Phone: 03 8822 3723

Is Twisting & Rotational Exercise Bad For Your Back?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 02 April 2017
Hits: 50073

This is an interesting question for the answer is both yes and no! Twisting of the lumbar spine is very dangerous and is linked to many painful back injuries with the most common being a disc tear, but rotation of the thoracic spine and the hips is not, and is actually what the body needs. Twisting of the spine is another form of a herniated disc which is usually caused from bending poorly, whereas this is caused from repetitive poor rotation movements. If you think of the disc like an onion with several layers protecting a core in the middle. The outer disc is made of small rings of collagen, and these layers can separate from repetitively twisting the spine allowing the nucleus gel from the middle of the disc to find it's way into the opening between the two layers causing extreme pain and a very lengthy rehabilitation plan. But does this mean we should stop all twisting for fear of this injury? Many experts will tell you yes. But if this were true you would see no tennis players, golfers, baseball, hockey and we would never be able to vacuum our floor! What this really means is you need to stop twisting the lumbar spine and learn how to use the thoracic spine and hips to do the work. Trying to stop yourself using any rotational movement is pure stupidity and to be honest almost impossible, even walking uses rotation. You will have to stiffen up like a robot to stop any type of twisting. What you need to learn is how to rotate correctly and what movements and exercises to avoid. In this article, we will show you how to do this and provide you with a series of movements from easiest to hardest to.

The first thing people think of for using an exercise to strengthen the twisting or rotational movement is to use various exercises that target the obliques. Unfortunately their choice of exercise is usually very poor and the speed at which it is performed is often at slow speeds to try and fatigue the muscles and make the abs "burn". This type of "core training" will create serious problems for the spine. However, the problem is not with rotation or twisting movement but how it is done.

There are several things you must understand about developing rotation strength and power if you want get this right.

Firstly the thoracic spine, or the middle of the spine, is where the greatest amount of rotation occurs in the trunk, not in the lumbar, or lower, spine. This means you should be focusing your attention on moving mostly at the chest-level area, not the lower back. People with neck pain will almost always have a problem here and they will find ways to use their lumbar spine to rotate do to the tightness in their upper back.

Secondly you must address tight hips, for if they are excessively tight and unable to rotate you will risk trying to force the lumbar spine into twisting. It is interesting that the two joints on either side of the lumbar spine need great mobility to provide enormous rotational movement. And both of these joints are what we find to be two tightest areas in most people. The main cause of this stiffness is sitting too much and poor training technique.

Thirdly the TIMING is very important.

If you move too slow you disrupt the workload of the muscles and the sequence they are meant to fire in. Almost every rotational movement we make is quite fast, and in particular the sporting movements such as a golf swing, a tennis forehand or throwing a ball. The timing is everything for executing perfect timing. I often see people using a great exercise but with too much weight making the movement too slow, or people trying to "feel the burn" in their abs and doing the movement slowly. In both cases the movement pattern is being corrupted with bad information that will eventually lead to poor performance and pain.

Towards the end of this article you will see several examples of this in action.

Last but not least you should perform rotation exercises in an standing position. There is two important parts to know here. Firstly the legs are our most powerful group of muscles and how we generate force. Just like bending over where we need to use our legs to save our back, the same is true for rotation. Think of trying to throw a ball without your legs, you would have no power. If you have a leg weakness you will always find these exercises risky until you address the weak legs. Apart from the fact that this has a much great functional carryover to everyday life and sports than the practice of lying on the ground.

The more important point is that by standing up there is a small degree of compressive preloading locks the facet assembly of the spine and makes it more resistant to torsion. This is the reason why trunk rotation without vertical compression may cause disc injury, whereas the same movement performed with compression is significantly safer. This is one of those times that the standing exercise is actually easier and a better choice than the lying down exercise!

The video below provides you with some great ideas of how to implement all of these elements correctly.

Great articles with additional exercise ideas to check out are below

What Is The Perfect Technique?

As mentioned the key is to keep the lumbar spine very stable and stiff but at the same time have incredible motion being generated through the hips and thoracic spine. Here is how to do what we regard as the basic level of rotation. The real secret to this is learning to instigate the movement with the legs and encourage what is known as a weight shift. The weight shift is critical for executing the timing perfectly and where most people get this exercise wrong.

The two videos below give you a great visual of the various mistakes made with this exercise.


Cable Wood-chop - High To Low

  1. Standing with feet a comfortable distance apart with 70% of your weight on the foot closest to the cable and that knee slightly bent.
  2. Hold the cable handle with the hand furthest away from the cable column and the other hand over the top.
  3. Drawing your belly button inwards rotate your torso away from the cable while simultaneously pulling the handle down across your body and shifting your weight to the opposite foot lunging laterally as you move.
  4. Slowly return to the start

Below is a great videos of a professional golfer who came to see me for help with lower back pain. During his assessment we found he had very little mobility with the thoracic spine and this was linked to the terrible posture and movement he had adopted from many years of playing this way. His hips appeared to have adequate mobility on the floor but when he stood up his poor use of bending meant he could not use them. His spine had no choice but to sacrifice its stability during the golf swing. All of the core work he was doing was not helping and if anything making matters much worse.

His solution was found in mobility work and learning to bend correctly as you can see in the video below.


Rotation Using The Slings

I often like to start with these exercises as the rotation is quite minimal and easy to do but more importantly these actions mimic how we are designed to move. Read our article Core Strength Training & How To Do It Correctly for detailed description of each sling. These exercises set things up for the more difficult movements later on, where we need to teach weight shifting and how to integrate strength from the legs through the torso and out the arms. With these exercises there is not a lot of strength required with the legs, but there is a massive requirement of stability, coordination and timing.

There is four slings that need to be worked, but with regards to twisting and rotation I like to focus mainly on the Anterior and Posterior sling first. Simple cable exercises are best to use here and these can be done with an 80 year old lady on her first day in the gym  they are that easy to do. They also can be progressed to the stage where an elite professional athlete can use them, these exercises are that good they relate to all needs and abilities. Below is a video showing all the slings in action and I also show you a simple everyday movement that goes with each sling so you can see just how effective this training is. And how it can really help you to learn basic rotation while keeping stability of the lumbar spine.


Rotation Exercises Used In Rehabilitation

Before getting straight into the more fun and sports like movements I would like to share some unique exercises that we use in our rehabilitation programs to reprogram someone with stiffness and robot like rotation movements. The first series of exercises are known as infant development exercise, and as the name suggests these are learning to wiggle and roll around on your back and your stomach on a mat. Just like a toddler who does not yet have strength in the arms and legs to stand or even crawl they develop the ability to rotate and create movement from rotation. People with back pain and even people who do too many exercises like planks and bench press these exercises can be very difficult. Executing them early on reprograms the body to move the way it first learned many years ago.

Watch the video below to see more.


The second exercise I would like to share is the Turkish Get Up!

Now this is not an easy exercise at all but a very special exercise as it forces all the things needed in rotary movement - shoulder stability with thoracic mobility, trunk stability with hip mobility and enormous coordination. So many people really struggle with this movement and it is exactly what they need in order to put it all together. By all means you can work on all those components separately but it is only when you put them back together that you really get results. Again watch the video below to see how to do it.


More Explosive Rotational Movements

Now assuming you have optimal stability of the trunk and lumbar spine, you understand the weight shift and can do the cable wood-chop perfectly and lastly you are applying mobility drills for the hips and thoracic spine you are now ready to try some more advanced movements. To be honest these advanced movements are very much everyday movements if you play sports so if you cannot do them well in the gym, then you really should not be playing sports! 

Below is a few examples of rotational exercises needing explosive power. You will not be able to do these movements properly without a perfect fast timing. Just like a golf swing or a tennis forehand the timing is everything and you cannot do it slow. Make sure you read our article Four Exercises To Make You Explosively Fast & Strong for more information on what makes explosive movements work.

Sledgehammer Slam Technique Instructions:

  1. Standing with feet a comfortable distance apart holding a sledgehammer to one side of your body and 70% of your weight shifted onto the foot on the same side as you are holding the handle.
  2. Make sure your hands are together and towards the bottom of the handle.
  3. Draw your belly button inwards rotating with the torso with the handle pushed up directly over your head.
  4. Explosively swing the hammer down directly over your head as you step in towards the target.
  5. Pull the hammer back towards you and repeat. Complete all the repetitions on one side then change to the other side


Tornado Ball Wood chop Instructions:

  1. Standing with your back to a wall feet a comfortable distance apart knees bent.
  2. Holding the rope with both hands.
  3. Draw your belly button inwards rotating from the trunk chop the ball horizontal against the wall on either side of your body.
  4. For variation chop the ball from low to high.


Power Rope Wood Chop Instructions:

  1. Standing in a comfortable athletic position with knees bent.
  2. Holding the rope together with both hands on one side of your body.
  3. Draw your belly button inwards and lift the rope explosively as high as you can and slam to the other side while moving your legs to face the other direction.
  4. As soon as the rope hits the ground lift back up and slam to the other side.

If You Have Back Pain

If you currently have back pain I suggest seeking some help from a respected therapist or trainer before trying any of the following exercises. You might need to spend some time with simple exercises to ensure you can activate your inner unit stabilizer muscles. Often these muscles are very lazy or respond too slowly for people with back pain exposing their spine to loads. You will find exactly how to do this in our Back Pain Secrets PDF book or 90 minute video where I take you through a series of detailed assessments, and a step by step process for addressing the cause of your pain. Click here to get a copy or you can watch a preview trailer video below to see what is inside. An invaluable program for learning how to address the cause of pain and how to move correctly to prevent it ever coming back.


Now there is literally thousands more exercises we could show you but I think you get the idea. Medicine ball exercises which I did not include in this article are some of the best for implementing rotary power. Just remember you must have great leg drive, hip and thoracic mobility along with great trunk stability. Last but not least the timing and coordination must be perfect, otherwise compensation will kick in and you will find yourself in pain. But make no mistake this is a very important movement to always practice and have in your training program. Start with the simple exercises like the single cable press or pull, try some Turkish get-ups and then move to cable wood-chops before finishing with tornado ball slams! Your body will love you for it.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily. You can also subscribe to our FREE fortnightly newsletter by clicking here.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.


  • Functional Anatomy of the Pelvis and the Sacroiliac Joint - By John Gibbons
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft