any discomfort around your shoulder joints, it may be necessary to start with a modified version to reduce this discomfort. Focus on improving shoulder mobility before progressing to the classic move.
Whether you choose the conventional superman exercise or a modified version, Reuss recommends performing two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions as a warm-up exercise before your workout, two to three times a week. She personally finds this exercise beneficial as part of her preparation before strength training, activating the posterior chain and opening up the shoulders by incorporating a reverse snow angel.
Additionally, you can include the superman exercise within a strength training workout. It works well as a superset exercise with a compound movement, especially if enhancing the posterior chain or improving posture is a priority. However, ensure that it doesn’t exhaust you before the primary lift.
For instance, you could perform a compound workout, like the kettlebell deadlift or front squats, and utilize your rest period for eight repetitions of extraordinary power.” In this scenario, strive to complete three sets of eight to 12 repetitions per session, she suggests.
While most individuals will benefit from tackling the superhuman exercise, you’ll want to consult your healthcare provider before attempting it if you suffer from chronic back problems, says Reuss. “The exercise does involve excessive bending of the spine, which can cause additional strain,” she explains. Once you’ve received approval and feel ready to try the superman exercise, keep in mind that appearances can be deceptive. “It may appear easier than it truly is — my clients love to remind me of this,” says Reuss. “But isn’t that the superhero aspect of it? Unleashing your own potential and determination.