Most people go to the gym so they can look and feel better. I think that's something we can all agree on.
After all, we all want to look good. But when it comes to working out, looking and feeling better is only a small part of it.
Even though most people go to the gym to focus on their "beach" muscles like the chest, biceps, and abs ... neglecting other muscle groups is NOT the move.
Take your lower back for example... I get it, nobody is walking around boasting about how good their lower back muscles look. But, that doesn't make them any less important!
Your lower back muscles play a huge role in injury prevention, long-term quality of life, and athletic performance.
Anatomy of the Lower Back
Before you can understand how important it is to have strong lower back muscles ... first, you should probably know about all the muscles that make up your lower back.
There are 2 main muscle groups that cover the area along your spine and low back. These are the transversospinalis muscles and the erector spinae muscles.
These muscles are small and are the deepest layer of muscles attached to the back. These muscles can be found attached to the back lateral sides of the spine. There are three muscles which make up the transversospinalis muscles: the multifidus, rotatores, and semispinalis.
As a group, they work together to stabilize your spine during movement. They also help you safely move your spine back, forth, and to either side. This is very important when it comes to preventing injuries.
Erector Spinae Muscles
These muscles are much larger and run along the spine on both the left and right sides. The muscles that make up this muscle group are the spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis.
Just like the transversospinalis muscles, these muscles help to extend and laterally flex your spine. It helps keep your spine stable and safe during movement to protect against injuries.
Importance of These Muscle Groups
See a similarity between the two? They essentially work together to help each other achieve the same outcome ... but they also have vastly different strengths and sizes comparatively.
Having weakness in either of these muscle groups can potentially lead to very painful and debilitating injuries.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 5 workplace injuries are back injuries. 80% of those injuries occur in the lower back due to the level of force placed on it during normal everyday tasks.
If you think about it, you use your lower back all the time. Here are just some examples of everyday movements that require a strong low back:
• Picking up a heavy load of laundry
• Taking out the trash
• Swinging a golf club
It is extremely important to keep this muscle group strong to prevent injuries, and even if you aren’t worried about getting hurt ... it can greatly help your posture and performance in the gym too!
The muscles in the low back also help support your heavier lifts in the gym too! If you want a stronger squat or deadlift, for example, be sure to focus some of your training on strengthening these muscles.
So let's talk about some exercises you can do to build a strong and stable lower back!
Exercises to Strengthen the Lower Back
These are 10 of my favorite exercises for strengthening the lower back. I'll cover each exercise, and exactly how to do it step-by-step. The last thing I'd want is for you to go out and do these exercises incorrectly.
Let's go ahead and talk about my personal favorite first...
For this exercise, you'll use a barbell.
Rest the barbell on the floor in front of you. Start by walking up to the barbell, placing your shins on the bar. Keep your feet shoulder width apart or slightly wider with your toes pointing straight ahead or slightly outward.
Next, grab the bar at roughly shoulder width and lightly pull up on the bar ... not to lift it, but to pull your body lower into a squat position. Your thighs should be parallel with the ground, back straight, head and neck neutral, shoulders pulled back and down, and chest puffed out slightly.
From here, brace your core and push through your midfoot and heel to start pulling the weight off the ground. Squeeze your quadriceps, glutes, and back muscles to stand all the way up with the bar.
Be sure to keep the barbell as close to your body as you can throughout the entire movement. When you've reached the top of the movement, carefully lower back down to starting position. Repeat for reps.
The romanian deadlift, as I'm sure you can guess, is a lot like a normal deadlift. The difference with romanian deadlifts is, you don't place the barbell back on the ground.
You can start by setting yourself up as if you're about to do a deadlift, and pulling the barbell up to meet your hips. From here, slowly lower the barbell back to the ground, pushing your hips behind you.
Make sure to keep your core tight, shoulders retracted, head and neck neutral, back straight, and keep a slight bend in your knees. Lower the barbell as far as you can without compromising this form, and without bending your knees any further (this is not a squat).
You should feel a good stretch in your hamstrings. When you do, start pulling the bar back to the starting position at your waist and repeat.
The rack pull is a deadlift variation that has a shorter range of motion. Rather than starting with a barbell on the floor ... the bar is elevated on a set of safety bars that sit right below or above the knee inside a squat rack.
Perform this exercise the exact same way you would a deadlift. The only real difference is the range of motion.
Roman Chair Back Extensions
This exercise requires a piece of exercise equipment called a roman chair. You've probably seen these before. They look like partial benches that sit at a 45 degree angle. There is a place to anchor your feet, and a pad at the top to support your hips.
To perform this exercise, anchor your feet and place your hips on the top pad of a roman chair. Your back, head, and neck should all be in a straight, neutral position. Squeeze your glutes and brace your core to maintain this position.
When you start, bend at the hips, allowing your head and chest to move towards the floor. When you reach a comfortable stopping point with your back still straight ... Start slowly raising your body back to the starting position by squeezing your glutes, lower back, and pulling with your hamstrings. Repeat this for reps.
If you'd like to make this exercise more difficult, simply grab a weight and hug it to your chest during the exercise.
For this exercise, you'll want a barbell again. Instead of setting it on the ground like a deadlift, you actually want to rack the barbell at shoulder height. Start by grabbing the bar a little wider than shoulder width. Swing your elbows underneath the barbell and pull them toward the ceiling. You should shoot to have your arms parallel with the floor. Your wrists should naturally bend to maintain your grip on the barbell as well.
At this point, the barbell should be rested on your front delts and upper chest. Brace your core, lift the bar off the rack, and take a few steps back from the rack. Keeping the pressure of the weight in your midfoot, bend your knees forward and out. At the same time, push your hips back until your thighs are parallel with the floor. It's just like you're sitting in a chair.
When you've fully settled into a squat, push through the midfoot while squeezing your quads and glutes to stand back up in the starting position. Make sure you keep your core tight and spine in a neutral position throughout the movement. Repeat for reps.
Bent Over Row
With a barbell, set up for this exercise exactly like you would for a deadlift. However, how you pull the weight will be much different.
Remember to keep your core tight and spine neutral as you bend your knees slightly and push your hips behind you to reach down and grab the bar. Keep your body in this position the entirety of the exercise.
From here, pull the bar toward your abdomen by using your upper back and lats. Your elbows should be pulled behind the body as you squeeze with your lats. When the barbell meets your abdomen, slowly lower the bar back to its starting position. Repeat for reps.
Start this exercise by getting on all 4's like a dog. Your hands, knees, and toes should all be on the ground. Keep your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
Your core should be engaged the whole time with no twisting of your hips or spine. From this position, lift one arm out in front of you while simultaneously kicking your opposite leg behind you. Hold this position for a few seconds, and return back to your hands and knees. Repeat this exercise, alternating between sides.
For this exercise, you'll need someone or something to anchor your feet in place. You'll also want to find a pad or cushion to put your knees on.
On your knees, and with your body in an upright position, begin to lean forward, bringing your body closer to the floor. Make sure to keep your core tight, and your head, neck, and spine neutral here as well. Lean over until your upper body meets the ground.
When you reach the ground, squeeze your hamstrings to pull yourself back to the starting position. If this is too difficult for you to do, use your arms to push yourself off the ground. This will give you some momentum to assist your hamstrings. Repeat for reps.
This exercise is a little different, and requires a kettlebell. Start by grabbing the kettlebell handle with both hands, you should have an overhand grip. Stand tall with your feet just wider than hip width apart. The kettlebell should naturally fall between your legs.
With a slight bend in your knees, push your hips back, hiking the kettlebell behind you like a football. I'm not telling you to literally hike the kettlebell, you should keep your hold on it the entire time.
From here, quickly squeeze your hamstrings and glutes to thrust the kettlebell out and upward. Keep your core tight, neck and spine neutral, and shoulders retracted during the entire movement.
Your arms will follow the kettlebell like a pendulum throughout the movement. When the kettlebell reaches chest height, allow gravity to bring it back in between your legs.
Repeat this swinging motion for reps.
Start by lying face down on a mat, or something padded, with your arms stretched out in front of you. Simultaneously lift your arms, chest, and legs off the ground until you feel your back muscles squeeze.
Hold this position for a few seconds and lower back down to the starting position.
Cautions For Your Lower Back
It’s very important to pay attention to the position your spine is in when doing any sort of resistance training movement. If there is a weight in your hand, don’t let your back round outward like it would when bending down to tie your shoes.
Your spine has something called intervertebral disks between them to cushion the weight of your body. These disks have a jelly-like substance in them that shifts around based on how the spine shifts from pressure on your body.
Think of the way this disk works like a half-full water balloon. Let me explain...
When the spine is in a neutral position, the pressure of the vertebrae is evenly dispersed across the disk. It's like putting a hand on both sides of a water balloon and pressing them together.
If you bend forward and round your spine, like I mentioned above, it would be like squeezing one end of the balloon, and not the other.
Well ... what happens when you do that?
When you compress one side of the water balloon, it forces all of the water to the other end of the balloon and it expands and stretches. With more pressure, that balloon may even burst.
The same thing can happen to your vertebral disk if the force on the spine gets high enough.
The further you round the spine; the more weight in your hand; the further away from the body the weight gets held, the more force gets put on one side of the disk. It gets worse.
The spinal cord runs down the spine on the backside near the disks. When the disk bulges, or even worse if it herniates, it potentially can press up against the spinal cord and/or nerves.
This is extremely painful when this happens, so please be careful.
How to Prevent These Injuries
Always make sure to do a proper warm up before any workout. On top of that, you should only use weight that you can handle with good form.
Also, pay extra attention to the position of your spine during exercise. You want to make sure to minimize your risk of injury as much as possible.
How to Maximize Your Results From These Exercises
All of these exercises, of course, are great for strengthening your lower back. However, if you truly want to get all the benefits of a strong lower back ... make sure you are recovering properly too.
Everything you do in the gym and with your workouts is only meant to break down your muscles. It's what you're doing the other 23 hours a day that matters most.
Make sure you are giving your body the protein, calories, and nutrients it needs to repair your muscle tissue and build it back stronger.
The best thing you can do to start recovering faster right now is by prioritizing your post workout nutrition. With resistance training style workouts like weight lifting, I always recommend taking a rapid digesting form of carbs and protein immediately afterwards.
This can help you recover faster, reduce muscle soreness, and see better results! If you are needing some extra help in pursuing your health and fitness goals ... we're here to help!