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Exercises To Strengthen Lower Back

A woman holding her back showing the importance of doing exercises to strengthen lower back..

Lower back pain is one of the most common muscular complaints. According to Sarah Key, author of Back Sufferers’ Bible, ‘backpain is on the increase’ and, she opines, ‘there is probably not a soul on Earth who has not been troubled at some stage by it.’


In addition to making life unpleasant, back pain contributes to countless lost hours of productivity and days off. After outlining a litany of dire statistics showing the prevalence of the problem, Norris tells us that ‘the cost [of back pain] is tremendous, both financially and in terms of personal suffering,’ (Back Stability).


However, for back sufferers there’s hope.


Why use exercises to strengthen lower back muscles

A chief cause of lower back pain is muscular weakness and tight posterior chain muscles. Weak back muscles are not as effective at supporting our posture when seated. Something we do far more today than ever before, Daniel Liberman observes in his book Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health.


Furthermore, engaging muscles through resistance training and self-rehabilitation exercises also serve to strengthen connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons. This is one of many beneficial outcomes of strength training which has been shown to reduce injury risk (The Complete Guide to Strength Training).


But more on that below.

What weakens the lower back?

Excessive slouching, poor postural alignment, and lack of movement can all contribute to and even cause lower back discomfort. Often this is experienced in the form of dull aches and pains, twinges and spasms.


These are relatively minor signs and symptoms of a burgeoning bad back. But if left to worsen, what started as mild discomfort can potentially develop into a debilitating condition.


One simple yet effective method of mitigating these types of lower back pain is to strengthen the surrounding muscles and rehabilitate regularly with flexibility training.


Related: Start building strength with this Strength Training Program

As Key consoles, the good news is that back sufferers possess the power to rehabilitate themselves.


To help get you started, this article features seven exercises to strengthen your lower back. The exercises include body weight and resistance movements. Thus, they can be performed at home or the gym.


Benefits of doing lower back exercises

Of course, the primary benefit of doing lower back exercises is strength development.


We briefly considered how improving strength has been shown to confer many positives. One such positive is decreased injury risk. Daniel Liberman tells us that resistance training strengthens connective tissues while also improving the stability around a joint (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health).


In the current context, developing lower back strength improves posture. But how?

Stronger back muscles improve posture

To this question, Liberman answers that stronger back muscles enable us to stabilise the spinal column by staving off fatigue for longer. Analogous to a vertical suspension bridge that’s top-end heavy, the spine wants to crumple into a pile of Jenga blocks. And if it’s not constantly held upright, it will go the way of a Jenga stack. When it does, we typically call this ‘slouching.’


When we slouch, remember, it’s our skeletal system and connective tissues – mainly ligaments – that must support our weight. Over time, this can corrupt our posture which may compress intervertebral discs, impinge nerves, and damage soft tissues (such as the ligamentum flavum and multifidus muscle).


But stronger back muscles enable us to maintain the ‘structural integrity’ of our spinal column for longer before collapsing into a slouch. ‘The best predictor of avoiding back pain is having a strong lower back with muscles that are more resistance to fatigue; in turn, people with strong, fatigue-resistance backs are more likely to have better posture,’ (Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity, Rest and Health).


Other benefits of doing exercises to strengthen your lower back include:


Improved posture
Strengthened connective tissues
Improved mobility and range of movement (ROM)
Counteracts intervertebral disc fluid loss
Facilitates circulation to the intervertebral discs which supplies nutrient-rich blood while ‘squeezing’ out carbon dioxide and metabolites

Exercises to strengthen lower back

Before diving into the exercises, it’s worth briefly considering how they have been organised. This way you’ll be able to derive more from the article by being able to select exercises appropriate for your needs.


The exercises to strengthen lower back muscles have been organised in ascending order of intensity. Hyperextension, a simple bodyweight movement, is the first exercise on the list.


Our final movement is the stiff-leg deadlift. Though a superlative lower back builder, stiff-leg deadlifts are technically challenging and potentially damaging if performed incorrectly.


When selecting exercises, you should do so based on your current level of strength and training experience. Furthermore, if you are experiencing lower back pain, or are rehabilitating an injury, again these factors will instruct you on which exercises to incorporate into your regime.


Exercises to strengthen lower back quick finder

Lower back exercise #1: Torso lifts

Lower back exercise #2: Reverse plank

Lower back exercise #3: Supine bridge ball rolls

Lower back exercise #4: Hyperextensions

Lower back exercise #5: Good mornings

Lower back exercise #6: Kettlebell deadlifts

Lower back exercise #7: Romanian deadlifts


 

Exercises to strengthen lower back #1: Torso lifts

A fitness trainer doing exercises to strengthen lower back. He is performing torso lifts.

Target muscles: erector spinae


Torso lifts are an effective lower back exercise as they engage the muscles without over-stressing them. Because the resistance is provided only by your body weight, they are ideal for those with weak back muscles.


In addition, as your lower back gets stronger, you can easily increase the resistance – this is explained below.


Key technique points

  • Lie face down on a soft training mat.

  • The hands can be positioned in one of three places: 1) at the side of your hips; 2) suspended on either side of your head; 3) stretched out to your front. Of the three positions, the first offers the least resistance whereas the third offers the most.

  • To initiate the exercise, contract the erector spinae muscles raising your head and upper torso off the mat. Be mindful to avoid hyperextending – the spine shouldn’t concave or be allowed to collapse at the base. Also, the feet remain in contact with the floor throughout the movement.

  • Under control, relax the muscles and slowly lower to the start position.

  • Remember, the range of motion for hypertension is deceptively shallow. It’s almost an isometric contraction.


Exercises to strengthen lower back #2: Reverse plank

A fitness trainer doing exercises to strengthen lower back. She is performing the reverse plank.

Target muscles: glutes, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi (and many smaller muscles of the back)


The reverse plank (or ‘table maker’) isometrically engages the muscles of the lower back. As with hyperextensions, when reverse planking the resistance is provided by your body weight. Because of this the exercise is comparatively low intensity which makes it ideal for those with a weak back or rehabilitating an injury.


In his book Combat Conditioning, Matt Furey tells us that the reverse plank is ‘great for increasing strength in the upper and lower back, triceps, shoulders, hip and buttocks.’ To add to this impressive list of benefits, Furey goes on to say that it ‘promotes greater flexibility in the spine.’

Key teaching points

  • Seated on a soft training mat, your knees are bent, and your feet are planted on the mat.

  • The hands are positioned behind your body, spaced shoulder-width, fingertips pointing towards your feet.

  • To initiate the exercise, slowly raise your buttocks off the mat pushing your hips to the ceiling.

  • Hold the position when your body forms the shape of a table: a vertical line from ankle to knee, from wrist to shoulder, and a horizontal line from the shoulder through the hip to the knee.

  • One point of note. You do not have to maintain a flat torso. If you do not yet possess the lower back strength to hold the tabletop position, perform a partial reverse plank.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercises to strengthen lower back #3: Supine bridge ball rolls

A fitness trainer doing exercises to strengthen lower back. He is performing supine bridge ball rolls..

Target muscles: erector spinae, glutes, hamstrings


The stability ball is a useful piece of exercise equipment for developing core and lower back strength. Ironically, the advances in gym machinery have reduced the need to exert stabilisation control. Consequently, ‘the muscles responsible for posture and spinal alignment are not being trained,’ (The Complete Gide To Core Stability).


Related: Best Stability Ball for home training

By performing exercises on ‘an unstable base such as a stability ball’ we engage many ‘stabiliser and neutraliser muscles.’ And the more unstable the training base the ‘greater the activation required.’


Key technique points

  • Lying on your back on a soft training mat, your arms spread wide for support and your feet outstretched resting on a stability ball.

  • In the start position, the contact points include the arms, upper back, and feet, which are planted on the stability ball.

  • Once you’ve stabilised your position, proceed to roll the ball back to your buttocks.

  • Focus on forcing the hips forward while trying to keep your back straight – like a bridge.

  • Remember, the spine doesn’t flex, only the knees do.

  • Under control, roll the ball back out.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercises to strengthen lower back #4: Hyperextensions

A fitness trainer doing exercises to strengthen lower back. She is performing hyperextensions.

Target muscles: erector spinae, gluteus maximus

Hyperextensions are performed on a specialised piece of equipment that most gyms have kicking about. The exercise is a variation of the torso lift (Exercises to strengthen lower back #1). But because the body is suspended above the floor, as opposed to being pinned to a training mat, hyperextensions allow a much greater range of movement.


Because it causes the ‘complete flexion of the torso,’ performing hyperextensions ‘develops the flexibility of the lumbosacral mass,’ (Strength Training Anatomy).


This exercise also engages the paraspinal erectors (a group of muscles that run the length of the spinal column), quadratus lumborum, glutes and hamstring.


Key teaching points

  • First, lodge yourself securely in a back extension device. Perhaps your gym has a new-fangled hyperextension machine. If it does, use that.

  • Your legs are locked in place and your torso is suspended above the floor.

  • In the start position, the body is straight.

  • To initiate the exercise, lower your torso until it's nearly parallel to the floor.

  • Pause momentarily before straightening the body back out again.

  • Remember, there is no need to raise the body beyond 180 degrees.


Exercises to strengthen lower back #5: Good morning

A weight trainer about to perform exercises to strengthen lower back.

Target muscles: Gluteals and erector spina


The good morning is a terrific exercise for targeting the mid-section of the posterior chain – specifically the gluteals and erector spina. Typically performed with a barbell, ‘you can use this exercise to prepare for squats and deadlifts,’ (Strength Training).


Other than using an unloaded barbell, a safer way to perform this exercise is by holding the resistance (barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell) at your front.


Key technique points

  • With an unloaded Olympic barbell (or broomstick) positioned across your traps, organise your stance into a neutral position: feet shoulder-width apart, knees soft, eyes fixed forward.

  • To execute the exercise, hinge forward at the hips until your torso and legs form a right angle.

  • Pause momentarily before rising back to the start position.

  • The action of the movement takes place at the hips. If you find your knees begin to flex, this suggests one of two reasons: 1) you are either lifting too much weight or 2) your hamstrings are too tight and are thus restricting your range of movement (ROM).

  • Resolve the above problems by a) reducing the weight and b) constricting the ROM (bowing to 45 degrees as opposed to 90).

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercises to strengthen lower back #6: Kettlebell deadlifts

A fitness trainer performing an exercise to strengthen lower back. He is doing kettlebell deadlifts.

Target muscles: Gluteals and erector spina


Deadlifting with two bells requires more control and consideration than the single bell or Olympic barbell variations. The bells move about a bit throughout the movement which requires core engagement to control and stabilise your position.


But why do deadlifts with kettlebells instead of a barbell?


A problem with performing barbell deadlifts is that the resistance is acutely loaded on the lower back. This is a consequence of the positioning of the bar. Because it’s situated in front of the shins (and outside of your centre of mass), you are pulled forward which overloads the lower back. Though not necessarily a problem for people with a strong back, weakness in this area could increase injury risk.


Related: Top-ranked Competition Kettlebells

Kettlebells, in contrast, are positioned directly under your centre of mass. Thus, the load is more equitably distributed across multiple joints and a wider range of muscle groups. The same principle applies when performing deadlifts with a hex barbell. (Of hex bar deads, Delavier states that ‘if you have lower back pain, this exercise is safer than the classic deadlift,’ (Strength Training Anatomy).)


So, before progressing to a barbell, build solid foundational strength in the lower back first with kettlebells.

Key teaching points

  • Stand directly over two kettlebells and adopt a sumo squat stance.

  • Squat down and grasp the bells.

  • From this position, tighten up the core before standing up.

  • Focus on hinging more at the hips as opposed to the legs. This will shift emphasis from the quads to the lower back.

  • Remember to breathe throughout the exercise.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercises to strengthen lower back #7: Romanian deadlifts

A woman performing Romanian deadlifts to strengthen her lower back muscles.

Target muscles: Hamstrings, gluteals and erector spina


The Romanian deadlift is an excellent exercise for developing strength in the lower back. They also engage the hamstrings, glutes, and many mid-back muscles (lats, lower traps).


As well as developing the lower and intermediary links of the posterior chain, Romanian deadlifts help to enhance the flexibility in the target muscles listed above. This benefit of the exercise can serve to improve the range of movement (ROM) in the lower back while also easing tension.


Key teaching points

  • Standing with a barbell resting across the upper thigh, adopt a neutral stance: feet shoulder-width, knees soft, looking forward. Remember, if you're performing the exercise for the first time, practice with an unloaded bar.

  • Hands are spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • To initiate the exercise, hinge at the hips and lower the bar until it is either level with or slightly under the kneecap.

  • Note: the knees are not locked out but remain 'soft' throughout the movement.

  • Pause monetarily at the lowest point before returning, under control, to the start position.

  • Watch the video demonstration.

 

Conclusion

If this article has done its job, you should be equipped with a diverse range of exercises to strengthen your lower back. To get the most out of the exercises they should be incorporated into your general training routine. (Some of them can be completed at home, perhaps as part of a lower back strengthening rehabilitation routine.)


This could be done in any number of ways. Here's a couple of ideas. Consider developing a lower back strength workout that you complete on a specific day.



Alternatively, and arguably better, the lower back exercises could be naturally infilled into your workouts. This could be achieved by either extending your workouts (bolting on a selection of exercises from the list above) or replacing some of your old exercises – that is, replacing less effective ones.


Irrespective of how you plan to use them, just remember to apply safe training principles and, as Bruce Lee said, ‘never cheat on an exercise; use the amount of weight that you can handle without undue strain,’ (The Art of Expressing The Human Body).


 

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This blog on exercises to strengthen lower back concludes with the Hungry4Fitness book of circuits and workouts volume 2.

 

This blog on exercises to strengthen lower back concludes with the author bio.

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