How to Do the Alternating Superman

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

verywell / Ben Goldstein

Also Known As: Opposite arm and leg raise, aquaman, swimming

Targets: Abdominals, lower back

Level: Beginner

The alternating superman exercise is a back extension that is also one of the most popular ab exercises. It has been known to increase ab strength and can be an important part of a regular core strength regimen. The flexibility and ease of the exercise can also help you work smaller ab muscles that the usual core exercises do not. It is a good addition to a core strengthening workout.


This exercise is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve core strength in the lower back and obliques. It primarily targets the erector spinae, which surrounds the spine from your hip to your head, and flexes and rotates the spine and neck. The hamstrings and gluteus maximus also come into play while the muscles of the upper back (deltoids, trapezius, and splenius) stabilize the motion. This exercise gives you a back extension. This exercise and its modification, the full superman, can be used to strengthen the lower back.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Lie face down on a mat with your arms stretched above your head (like Superman)
  2. Raise your right arm and left leg about 5 to 6 inches off the ground (or as far as you comfortably can)
  3. Hold for 3 seconds and relax
  4. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg

Common Mistakes

Because of the simplicity of the exercise, many mistakes are made doing this exercise. Here are the most common mistakes made and how you can avoid them.

Bending the Arms or Legs

Be sure when raising your feet and arm that you raise them parallel to the floor. Keep your arm and leg straight and avoid bending at the knee or elbow.

Not Holding the Position

It's imperative to the exercise that you hold the position at the top of the repetition. That is, when you raise your alternating arm and leg, you must hold the position to do the work properly. You should feel the side and lower back contract. You may not feel this if you don't hold the position properly.

Holding Your Breath

Being face down may prevent you from breathing as you normally would during exercise, but you must breathe to bring oxygen to your muscles. What's more, breathing helps stabilize the core and maximize the results of the exercise.

Off-Center Alignment

You should be able to draw a straight line from the top of your head to the bottom of your mat. Your body should be balanced while lying down so that each side of you is doing equal work. Be sure you are not off-center as this will create a strain on your back, rather than promote core strength.

Pointing the Foot

While it may come naturally during this exercise, avoid pointing the foot when you raise it. This will take the focus off your core and distribute the focus to your legs. By keeping the foot perpendicular to the floor, you keep the work in your core and get a better muscle contraction in the focus area.

Modifications and Variations

This exercise can be done in different ways to meet your needs and level of skill.

Need a Modification?

The variation done without the alternating leg and arm raise is often simply called the superman. It is an excellent back extension, with less use of the obliques.

  1. Use the same starting position lying on the mat face down with arms extended in front. Keep your neck in a neutral position and keep your abdominals contracted
  2. Lift both arms, both legs, head, and chest from the mat at the same time
  3. Hold the position for 3 to 5 seconds
  4. Slowly lower your limbs to the starting position
  5. Lower to the starting position and repeat 5 to 10 times

Up for a Challenge?

Increase your number of repetitions and the length of time you hold the extended position.

The Pilates swimming exercise is similar, but you keep the arms and legs hovering above the ground without returning them to the ground when switching sides.

This exercise can also be done kneeling, for an additional challenge to back strength and stability. This variation is often called the bird-dog.

Safety and Precautions

You want to feel your back working, but not straining. Stop the exercise if you feel any pain. You should use caution or avoid this exercise if you have a back injury. Avoid this exercise after the first trimester of pregnancy.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Huxel Bliven KC, Anderson BE. Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports Health. 2013;5(6):514–522. doi:10.1177/1941738113481200

  2. Hwang YI, Park DJ. Comparison of lumbar multifidus thickness and perceived exertion during graded superman exercises with or without an abdominal drawing-in maneuver in young adults. J Exerc Rehabil. 2018;14(4):628–632. doi:10.12965/jer.1836296.148

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.