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WHEN IT COMES to exercises geared toward working your lower back, it doesn’t get more straightforward than the traditional back extension. But is this old-school classic the right move for everyone, all the time?
Probably not, according to Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. The traditional lower back extension may not be the most effective—or even safest—way to perform this movement, for a variety of reasons.
“The truth is, lower back extensions are not for everyone,” Samuel says. “In general, if you want to strengthen up your glutes and get your spinal erectors to where we need them to be in terms of strength and mobility, you’re better off doing a lot of the other exercises that you may think of. “
Here we give you some reasons why (or why not) you should incorporate back extensions, when to incorporate them, and how to best maximize this exercise for your gains.
Muscles the Lower Back Extension Works
- Spinal erectors
Your lower back is made up of spinal erectors (erector spinae), thick bands of muscle that run right between the spine. In order to stand up, you’ll need to rely on these muscles. They’re also involved in a host of lower-body exercises that you probably perform regularly in your routine—think exploding up to top position during your deadlift routine (and squats).
Benefits of Doing the Lower Back Extension
- Activates glutes
- Strengthens spinal erectors
- Hits your core
In addition to engaging your spinal erectors, back extensions are going to give you a lot of glute work. It’s nearly impossible for your glues not to be involved when you’re driving into a straight-up position.
Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Do Lower Back Extensions
The lower back extension should never be a primary exercise to in your routine, but it is a nice back or lower body day addition when you want to shake things up a little or you are working to specifically target your lower back and glutes. Because it’s normally a relatively light and easy exercise, it can be used not only at the end of a workout, but also as part of your warmup routine (especially if performed as Samuel suggests below).
However, lower back extensions really aren’t for all athletes, weekend warriors, or members of the general public. Sometimes our bodies may be better off doing a host of other exercises that incorporate lower back work. Moves like deadlifts, RDLs, and even good mornings are going to challenge your glutes and spinal erectors enough to facilitate growth, since they treat the hip hinge more naturally. Guys who want to get some extra glute work—after doing all the aforementioned exercises—will be the best candidates for this exercise. Guys who have any lower back pain or problems are not.
How to Set Up a Back Extension Machine
If you have an access to a back extension machine (most commercial gym have some back extension variation), it’s important to understand the necessity of properly aligning yourself with the machine—and oftentimes this aspect is neglected by overeager exercisers. If the pad is placed too high against your hips, you’ll quickly notice how limited your range of motion will be, which prevents you from maximizing the benefits of the exercise. If you overload yourself, you’ll put yourself in a bad spot if you’re in poor position, too.
A proper waist and pad alignment should have the machine pads placed about two to three inches below your hip crease. This way, your waist can properly fold as deep as possible. Once you find that proper alignment, you’re able to execute the back extension to its full capability.
How to Do Traditional Lower Back Extensions
Although Samuel says the old-school back extension may not be the best move, it’s still worth knowing how to perform properly as it still is an effective movement for hitting your spinal erectors as well as your glutes.
- Set up by lining up the pads on the back extension machine about two to three inches below your hip crease, locking your legs securely on the pads, feet flat and secure on the base.
- With your legs locked in, focus on squeezing through your glutes while creating torso rigidity. Your body should be in a straight line at this point.
- Drop your torso as low as possible while maintaining as much core tension as possible.
- Pause momentarily at the bottom, then drive up.
Why You Should Skip Traditional Lower Back Extensions
- Reinforces a risky way to bend over in real life
Traditional back extensions don’t necessarily reinforce proper body mechanics, especially when simulating real-life activities like picking something up from the ground. It doesn’t reinforce proper deadlift mechanics or a proper hinge pattern.
- Tightens an already tight muscle
Most of the time, our lower back extensors are already tight, so wasting additional time and reps really isn’t that necessary. You’re probably getting enough work when doing deadlifts and rows, adding back extensions won’t help increase strength.
- Risk of overextending your lower back
Put it this way, if you’ve done this move chances are slipped into a pattern of overarching your back at the top of the move. It’s so easy to do this, and the rewards simply aren’t worth the risk. You’re better off performing low risk moves like cat-cow or the forward fold.
How to Do a Smarter Lower Back Extension
According to Samuel, the main change to be aware of with this lower back extension variation is you’re going to focus on actually rounding the back throughout this exercise and maintaining that position.
This slight adjustment takes the majority of the stress from your lower back extensors and places it squarely on your glutes. Not only will your glutes get stronger, your risk of lower back strain just became significantly reduced. You can add a load by holding weight plates, dumbbells, or kettlebells, but keep it light.
How Often to Do the Lower Back Extension
For lower back extensions, your best bet is to keep these within anywhere from three to four sets of 15 to 20 reps.
Since it is a bodyweight exercise, you can more than likely push it past these numbers. But it’s best to keep pushing till you can no longer sustain good glute contraction—and with this rounded-back version, may come sooner than you would normally expect.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.