Once you nail your exercise form and graduate to adding load to your bodyweight moves with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells, it’s tempting to swear off equipment-free workouts and stick with heavy, grunt-inducing weights for good. After all, even just a few reps with these hefty tools will make you feel Herculean.But bodyweight exercises shouldn’t be discounted — no matter how experienced you become in your fitness routine.
One bodyweight move that deserves some attention: the superman exercise. This isometric exercise offers plenty of perks for the backside of your body and plays a key role in injury and pain prevention.
Here, Anne Reuss, a NASM-certified personal trainer based in Atlanta, breaks down (and demonstrates) exactly how to do the superman, or superhuman, exercise, and shares some modifications and progressions that’ll help you tweak the move to meet your needs and goals. Plus, she reveals the biggest benefits the superman exercise has to offer and how to mix it into your routine to build up superhero strength.
How to Do the Superman Exercise
Essentially, performing the superman exercise entails lying on the floor with your arms extended out above your head, then lifting your legs and arms a few inches off the ground and briefly pausing at the top of the movement — a position that looks as though you're flying like a superhero.
A. Lie on the floor face-down with legs straight, tips of toes touching the floor, and arms extended over head, palms facing one another and pinkies resting on the floor.
B. Keeping neck neutral and gaze toward the floor, engage back, core, and glutes, and slowly lift both arms and legs a few inches off the floor.
C. Pause at the top for one to two seconds, then slowly lower arms and legs back to the starting position.
The Key Superman Exercise Benefits
Even though the exercise involves just your body weight, the superman exercise can help you build the strength and mobility necessary to prevent aches and pains — here's how.
Helps Prevent Injury and Lower Back Pain
In order to properly perform the superman exercise, you’ll engage your back, core, and glutes. Consequently, you’re strengthening components of your posterior chain — the muscles along the backside of your body, says Reuss. “[These muscles] are all critical for everyday movement patterns — squat, hinge, push, pull, and carry,” she explains. For example, you’ll use your glutes to stand up from the couch and your erector spinae (aka the back extensors, which allow you to extend your trunk) to stand up straight after bending over to pick an object off the floor, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). (BTW, the erector spinae are key muscles within your core.)
Just as importantly, regularly training your posterior chain can help fend off injury and lower back pain, adds Reuss. When you primarily train your anterior chain — the muscles on the front side of your body, such as your chest and quads — and overlook the posterior chain, muscle imbalances can develop, which may ultimately lead to an injury, Harley Pasternak, a celebrity trainer and nutritionist, previously told Shape. Plus, if your glutes (muscles within the posterior chain) are weak or aren’t activating while performing forward movement patterns, you may compensate with other muscles (such as the psoas major muscle — a hip flexor that connects the low back to the upper leg) to get the job done. This additional stress can ultimately cause lower back pain, according to ACE.
Improves Posture and Breathing
Performing the superman exercise on the reg may also help you stand tall and slouch-free, thanks to its ability to strengthen the posterior chain, says Reuss. “You spend a lot of time in a flexed position [while] sitting in cars and [at] your desk, so your posterior chain usually doesn’t get as much love as it needs,” she explains. In this hunched-over position, your diaphragm’s mobility is reduced, interfering with your ability to breathe, says Reuss. Training your posterior chain, however, helps strengthen your backside so you’re able to pull back your shoulder blades and sit and stand upright, Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., the founder of Training2XL, previously told Shape. In turn, you’ll breathe better and be able to “look in the mirror and legit feel like a superhuman,” says Reuss.
In addition to building strength in your back, the superman exercise also helps improve mobility in your thoracic spine, says Reuss. This section of your spine starts at the base of your neck and ends at the bottom of your ribs, and the joints within it allow you to move in all planes, including rotation, flexion and extension, and lateral flexion, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The problem: If the thoracic spine doesn’t rotate properly, the lumbar spine (the part of the spine in the low back) must rotate more in order to carry out the movement, which could lead to lower back pain or injury, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Luckily, though, the superman exercise can help keep your spine’s mobility on point.
Superman Exercise Muscles Worked
As hinted at earlier, the superman exercise primarily targets the muscles in your posterior chain, says Reuss. The hamstrings and glutes, in particular, activate to keep your legs lifted off the floor, while your posterior deltoids work to move your arms backward or, in this case, raised toward the ceiling. The erector spinae and thoracic spine also come into play, says Reuss, as they help extend your back throughout the movement.
Targeting these muscle groups can have benefits in and out of the gym, says Reuss. Along with improving posture and fending off injuries, the superman exercise can help you establish a connection between your mind and muscles, she says. “Knowing where all those little muscles are will help with other movements, such as deadlifting,” says Reuss. During this exercise, you’ll rely on a few of the same muscles as those called on during the superman — including the erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings — to complete the movement. By practicing activating them during the bodyweight superman exercise, you’ll remember how to properly engage them during these heavy lifts and, in turn, get the most out of your workout.
Superman Exercise Variations
Whether you're a newbie looking to refine your form or you're a complete pro and want to take the move to the next level, you can modify and advance the superman exercise accordingly.
Modification: Change Your Arm and Leg Movement
If the traditional superman exercise makes your back ache, you can dial back the move by lifting only your arms off the floor or lifting up just one arm and the opposite leg at a time, suggests Reuss. Both variations will relieve some pressure from your back, she explains. You can also position your arms out to the side, elbows bent at 90-degree angles, to increase comfort if you have limited range of motion in your shoulders, she adds. And pregnant folks who aren't able to lie on their stomachs, as well as people who dislike the pressure the exercise places on the front torso, can opt for the quadruped superman — aka the bird dog exercise, she says.
Progression: Increase Time Under Tension and Add Dynamic Movement
When you’ve mastered the traditional superman exercise, you can amp up the challenge by simply holding the top of the movement for up to eight to 10 seconds, rather than one to two, says Reuss. This progression, known as an isometric hold, increases time under tension, or the amount of time your muscles are contracting against an external resistance, according to ACE. Increasing time under tension causes more muscle breakdown and metabolic fatigue and, with proper recovery, can lead to more muscle growth, according to ACE. For a more dynamic option, you can “swim” by alternating lifting one arm and the opposite leg, all while doing an isometric hold, she says. “Alternating limbs will challenge your center of gravity, encouraging your deep abdominal muscles to work harder to keep your center and core braced,” says Reuss.
You can also practice the traditional superman exercise with a reverse snow angel to fire up your shoulders; at the top of the movement, spread your arms out to the sides and down toward your butt, bring your hands together at the top of the glutes, then slowly lower your limbs to the floor, suggests Reuss. When you want to build up core endurance, do a few supermans, then while maintaining the pose, roll your body over to the side until you're on your stomach again and follow up with a few more reps, she says. "What I love about the roll [is] how it makes [you] master abdominal control (including all core musculature) in all planes of movement, [and] you have to perform the opposite of a superman (a hollow hold) to finish the roll," says Reuss.
Superman Exercise Common Mistakes
Although the superman exercise seems pretty simple, there are a few slip-ups you can make that can make the move painful, less effective, and flat-out exhausting, says Reuss. The biggest mistake she sees? "The neck twerk — when someone is moving their neck excessively instead of keeping it in a neutral position," says Reuss. "Imagine holding a lacrosse ball under your chin, or as I like to coach it, positioning the 'L' letter shape in ASL with index finger under chin and thumb toward the chest. This will minimize strain on the neck and shoulders."
It's also essential to avoid holding your breath, which can cause you to tire out quickly, she explains. "Breathe with purpose — inhale as you lift off your limbs and exhale as you return to starting position," she suggests. "I find that counting out reps helps me remember to breathe."
Finally, take your time: There's no medal for performing your reps lightning fast, and doing so could make the move less effective, as you're minimizing the time spent under tension. For a standard superman, try to hold the position for one to two seconds, she advises.
How to Add the Superman Exercise to Your Routine
When you're ready to build up superhero-level strength and incorporate the superman exercise into your training regimen, first check to see if you're able to comfortably raise your hands overhead from a prone position, says Reuss. If the movement feels unpleasant around your shoulder joints, you may want to start off with a modification that reduces this discomfort and work on improving your shoulder mobility before you level up to the classic move, she says.
Whether you’re sticking with the conventional superman exercise or a scaled-down version, consider performing two sets of 10 to 12 reps as a pre-workout warm-up move two to three times a week, suggests Reuss. “I love using this exercise as part of prep before strength training, activating my posterior chain and opening up my shoulders by adding a reverse snow angel,” she says.
You can also include the superman exercise within a strength training workout. “It makes a great superset exercise with a compound exercise, especially if you know a stronger posterior chain or improved posture is a priority — as long as it doesn’t tire you from the primary lift,” she adds. “For example, you could do a compound exercise, such as the kettlebell deadlift or front squats, and use your rest period for eight reps of superhuman strength.” In this case, aim to do three sets of eight to 12 reps per session, she recommends.
While most individuals will benefit from tackling the superman exercise, you'll want to talk with your healthcare provider before trying it if you have chronic back issues, says Reuss. "The exercise does involve hyperextension of the spine, which can cause more strain," she explains. Once you've been given the all-clear and feel primed to test out the superman exercise, remember that looks can be deceiving. "It might look easier than it actually is — my clients like to remind me of this," says Reuss. "But isn't that the superhero element of it? Unlocking your own potential and perseverance."