by Team Snapbac
Our lower back plays a key role in our daily movements and provides the foundation for our core strength, and yet it gets the least amount of attention when we plan our workout routines. This is why millions complain of lower back pain sometimes for a short time, but for many, it has become chronic. Think of your lower back as the core to a battery. It must be charged to provide explosive power, sustainable endurance, and support the body’s day to day physical demands. Specific lower back exercises should be followed for every athlete, gym enthusiast, and weekend warrior to stay in peak form and avoid pain or injury. Even those who don’t live a life centered around fitness would greatly benefit from toning the lower back to reduce any risk of strain or inflammation from something as harmless as lifting a bag of groceries.
The lower back is the power house of the entire body, but it is often overlooked when we train our core because we tend to only focus on our abdominal muscles. The core of the body is a full circle, so we need to build up strength not only on the front and sides, but also on the back. Though our abs and obliques are incredibly important, the lower back may be even more vital to foundational strength and athletic ability. If your back is weak, it will impact your performance and form in the gym, on the field, and in your daily life. Think about your skeletal system, the bones which are connected to your muscles, and the line it holds. Your lower back is the center strength supporting your head, neck, and shoulders and alleviating pressure on your hips, knees, ankles and feet. A strong lower back is crucial to the well-being of your entire body, and it needs specific lower back exercises to fully support your full frame and provide the power you need to move when and how you want.
This information is not meant to treat back injuries. Going to a doctor may be the last thing you want to do, and you may think you’ve felt worse or you can tough it out until it heals. We know that admitting to pain can put you out of the game and going to see a doctor may bring news that you need to take it easy, stop practicing or playing or worse, it may be something much more than a sprain. You still need to go see a specialist if you are experiencing any regular back pain or discomfort. If it is something minor, then you will be given ways to start the healing process. If you don’t go, a small problem could become a much more serious injury and cause permanent damage. You also need to rule out more severe issues like degenerative disc disease or spinal stenosis. It may be scary if your life revolves around your sport, but safeguarding our mobility is the most important thing we can do as athletes and as humans.
We know that putting in several hours each day of training in the gym, on the field, and at the track is what it takes to get to the top. We also know how important it is that our efforts yield a physical reward such as beating our last record, moving up in ranks, or finally having that cut line on our biceps. When exercising the lower back, the results are going to be less obvious, but after you have incorporated specific moves to strengthen this core space, you will begin to feel the additional power and the ease on the rest of your body as the lower back takes on more of the physical pressure. You will definitely experience relief from any minor aches or soreness that was occurring due to a weak lower back.
The lower back muscles are what protect the spine in movement, lifting, posture, and general mobility. This is what allows you to walk upright, keep a straight core, and support any extra weight you may be carrying. As an athlete, it is what powers your shoulders as you drive into the defensive line, increases your strength for the deadlift and squat and powers your hip flexors and core to push to the finish line. So it is important to build a routine that has balance for the whole body. You want to train your left and your right, your arms and your legs, your front and your back from shoulders to hips. The muscles in the low back are smaller and there are less of them, so this makes it even more important to incorporate them into training with correct form to avoid any injury.
The shoulders are key in most athletic endeavors from push presses to tennis serves, and they have some of the largest muscles in the back. We often focus on strengthening the trapezius, the long muscle that runs down the neck connecting to the shoulder blade and spine, and the deltoids which run from the spine of the scapula across the top of the shoulder connecting to the humerus, or upper arm bone. Yet it is the lower back that provides a base for this strength and stabilizes the upper body. By targeting these smaller muscles you protect the lumbar and sacrum while balancing your thoracic.
The key exterior muscles to activate are the latissimus dorsi, which is the major muscle spanning from your shoulder blade down to your lower lumbar, the erector spinae, which is a group of three muscles, the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis, running the length of your spine and are responsible for holding your upright and your internal and external abdominal obliques in the lumbar. Your lats are one the largest muscle groups in your back and often activated during training. These are what power your arms and stabilize your shoulders. The erector spinae are also regularly contracted as they are what protect and balance the entire spine. We are all familiar with working our obliques and often dread the targeted movements.
Then there are the deeper muscles in the lower back. You want to follow exercises that trigger your transversospinalis muscles which are the rotatores, multifidus, and semispinalis. These run deep in the body along the midline of the lower spine and work with your transversus abdominis and pelvic floor muscles to keep the spine stable for rotation and extension of your extremities. They are key in the prevention of injury during sports and mundane life as you move your entire body.
Whether you are an athlete or simply spend time at your local gym, you have heard the importance of proper form and technique preached from every coach and trainer. This is critical to safely training your body and protecting your back, particularly in lifting and presses. If you are unsure of your form or the proper way to carry out a move, do not try it! Find a trainer or veteran workout partner to give you the specifics and check out your posture.
This is not only vital in protecting your spine and muscles from injury but also to ensure you train the right muscle group. It is far too easy in any pulling movement to let your biceps carry the weight while not truly activating your back muscles or core. Whether you’re doing rows, deadlifts or pull-ups, the movement needs to start in the back. Pay attention to the positioning of your shoulders before you start the move whether they are pulled back or for verticals, pulled down. This is when a trainer can really give you the edge and keep you from hurting yourself.
When you begin movement with your back, you also need to end the movement with your back triggering the muscles in contraction and stability. This means your form needs to be held throughout the exercise, following through to the end. If you can’t return to the proper form before the next rep, then you risk energy and are not ready to perform this movement. You need to follow through the full exercise from extension to contraction and back.
As you begin to map out your back routine, pay attention to the stressors on the joints, weight versus reps and your ability to follow through the motion. Balance out vertical and horizontal pulls, beginning with horizontal to lubricate your joints for the pressure of vertical movements.
It is unlikely that you will only work your lower back, as there are very few movements that target only these muscles. The idea is to select exercises that activate the lower back and make the mind/muscle connection. When performing these movements, focus on the muscles you are trying to build to help guide the body’s energy and form in the right direction.
This may seem obvious and is perhaps part of your current routine. The next time you are on the hyperextension bench, focus you mind on activating the lower back and lifting from your core and not your shoulders and chest. Bend from your waist and keep your balance through the thighs pressed against the flat cushion of the bench. To avoid using your arms or shoulders, interlace your fingers behind your head or cross your arms in front of your chest. As you perform the move, keep a straight spine and strong core from the bend to the lift. Do not lose your form allowing your body to drop, your spine to curve or your back to arch on the lift. You want a slow controlled bend to the point you feel your hamstrings tug and a controlled lift targeting the lower back until you are in a straight vertical line.
Stabilizing the lower back means strengthening the entire back, and good mornings are excellent for building up muscle. Be sure to go slow and start with lower weight, higher reps. If you do not do lifts, begin with only a light barbell, and set it up on the rack in accordance with your height. You want the bar to just sit lightly across the tops of your shoulders, slightly below your neck. It should sit on the top of your trapezius muscles, just as in a weighted squat. Place your hands slightly out from your shoulders and get a good grip on the bar, palms facing out. When you are in a straight standing position, feet hip-width apart, slightly bend your knees as you bend from the waist forward. You must keep your back straight throughout this movement. If it begins to round, you’ve gone too far. Bend as far forward as you can until parallel with the floor, if your range of motion permits. Then with the same control, focus on the lower back muscles to raise your torso and bar back to a straight standing position.
For the ultimate lower back exercise at home, add a large stability ball to your repertoire, which can do wonders for your back. You can use it for a chair, activating your core. You can use it like a hyperextension bench by bracing your feet on the floor and laying your abdomen across the ball. Or you can use it for leg raises. Lay your hips and abdomen firmly across the ball placing your palms flat on the floor in line with your shoulders. Spread your legs out and use the tips of your toes to find balance on the floor. Keeping your neck and spine completely straight, begin to lift your legs into the air focusing on the lower back. Remember to maintain control on the lift and on the descent. You should not feel any pain during this move.
It may not seem very manly or powerful, but there is a lot of floor work that can target the lower back. Try out the Glute Bridge, by lying flat on the floor, sinking your lower back down with your hands at your sides and your knees bent drawing the heels of your feet towards your glutes. From here, squeeze your glutes and focus on your deep core as you left your hips to the ceiling, keeping your shoulders flat on the floor creating a straight line from your knees to your chest. You then follow these with pelvic tilts which are a minor movement with a big effect. You can get a lot of work from lying on your stomach face down and performing Supermans as you keep your core glued to the floor and lift your legs and arms. From here, move into plank poses and then stretch out the back by going onto all fours and arching the back to the sky and then controlling it down into a curve towards the floor. For the yogis out there, cat and cow poses.
Lastly, focus on a variety of different pulls with 2 to 3 horizontal pulls for every vertical pull. Think of any type of row action with barbells or dumbbells - inverted row or raises - and keep that mind connection with your lower back. For your verticals, the standard pull-ups and chin-ups are highly effective but also incredibly difficult. You can work with a lat pulldown, cable pulldowns, or reverse shrugs. Any pull is only as good as your form and follow through.