As we go through our day to day tasks – working, running errands, exercising, spending time with friends and family, to name a few – we need to be able to bend or twist the spine to move our upper body. This requires a certain amount of flexibility in the spine, a certain spinal range of motion, or else we suffer a decrease in our physical capabilities and an increase in complications with the low back. The muscles that help us with this are our back extensors.
Experts estimate that up to 80% of Americans will experience low back pain in their lifetimes; it is one of the most common public health problems in modern industrialized societies. Often low back pain is rooted in weak lumbar muscles. Improving the strength of these back muscles could help to prevent and treat low back pain.
The great news is that training your back extensors does not require any special expensive equipment, a membership to a fitness center, or much time. In one study, dynamic back extension training performed 4 times per week for 10 week was shown to improve back strength by 21%, and result in significant improvement in extension range of motion of the spine.
Other improvements from performing back extension exercises include increasing our ability to coordinate movement through our low back, increased stabilization of the low back, and better overall back posture. In addition to health benefits, back extension training can tone and define the back.
Now we know that back extension training for strength and spinal range of motion is important, especially if you experience or want to prevent low back pain. Next, suggestions for how to work in activating our back extensors:
- Prone Chest Lifts – Lay in a prone position on a mat with legs fully extended and toes pointing towards the floor. Clasp your hands behind your head or hold them out to the side, then extend the torso, thinking about reaching away through the crown of your head, and lift the chest off the floor. Return to the starting position
- Swimming – Lay on your stomach with the legs straight and together. Stretch your arms straight overhead, keeping your shoulder blades pulled back and your shoulders away from your ears. Scoop your belly button away from the floor, engaging your abdominals. Reach away through your fingers and toes, stretching your body. Lift your head off the mat as an extension of your spine, keeping your head in good alignment with your spine. Alternate small pulses of your right arm/left leg and left arm/right leg
- Four-Point Balance Work – Come to an all fours position, kneeling on the floor with your hands on the floor under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Find a neutral spine, a flat back. Lift your left leg up and reach it behind you only as high as you can while keeping your neutral spine. If you feel your spine start to arch, you have lifted too high. Optional: Lift the opposite arm, your right arm, to reach out in front of you. Find your balance, stretching out your spine, reaching through your fingers and toes. For an extra challenge, you can make small circles with your extended leg and arm; flex the foot and open the arm and leg out to the side, then come back to center; or scoop the elbow and the knee in towards the center of the body. Engage the obliques to keep the trunk of the body steady, or to scoop the elbow and knee in. Switch sides. Cat-cow stretches are great to work in here between sets
- Bent-over Row – Grip a barbell (or two dumbbells) with the palms facing down so that the wrists, elbows and shoulders are in a straight line. Lift the bar from the rack, bend forward at the hips, and keep your back straight with a slight bend in the knees. Slowly lower the bar toward the floor until the elbows are just less than completely straight. Keeping a flat back, pull the bar toward the sternum. Slowly resist the bar down to the starting position
Tips to keep in mind when exercising the back extensors:
- Research has indicated that pelvic stabilization is required to effectively train the lumbar extensor muscles – work to keep the pelvis from rocking and rolling as you exercise your extensors
- Relax your body as much as possible before performing the exercise
- Keep your spine as straight as possible. When viewed from the top, your body should look like it is in a straight line
- If you feel pain, you have lifted your chest too far; decrease your range of motion
- When lifting the chest off the ground, be sure that your pelvis (your hip bones and pubic bone) are staying on the ground; if they lift off, decrease your range of motion
Cautions: If you have a herniated disc or sensitive spinal nerves, you may need to avoid this exercise as it may increase intervertebral pressure. If you are extremely overweight or have poor back control, watch out for arching during back extensor exercises. You may benefit from using a back extension machine until you build your back strength for better form. Remember that every body is different; the information in this article is not intended as medical advice, and you should consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise regime.
- “The Benefits of Back Extension Exercise.” Outdoor Fitness Equipment, outdoor-fit.com/benefits-back-extension-exercise.
- Edelburg, Holly, et al. “What Is the Best Back Exercise?” Apr. 2018. https://acefitnessmediastorage.blob.core.windows.net/webcontent/April2018/ACE_BackExerStudy.pdf
- “How to Do a Back Extension / Fitness / Exercises.” Fitday, www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/fitness/exercises/how-to-do-a-back-extension.html.
- Yaprak, Y. “The effects of back extension training on back muscle strength and spinal range of motion in young females.” Biology of sport vol. 30,3 (2013): 201-6. doi:10.5604/20831862.1047500