Many gym goers are reluctant to train their lower back as they are afraid that it will cause injury, others aren't so much scared as they are indifferent. What benefit can they get out of it? Sure they'll have a stronger less injury-prone back, but it's not like anyone has ever exclaimed "Wow, nice lower back bro". Sadly the lower-back is not a vanity muscle group like the biceps or pectorals so it doesn't receive the same level of treatment.
However, training the lower back has many benefits in terms of both health and in terms of improving performance. Want to stay injury free whilst training for the marathon? Train your lower back. Want to improve your squat 1rm? Train your lower back. Want to be able to pick stuff off the floor when you're 90? Train your lower back.
This article will teach you about the muscles of the lower back, the benefits to training them, and it will also teach you how to do so effectively.
It would be pointless to name every one of the many muscles that cover the lower back, you wouldn't remember half of them - and it would serve no real function. Instead we are going to look at two groups of muscles, and some other muscles that are involved in lower back movements but aren't technically part of the lower back (for example the latissimus dorsi).
There are three layers of muscles that make up this group, starting with the Rotatores, the Mulitfudus, and the Semispinalis muscles. These muscles go all the way up the spine and their purpose it to rotate and extend the vertebral column.
Again, there are three types of muscle that make up this group. They are: The Iliocostalis, Longissimus, and Spinalis. The Erector Spinae work as an antagonist to your abdominals - basically stopping them from overworking. The Erector Spinae are responsible for straightening the vertebrae.
For example: if you bowed down and then raised yourself back up, the Erector Spinae would be the muscles responsible for raising you back up.
Other muscles that can affect the lower back are the abdominals, the gluteals, and the latissimus dorsi. You can also add in your hamstrings and the muscles of the hip.
The Lumbar region is situated around the lower half of the torso, it contains the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lower back mentioned previously. This region is responsible for carrying the majority of your bodyweight. It is for this reason that lower back pain is so common, and why strengthening the muscles of the lower back is such an important thing to do.
The most obvious benefit for strengthening the lower back is the prevention of injuries. Lower back pain is one of the most common afflictions there is (alongside knee pain). This can come from bad posture, a sedentary lifestyle, but also an active lifestyle. Sports and gym work can cause lower back pain, if these muscles are under-developed.
Even simple exercises such as running, hiking, or a basic ab routine can cause lower back pain (overdeveloping the abs whilst ignoring the lower back can cause injury). Having a strong lower back can also help you improve your performance in the gym and in sport.
Obviously deadlifts, squats, and similar lower body exercises would benefit from it, but so would exercises such as the bench press - where being able to arch your back can help increase your 1rm. Sports such as Rugby or American Football would become less of an injury risk, and sports like hockey where you are constantly in an uncomfortable, crouched position could also see a benefit.
The following 5 exercises are a nice mixture of multi-muscle compound exercises, and more specific lower back exercises, plus a nice stretch.
This stretch is fantastic if you're suffering from a stiff back, or as an exercise in its own right. Place your hands and knees on the floor and start out with a flat back. What you are going to do now is to push your upper back up into the air so that you have a proper hunch-back. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then you are going to drop down so that your stomach reaches towards the floor and your chest is pushed out. This will hyperextend your spine. Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat.
You can perform the deadlift with dumbbells or kettlebells, but the barbell version is the most common - and best. There are a few variations that you can try, the regular deadlift, Sumo deadlift, and Romanian deadlift. Keep the reps low as this is a very difficult and intense exercise, and ensure that you are getting adequate rest in between sets.
Grab a light barbell and place it on your traps as if you were going to squat it. Then you are going to bow forward whilst keeping your legs stiff, there can be a slight bend in them to prevent your lower back from rounding. Pause just before you reach a depth that you can't keep your back flat during, and don't go lower than parallel (if that's even an option for you mobility wise).
Performing squats with great form is an excellent way to strengthen your lower back, as there are so many other benefits to squatting this exercise should already be in your program! Front squats, back squats, sumo squats, and box squats, pick one that suits you and make sure your form is perfect.
If you have a Hyperextension bench at your gym then this exercise is fantastic for strengthening the Erector Spinae. Just make sure you don't use too much weight, or overdo it. If you don't have a Hyperextension bench available to you, then there is an exercise known as the Cobra stretch which involves lying on a mat and then raising your upper body up in the air. This is an excellent substitute.
Here are some common mistakes that are made when training the lower back, or when training in general.
Obviously this doesn't mean that people are ignoring bent over rows, pull ups, or lat pulldowns. It means that a lot of people have bad posture that stems from the upper back, and this is rarely addressed. If your upper back posture is poor, it will make it much more difficult to perform certain exercises without injuring your lower back.
Adding in exercises such as Face Pulls, Scapular Retractions, and even Dumbbell Shrugs can help to improve your posture and remove some of the stress on your lower back.
The "Go Hard or Go Home" mentality that all of your exercises should be performed at max intensity is injuring more people in the gym than anything else. If you perform a deadlift that is too heavy, your posture will fail, your back will round, and you will injure your lower back. Same thing will happen with squats, bent over rows, and even bicep curls. Keep the weight to a level that allows you to perform it properly (with difficulty) and you will see muscle strength and size improve - without destroying your back!
If you are going to deadlift or squat, you are going to want to warm up first. Add some deep squats into this warm up, then perform a few practice squats. If you jump straight in to an exercise like either of these you could be walking into an avoidable injury.
With deadlifts and squats you should be looking at 2-3 minutes between sets to give yourself enough time to recover. But when we talk about rest, we're mostly concerned with time between workouts. If you train deadlifts on Monday and your body feels exhausted on Tuesday, it is not the right time to start squatting, or performing Good Mornings. Either take an extra day rest, or focus on the upper body.
As mentioned earlier, deadlifts work best when the sets and reps are low. Performing 10 sets of 10 reps on deadlift is going to cause injury. This doesn't mean that you can't do this with other exercises, it just means that if you are overtraining a muscle it will eventually break down. Listen to your body, if your back hurts for 3 days after performing 5 sets of squats then maybe you should lower the number of sets.
Now you are ready to train your lower back more effectively. But, are you eating the correct amount of food to meet your goals? Use our free macro calculator here to see how much you should eat a day.