Lower Back Workouts: Top 5 Exercises for Longevity
Lower Back Workouts for Longevity
In the traditional gym-going mentality, the lower back doesn't get a whole lot of press, despite being vitally important to your athleticism, not to mention the quality of life. In the life span of those healthy and hungry for activity, the only guarantee is that back issues are coming if not already here.
All too often, fitness enthusiasts focus in on and devote entire days or training sessions to the development and hypertrophy of the "show" muscles.
While this, in and of itself, is not problematic (who doesn't love a good bicep flex or a beautiful tricep horseshoe?), it can be short-sighted. If you've landed on this article, on this website, longevity is valued, and quality of life is what the fight is about.
In fact, when hitting "core," the back half of the core (your lower back and associated muscles) is often completely neglected, despite comprising fully half of the core system.
It is already well known that a strong core does more . Almost regardless of your athletic goals; big lifting numbers, fast mile times, or simply being functional well into old age, all require a robust core. The core facilitates all lifting, balance, and is the canvas for the idealized washboard abs.
It is so important that the National Institute of Health describes core stability as both essential in daily living and all athletic activities. The same paper goes on to describe that the injury risk in those with weak core complexes is four times that of their solid trunk counterparts .
What is less well known in the lay populations is the low back’s part to play (fully half!) in this system. It is no wonder then that low back pain is one of the oft reported ailments that sideline athletes and regular Joes alike.
This article will spotlight this neglected aspect of the core. It will identify what muscles and structures comprise the lower back, describe their purposes, and provide some exercises to work into your rotation for improved athleticism, injury prevention, and quality of life.
Lower Back Anatomy:
Understanding the Lower Back Muscles
Core strength and stability is controlled by three interdependent systems and many more muscles .
Here we will identify the stabilizers and extensor muscles, also known as the Transversospinalis and Rrector Spinae.
What is the Transversopinalis?
The Jackson Orthopedic Institute visualizes these muscles in three layers comprised in part by
- Semispinalis 
These muscles extend the length of your spine and provide rotation and stability to your spinal column.
What is the Erector Spinae?
Keeping on theme, the erector spinae are comprised of three muscle groups from lateral to medial -
They function as their name implies, as a spinal straightener acting as an opposing force to the abdominal musculature. When we bend at the hip our abdominals and hip flexors bend us over, when we stand back up, our erector spinae largely take the credit.
While the identified groups serve different purposes (to stabilize and extend respectively) it is important to keep both healthy in order to prevent pain and optimize performance.
Lower Back Exercises: Increase Function & Quality of Life
Anecdotally we know that low back pain and injury are endemic in the population, athletic or otherwise. We also know that a low back injury will not only sideline you from athletic pursuits but often prevents the most basic of daily functions like getting out of bed independently.
It's not rocket science to understand why so much depression begins with lower back injuries and chronic pain.
Studies back this up while uncovering that weakness in the lumbar and core region are associated with injury in the extremities as well . It all begins with your core and back.
Furthermore, improvements in the strength, stability, and endurance of these muscles are correlated with improved athletic outcomes, even those as disparate as an increased max bench press.
To distill it down, the health and strength of your back are integral to everything you do and want to do. So how do we train this neglected but essential part of our bodies?
The Best Lower Back Exercises at Home
What is the Scorpion?
Proper Function: Spinal Compression & Rotation Stretch
Begin by laying on your stomach on the floor with arms outstretched to form a T shape with your body.
Keeping your arms where they are on the ground roll your hips and bend one leg, reaching the heel of that leg to its opposite arm.
Hold for 2-10 seconds, then release and repeat on the opposite side.
Repeat 10-15 times per side. This can be used as a warm-up as well as a cool down.
What is the Up Dog to Down Dog?
Proper Function: Dynamic Compression & Extension
The focus of this next exercise if position, not speed. Laying on the ground place your hands by your chest, press your torso up off the ground while keeping your hips pressed down.
Only raise your trunk as far as your individual mobility tolerances allow (with mild discomfort, no pain).
From here press back to tabletop or plank, then raise your hips to the air while pressing your arm pits toward your knees, heels down toward the ground.
Again, only straighten your legs as far as your personal tolerances permit (with no pain).
Move through this sequence in 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps to build heat and motion in the low back and the hamstrings.
This can function as a warm-up, or its own exercise.
What is the Jefferson Curl?
Proper Function: Kinesthetic Awareness & Positional Strength
The Jefferson curl, which sounds like a bicep exercise or a dance move, does not get enough press. Few movements develop control about the vertebra and spinal flexion and extension awareness quite like the Jefferson curl.
Begin by standing with your feet hip width apart, hands on your chest.
Initiate the movement by tucking your chin and rounding your spine downward, vertebra by vertebra, until you are fully hunched over and rounded from the hip with your torso below your waist.
Return to the standing position by uncurling your spine in the same fashion, but in reverse order, beginning with the vertebrae above your hip and finishing with your head.
This movement should be executed slowly and under control. 2-3 sets for 6-8 reps is plenty. For more advanced athletes the curl can be performed with load or in the horizontal plane on GHD or similar machines, but exercise caution with loading the spine in a rounded position. Unloaded this is an excellent warm-up movement.
What is the Good Morning?
Proper Function: Loaded Spinal Extension & Stability
Good mornings are simply hip flexion, going from standing to bent over, and standing back up again.
To perform them correctly stand tall with your knees unlocked. Drive your hips backward, allowing your torso to come forward as a result, until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
Your back should remain neutral, and you should be drawing your abdominals in against your spine to stabilize.
To stand you should drive down through your heels, contract the glutes, and maintain tension in the abdominals. Unloaded these are a fabulous warm-up, under load they are a brutal workout.
You can load the good morning with a barbell on your back rack, or other weighted implements held against the chest. For a warm-up 3 sets of 10 will get you going, as a workout opt for 5 sets of 3-5.
Benefits of the Hip Extension?
Proper Function: Loaded Spinal Extension and Stability
Where good mornings are typically performed with load, the hip extension is potent with body weight. The hip extension is cousin to the good morning, a hip flexion and extension, but this time in the horizontal plane. Hip extensions are performed using a GHD or other machine where your heels are trapped, and your hips are locked in with your torso free floating off the end of the machine.
You begin by squeezing the glutes, hamstrings, and actively engaging the spinal erectors to hold your torso parallel to the ground, or in line with your legs (depending on the angle of your chosen machine).
Stabilizing the spine to keep your torso rigid and your spine neutral you lower your torso to a 90 angle with your legs, then re-engage your glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors to return to the starting position.
Unloaded try 3 sets of 20-30, if you’re brave enough to opt for load hold a weight close to your chest and drop that to sets of 10-15.
If you’re working out at home, do "Supermans" and increase the set number to 4-5 instead.
What is the Most Effective Lift to Build Back Better?
No article detailing lower back exercises would be complete without honoring the king of all strength exercises - the deadlift.
Deadlifting is most simply how we pick things up off the ground, and training how to do so efficiently and safely is a valuable skill for any and all.
Deadlifts can be done with barbells, free weights, and odd objects, making them accessible even if you’re training from home. The deadlift that avails itself to all these tools best is the sumo deadlift. To execute a sumo deadlift, stand with your feet wider than shoulder width and set your arms shoulder width.
Much like the good morning, reach your hips back until you feel a stretch, then bend your knees maintaining this stretch until you can grasp the object. Once you have a firm hold of the object, press into the ground through your heels while pressing the object against your body or toward your center off mass while squeezing your glutes.
To put the object down reverse the pattern, keeping the object close to your body. Deadlifting should be part of your weekly rotation. If you have access to weights, start light and build up 5lbs each week (maintaining your chosen rep scheme).
If you don’t have access to weights, choose a weighted object to practice lifting and aim to add a rep to each set each week. 5 Sets of 5 reps is a great place to start in both protocols.
Top 4 Lower Back Training Tips
Avoid these common lower back training pitfalls to ensure you stay on course to improving your stability and back strength without interruption.
1. Focus on Your Spinal Positions
While cues such as “chest up”, and “arch your back” are common, they’re not entirely accurate. While performing any lift your spine should remain in its neutral, braced position. That means your shoulder blades should be down and back with lats (short for latissimus dorsi, the "wings") activated and pressing down into your torso.
Your ribcage should be pressing down and back toward your spine, and your lower abdomen should be engaged with your belly button pressing up and into your spine.
These opposing forces create tension in the trunk with all musculature stabilizing around the spine. The Jefferson curl is an excellent tool to use to learn how extension and flexion feel, so you can maintain neutral.
2. Skipping the Warm-Up
You may have noticed that the majority of the movements we included either are warm-ups or can be used as such.
Warming up serves all the functions we know and love, but warming up movement patterns specific to the function of the low back give the added benefit of practicing with low risk.
Use dynamic warm-ups to get the blood flowing (think burpees, roving stretches), transition to area specific (like the scorpion), and polish off your warm-up with movement specific (such as the unweighted good morning).
3. Lifting Heavy All the Time
Perhaps the most common pitfall in strength training is overload. Heavy lifts are not built by slamming weight on a bar today; rather, they’re developed through years of disciplined and consistent training in pristine movement patterns. It only takes a single bad lift with enough weight to alter your quality of life forever.
It may sound boring, but it’s the truth, and doing so will save you injury and time out of the gym. Remember that low back injuries are common and debilitating. Start well within your tolerances of forgiveness weight.
Forgiveness weight is light enough that despite a compromising position or hitch on the lift, the penalty does not involve an injury.
If your form breaks down, either stop or adjust the weight/reps down. Add 5lbs or 1 rep to each set per session. After all, an uninterrupted weekly 5lb gain adds up to 260lbs over the course of a year.
4. Poor Posture & Faulty Form
If back injuries were a destination, bad form would be the fastest road to get there. Lifting too soon between sets or overtraining the same muscles across days and weeks can lead to decreased performance and injury.
In any individual training session rest 2-3x as long as each set takes, for up to 3-4 minutes. After your session is the right time to stretch and crack open your protein shake for optimal fueling.
We should train our low back once or twice a week, but three or more and we’re dancing with over-training. Here too, make sure you’re focusing on nutrition, specifically getting in enough protein to repair the tissues you’ve taxed during training.
A high protein shake an hour before bed can help muscle synthesis, and keep you satiated while you sleep.
Add these movements in to your rotation and begin to experience the benefits that low back specific training can add to your fitness, health, and injury prevention.