Most runners spend their time, well, running. But penciling in strength training alongside your runs can help you become a more powerful, resilient athlete. While lifting weights is a smart way to go when it comes to building strength, you can still target key muscles with just your bodyweight. The best thing to do is choose exercises that target multiple muscles at one time. And one move that’ll do just that: the superman exercise.
The superman exercise is a dynamic move that involves lying on your stomach and then extending and holding your arms and legs several inches off the ground. It’s great for prepping your body for a weighted workout, but it also delivers bodyweight strengthening that’s super beneficial to runners.
“Your whole posterior chain [the backside of your body] gets fired up when you do this exercise,” Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist, and running coach with Running Strong in Atlanta tells Runner’s World.
Curious to know more about this versatile move? Keep scrolling for expert intel, including how to do the superman exercise correctly, common mistakes, its benefits for runners, and tips for scaling it to your fitness level.
How to do the superman exercise with solid form
Here are step-by-step instructions for doing the superman safely and correctly. Natascha Grief, certified personal trainer and owner of Inner Shift Fitness in Easton, Pennsylvania also demonstrates the move so you can master proper form.
- Lie face down with legs and arms extended, arms overhead. Look down and forward at about a 45-degree angle. This is the starting position.
- Lift arms and legs several inches off the ground. You should feel glutes squeeze and core engage. Clench hands into fists to create total-body tension, and think about making your body long. Keep your gaze down and out so neck is neutral.
- Hold for five to 10 seconds, then lower back down to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.
Are there any common mistakes people make when doing the superman exercise?
Raising your limbs too far off the ground in the superman exercise can lead to injury and/or low back pain, says Chris Travis, certified personal trainer and owner of Seattle Strength and Performance.
So if you feel low back discomfort when holding the move, bring your limbs closer to the floor or stop doing the move altogether, especially if you’re a beginner, advises Travis. Note that when you do this move correctly, you will feel it in your back, it strengthens the muscles from the back of the shoulders down to the legs, but that sensation shouldn’t be painful or uncomfortable. “The minute it feels bad, then that’s a sign to stop,” says Travis.
Another common mistake with this movement is lifting the head up, which then causes severe back extension, says Travis. To prevent this, think about keeping your chin slightly tucked and eyes looking down and ahead at a 45-degree angle. It can also help to think about lifting your head, chest, and arms at the same speed, says Hamilton, as that will promote good body alignment.
Lastly, some people may struggle to hold tension in their body as they perform the exercise. To ensure you’re generating enough total-body tension in the superman, have a friend or trainer gently push against your arms or legs as you hold the pose, Travis says. If their touch easily moves your limbs, then that’s a telltale cue to create more tension in the body, so you’re activating the right muscles.
What are the benefits of the superman?
The superman works well as an activation move before a total-body workout. That’s because it engages multiple areas of your body–including your arms, legs, glutes, core, and muscles of the spine–which can prime you for a lifting session or plyometrics workout. But this isn’t the only benefit of the superman.
Do this move correctly, and you’ll engage pretty much the entire backside of your body, including your glutes and core, as well as the erector spinae, a set of muscles that line the spine. The core and glutes, in particular, are especially important for runners. The glutes include the glute medius and glute minimus, as well as the glute maximus, the biggest muscle in the body. In Travis’s experience, a lot of runners don’t train these powerhouse muscles enough. Taking the time to challenge and strengthen the glutes can lead to big gains, including increased speed and power while running, better pelvic stabilization, and reduced risk of injury, he says.
Then, when it comes to core, “the stronger your core, the more benefit you’re gonna see while you’re running,” says Travis, including increased stability and better transfer of power between your lower and upper halves.
And yet another benefit of the superman exercise? It helps strengthen the muscles that play a role in good posture. Many of us who work desk jobs spend our days in a hunched-forward position, and moves like the superman can help counteract this position, strengthening muscles that keep us in better alignment when we hit the road, or when we’re at our desks.
How often should you do the superman exercise?
You can fit the superman into any type of workout routine, says Hamilton. Do the superman as part of a warmup anytime you want to prep your body for a workout or add it to your list of moves on a total-body strength day.
As for how many reps you should do, well, there’s no “magic number,” says Hamilton, since the right amount will vary person-to-person based on fitness level. Aim to get to a point where your muscles feel slightly fatigued, but you are still able to maintain good form. From there, gradually increase your rep count over time.
One caveat: The superman is a safe move if performed correctly, says Travis. That said, if you have chronic back pain, it may not be a great exercise for you. In that case, should check with a doctor or physical therapist before adding it to your workout routine.
How do you modify or progress the superman exercise?
Brand new to core work? Start with planks instead of supermans, suggests Travis. That’s because planks are a type of anti-rotation movement that can help you understand core mechanics, body awareness, and bracing before you attempt more dynamic moves, like supermans.
Depending on your ability level, you can start with a standard plank or an incline plank, which is an easier version of the standard plank where your hands are elevated on a bench or box. While planking, think about maintaining a flat back and creating and feeling tension in your body. Start with five- or 10-second holds, then work your way up to 30-second holds.
On the flip side, if the superman is too easy for you, make it more challenging by holding light weights in your hands–think 1 or 2 pounds to start, says Hamilton. You can also up the ante by wearing ankle weights. Or, simply increase the amount of time you hold each rep, Hamilton adds.
These variations give you more options for finding the version that works best for your body and your skill level:
Prone Y Raise
If you can’t comfortably raise your arms and legs off the ground simultaneously, you can modify the move by raising just your arms (as shown), or just your legs. If you raise just your arms, you’ll likely feel the movement more in your low back, whereas if you raise just your legs, you’ll probably feel it more in your glutes, explains Travis.
Superman Alternating Limbs
Another way to modify the superman is to just raise alternate limbs, says Hamilton. For example, lift your right arm and left leg for one rep, then switch and lift your left arm and right leg. Continue alternating sides.
Superman With Shoulder Rotation
Lift up and hold the superman position, then rotate your shoulders around into extension, arms reaching behind you and to your low back, says Travis. This rotation can also be progressed by holding weights, he adds. This move also works shoulder mobility. Keep the feet down to really focus on the upper body, working those shoulders.
Superman With Lat Pull Down
Add more upper body activation to this move by holding the superman position, then pulling the elbows down to the rib cage. Think about engaging the lats—the big muscles in the back of the upper body, the same ones you’d use in a pull-up—as you draw the arms down.