Your spine is amazing! Consisting of 33 bones called vertebrae, intervertebral discs, numerous muscles and ligaments, and dozens of nerves, it’s capable of lifting and supporting huge weights.
But, as strong as your spine is, it is also easily injured. Ironically, even very strong people can hurt their lower backs doing the most mundane tasks, such as taking out the trash or mowing the lawn.
In fact, one in eight adults experience chronic, persistent back pain, and more than two-thirds of all men and women will experience some kind of back pain during their lifetimes (1).
One of the best ways to prevent back pain is to strengthen your lower back muscles. A lot of exercisers tend to avoid lower back training because they believe that their lower back muscles get enough stimulation during the rest of their workout.
While that may be true for some people, if your workouts aren’t built around deadlifts, back extensions, power cleans, and good mornings, you will probably benefit from some additional lower back training and even a weekly lower back workout.
Don’t let your lower back become the weak link that undermines your training. Instead, make lower back training a priority. A stronger lower back will have a positive effect on many of the other exercises in your workouts. It could also prevent back injuries and lower back pain.
In this article, we reveal our seven favorite lower back exercises and provide you with a sample workout designed to help you build a more muscular, resilient lower back.
Lower Back Anatomy
While you don’t need to know the names of the muscles that make up and are associated with your lower back, a basic knowledge of these structures may be helpful and could prove interesting.
The main muscles of the lower back are:
Erector spinae is the collective name for the muscles that run from the bottom to the top of your spine: spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. They’re responsible for extending your spine and also play a part in lateral flexion. When they contract isometrically or statically, the erector spinae holds your spine upright and prevents it from rounding.
To be considered a lower back exercise, the erector spinae muscles must be actively involved. However, these muscles seldom work in isolation. The other muscles that invariably work alongside the erector spinae are:
Known as the glutes for short, this is the largest muscle in the human. The glutes are a powerful hip extender and are also involved in the abduction and external rotation of your hip. Most lower back exercises involve at least some hip extension and glute activation.
Located on the back of your thighs, the hamstrings work with your glutes to extend your hips and also flex your knees. The three hamstring muscles are the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
Together, the erector spinae, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings are known as the posterior chain.
This is the collective name for the muscles of your midsection, namely the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. The core muscles contract inward to generate intra-abdominal pressure, which helps support and stabilize your lumbar spine.
It’s all but impossible to isolate your lower back muscles, but that’s probably a good thing. In most everyday tasks, gym exercises, and sporting endeavors, these muscles work with the rest of your body, so it makes sense to train them the same way.
The 8 Best Lower Back Exercises
There are lots of lower back exercises to choose from, but some are better than others. Here are seven of the very best!
- Barbell Hip Thrusts
- Good Mornings
- Rack Pull
- Reverse Hyperextensions
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Bonus: Kettlebell Swing
Hyperextensions, also known as 45-degree back extensions, are a very spine-friendly lower back exercise. As well as working your erector spinae muscles, this popular gym exercise also strengthens your glutes and hamstrings, making it an excellent move for your entire posterior chain.
You can do hyperextensions with just your body weight for resistance or holding weights to make it more challenging.
Most gyms have hyperextension benches, and they’re also available for home use. Alternatively, you can do this excellent back exercise lying face-down across a stability ball instead of a bench, which is another good option for home exercisers.
The superman gets its name because, when you do this exercise, you look a little like the Man of Steel flying through the air! This is a bodyweight-only exercise, so it’s ideal for home workouts.
Take care when doing the superman not to lift your legs or upper body too high off the ground. Doing so hyperextends (extends too far) your lumbar spine, which could result in injury. You may also find this exercise more comfortable if you place a folded gym mat or cushion under your hips.
Check out this guide to the superman exercise.
3. Barbell Hip Thrusts
Barbell hip thrusts are usually viewed as a glute exercise. However, they actually work your entire posterior chain, including your lower back. The main advantage of hip thrusts over other lower back exercises is that they don’t put too much pressure on your lumbar spine, making them more lower back-friendly, even if you use heavy weights.
While this exercise IS usually done using a barbell, you can also do it with a weight plate or dumbbell resting on your hips, or just use your body weight for resistance. You can also do it without a bench and while lying on the floor, making it an ideal home workout exercise. This variation is called a glute bridge.
Read our hip thrusts guide to find out more about this great exercise.
4. Good Mornings
Good mornings are a slightly controversial exercise. That’s because, if done incorrectly, they could cause serious injury. This problem is not unique to good mornings; any exercise done with improper form could cause more harm than good. That said, the position of the load means you’ll have to work extra hard to maintain a neutral (slightly arched) spine.
If you do not round your lower back, good mornings are not riskier than any other lower back exercise.
Good mornings can be done using a barbell or a resistance band as preferred. You can also perform this exercise using a Smith machine.
5. Rack Pull
All types of deadlift, including conventional, trap bar, Romanian, sumo, deficit, etc., work your lower back. However, the rack pull could be one of the best options if you want to lift heavy weights while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum.
With rack pulls, you start each rep with the bar resting on blocks or in a power rack set to about knee height. This elevated position means you don’t have to lean very far forward, making it easier to maintain a neutral or slightly arched lower back despite the weight you’re lifting.
Powerlifters use rack pulls as a deadlift accessory exercise, but they’re a good exercise for non-powerlifters, too.
6. Reverse Hyperextensions
This exercise involves stabilizing your lower back as you lift your legs. Reverse hypers are a popular accessory exercise with powerlifters. They allow you to lift moderate to heavy weights with very little stress on your lumbar spine. Like most lower back exercises, they also involve your glutes and hamstrings, making them an effective way to develop your entire posterior chain.
The most straightforward way to do reverse hyperextensions is with a dedicated machine. However, you can also do a version of this exercise using a flat bench and even a stability ball.
Read more about this awesome exercise, including variations ideal for home use, in our detailed guide.
7. Romanian Deadlifts
Romanian deadlifts are a lot like rack pulls (exercise #5). However, instead of starting each rep with the bar resting on knee-high pins or boxes, you start from standing and lean as far forward as your flexibility allows. Take care not to round your lower back during this exercise. That would turn a great back builder into a back destroyer!
Bonus: Kettlebell Swing
Providing you can maintain a neutral spine during the slow tempo exercises outlined above, you can kick your lower back workouts up a level with kettlebell swings. Doing any lower back exercise at speed means that you’ll need to work harder to stabilise your lumbar spine, providing an intense workout for your erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings.
While you CAN raise the weight overhead (the American swing), it’s often preferable to swing your kettlebell up to shoulder-height (the Russian swing), as this allows you to use heavier weights without hyperextending your lower back.
Sample Lower Back Workout
If you want a strong lower back, you need to make it a training priority. A lot of lifters make the mistake of treating their lower back as an afterthought, maybe doing a few sets of hyperextensions after training their abs.
This workout works your entire posterior chain with an extra emphasis on your erector spinae. Do it a few days before or after your normal leg training day. It contains heavy weight/low rep back exercises for strength, moderate weight/medium rep exercises for hypertrophy, and light weight/high rep exercises for endurance.
Before you start, warm up with a few minutes of light cardio followed by some dynamic flexibility and mobility exercises for your hamstrings, hips, knees, and lower back.
Finally, do 2-3 light sets of the first exercise to ensure you are 100% ready for what is to come.
|Barbell hip thrust
If you care about your performance, appearance, and health, it’s time to start treating your lower back as a training priority. After all, a strong lower back is a healthy lower back and much less prone to injury.
Try to sit less and stand more, improve your posture, avoid rounding your lower back when lifting heavy weights, and spend some extra time training this crucial body part.
With a bit of dedication, you should be able to turn what is a weak link for many people into a muscle group that’s powerful and virtually unbreakable. If nothing else, strengthening your lower back could help you avoid becoming yet another lower back pain statistic.
1– PubMed: Low back pain in the United States: incidence and risk factors for presentation in the emergency setting https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21978519/