back extension exercises

A Beginner’s Guide to Back Extension Exercise

by Jeremy Campbell - Last Updated May 28, 2019

The back extension exercise is an often overlooked movement that works your erectors like no other! Not only is this exercise a great choice if the weak link in your posterior chain is your erectors, but it’s also a great way to work the various other stabilizer muscles of the back.

To help bring you up to speed on this great exercise, I’m going to give you a brief rundown on back extension benefits, some considerations to keep in mind, and also provide you with a few back extension exercise variations and alternatives to try.

Why Do Back Extensions?

A person's back

The back extension is one of the best exercises you can do to isolate the muscles of your lower back. Specifically, these work your erectors to a great degree.

Add these to your fitness routine and you’ll enjoy increased lower back coordination and lower injury risk. You’ll likely find your posture starts to improve too as your lower back catches up to the rest of your posterior chain’s musculature!

Things To Consider Before Trying Back Extensions

Back extensions aren’t for everyone, unfortunately. If you’ve had a previous back injury, such as a herniated disc, it’s probably best that you avoid these. If you have particularly sensitive nerves in your spine, that are prone to pain, you might want to choose another exercise to work your back.

This exercise may prove to be too difficult if you’ve been neglecting your lower back altogether, or are overweight. In this case, you may want to try some of the alternatives I provide below, so you can work your way up to back extensions.

  • Common Back Extension Mistakes: As with any lift, it’s important to practice and learn proper form to avoid injury. Some common mistakes you may run into include:
  • Extending Too Quickly: It’s important that you maintain control throughout the full range of the movement and avoid any jerking motions. Bouncing or jerking at the bottom may end up causing injury. So go slow!
  • Over-Extending: Avoid trying to extend your upper body any further than level with your thighs. Hyper-extending your lower back may result in you pulling a muscle.
  • Using Too Much Weight, Too Soon: If it’s your first time trying this lift, avoid the urge to pile on the weight. Start with body-weight back extensions. Once you are comfortable and feel confident in your form, then try adding weight.

How To Do Back Extensions

Now that we’ve gone over a few things, it’s now time to give back extensions a try!

  1. Lie down on a back extension bench, on your stomach. Tuck your ankles in place, under the footpads, so you are secured.
  2. Make any necessary adjustments to the upper pad so that the upper portion of your thighs is lying flat across the wide pad. Leave enough room so that you can bend your waist without any issues.
  3. Keeping your upper body straight, cross your arms either behind your head or in front of you.
  4. Slowly bend forward at the waist as far as you can while maintaining a flat back. You should feel your hamstrings begin to stretch as you reach the bottom of the movement. Make sure you are not rounding your back at the bottom.
  5. Slowly and with control, raise your upper body back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Back Extension Exercise Variations

If you don’t have access to a back extension bench, you still may be able to add this exercise to your routine. Consider some of the below variations as suitable replacements for back extensions:

Back Extension With Machine

If your gym has a back extension machine, you’re in luck! This is a great alternative back extension variation. They are easier for beginner lifters to complete, and are without so much risk of injury.

How To Do A Back Extension With Machine

  1. Adjust the machine so that you can sit in it comfortably, and select your weight.
  2. Sit in the machine with your upper back positioned against the roller and take hold of the handles. Make sure to plant your feet down firmly against the footrest, while keeping your head straight, and your chest up.
  3. Push back with your hips in order to straighten your body.
  4. Pause for a second or two at the bottom, and then slowly raise yourself back up in a controlled manner
  5. Repeat the above for your chosen amount of reps.

Reverse Hyperextensions

If you have access to a reverse hyper-extension bench, gives these a try! When doing standard back extensions, you keep your legs stationary while lifting your torso. As the name suggests, with reverse hypers, things are reversed.

Although these look like a completely different movement, they work basically the same muscles.

How To Do Reverse Hyperextensions

  1. Secure your feet between the pads of the reverse hyperextension bench and then lay on the top pad. Take hold of the handles and let your hips hang off the back of the bench.
  2. To start, flex your hips in order to pull your legs forward.
  3. Once you’ve reached the full range of motion, being sure not to over-extend, reverse back to the starting position in a controlled manner.
  4. Repeat the above for your chosen amount of reps.

Weighted Ball Hyperextension

If you don’t have access to any of these new-fangled machines hopefully you’ve at least got a medicine ball within reach!

This movement is functionally the same as the above but made a bit more difficult with the addition of the need to balance and stabilize your body.

How To Do Weighted Ball Hyperextensions

  1. Lie face down on an exercise ball, with your torso pressed against the ball. Keep yourself parallel with the floor at the start.
  2. Keeping your upper body straight, cross your arms either behind your head or in front of you.
  3. Slowly bend forward at the waist as far as you can while maintaining a flat back. You should feel your hamstrings begin to stretch as you reach the bottom of the movement. Make sure you are not rounding your back at the bottom.
  4. Slowly and with control, raise your upper body back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Alternative And Supplemental Lifts For Back Extension Exercise

If you’ve gotten your chosen back extension variation nailed down, you may still be wondering what other lifts you can do to supplement them. Relying on one exercise to work a muscle group is not the best idea.

Consider adding on some of the below to thoroughly work the muscles of your lower back:

Barbell Deadlift

Deadlifts should be a part of any lifting routine, in my opinion. They work so many different muscles at once. With the exception of the squat, nothing offers you as much bang for your buck as far as posterior chain exercises go.

If you’ve read any of my other posts on back exercises, you’ve probably seen me harp on the importance of form when doing deadlifts. It’s important that this is always stressed, as even though these appear simple on paper, executing them wrong can lead to injury fast!

Plenty of deadlift variations are available for you to try. Sumo, Romanian, stiff-legged, and single-legged RDLs are all great options. Today I’m suggesting again that you stick with the standard conventional barbell deadlift. These put the most stress on the muscles of your upper and lower back. I feel they’re the best supplement to back extension exercises.

How to Do Barbell Deadlifts

  1. Stand over a loaded barbell. Looking down, the bar should be at about midfoot, and your feet should be around hip-width distance apart.
  2. Bend down at the hips, with your back kept straight. Grab hold of the bar with your hands shoulder-width distance apart.
  3. Set your grip, pull the slack out of the bar, and then lower your hips down while bending your knees, until the bar is in contact with your shins.
  4. Keep your head looking forward, your chest up, and your back arched. Drive through your heels and pull the weight up.
  5. Once the bar has passed knee level, pull the bar back while pushing forward with your hips until you are standing tall.
  6. Keeping your back arched, bend with your hips first and lower the bar towards the floor. Once the bar has reached knee level you can bend your knees to bring it to the bottom.

Supermans

The next back extension alternative I have for you to try is the superman. Although these are usually a body-weight exercise, don’t let them fool you. They’re definitely not an easy exercise to nail down!

These are not only a great exercise for your erectors, but they also work the entire core quite well. Consider adding these to your routine for a one-two punch of back and ab work!

How To Do Supermans

  1. Lay down flat on your stomach on an exercise mat. Position your arms out above your head.
  2. At the same time, raise your chest, legs, and arms off the floor. Hold this position for a second or two.
  3. Slowly lower yourself back down, in a controlled manner
  4. Repeat the above for your chosen amount of reps.

Good Mornings

Besides back extensions, I’d say these are probably the top exercise to bring up a lagging lower back. They’re not for everyone though and may be a bit too intimidating for the beginner lifter.

These start off similar to a back squat, with a barbell positioned across your upper back. While the squat incorporates your hips and legs, you maintain straight legs with Good Mornings in order to put the stress squarely on your glutes and lower back!

If it’s your first time trying these, I recommend working on your form and mobility with just your body-weight. From there you can try them with an empty barbell. Only once you are sure of your form should you start adding weight to this exercise.

How To Do Good Mornings

  1. Position a barbell on a rack at shoulder height. Load up the bar with the desired amount of weight.
  2. Position the bar across your upper back at your shoulders as you would when starting a back squat. Maintain a flexed upper back, and retract your shoulder blades back. Bend your knees slightly.
  3. Bend at the hips until your upper body is down to just above parallel.
  4. To reverse the motion, extend through your hips with your hamstrings and glutes until you’ve reached a standing position.
  5. Reverse the motion by extending through the hips with your glutes and hamstrings. Continue until you have returned to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.

Wrapping Up

If your body allows it, back extension exercises are a no-brainer addition to your fitness routine. Allowing you to work your lower back like no other, back extensions are too good to pass up!

Building a stronger lower back will help maintain stability while doing many different movements. Squats, deadlifts, even pull-ups, will benefit from a more stable core and stronger stabilizer muscles.

Lower back injuries are some of the most common every-day injuries that occur when doing household tasks such as lifting boxes or even bending down! By working your erectors and building up stability, you’ll be much less prone to injury!

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