Core training has become the focus of many popular workout programs for the general population and for athletes as well. Exercises such as planks, Russian twists, roll-outs and side bends are now mainstay training exercises in just about every program. The definition of core training encompasses low back training, but, unfortunately, this is where many workouts fall short. One exercise solution to prevent the lower back from becoming a weak link in the core is back extensions.
One of the primary muscle groups the back extension works is the erector spinae, a set of three parallel muscles: the iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis. These muscles run the entire length of the spine, from the sacrum to the base of the neck. Their functions include extending and laterally flexing the vertebral column and helping to maintain optimal posture of the spine during exercise.
Focusing on the lower back muscles with back extensions not only helps ensure proper form in multijoint exercises (for example, to maintain a neutral spine in squatting and deadlifting); it also has an “irradiation effect.” What this means is that if you strengthen the erector spinae muscles, you’ll also increase the strength of other muscle groups. As such, by strengthening your lower back you will also improve your military press and even your standing biceps curl. The key, however, is to find ways to make back extensions progressively harder.
Just about every gym has a back extension bench, and many gyms also have an incline version, usually set at 45 degrees. Many gym-goers use only their bodyweight, typically performing a set or two of 10-15 reps, with their hands either across their chest or, if they feel especially frisky, behind their head. Sorry, that’s just not good enough. Fortunately, there are many ways to increase the intensity of the exercise to develop a powerful core.
Because gravity exerts its effects downward rather than horizontally, you achieve the highest level of resistance during a back extension when your torso is parallel to the floor. However, you can change the resistance curve by performing the exercise on an incline back extension bench. In the incline version you will feel more resistance at the start of the movement, unlike in the flat version, where you will feel the most resistance at the finish. With both exercises, the sequence in which the muscles are activated during the movement is calves, hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae.
Another advantage of the incline bench is that beginners will be more aware if they are lifting their torso too far into hyperextension. Hyperextension of the spine may cause discomfort or even back spasm in some individuals, especially if they have excessive forward rotation of the pelvis, which is common in those who are overweight. Also, the incline version tends to create more traction on the spine at the start of the exercise, and this traction can be beneficial for people who suffer from back pain.
There are many ways to increase resistance on both conventional and incline back extensions. You can hold a barbell on your upper back (in the same position you would as if you were squatting) or place a medicine ball on the upper back (do not place the ball on your head, as this can cause neck strain). That’s not all.
You can hold a medicine ball, dumbbell or weight plate on your chest. Also, you can hold a barbell at arms’ length using a shoulder-width or wide grip (to increase the range of motion). You can also add chains to a barbell to increase the resistance as you lift your torso. When holding a barbell at arms’ length, keep the bar aligned with your shoulders during the movement. Also, when using any resistance, be certain that the apparatus you are using is designed so it will not tip forward as you perform the lift.
Another way to make back extensions more challenging is to vary the leverage throughout the exercise so it is greater at the top of the movement. This is accomplished by holding a dumbbell, weight plate or medicine ball close to your chest, proceeding to the top position of the exercise in the normal fashion, then extending the dumbbell or other implement in front of you. Lower slowly with arms outstretched. When the arms are extended, the resistance is increased because the lever arm is longer – as an analogy, compare it to moving back further on a teeter-totter. You’ll be surprised how little resistance you will need to achieve a training effect with this variation.
Conventional back extensions target the mid-part of the lumbar spine (above L3), compared to reverse hypers, which target the lower part of the lumbar spine (below L3). This means it’s important to perform both exercises to develop these important core muscles to their fullest.