When it comes to the back, the lats and upper back muscles get most of the attention — and deservedly so. They provide a tremendous amount of shape and support for your back. However, you can’t forget about your lower back muscles. Big, ripped spinal erectors may not look as nice as dense, wide lats — but lower back strength provides the foundation for most lower and upper body movements. You’ll be able to squat more weight and deadlift heavier but also move and rotate with more power and explosiveness.
Below, you’ll find the best lower back exercises that target not only the lower back but the major muscles of the glutes, hamstrings, lats, and upper back. We’ll also discuss lower back anatomy to better understand their role and how a strong lower back will benefit your training.
Best Lower Back Exercises
- Rack Pull
- Bent Over Row
- Barbell Good Morning
- Back Extension
- Bird Dog
- Russian Kettlebell Swing
- Glute Hamstring Raise
- Stability Ball Reverse Hyperextension
- Side Plank
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The rack pull is a deadlift variation that — similar to a standard deadlift — trains all of your erector spinae muscles, lower back, mid-back, and upper back muscles. Rack pulls have you pull with a partial range of motion, with the bar starting at either just above or just below the knee. 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, as a bonus, you’ll acclimate your body to lifting heavier weight to increase your strength.
Benefits of the Rack Pull
- Due to lifting from a partial range of motion and moving more weight, you’ll strengthen your deadlift lockout.
- Improves your grip strength and upper back strength.
- Helps improve your regular deadlifts
How to Do the Rack Pull
Set the barbell up in the squat rack either above or below the knees. Assume your standard deadlift stance and grip. Hinge down and grip the barbell with an overhand shoulder-width grip and squeeze your armpits together, keep your chest up and shoulders back and pull up until lockout, finishing with your glutes. Hinge back to the starting position and repeat.
The bent over row is a fantastic exercise to strengthen and increase mass in the upper back and lats and reinforce hip hinge mechanics. Because you’re hinged over for the duration of the movement, The erector spinae — which are primary lower back muscles — will be resisting movement and working to keep your spine in neutral, helping to increase lower back endurance.
Benefits of the Barbell Bent Over Row
- Adds strength and mass to your upper back, lats, and erector spinae
- Reinforces good hip hinge mechanic, which will have a direct carryover to your deadlift.
- Improves postural strength and control.
How to Do the Bent Over Row
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 row the barbell until it’s touching your stomach. You want your elbows to be angled 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.
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 and strength.
Benefits of the Barbell Good Morning
- Fantastic exercise for spinal erector and glute strength and hypertrophy.
- Great engagement of the entire posterior chain and all the spinal stabilizers that help prevent spinal flexion. This move is purely a hinge, and your lower back will is what will drive that hinge.
How to Do the Barbell Good Morning
Get 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 until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Reverse the lift by contracting your glutes and hamstrings until your standing back up.
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 that you can do. You can do this exercise with just your bodyweight, 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.
Benefits of the Back Extension
- The back extension trains and isolates the lower back through a longer range of motion, allowing for greater strength and hypertrophy.
- It’s a versatile exercise, which can be loaded in different ways.
- It can also be done effectively with just your body weight, which is generally safer than any form of loading.
How to Do the Back Extension
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, and lower your torso until below parallel with 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.
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. 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.
Benefits of the Bird Dog
- A great low back endurance exercise that improves spinal stability. Lack of endurance in your core and back muscles can sometimes be a cause of low back pain.
- It helps people differentiate between hip extension and lower back hyperextension.
- It’s a great anti-rotation core exercise, which essentially means you’ll be more adept at preventing rotation, which is useful when you brace your core.
How to Do the Bird Dog
Kneel on the floor in a six-point stance (hand, knees, and toes on the ground) with the knees under your hips and your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Maintain a neutral back throughout the exercise. 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 do all the reps on one side or alternate sides.
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. The superman 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.
Benefits of the Superman
- Adds muscle and strength to the erector spinae.
- The Superman is a great low-level exercise that benefits the beginner to the advanced lifter.
- You’ll build isometric strength and endurance in the lower back, which is vital to the core musculature.
How to Do the Superman
Lay face down comfortably on an exercise mat, forehead flat on the ground with arms and legs outstretched. 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 and then lower your hands and feet slowly back to the floor. That’s one rep.
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 in neutral. Plus, 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.
Benefits of the Russian Kettlebell Swing
- Trains the lower back for strength and endurance.
- Engages the body stabilizing muscles because of its’ shifting center of mass.
- Great exercise to improve cardiovascular endurance and grip strength.
How to Do the Russian Kettlebell Swing
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, using 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.
At a glance, the glute hamstring raise 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.
Benefits of the Glute Hamstring Raise
- Builds lower back strength without the use of heavy weights.
- Develops eccentric strength in your hamstring to help prevent hamstring strains.
- Extended time under tension for the lower back helps improve lower back endurance.
How to Do the Glute Hamstring Raise
Adjust the bench so your feet are secured, with your quads resting against the pad. Your knees should be bent and your torso straight and upright. With your arms folded 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.
The stability ball reverse hyper 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.
Benefits of The Stability Ball Reverse Hyperextension
- Trains your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back as a unit.
- Improved hip extension because your hips are extending powerfully on each rep helping to improve glute lockout strength.
- Strengthening the glutes and lower back helps protect the lower back from injury.
How to Do The Stability Ball Reverse Hyperextension
Place the stability ball on the weight bench and then put your stomach on the ball, with your hips slightly off the ball. Take a firm grip of the bench on either side and with your legs straight, raise them off the ground until the glutes are fully contracted. Slowly lower them back until your toes touch the grounds and reset and repeat.
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.
Benefits of the Side Plank
- Side planks strengthen the quadratus lumborum, a muscle that plays an important role in preventing lower back pain.
- Side planks strengthen the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and abductors which play a role in strengthening the spine/pelvis area and protecting it from injury.
- Leads to a more stable core which is better able to transfer power from your lower to the upper body.
How to Do the Side Plank
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 and hold for time.
All About The Lower Back
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, generally speaking, possibly less prone to lower back aches.
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.
A stronger lower back will make it easier to maintain good posture, especially during the workday when people are sitting a lot. 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.
Anatomy of the Lower Back
Your lower back contains small 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 has 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. (1)
The Erector Spinae Muscles
The three 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 all the way 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 and 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.
The Benefits of Training Your Lower Back
The lower back’s smaller 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.
Strong spinal erectors play an important role in maintaining good posture and keeping a neutral spine during heavily loaded movements. By training them, you may undo some of the damage of sitting. That is, as long as you stay consistent.
Improved Lower Back Strength
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.
We’re going to preface this one by saying that you should absolutely see your 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.
How to Program Lower Back Training
For a muscle group as articulate and important as the lumbar spine, it is critical that you 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.
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.
Fortunately, growing your lower back is as straightforward as any other muscle group if increasing size is your priority. All muscles, including the lumbar spine, respond to increased challenge over time. That said, you may not want to push your lower back to the limit with high-intensity training techniques.
To beef up your spine, focus on achieving progressive overload through higher reps or shooting for more time under tension.
Since your lower back is often tested by other exercises, developing endurance is easy enough. Performing most compound lifts with sound form will improve the ability of your spine to remain in good posture for extended periods.
However, if you want to develop extra lower back endurance, simply stress time under tension above all, usually in isometric exercises like the plank or bent-over row.
How to Warm Up Your Lower Back Before Training
Your lower back is made up of a few smaller muscles, so 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. Coincidently, a few exercises that get the lower back ready for action are warm-up exercises you should be doing regularly. Exercises like front planks, hip extensions, bird dogs, and superman train the smaller stabilizing muscles to get ready for larger heavier compound exercises.
Performing front planks for 30-60 seconds and performing the other exercises mentioned for 10-15 reps works well. Do this series of exercises one to two times through.
More Lower Back Training Tips
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:
- Joshua A. Waxenbaum; Vamsi Reddy; Caroline Williams; Bennett Futterman. Anatomy, Back, Lumbar Vertebrae
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