I've been wondering if Torso / Back twisting exercises (like twisting from side to side, with weight or without weight) can be harmful to the back. Mainly, if you'd have a herniated disc - would a twisting exercise aggravate the condition? If you're healthy, could such exercise create an injury?

Exercise examples:




  • Surely we're not gonna have a knee-jerk close reaction to any question even resembling something health-related? This really looks in the scope of physical fitness. I'll add the tag "injury-prevention".
    – G_H
    May 18, 2016 at 5:05
  • @G_H Adding a tag for “injury prevention” does not change the context of the question and may change the intent of the original poster. When a question is written in somewhat vague terms, it is left up to us to interpret the context. Your interpretation is that the context is to avoid injury.
    – rrirower
    May 18, 2016 at 12:02
  • 1
    @G_H While you may be correct, the opposite position is also true because there is no indication that the poster did not have such an injury. Assuming the latter, it is not appropriate to prescribe any type of exercise program without knowing the poster’s individual situation. That’s why it is the responsibility of the poster to make sure the question is written in such a way as there is not chance for it to be left open to interpretation.
    – rrirower
    May 18, 2016 at 12:02
  • @G_H - While I won't close the question immediately, can you with any reliability simply say "No, it won't hurt your back to twist with a herniated disc"?
    – JohnP
    May 18, 2016 at 20:32
  • @JohnP I was starting on typing up an answer until I figured my information was lacking and my take on it wouldn't suffice. So I was hoping that other people would chime in with something decent. But they can't do that if questions tend to get closed within a day when they're even just near an edge case, now can they?
    – G_H
    May 19, 2016 at 3:14

2 Answers 2


"Listen" to your body. If you feel pain during exercise (not one of lactic buildup in muscles), with or without injuries, it's best to immediately stop. Make sure you are doing the exercise properly and that you don't have an underlying condition that limits your ability to perform the exercise safely.

That being said, I'm occasionally doing twists, starting with low range of motion before starting to push myself or use weight (for Russian twists). I occasionally feel lower back pain from all kinds of seated ab exercises thus I prefer exercises like the "Hanging Pike", ab-wheel (which can also be taxing to your lower back if not performed properly) and full range of motion chin-ups (which activate the abdominals most)[1].

My advice is given that you have an actual health condition - be very cautious, always start doing the twists slowly, warm up well and stay on the safe side. Don't ignore any pains and if in any doubt - consult a physician.

[1] https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-ab-exercises

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    For those who cannot complete a hanging pike the progression is lying-down floor leg raises, hanging incline leg raises and hanging knee raise. After mastering hanging pike the progression upwards is windshield wipers, flag pole and finally dragon flag.
    – John
    May 18, 2016 at 10:19

According to Dr Stuart McGill, twisting your spine is generally safe without a load, not safe with a load (discussed around 20:00 here). However, things may be different for people with bad backs:

For example, flexion-intolerant backs are very common. Stretches such as pulling the knees to the chest may give the perception of relief (via stimulation of the erector spinae muscle stretch receptors), but this approach only guarantees more pain and stiffness as the underlying tissues sustain more cumulative damage. Eliminating spinal flexion, particularly in the morning when the disks are swollen after bed rest, has proven very effective with this type of client. Realize that the spinal disks can bend only so often before damage ensues. Reserve the bends for essential tasks, such as tying shoes, rather than abdominal training.

McGill believes there is a tradeoff between strength and flexibility in the spine, because stretching works by making the annulus between the discs more gooey, which makes it perform worse under load. If you plan to load the spine and are exercising to build sufficient muscle to lock it in place, you can train oblique strength without twisting by doing asymmetric carries such as farmer's walk.

This stuff is gleaned from here, but I am honestly not that familiar with McGill's work so I may be misrepresenting him.

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    The quoted part regards flexion, though, which isn't the same as axial twisting.
    – G_H
    May 19, 2016 at 9:27
  • Agreed; the link does mention that twisting subsequent to lateral flexion " can lead to circumferential rents in the annulus", but I don't know about pure unflexed twisting. The quote suggests pain will teach you once the exercise exceeds your capacity.
    – Noumenon
    May 19, 2016 at 9:36
  • Flexion is actually very different from a twist - as a twist creates torque on the spine, thus creating much higher loads. As far as I understand - a twist will not create a pressure on the disc from top to bottom.
    – roman
    May 19, 2016 at 18:22

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