Your lower back, while not the most glamorous group of muscles, is one of the most functional. The lumbar region of your back is the main bodyweight-bearing section of your spine. As such, the stronger your lower back is the better your posture, athletic performance, and mobility. You’ll also be less likely to suffer from lower back pain. It can be a tricky area to train because the muscles are deep and supported by other superficial muscles, including the abs and glutes. However, there are a few exercises that are likely already part of your repertoire, as well as some specific lower back exercises that you can add to build strength and endurance.
Lower Back Muscles
A critical factor in getting the most out of your workout is to understand your anatomy. This lower back area is made up of dozens of muscles. There are two main groups to consider when working on your strength. These are the transversospinalis and erector spinae muscles. Both groups are intrinsic muscles that sit deep within the body, close to the vertebrae, and are responsible for the movement of the spine. They are also functionally supported by your abdominals, glutes, hamstrings, and hips. Due to the position, size, and surrounding muscles, they can be challenging to strengthen specifically.
The transversospinalis muscles consist of three groups — the rotatores, the multifidus, and the semispinalis muscles. They sit at different layers and run the length of the back, acting to rotate and extend the spinal column.
Three muscle groups also make up the erector spinae — the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis. Like the transversospinalis groups, these also run the length of the back, but are responsible for straightening the spine.
Benefits of Having a Strong Back
The depth and intrinsic nature of the lower back muscles mean that having strength in the area is more about function than form. They’re not superficial muscles that will make you look good, but they will help improve your health. Lower back pain is incredibly common for a variety of reasons, including sedentary jobs, poor posture, and incorrect form when exercising or playing sport. Strong lower back muscles will help counteract these and prevent injury. You’ll also be able to increase your performance in the gym and other sports, including running, rugby, or hockey. Plus, strong, healthy lower back muscles will help to ensure you stay mobile the older you get, so you’ll still be able to cut a rug on the dancefloor when you’re 90-years-old and in a retirement home.
Best Lower Back Exercises
The best results in building strength and mass in your muscles come from working them through their full range of motion. When it comes to the lower back muscles, it’s easy to have them isometrically contracted in many of your usual exercises; however, it’s getting a concentric contraction that’s more difficult. Combining activities that have a small amount of concentric contraction, as well as moves that specifically aim for that, will give you the best path to success. The mix of lower back exercises below comes from Jeff Cavaliere, who created the ATHLEAN-X program. Jeff was the former Head Physical Therapist and Assistant Strength Coach for the New York Mets. He also has a Masters Degree in Physical Training and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. His advice is based on the science of movement, as well as proven injury recovery techniques.
Deadlifts are a great compound exercise for building strength in your glutes, quads, hamstrings, lats, and traps. However, they do also help to build strength in the lower back in a small way. When performing this exercise correctly, you should have an isometric hold through your back to keep your torso straight throughout the move. You’ll also feel a concentric contraction as you reach a vertical position. However, don’t be tempted to cheat this move and make it do more by pulling with your back or over-extending at the top. It’s a hip driving movement, and doing anything other than that can cause injury and will have you walking like you’re a hundred-years-old.
- Stand in front of your bar with your feet hip-width apart. You’ll have your knees bent at the bottom of the move.
- Hold the bar in an overhand grip at shoulder width.
- Pull the bar straight up until your body is upright, arms are straight down, and the bar is resting in front of your thighs.
- Your knees will straighten first; then, your body will follow tilting at the hips. Keep in mind to keep your back and neck as straight as possible when performing this move.
- The vertical standing position at the top of this move is where you will feel that small amount of concentric contraction in your lower back.
- Lower the bar back to the ground, with control.
2. Kettlebell Swing
Similar to the deadlifts, kettlebell swings are a hip-hinging exercise. You’ll use your lower back muscles to stabilize your upper body throughout the swing, and you’ll achieve a small concentric contraction at the top of the move. Again, as with the deadlift, don’t shift to using your back to swing; otherwise, you will end up injured. The great thing about this conditioning exercise is that you can build endurance and athleticism by aiming for longer sets.
- Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, with the kettlebell on the floor just behind you.
- Bend your knees to grab the kettlebell behind you. Make sure to tilt at the hips, pushing your butt backward. Keep your chest up and back straight.
- Drive forward with your hips in a thrusting motion, and as your knees straighten, use that momentum to swing the kettlebell up to shoulder height.
- Repeat in a continuous loop for a full set.
Hyperextensions get a bad wrap because of the name — hyper sounds so aggressive. Yet this exercise is excellent for strengthening your lower back. Not only do you get a full flex, but you also get a concentric contraction of your muscles, and you can easily add weights to increase your outcomes. The key to performing the move without adding undue stress to your lower back is to lift your body to a neutral position, not a fully extended one. You still get engagement through the full range of motion, without unnecessary risk. Take your extension to another level by choosing dumbbells as your weights, and adding a row at the top to include your upper back muscles in the workout.
- Have your chosen weights ready on the floor at the front of the ham-glute machine, so you can quickly grab them.
- Position your body in the machine, so you’re hingeing at the hips.
- Lower your torso down, until you’re facing down to the floor, and your back is fully flexed. If you’re using weights, grab them while you’re here.
- Focus on using your back to pull your torso up until your body is straight. Don’t bend your back further than straight. If you want to work your upper back muscles at the same time, add a row at the top.
- Lower yourself back down with control.
Bridges are an excellent corrective lower back exercise to awaken the muscles with a low-intensity, high-volume movement. Use your back muscles to drive the extension as your hips reach the top of their range of motion. This is the best way to get the desired engagement. Bridges also work your glutes at the same time. This is great because your glutes are one of the many muscles that support your lower back, and you’ll end up with a firm, toned butt.
- Lie on your back, with your feet up on a box or weight machine chair — just make sure it won’t move. Both your knees and hips should be bent at 90-degrees.
- Drive up, using your hips, glutes, and lower back muscles, until your torso is straight.
- Lower your hips back down to the ground with control.
Lastly, supermans are also an effective corrective exercise that doesn’t require heavy weights. All you need is yourself and the floor. Similar to the bridges, this will work on engaging the glutes and lower back, but enable you to do a higher volume of reps.
- Lie face down on the floor, with your arms out in front of you, palms down.
- Raise your arms, upper body, feet, and knees off the ground, keeping your weight anchored to the ground at your hips. You should feel the contraction in your glutes and lower back.
- Hold this for three seconds, then lower your arms and legs back down.
Lower Back Pain — Red Flags and How to Fix it
Lower back pain is incredibly prolific. While increasing the strength in your lower back muscles can help alleviate some issues, there are other red flags to look out for that may also contribute to pain. Luckily, there are some relatively simple techniques for fixing these red flags.
1. Check your Hip Flexors
Tight hip flexors are a common cause of lower back pain. Your hip flexors are a group of muscles and tendons that attach to your lumbar vertebrae and extend down to the front of your hips. They allow you to bend at the waist, and bring your knees to your chest. Tightness in this area is a result of many things, including abdominal exercises and extended periods of sitting. You can check the flexibility of these muscles with the Thomas Test. Hold onto one knee, pulling it to your chest as you lay back on a bench. Can the opposite leg sit flat on the bench? If not, you probably have tight hip flexors. The best way to tackle this is to ensure you’re regularly stretching the area. Include exercises such as pigeon pose, seated butterfly stretches, or figure four stretches to your cool-down routine.
2. Your Glutes are Too Weak
The glutes provide a considerable amount of functional support for your back muscles. Not having well-developed strength in your butt can lead to too much pressure and stress on the lower back. The easiest way to check your glutes is to look at your side profile in the mirror. How is your booty game? The more muscular and defined your butt is, the better the support is for your back. Another useful test is to do a hyper-hold. Use a ham-glute machine to hold your torso up, so your body is straight for at least two minutes without cramping or failure. If you can’t do this, try incorporating more glute exercises into your routine. You can keep doing hyper-holds to build up your endurance, or try exercises like hip thrusts, split lunges, or barbell RDLs.
3. You Cannot Stand for More than 20min Without Pain/Shifting
The final red flag is one you may not notice you do. Can you stand still for 20 minutes, without shifting your weight or experiencing pain? If your standing looks more like dancing, then you need to work on the endurance capacity of the muscles in your lower back. Adding the exercises above is a great way to start. You can also build up your tolerance with hyper-holds and gradually increase the length. Another thing to check is the position of your pelvis. Do you have an anterior pelvic tilt where your butt sticks out? If you do, this can also contribute to low endurance. Fortunately, there are several exercises that you can do to correct your lower body posture.
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