A strong lower back is the foundation of a strong body, but it’s a whole new ballgame when you talk about building a lower back that’s well-muscled, strong AND mechanically efficient. Look at the way someone holds their lower back while standing and you can immediately tell a lot about how they train, how they move and how they feel.
Back extensions (also called back raises, hyperextensions, etc.) are the movement of choice for training the lower back. It’s logical. The two main movements of the spine are flexion (think curling like during an ab crunch) and extension (returning from flexion) and typical back extensions take the lower back through both movements.
THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION
OK, so we need a strong lower back. But the real question is… do we NEED to train the lower back with extensions?
If you just want to get strong and jacked, the answer is no.
During movements like squats, pull-ups and shoulder presses (the ones that get you strong and jacked), the lower back works isometrically, meaning is holds a constant position – it doesn’t move! We don’t want the lower back rounding during deadlifts or “winking” during squats. The lower back is built for stability while the torso, hips and legs move around it.
Plus, most people have such weak abs and glutes that their lower back is stuck in extension all day every day. Rather than keep cranking into extension, they should keep a neutral spine whenever possible. Learning to BRACE the abs and maintain a neutral lower back while squatting and deadlifting will do more for their core strength than a million back extensions. If you hammer a nail into a wall crooked, you wouldn’t fix it by continuing to hammer until the nail was bent and broken, would you? Don’t feed the dysfunction.
That said, back extensions are a solid accessory exercise when done right. Let’s look at two different types of back extensions and talk about which one’s the right link and wrong link.
WRONG LINK: 45-DEGREE BACK EXTENSIONS
The typical back extensions you see at most gyms are done on a 45-degree back raise bench, which leaves you doomed from the start.
Because of the starting position with your body at a 45-degree angle to the floor, you run into two problems:
- You have to curve you spine into too much flexion (think “scared cat”) to get all the way down because your hips can’t move.
- You have to wrench your spine into hyperextension to complete the movement. This is no good, especially if you exhibit a serious anterior pelvic tilt (the “stripper arch” that renders your glutes and hamstrings underutilized). Let’s observe.
This poor soul is just cranking on his lumbar vertebrae and reinforcing bad habits that will keep him from being able to maintain a neutral spine while squatting and deadlifting (if he even squats or deadlifts… amirite?).
What we need to do instead is perform an exercise that allows the lower back to maintain a stable position while the glutes and hamstrings do the talking.
RIGHT LINK: PARALLEL BACK EXTENSIONS
The cure for the common crappy back raise is the back extension performed with the torso parallel to the ground. This puts the body in the proper position to let the back stabilize while the glutes and hammies go to work. The guru of all that is glutes, Bret Contreras, shows you how:
Like the video title says, movement during a good back raise should actually occur at the hips. This is how the lower back functions during squats, deadlifts and overhead presses and it’s how you keep yourself healthy for years of asskicking in the gym.
Being parallel to the ground at lockout also means there’s the most tension on the lower back at lockout. By going to neutral instead of hyperextension, you’re actually working harder and smarter.
But be careful – it’s still possible to screw this up. Keep your abs and glutes tight the whole time to lock your lower back into position. As you lower down, think “abs down/ribs down” so you don’t curl over into flexion. On the way up, keep your abs tight while flexing your glutes and hamstrings. And most importantly, only raise yourself up until you torso is parallel to the floor. Any higher and you’ll fly into hyperextension at the low back, like this guy:
You can do these on a glute/ham raise, like Bret does in the first video, or on a Roman chair, like in the second video. Both these pieces of equipment are usually nonexistent in your average gym, so you may have to improvise.
HACKING THE 45-DEGREE BACK EXTENSION
Former natural bodybuilding champ Fred DiMenna, my grad school professor and inspiration for this article series, taught me how to rig a 45-degree back raise so it functions like a parallel back raise. Simply prop up the back end of the back raise on an adjustable bench so that when you get in it, your torso is parallel to the ground like it would be on a glute/ham raise.
Since I’ve never seen anyone do this besides me, there are no pictures on the internet. And since I lift at an awesome gym, there’s no 45-degree back extension so I can’t film it. As a last resort, I used my amazing Photoshop skills to illustrate my point:
See what I mean? Place the back raise over an adjustable bench, forming a “T” shape. It’s best to have a spotter to hold the back raise in place just in case it moves and you face plant. Also, be warned that this will turn heads and raise eyebrows in most gyms. If the fitness police approaches you and tells you to stop, don’t fight it. Just stop, nod and find a new gym.
BACK IT UP
45-degree back raises just aren’t that effective for most people, especially those who have overly-arched lower backs. They should avoid forcing themselves into even more extension and stick with an exercise like the parallel back raise, which will allow them to work their lower back, glutes and hamstrings in harmony like the iron gods intended.