5 Lower Back Exercises to Improve Your Weight Training
Level Up Your Lower Back Training and Watch Your Strength and Injury-Resistance Skyrocket!
When was the last time you got a sick lower back pump? Never? Well, you’re not alone. The idea of training the lower back in isolation is still pretty underground. But if you’re not doing at least some isolated lower back training, you’re missing out on all kinds of performance and back health benefits. We'll cover why and how to target your lower back, plus you'll learn 5 great exercises to improve your weight training.
The Lower Back
The two main muscles of the lower back are the erector spinae and the posterior obliques.
When both of these muscles are engaged without movement under load—tight but not in motion, similar to a plank—this static contraction stiffens the trunk and helps protect the spine against heavy loads such as during a deadlift or squat.
Lower Back Performance Benefits
As Louie Simmons, Dave Tate, and other powerlifting icons have discussed, when it comes to most heavy squat and deadlift styles, either the lower back or the upper back often give out long before the legs do.
Furthermore, with the exception of most pull-up and dip styles, the lower back is used in all of the compound lifts, especially the Squat and Deadlift but also the Overhead Press, Bench Press, and Row. By having a stronger lower back, you can produce more force against the weight in these exercises, and do it safely.
Now, it is possible to safely deadlift with a rounded back. The ability to deadlift safely with a rounded back depends partly on having superior breath control, but mainly on having an insanely strong lower back. So, after reading this article, don’t go trolling in the YouTube comments of 600-pound deadlifters and tell them they’re “doing it wrong." Trust me: if they’re lifting 600 pounds, they have a strong lower back. Period.
Lower Back Health Benefits
As Coach Rippetoe says, “back pain is the human condition.” He’s not wrong, since back pain affects 85% of Americans at some point in their lives, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
But, would you rather hurt your back when it's weak or when it's strong? Having more muscle there, more endurance, more blood flowing into those tissues could mean the difference between a minor tweak (1-2 weeks), a major tweak (3-6 months), or something even worse, like a disc herniation that could potentially affect you for the rest of your life.
The key is adding it in safely. Let’s find out how.
How to Train the Lower Back Safely
In his classic book, “Back Mechanic,” Dr. Stuart McGill—the leading spine biomechanicist in the world— says the key to safely building a stronger, more injury-resistant lower back starts with building lower back endurance first, strength second. This means that you want to build up your back’s ability to endure a certain amount of reps without getting tired, regardless of the exercise.
So if you’re deadlifting and you finish the set but your back hurts the next day (or, like 5 minutes later), it probably means that you went a little too heavy: your lower back lacks the necessary endurance to sustain that load (even if the rest of your muscles are totally fine). In this case, an injury may be right around the corner.
You never want to take the lower back muscles to failure. Trust me on that one.
When you’re starting to train your lower back in isolation (using the awesome list of exercises below), you want to start light and build up a good number of reps before increasing the weight. Say, 12-15 tops.
Additionally, if you do a lot of crunches or situps, do some lower back training to keep your core muscles balanced out. What good is having a ripped six-pack if you can’t pick up a pencil without pain?
Bottom line: a strong lower back is just part of a strong core.
Lower Back Exercises
The Superman is a simple exercise that builds some endurance of the lower back and is a fine introduction to lower back training. It is performed by lying face-down on the floor and raising your arms and legs while keeping your elbows and knees locked.
A great variation is the Lower-Body Only Superman, in which you try to raise only the lower body during the movement. This movement—the extension of the lower back—is what you NEED to be able to do to squat, deadlift, and row safely. Hence, if you’re having trouble sticking your butt out with a flat back for these lifts, the Lower-Body Superhero is perfect.
This is an especially useful movement for men since it is usually much harder for men to achieve lower back extension than women. Don’t ask me why.
Back Extension Bench (Hyperextension)
Ironmaster’s Hyper Core Attachment for the Super Bench/PRO makes this exercise easy to accomplish at home. The question with this exercise is always: Do I keep my lower back neutral, or should I arch the living heck out of it?
Coach Dave Tate says that you actually WANT to overarch—or “hyperextend”—the lower back on this exercise sometimes because this is the action that actually contracts the musculature and, like any other muscle, builds it. If you choose to do this—especially if you’re female—make sure to build your abs as well to avoid muscular imbalance.
Other versions of the lift involve preventing the lower back from arching, emphasizing stiffness of the muscle over movement. This is also excellent and still builds lower back endurance and strength effectively.
A good rule of thumb is: Don’t just do one, do both! But do it mindfully.
The Goodmorning exercise is the king of lower back exercises. Formerly known as the Russian Squat, a Goodmorning involves performing a deep hip flexion (meaning, bending at the hip) with a bar on your back with limited knee bend (most common) or no knee bend at all (rarer). This means that you move at your hips for 90% or more of the movement and your knees for 10% or less.
The Goodmorning is an effective exercise for building both the squat and the deadlift because it strengthens the lower back as well as the hamstrings, the glutes, and the “hip hinge” movement in general.
There are numerous styles of Goodmorning. It can be performed with a straight bar in the low-bar or high-bar position, or in the Zercher position (in the crooks of the elbows), or even with a Safety Squat bar; with knee bend or without, more or less knee band, a narrow or wide stance, with bands or chains, slow negatives–the possibilities are endless, and the results are grand.
For folks who can’t hold a barbell on their back and don’t have access to a Safety Squat Bar, the Romanian Deadlift, or RDL, is an effective substitute.
And speaking of RDLs...
Unilateral Romanian Deadlift Styles
The Unilateral RDL uniquely works the posterior obliques as well as one or the other side of the Erector Spinae with greater intensity. There are two main ways to perform it.
The Unipedal RDL means that one foot is off the ground, or mostly off of it. Great variations are the Kickstand RDL and Walking RDL. Get ready to feel a lot weaker than your normal RDL!
The One-Handed RDL means that you hold weight, such as a dumbbell or kettlebell, in only one hand. Commonly in the hand opposite the loaded leg, but find which one you prefer; you'll notice slight differences in how your body tries to find its balance.
Both versions are fantastic for building each side of the lower back in isolation and may help in the event of muscular imbalances. Check out my YouTube channel for some videos on this subject.
The Reverse Hyper exercise is performed with the upper body resting on a surface and raising the legs behind you. It is easiest to perform on a designated Reverse Hyper bench, Ironmaster’s Hyper Core Attachment. It can also be done by lying with your stomach on a bench, wrapping your arms around it, and pushing your legs straight back (not up) behind you. Just the bodyweight movement alone can build serious lower back endurance, while also building the hamstrings and glutes.
How to Incorporate Lower Back Training into Your Workouts
This is very simple. To start, just include one lower back exercise in every workout. If it’s an upper-body day, do Goodmornings or some other barbell movement. If it’s a lower-body day, do 45 Degree Back Extensions or Superheros. Also, when you’ve built up some good endurance and comfort with the movements, try using a Goodmorning or RDL variation as the main lift. Whether with sets of 1-5 or 6-10, this is the point at which you can build a SERIOUSLY strong lower back.
Just like I said at the end of my last article about the upper back, doing Deadlifts and Squats will certainly strengthen your lower back. But strengthening your lower back in isolation will help you get the most out of those exercises with the fewest plateaus and even fewer injuries.
About the author
Mark Ludas CPT is a NASM-certified personal trainer with a decade of experience in the fitness industry. After an asthmatic childhood, Mark discovered his natural aptitude for fitness in his late twenties. At age 36, he accomplished a 300+ pound conventional deadlift and 280+ high-bar squat as a 6’5” 170-pound ectomorph on a fully vegan diet, all after just one year of proper self-programming. Mark is the founder of Resistance Quest Fitness, established in 2016, and the creator of the Paralinear Method of strength training. Additionally, he is a writer, actor, model, and musician. Find him on Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and at www.resistancequest.com.