When it comes to training your back, the lats and upper back muscles probably get most of the attention, and deservedly so. A strong mid and upper back are powerful allies in your body’s overall functioning, producing powerful upper body pulls, and even in building that V-taper.
But neglect training your lower back at your peril. Lower back strength provides the foundation for most lower and upper body movements. With a stronger, more stable lower back, you’ll be able to squat more weight and deadlift heavier. Not only that, but you’ll develop the ability to move and rotate with more power and explosiveness.
Below, you’ll find the best lower back exercises to make this part of your body shine. You’ll also learn how to protect your lower back while lifting, as well as all the tricks and tips you’ll need to maximize your gains.
10 Best Lower Back Exercises
- Rack Pull
- Bent-Over Row
- Barbell Good Morning
- Back Extension
- Bird Dog
- Kettlebell Swing
- Glute-Hamstring Raise
- Stability Ball Reverse Hyperextension
- Side Plank
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.
Rack pulls have you pull with a partial range of motion, with the bar starting at either just above or just below your knees. Because you’re pulling from a higher starting point, it’s easier to maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift. You can also lift more with this deadlift variation, so you’ll acclimate your body to lifting heavier weights to increase your strength.
How to Do It
- Set the barbell up in the squat rack either above or below your knees. Assume your standard deadlift stance and grip.
- Hinge down and grip the barbell with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Squeeze your armpits together and brace your core.
- Keep your chest up and shoulders back. Pull the bar up until lockout, finishing with your glutes.
- Hinge back to the starting position and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Keep the bar close to your body, as in a regular deadlift.
Sets and Reps: Especially if you’re aiming for strength, lift heavier weights. Perform three to four sets of three to six reps.
The erector spinae — which are primary lower back muscles — will be resisting movement and working to keep your spine neutral. This position will help to increase lower back endurance.
How to Do It
- Hinge at your hips and grab a loaded barbell with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and brace your core.
- Row the barbell until it’s touching your stomach. Angle your elbows at about 45 degrees throughout the movement.
- Hold the top position of the row for a beat and then slowly lower the weight back down.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid using momentum as much as possible throughout your reps.
Sets and Reps: Use a moderate to heavy weight. Do three to five sets of six to 12 reps.
The barbell good morning is a great exercise that trains the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. However, if shoulder mobility or back pain is an issue, it is best to perform an alternative.
Good mornings need to be mastered with lighter loads before increasing intensity and range of motion. When mastered, it’s a fantastic exercise to strengthen and build posterior muscle.
How to Do It
- Step under a loaded barbell that’s set in a power rack. Set up the same way you would for a back squat, and walk backward a few steps.
- With a slight bend in your knees, hinge at the hips while keeping your chest up and shoulders down.
- Hinge until your torso is almost parallel to the floor.
- Reverse the lift by contracting your glutes and hamstrings until you are standing back up.
Coach’s Tip: Use a safety squat bar if possible to maximize the stability and safety of this lift.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of six to 12 reps, only using heavier weights after you master your form.
Back extensions are when you lay on either a glute-ham raise bench or a back extension machine and flex your lower back muscles to lower and raise your torso. It’s about as direct of a lower back exercise as you can do.
You can do this exercise with just your body weight, or hold a dumbbell, barbell, or weight plate to load the movement. You can also utilize tempo training, which has you perform slow repetitions, to induce more muscle growth in your lower back muscles.
How to Do It
- Secure your feet on the back-extension machine with your hips just above the padding.
- Cross your arms across your chest, keeping your chest up and shoulders down.
- Lower your torso until it’s below parallel to the floor. Be careful not to round your low back.
- Raise up using your glutes and lower back until your body is in line with your legs.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid rounding your lower back, only moving within the range of motion you’re currently capable of.
Sets and Reps: Perform four to five sets of eight to 15 reps.
Though it looks easy, the bird dog is a core exercise that is often butchered. However, when done correctly, the bird dog forces your entire core — including your lower back, which, yes, is part of your core — to stabilize your body when simultaneously alternating your opposite-side arm and leg.
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Slowly raising and lowering your arm and leg while staying rigid is a great way to promote spinal stability. As a result, your lower back will be better suited for handling heavier loads.
How to Do It
- Kneel on the floor in a six-point stance (hand, knees, and toes on the ground) with your knees under your hips and your hands directly underneath your shoulders.
- Raise your opposite arm and leg straight out, keeping your core tight and your body in a straight line from head to foot.
- Return to the starting position and perform all the reps on one side or alternate sides.
Coach’s Tip: Maintain a neutral back throughout the exercise and avoid shifting your hips and shoulders from side to side.
Sets and Reps: Do three to five sets of 10 to 20 reps per side.
The superman is a great bodyweight exercise to help prevent injuries to your low back, improve your posture, and build a better mind-muscle connection to your lower back and glutes. This exercise trains the erector spinae as an extensor by having you lift your legs and arms off of the ground by flexing your lower back and then holding this position.
Your lower back will have to work to initiate the movement and stabilize to hold the top position isometrically. This is a great exercise to isolate your lower back that anyone of any fitness level can do.
How to Do It
- Lie face down on an exercise mat with your forehead flat on the ground.
- Stretch your arms above your head and your legs below.
- Raise your hands and feet about four to five inches off the floor while keeping your belly on the ground.
- Hold this raised position for three seconds. Then lower your hands and feet slowly back to the floor. That’s one rep.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your glutes squeezed throughout this movement to prevent your lower back from hyperextending. Keep your neck neutral but relaxed.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 15 reps.
Kettlebell swings are great for the lower back for the same reasons deadlifts are — every time you hinge, your lower back contracts to keep your spine neutral.
The kettlebell swing trains the stability and stabilizing muscles of your entire body because you’re constantly adjusting to the shifting center of mass with each repetition. The lower back needs strength and endurance stimuli and the kettlebell swing accomplishes both.
How to Do It
- Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, with the kettlebell just in front of you.
- Hinge down to grip the kettlebell.
- Hike the kettlebell behind you and thrust your hips forward.
- Use this momentum to swing the kettlebell out to about waist height.
- Finish by squeezing your glutes and quads and repeating in a continuous loop for reps or time.
Coach’s Tip: When you’re hiking the bell behind you, do your best to keep it above your knees instead of dragging low near the ground.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to five sets of 15 to 20 reps, or perform as many reps as possible (AMRAP) for 30 to 90 seconds.
At a glance, the glute-hamstring raise — also called the glute-ham raise (GHR) — may not seem like a lower back exercise. However, it’s great for developing eccentric strength in your hamstrings and a killer pair of glutes to boot.
By contracting isometrically while the aforementioned muscles do the moving, your lower back gets better at what it does best — being a strong frame.
How to Do It
- Adjust the bench so your feet are secured, with your quads resting against the pad.
- Bend your knees and keep your torso straight and upright.
- Fold your arms across your torso.
- Bow at the waist until you’re as close to horizontal as possible.
- Return to the starting position by contracting your hamstrings and glutes.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure you master your form by moving through your glutes and hamstrings rather than using momentum from your torso or shoulders.
Sets and Reps: Do three to five sets of 15 to 25 reps.
The stability ball reverse hyperextension is a great alternative if your gym doesn’t have a GHR machine and is a great regression if you’re unable to perform the GHR. It still trains many of the same muscles, but with a twist.
The inherently unstable surface forces you to be attentive to your technique, and the increased range of motion and time under tension should bring some extra muscle hypertrophy or endurance benefits.
How to Do It
- Place the stability ball on a weight bench and then put your stomach on the ball, with your hips slightly off the ball.
- Take a firm grip on the bench on either side.
- Raise your straight legs off the ground until your glutes are fully contracted.
- Slowly lower them back until your toes touch the ground. Reset and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure you move slowly to maximize the effect of this move. Avoid rushing to try to artificially preserve a sense of balance.
Sets and Reps: Perform three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps.
Side planks are an exercise everyone loves to hate — but their benefits are undeniable. They train almost every muscle from head to toe, including the lower back. The lower back muscles surrounding the spine are contracting isometrically to keep your spine neutral.
Most lower back training focuses on resisting anterior flexion, but the side plank teaches you to maintain a rigid spine when faced with lateral forces.
How to Do It
- Lie on your left or right side with your knees straight and your elbow directly underneath your shoulder.
- Prop your body up and raise your opposite hand until it is perpendicular to your torso, pointing towards the ceiling.
- Align your feet, knees, and hips together.
- Brace your core and raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from ankles to shoulders.
- Hold for time.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid letting your hips sink during your hold. If necessary, stack your top foot on the ground in front of your bottom foot for added balance.
Sets and Reps: Do three to four sets of 15 to 60 seconds on each side.
Lower Back Warm-Up
Warming up your lower back is a critical component of training. Even if you’re not training your lower back specifically, you’ll want to activate your lower back for anything involving heavy lifting. This ranges from squatting and deadlifting to snatching and even to overhead and bench pressing.
You want to drive blood to the area and get your lower back working in tandem with your core before moving on to more strenuous training. Fortunately, a few exercises that get the lower back ready for action are warm-up exercises you should be doing regularly. Exercises like planks, hip extensions, bird dogs, and the superman train your stabilizer muscles to get ready for larger heavier compound exercises.
Research suggests that a combination of core exercises in multiple planes of motion can help get protect the lower back during lifting. (1)(2) It stands to reason that these would be good moves to integrate into your warm-up.
Some of these lower back protecting exercises are listed below in the form of a lower back warm-up. Integrate these moves into your larger warm-up whenever you’re planning to perform moves that put compressive forces on your spine.
- Cat Cow: 60 seconds
- Dead Bug: 10-15 per side
- Glute Bridge: 30 seconds
- Cable Wood Chop: 10-15 per side
- Side Plank: 15-45 seconds per side
- Repeat circuit one to two times
If your lower back tends to be stiff, be sure to go directly from your warm-up into your training session. Research suggests that athletes who follow a dynamic warm-up with bench rest experience more lower back stiffness than athletes who go directly from a dynamic warm-up into their training. (3)
How To Protect Your Lower Back When Lifting Weights
Keeping your lower back safe during weight training is a critical part of both longevity and immediate safety. The last thing you want to do is throw your back out when you’re getting ready to go for a new personal record.
You also want to avoid forcing your way through lower back stiffness and pain. This can negatively impact your workouts in the short term and set you up for chronic pain and injury in the long term.
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First things first: consult a doctor, physical therapist, or another qualified health professional if you’re concerned in any way about your lower back during lifting. But once you have the all-clear to work out, here are some tips and tricks for keeping yourself as safe as possible.
Use Picture-Perfect Form
Throughout your training session, maintain an emphasis on good form. Squats and deadlifts are two movements in particular that rely heavily on your lower back to provide structural integrity and support. With these movements, keep your form absolutely locked in. Avoid rounding your back at the bottom of your squat and maintain a neutral spine during your deadlifts.
Granted, what looks like perfect form for your gym buddy may be different than what it is for you. Everything from limb length and body type to a lifter’s personal preferences and injury history will impact what an effective stance looks like from person to person. That said, once you know what form is healthiest and most effective for you, stick with it — with each and every rep.
With certain exercises, you can get away with using a bit of body English to help kip the weights. “Cheating” your form may help you squeeze out a couple more reps at the end of your set — but that’s not always helpful for your lower back.
For example, body English with a regular bent-over row may cause you to lose the integrity of your back’s position.
Prioritize protecting your lower back during all workouts — not just during moves that specifically target your lower back. If you’re going to cheat your form, do so only with exercises that support your chest. With a supported T-bar row or incline prone dumbbell rows, for example, you’ll be less likely to throw your lower back out with momentum.
Similarly, if you want to use momentum to eke a few more dumbbell curls out, perform them sitting on an incline bench. That way, you won’t be hyperextending your lower back to kip the weights up. Instead, it will be supported by the bench and mostly out of harm’s way.
Don’t Just Lift Weights
Protecting your lower back is also about reducing any pain that you already have. Work with a doctor, physical therapist, or another qualified health professional to address any back pain you might have.
That said, if you’re physically able and cleared to do so, consider taking walks in addition to your strength training routine. (4)(2) Integrating walking into your program may help reduce symptoms of back pain more than resistance training alone. (4)(2)
When combined with exercises designed to emphasize lumbar stability, walking also seems to help prevent lower back pain due to increased muscular endurance. (2)
Incorporate Core Work
Traditional ab exercises aren’t always working your lower back directly. But research suggests that strengthening your deep abdominal muscles — like your transverse abdominis — can help relieve lower back pain. (5)
How To Train Your Lower Back
For a muscle group as articulate and important as the lumbar spine, you must be precise and tactical about how you program your movements. Lower back training is essential for strong athletic performance, but you’ve got to get the how and when right.
Lower Back Exercise Selection
Yes, you’ll want to train your lower back specifically if you want to make sure your lower back is in top condition. But in general, the lower back exercises on this list won’t be the major lifts in a strength training program. Instead, these will be programmed in addition to your big lifts — Olympic movements and powerlifting movements like snatches or back squats.
Choose lower back-specific exercises that support your overall training goals. For example, if you’re building max strength in your deadlift, you might want to add rack pulls once a week to give yourself that extra heavy pulling stimulus.
On the other hand, if you’re getting close to a meet or one-rep max attempt and need to scale back any non-competition lifts, stick to bodyweight exercises like the superman. These moves will keep your lower back in action without contributing to overall fatigue.
Lower Back Exercise Order
If a strong spine is your main goal, doing your lower back exercises early into the workout makes sense. However, there’s one significant caveat. Since the lumbar spine is the main support structure for almost every compound lift you perform — from rows to deadlifts to the overhead press — you don’t want to fatigue it too hard if you’ve got other lifts to perform in the same session.
To develop lower back strength, perform compound lifts that test the muscles isometrically first and then move to lower-back-specific accessory work towards the end of your workout.
Lower Back Sets and Reps
For most lower back-specific movements, you won’t be trying to max out. Even moves like bent-over rows — which can get pretty darn heavy — won’t often be taken to the heaviest weight possible.
Still, for those bigger compound movements, you’ll likely train to support max strength goals at some point. Otherwise, you’ll be training for endurance, hypertrophy, or simply to warm up. Here are some programming options for you.
- For Strength: Do three to four sets of four to six reps.
- For Muscle Growth: Perform three to five sets of eight to 15 reps, depending on the type of exercise* (use higher reps for bodyweight-only exercises).
- For Endurance: Especially if you’re just using your body weight, aim for two to four sets of 15 to 25 reps.
- For Warm-Ups: Do one to two rounds of exercises, ranging from 10 to 15 reps per exercise.
* If the exercise is timed (for example, side planks or even kettlebell swings), build up your endurance over time. Start by holding a movement or performing reps for 15 seconds. When that becomes easy, add time gradually until you’re able to continue for 60 to 90 seconds.
Benefits of Training Your Lower Back
The lower back’s muscles provide the foundation for you to get stronger, help prevent you from getting injured, and allow the bigger muscles to do their job. Here are other important benefits of training the lower back.
A stronger lower back will make it easier to maintain an upright posture, especially during the workday when many people are sitting for hours on end. Plus, lower back strength means you’ll generally be less prone to the standard aches and pains associated with yard work, playing with your kids, and shooting hoops with your friends.
The erector muscles run along the spine. They play an important role in spinal stability and prevent unwanted movement by keeping the spine neutral under load. This comes in handy while squatting and deadlifting, but also running, jumping, or even bending over to pick up your wallet.
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Think of the lower back muscles as the foundation of a house. The stronger the foundation, the longer the house will stand. Having a stronger lower back means you’ll be more stable during heavy lifts and athletic movements, which will come in handy to athletes as wide-ranging as CrossFitters and strongwomen.
The lower back plays a role in extending the hips during the lockout portion of squats and deadlifts. It also works to keep the spine neutral during deep hinges (like deadlifts and good morning) and the bottom of a squat, where the shear and compressive forces can harm the lower back.
We’re going to preface this one by saying that you should see a doctor if you’re having any lower back pain. Direct lower back training should not be seen as a solution to lower back pain. However, a stronger lower back may be better equipped for the general physical stressors that everyday life brings. Think of lower back training as a (possible) pain prevention plan.
What Muscles Make Up the Lower Back
Your lower back contains important muscles and five lumbar vertebrae (L1-L5). Understanding how they work is important to maintaining a healthy and resilient lower back to keep you lifting longer and stronger. Here’s a breakdown of the anatomy of the lower back.
The lower back region has five vertebrae, denoted L1-L5. As a group, the lumbar vertebrae produce a lordotic curve and have the largest bodies of the entire spine. This increase in size reflects the responsibility of the lumbar spine in supporting the entire upper body. L1-L5 allows movements such as flexion, extension, and lateral flexion but prevents rotation. (6)
Three lower back muscles form a column, known as the erector spinae. The erector spinae is located posterior and laterally to the spinal column and runs from the lower back and hips to the cervical (neck) spine. Aesthetically, the erector spinae are the tenderloin-looking muscles that run vertically next to the spine. These three muscles are:
- Spinalis: The spinalis is the smallest muscle here and is the nearest to the spinal column. Its functions are turning side to side, and it helps control your head when you’re looking up.
- Longissimus: This is the middle part and the largest muscle of the three muscles. Its functions are lateral flexion and extension of the spine and help turn your head from side to side.
- Iliocostalis: The Iliocostalis is the furthest away from the spine and begins at the sacrum. Its functions are lateral flexion and spinal extension.
More Training Content
Your lower back isn’t to be trifled with — and it’s also not a region you want to ignore. This area of your body is a critical part of most compound lifts. To make sure your lifts overall stay strong and that you stay limber in your daily life, you’ve got to give your lower back the attention it needs.
Now that you have a handle on the best lower back exercises to strengthen your lumbar region, you can also check out these other helpful back training articles:
- These Are the 8 Best Lower Back Exercises for Bodybuilding
- The 5 Best Lower Lat Exercises for a Denser Back
- Do These Posture Exercises to Reduce Back Pain
- Akhtar MW, Karimi H, Gilani SA. Effectiveness of core stabilization exercises and routine exercise therapy in management of pain in chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Pak J Med Sci. 2017 Jul-Aug;33(4):1002-1006.
- Suh JH, Kim H, Jung GP, Ko JY, Ryu JS. The effect of lumbar stabilization and walking exercises on chronic low back pain: A randomized controlled trial. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 Jun;98(26):e16173.
- Green JP, Grenier SG, McGill SM. Low-back stiffness is altered with warm-up and bench rest: implications for athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Jul;34(7):1076-81.
- Lee JS, Kang SJ. The effects of strength exercise and walking on lumbar function, pain level, and body composition in chronic back pain patients. J Exerc Rehabil. 2016 Oct 31;12(5):463-470.
- Amit, K., Manish, G., & Taruna, K. (2013). Effect of trunk muscles stabilization exercises and general exercises on pain in recurrent non specific low back ache. Int Res J Med Sci, 1(1), 23-6.
- Joshua A. Waxenbaum; Vamsi Reddy; Caroline Williams; Bennett Futterman. Anatomy, Back, Lumbar Vertebrae
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