They say that bodybuilding shows are won from the back. Big arms and blown-up pecs are all well and good, but nobody is skipping chest or arm day in the weight room. On the other hand, the muscles you can’t see in the mirror are often the ones that really elevate your physique. This is as true for the traps as it is for the lower back.
If you want a festive lower back — in bodybuilding, a shredded set of spinal erectors vaguely resemble the shape of a Christmas tree — you need to train that part of your posterior chain with as much attention and effort as you give to any other muscle.
What does optimal lower back training for bodybuilding look like? Well, for starters, you need to do a bit more than deadlift once in a while (though pulls are a great starting point). You need the right lower back exercises for building muscle. Luckily, you’re in the right place.
Best Lower Back Exercises for Bodybuilding
- Stiff-Legged Deadlift
- Barbell Row
- Good Morning
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
- 45-Degree Back Extension
- Reverse Hyperextension
- Jefferson Curl
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
The deadlift is the quintessential back exercise. You’d be hard-pressed to find a movement that engages a higher number of individual muscles than a standard pull from the floor. This, by default, makes it a great way to train your lower back, especially if you’re new to lifting weights or bodybuilding.
Benefits of the Deadlift
- Allows you to load your entire spine while emphasizing your lower back.
- Teaches proper bracing patterns.
- A great movement for your traps as well.
- Builds total-body stability and strength.
How to Do the Deadlift
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing mostly forward, and shins very close to the bar. Hinge at the hips and push your butt back to reach down and grab the bar. Ensure that your back is flat and your gaze is fixed forward.
Push down into the floor with your legs to break the bar off the ground. After it passes your knees, thrust your hips forward to stand upright with your arms hanging and relaxed.
The deadlift is a fine variation for pulling power but you can modify it to emphasize your lower back even more. Stiff-legged deadlifts take your legs out of the equation almost entirely so you can focus on building up your lower back.
Benefits of the Stiff-Legged Deadlift
- Places heaps of mechanical tension on your lower back without needing to use ultra-heavy weights.
- Helps improve hip and hamstring flexibility.
- Offers an extended range of motion.
How to Do the Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Set up as you would for a standard conventional deadlift with your feet under your hips, back flat, and hands on the bar just outside your thighs. Before you lift, extend your knees to lift your hips up until your torso is parallel to the floor.
From here, perform a deadlift. Lower the weight slowly from a standing position and focus on tipping over at the waist. Your hips should stay at mostly the same height the whole way.
Benefits of the Barbell Row
- Teaches you how to engage your back as a unit.
- Grants some “extra” lower back stimulus while you focus on building your lats.
- Useful as a primary back-builder for beginners.
How to Do the Barbell Row
Grab a barbell from a rack and hold it with a double-overhand, shoulder-width grip. Tip over at the hips and allow the bar to drift down your thighs until it hangs directly under your shoulders. From here, pull with your elbows and row the bar into your lower stomach by retracting your scapulae.
This exercise is both a show of respect and one heck of a lower-back-builder. The good morning capitalizes on physics to make even an unloaded barbell feel unbelievably heavy. Go for this one if you have limited access to weights or you want to improve your back squat while training your spinal erectors.
Benefits of the Good Morning
- Allows you to train your lower back with free weights without relying on your upper body at all.
- Extremely challenging for your lumbar spine with even light weights.
- Serves as a great squat accessory movement.
How to Do the Good Morning
Unrack a barbell from a rack as though you were going to perform a back squat. Take a hip-to-shoulder width stance and grip the bar tight. Then, bend at the hips and hinge over. Push your hips backward until your torso is roughly parallel to the floor. Once you feel a tremendous stretch in your hamstrings and glutes, reverse the motion to stand back up.
All good workouts should incorporate at least one single-leg (or single-arm) exercise. Unilateral training allows you to identify, attack, and remedy weaknesses in muscular strength or discrepancies in size. To train your lower back in the process, go for the single-leg Romanian deadlift.
Benefits of the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
- Applies tension to each side of your lower back separately.
- Helps you identify weaknesses in strength or stability.
- Great for tempo training or if you want to emphasize eccentric movement.
How to Do the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Hold a barbell while standing upright and shift a majority of your weight onto one of your legs. From here, slowly tip over into a hip hinge while allowing your non-working leg to come off the floor.
Your non-working leg should be mostly straight and drift behind your body as you tip over. Once you feel a nice stretch in the muscles of your working leg, reverse the motion and stand up.
You should seek out and utilize a mix of both compound and isolation exercises to train your lower back. Isolating the lumbar spine is a bit more difficult than, say, targeting your biceps, but you can still get one heck of a workout in if you have access to a back extension station.
Benefits of the 45-Degree Back Extension
- Isolates your spinal erectors and removes other muscles like the lats or traps.
- Convenient to perform in most gyms.
- Offers an unparalleled lower back pump.
How to Do the 45-Degree Back Extension
Situate yourself in the machine. The thigh pad should be set such that the top hits right below the crease of your hips. Bend at the waist to lower your torso down. Once you’re at the bottom, reverse the motion and use your lower back to pull your torso back up.
To emphasize your lower back more than your glutes or hamstrings, think about deliberately curling and uncurling your spine as you move.
If you have access to a glute-ham developer or, better yet, a reverse hyper station, this exercise can be of unparalleled use to your bodybuilding goals. Moreover, it also serves as a fantastic prehab tool. Use the reverse hyperextension to carve out that Christmas tree and bulletproof your spine in the process.
Benefits of the Reverse Hyperextension
- An awesome prehab tool for lower back health.
- You can also use it as a warm-up before deadlifts or another compound exercise.
- Teaches proper hip-spine integration.
How to Do the Reverse Hyperextension
Hop up onto the chest pad and allow your legs to hang freely behind you. From here, the exercise is simple enough — use your glutes and spinal erectors to lift your legs up until they point directly behind you.
Keep your knees locked the whole time and, most importantly, avoid swinging with too much momentum. Use your lower back to control the speed at which you lower your legs.
If you’re trying to grow and strengthen your lower back, you’ll have to get comfortable with some degree of lower back motion under load. Contrary to popular belief, spinal flexion isn’t intrinsically dangerous.
However, most athletes aren’t accustomed to working in and out of lumbar flexion. As such, an exercise like the Jefferson curl can be unbelievably effective at applying a stimulus to the target muscles. You’ll just have to take it very slow and prioritize good form.
Benefits of the Jefferson Curl
- Can help you decompress your spine and improve your posterior chain flexibility.
- Highly effective even with very light weights.
- Requires very little equipment to perform properly.
How to Do the Jefferson Curl
Stand upright with an empty barbell, or even something lighter (like a PVC pipe) to begin with. From here, begin the Jefferson curl by rounding your upper back over. The barbell or pipe should begin to drift down your thighs.
Continue rounding your back until the bar makes contact with the ground or you feel a significant stretch in your hamstrings. Your spine should be flexed from top to bottom. Reverse the motion, slowly and deliberately unfurling your spine, until you return to a standing position.
Coach’s Tip: The Jefferson curl is not recommended for beginners. If you have a prior or present spine injury, you may want to steer clear of lower back movements that require flexion.
Lower Back Training Tips
Muscles are muscles, for the most part. However, certain areas of your body require a more delicate and precise touch than others, whether you’re training for general health or trying to build muscle.
You might have some perfectly understandable apprehension about training your lower back directly, even for bodybuilding. Keep these tips in mind and you’ll have nothing to fear.
As with any new type of workout, your best bet for proper and sustainable lower back training is to take it easy when you start. This is particularly true for your lower back, as you may not have experience with training the muscle directly or moving your spine under load.
Your spinal erectors are a muscle like any other and they respond to the same principles and mechanisms of hypertrophy as your arms or legs would. Loading the tissue while it moves through its full range of contractile motion is the best way to grow, but common back exercises like the deadlift or row only challenge your lower back isometrically.
As such, you’re probably more sensitive to direct lumbar training than you think. When you begin to incorporate lower back workouts for bodybuilding, begin with very light weights (or just your own body weight).
Your lower back muscles don’t sit idle in the weight room, even when you’re training other areas of your body. If you commit to blasting them at the beginning of a lower-body workout, you might find that your performance suffers on subsequent compound movements.
Instead, you should probably stick your lower-back-specific training at the tail end of your leg workouts. Or, if you separate your lower back training from your leg days, just make sure you don’t torch your lumbar spine the day before you’re supposed to squat or pull. Make smart programming decisions with a muscle like this.
Go Beyond Isometrics
Many posterior chain exercises involve your spinal erectors, albeit only isometrically; they don’t actually stretch or contract while you perform your set.
Should You Do Deadlifts for Bodybuilding?
The deadlift can be a contentious topic when it comes to bodybuilding. Some revere it for its ability to build total-body strength gains and muscle mass, while others decry the deadlift as needlessly taxing, especially if you’re working with very heavy weights.
Whether you deadlift or not as part of your bodybuilding routine is ultimately up to you, but you deserve to know the pros and cons of the movement in a muscle-building context.
Why You Should Deadlift for Bodybuilding
If you’re on a tight schedule or are new to resistance training, the deadlift will give you more bang for your buck than just about any other exercise out there. Decent lower back stimulation is just the tip of the iceberg:
- Teaches you proper pulling mechanics that transfer to other exercises.
- Engages a lot of muscle at once all along your posterior chain.
- Great for developing full-body strength as a new lifter.
Why You Shouldn’t Deadlift for Bodybuilding
No movement is mandatory in bodybuilding, even one as comprehensive and productive as the deadlift. While deadlifts are fantastic for developing multiple different athletic qualities at once (such as strength, stability, and endurance), they might not be the best option for muscle growth:
- Deadlifts only challenge your spinal erectors isometrically, instead of loading them through their full contractile range of motion.
- If you’re a strong puller, you may expend too much energy and time just getting through your pulls, leaving you too tired to go hard on the remainder of your workout.
Attack the Back
Your spinal erectors do the heavy lifting (both literally and figuratively), enabling you to blast your back, squat with pristine technique, or pull a deadlift personal record from the floor. Treat them well, and they’ll return the favor in spades.
Featured Image: Improvisor / Shutterstock