Our lower back muscles are important for so many reasons. Anyone who has ever thrown out their back or injured their back knows what I mean- when your back isn’t functioning properly, EVERYTHING becomes hard, or painful. It’s important to learn how to strengthen the lower back properly in order to prevent injury and make us less likely to be laid up on the couch for weekends at a time.
Our lower back makes up half our core (the other half being our abdominals and hip flexors, etc in the front) and is often referred to our as our “trunk” because it provides the stability our arms and legs need to function. Think of a tree: you have the thick strong tree trunk coming up from the ground with smaller branches shooting off…the smaller more mobile branches are able to move in the wind without breaking because the trunk is stabilizing the tree…our arms and legs are like the smaller branches and our core is like the trunk…but what about the roots? Are our feet our roots?
Ok, that analogy might not make that much sense. Point is, our core (or trunk) STABILIZES our body so that our arms and legs can freely operate without the rest of the body toppling over. If you have ever had a back injury you realize this is true because things like trying to move your arms above your head, or standing up from a chair, or reaching out to get a glass of water all hurt because the muscles in your back are contracting to stabilize your spine while you do these different activities.
A Little Anatomy Lesson
You know me, I have to review anatomy before I talk about any exercise. Don’t worry, it’s good for ya. When it comes to the lower back, we are talking about the lumbar spine and it’s related musculature. The lumbar spine is made up of 5 vertebrae, it starts where your thoracic spine ends and ends at your sacrum.
There are A LOT of small muscles between the vertebrae and act to stabilize the spine and help us rotate and move in all directions. From a strengthening point of view, we typically think of the erector spinae group of muscles when thinking “lower back”.
This group forms the long, strong muscles that start at our sacrum and extend up our spine. Also known as our spinal extensors, these muscles extend our back (the opposite of a sit up), or straighten our back. They consist of 3 branches: iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis. One of the deeper core stabilizers, multifidus, gets a lot of attention in the therapy world because of its role in stabilizing the spine.
Although technically speaking the gluteus maximus doesn’t attach to the spine, it’s very important when it comes to supporting and protecting the back. Remember that whole “lift with your legs, not your back” thing? Well, when you do that correctly, the glute max is protecting your back. The stronger your hips are, the safer your back is going to be.
Last muscle I want to mention is quadratus lumborum. It’s a deep muscle that goes from your lateral pelvis to your lumbar spine. Another common muscle that gets tight and causes back pain. We want to make sure we are working this guy too in order to reduce chance of injury.
Ok, enough of that. Let’s get into some exercises.
5 Exercises To Strengthen The Lower Back
Working in the constraints of our home gyms, I make the assumption that we don’t have all of the equipment you would find in a commercial gym. Most of us don’t have Smith machines or barbells at home, so I didn’t not include any exercises that require these pieces.
Arguably the best core exercise out there, basically works everything between your shoulders and hips. Know more as an abdominal exercise, it’s also gonna force your glutes and spinals stabilizers to kick in if you are doing it correctly.
Start in push up position with body as straight as possible, keep buttocks squeezed tight, suck tummy in. Can also be done on elbows (I prefer on elbows). Try 4 sets to failure, try to build up to 60 sec reps.
#2 Side Plank
Similar to standard plank, but a little harder, going to isolate the lateral muscles of your back and abdomen a little more, especially quadratus and obliques. Another great exercise for lower back as well.
From push up position, lift one arm straight into air while stacking feet as shown above. Keep abdominals and butt tight. A little easier on your elbow. Hold 30-60 sec (or longer if you are a beast). Repeat 4x each side.
Great exercise to work glutes and low back. Be careful with this one if you have back pain.
Start lying on floor with knees bent. Keep feet shoulder-width apart, squeeze butt as you extend back and lift hips off of floor. Hold for 1-2 sec, slowly return to floor. Do 3-4 sets of 10-15.
This one really targets the back extensors. Be careful not to hyperextend too much, if it hurts, back off a little.
Start lying on stomach. Extend your back while trying to bring both legs and arms off of floor. I like to keep my head facing down toward floor to reduce strain on neck. Hold 5-10 sec, lower back to starting position. Do 2-3 sets of 10.
#5 Romanian (Stiff Legged)Dumbbell Deadlift
The deadlift is typically done in the gym with barbells stacked with plates, but the same exercise can be done at home with a pair of dumbbells. A great total body exercise, known as a hamstring exercise but really hits the lumbar extensors too. Be careful with this one, make sure your back is straight, rounding your back increases chance of injury! Start with low weight if you are new to deadlifts, increase weight when you are comfortable with the movement.
Start in standing position with dumbbells down by sides, feet about shoulder width apart. With knees slightly bent, slowly bend at waist while sticking hips back, lowering dumbbells toward floor. Bring hips forward as you return to standing position. Try 3 sets of 10.
Integrate Lower Back Exercises Into Your Routine
The above exercises are a good start to improving your lower back strength and improving your overall durability in the real world. These are basic examples of exercises that easily be performed in most home gyms. The only equipment necessary in the above examples are dumbbells.
It’s up to you how you want to incorporate these exercises into your routine. Kinda depends on how your workouts are split up. You could add some or all of these exercise to your regular back day if you are doing a 3, 4, or 5 day split (doing a certain body part or parts per day, for example chest and back on day 1, shoulders and legs on day 2, etc).
You could also include these in your core workout. If you work core 2-3 days a week, add a couple of these to the mix to ensure low back is getting worked at least as hard as your abdominals.
Like any exercise, the above exercises can be modified to increase difficulty. An easy way to make planks harder is to put your hands or feet on an unstable surface (bosu ball, Swiss ball). This will definitely step up the intensity a notch or two. With bridges, you could try with knees extended on a Swiss ball, or doing 1 legged bridges, pretty tough stuff.
Strengthen Your Lower Back and Enjoy the Benefits!
The lower back isn’t exactly a glamor muscle. I don’t think many people wear a cut-off shirt to show-off their “jacked lower back”. But, the lower back is super important for us. It stabilizes our body so we can do all kinds of cool things, like lifting boxes or picking up kids or playing basketball.
We can protect our back and prevent our chances of injury by keeping our lower back muscles strong and flexible. You may even notice improvements in other areas of your workout by spending more time on your lower back (squats perhaps).
Be safe with these exercises. Like any other exercise, make sure your form is right and don’t try to lift more than you are comfortable. The reps and sets listed here are just examples from what I like to do. Incorporate these exercises into your workout anyway you see fit.
I hope these examples where helpful for you. What are your favorite back exercises? Any good ones I left out? Leave me a comment and I’ll get back to ya.
Photo attribution: exercise photos By Everkinetic (http://everkinetic.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons