If you’ve ever bent over to pick something up and felt a stabbing pain in your lower back, don’t worry — you’re not a grandpa yet, and you’re most definitely not alone. Millions of adults suffer from chronic lower back pain, and while some injuries are more serious than others (more on the incredibly complex structure of the back later), back pain is never fun to deal with, as it can inhibit even the simplest of daily tasks. After all, your lower back helps to stabilize and rotate your entire body, so it’s critical to take good care of it, and tragic when it’s not working properly.
One of the best ways to prevent lower back pain is through exercise, stretching and strength training. You already engage your lower back in a number of exercises at the gym, particularly when you’re training legs or sculpting those six-pack abs. But when was the last time you specifically targeted your lower back?
Even though your lower back plays a role in pretty much every moment, it deserves that individual attention. There are a handful of lower back exercises you can perform at the gym or at home. We’ve listed our five favorites, along with five products that should help you knock these out.
Lower Back Anatomy
Due to its proximity to the spine, the lower back comprises a ton of different intricate, delicate and interconnected muscles, ligaments, vertebrae, nerves, discs and tissues. Take all that and combine it with the fact that your lower back supports your entire torso, and is engaged for most daily activities, and it’s easy to see why lower back pain is so common. And while there are two main groups (the transversospinalis and erector spinae muscles) to consider for strength training, they’re a bit tough to target given the size and proximity to other major muscle groups (like the glutes and hips).
We won’t get into the scientific details here, but what you need to know is this — proceed with caution. The lower back is incredibly susceptible to injury. You’re already ahead of the game by working hard to strengthen your back, but make sure you do so thoughtfully and cautiously. We highly recommend that you stretch, warm up and use proper form when tackling any lower back exercises.
1. Back Extension
There’s a short list of exercises that directly target the lower back, and this is probably the most effective. The back extension requires a specific machine that most gyms provide, either as a standalone unit or a weighted machine. We prefer the former, as it allows you to use proper form and grab barbell plates to adjust the weight as necessary.
Instructions: Adjust the back extension machine so your hips rest comfortably on the padding, allowing enough range of motion for your torso to extend over the top. Your feet should be flat on the vertical platform behind you, with your body relatively parallel to the ground. Break at the hips, allowing your torso and head to move toward the ground, then slowly return to the starting position. You don’t want to hyperextend your body here, so make sure your primary position creates a straight line from your head to your toes.
Finer Form Multi-Functional Weight Bench
BEST FOR BACK EXTENSIONS
In our roundup of the best workout benches, we loved the versatility of this option from Finer Form, specifically because its construction allows you to perform back extensions. This isn’t quite as effective as gym-ready options from a company like Rogue Fitness, but it’ll absolutely get the job done in your home gym.
2. Barbell Deadlift
The deadlift is one of the most popular compound powerlifting exercises out there. People assume it’s just another barbell lift to incorporate on leg day, but deadlifts really work your entire body, especially your posterior chain, which includes all of the muscles on the backside of your body. This is another exercise where form is paramount. The lift depends on your lower back to maintain a neutral spine and stabilize your core. We highly recommend nailing the technique with a lower weight before maxing out like an olympian.
Instructions: Because form is so important here, check out the video below for a great visual demonstration on what not to do when knocking out your deadlifts. In general, though, you should keep your spine straight, lift the bar in a vertical path and avoiding overextending when you reach the top of the movement. Straight, steady lines and movements are the key to a successful deadlift.
Nike Metcon 7
BEST FOR DEADLIFTS
Traditional athletic shoe wisdom told us the support and cushioning are good things. That might be true for long walks or high-impact movements, but the deadlift is all about stability and closeness to the ground. You want your feet to anchor the movement and offer a stable foundation, which is why you’ll see some gym-goers doing deadlifts in Converse, or even barefoot. The Nike Metcon is our favorite weightlifting shoe, and each new iteration seems better than the last. The Metcon 7 features added foam for more comfort and includes a tab to secure your laces so they aren’t in the way during your big lifts.
An incredible lower back exercise that only requires your body weight, Supermans are easy to knock out at the gym or at home. All your need is an exercise mat and your body. You can treat these as a normal exercise and perform them in sets of a certain number of reps. Or you can treat them like a plank and hold the pose for 30 seconds to a minute. Either way, you’ll definitely feel the burn in your lower back and glutes. This is a great exercise to do when you’re on the road and don’t have access to your usual lower back exercise gear.
Instructions: Lay face down on an exercise mat with your arms extended above your head. Flex your lower back to raise your arms, upper torso, legs and feet into the air, so only your hips and are in contact with the ground. Hold for your desired duration, then slowly drop.
Gaiam Essentials Thick Yoga Mat
BEST FOR SUPERMANS
A thick exercise mat isn’t always a good thing. Like a good pair of weightlifting shoes, some exercises require a mat that’s closer to the ground and offers stability over cushioning. But for something like supermans, where you’re placing a ton of pressure on your hips alone, cushioning is key. This is a great multi-purpose mat that comes in a variety of colors and has the positive endorsement of more than 24,000 Amazon reviews. What’s not to like?
4. Good Morning
This is like the upright version of the back extension. Another barbell exercise that targets the lower back, the good morning falls somewhere in between a squat and a deadlift. It’s also one of the easiest ones to screw up and induce a back injury, particularly if you’re managing too much weight. Check out the video below for a great tutorial.
Instructions: Place a barbell with a moderate weight on a squat rack how you normally would. Place it in a low bar position on your upper back, squeezing your rear delts to create a “shelf” for the bar. Step back from the bar and position your feet shoulder-width apart. Push your hips back, bending your knees and keeping your shins straight, and lower your torso until it’s nearly parallel with the ground. Slowly return to the starting position, and repeat in multiple sets of six to 12 reps.
CAP 7-Foot Olympic Bar
Spy’s own Taylor Galla built her own power rack in the height of 2020’s lockdown. That’s a great way to get your home gym started. But for good mornings, you absolutely need a good barbell. CAP, one of the biggest manufacturers and distributors of fitness equipment, delivers with this 44-pound barbell. There are different color options (chrome or black) and choices for your knurling preferences, so you can really customize the bar to your needs. Grab a set of weighted plates and some collar clamps, and you’re good to go.
5. Exercise Ball Glute Bridge
While the glute bridge might look x-rated, it’s actually one of the most effective bodyweight exercises for your glutes, hips and lower back. They’re most traditionally performed flat on the ground, but bringing in an exercise ball makes things a bit trickier, and really forces you to engage that core to keep things stable.
Instructions: Lay on your back with your arms extended at your sides and your palms facing the ground. Rest your heels on an exercise ball so your legs form a 90-degree angle. Thrust your hips upward, flexing your glutes and lower back, until your torso is parallel with your thighs. Hold for a second, then return to the starting position.
Trideer Extra Thick Exercise Ball
BEST EXERCISE BALL
This is Amazon’s best-selling exercise ball, which comes in five sizes and six different colors. It’s made of PVC material to help avoid slipping and should serve you well as an exercise ball or even an inventive desk chair for the day. It even includes a pump so you can always maintain your desired level of inflation.