13 Best Back Extension Alternatives (With Pictures)

13 best back extension alternatives (with pictures)

Back extensions are a fantastic exercise for a number of reasons. They strengthen your lower back, improve your ability to squat and deadlift heavy weight, improve spinal stability – the list goes on.

But if the back extension is the only exercise you do for your lower back, it can get boring and repetitive. It’s also hard to replicate if you don’t have access to a hyperextension bench. We can solve both problems with a list of great alternative exercises to back extensions!

The 13 best alternatives to back extensions are: 

  • Barbell Deadlift
  • Dumbbell Deadlift
  • Rack Deadlift
  • Block Deadlift
  • Sumo Deadlift
  • Sumo Deficit Deadlift
  • Barbell Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Barbell Good Morning
  • Dumbbell Good Morning
  • Bent-Over Barbell Row
  • Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
  • Supermans

I’ll explain each of these movements in more detail below.

What Makes a Good Back Extension Alternative?

Back Extension

A good alternative to the back extension should meet the following standards:

  • Target the same or similar muscles used in the back extension
  • Follow a similar movement pattern

Target the Same or Similar Muscles Used in the Back Extension

You can get a full breakdown of back extension muscles if you want more details, but the highlights are these:

  • Erector Spinae – a group of three lower back muscles on either side of your spine primarily responsible for enabling you to bend forward and stand back up straight. 
  • Quadratus Lumborum – Muscles in the sides of your lower back that work with the erector spinae to bend you forward and backward while stabilizing your spine. 
  • Glutes – While not primarily working in this exercise, they play a role in extending your hips to get your torso aligned with your legs in an upright position.
  • Hamstrings – Also a secondary muscle in this exercise working with the glutes to extend your hips. 

Of all these muscles, the most important, primary muscles used in the back extension movement are the erector spinae, so we’ll be sure to target those in any alternatives we consider. 

Follow a Similar Movement Pattern

The back extension is a hip hinge movement, meaning exactly what it sounds like – we hinge at the hip as the main movement of the exercise.

Whether or not you have a good sense of anatomy and what muscles you are targeting, a hip hinge movement of any kind will always incorporate the erector spinae to one degree or another. We can select other hip hinge exercises to get a similar result as the back extension. 

Best Back Extension Alternatives

1. Barbell Deadlift

In my opinion, the barbell deadlift is the best back extension alternative – so much so that I’d recommend it as preferential to back extensions alone. 

Because the deadlift is a hip hinge movement that each lifter can load to maximal levels, it’s the perfect intersection of targeting the right muscle group and being able to progress it almost infinitely. You’ll never run out of runway progressing your deadlift!

How To Do it

  • Step up to the barbell so it nearly touches your ankles.
  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend forward and place your hands shoulder-width apart on the barbell.
  • Bend your knees and lower your hips so your back is in a straight line from your shoulders to your butt.
  • Push the floor with your feet and pull on the bar with your hands until you come to an upright, standing position.
  • Return the barbell to the floor.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

The deadlift is a simple exercise, but it’s easy to let your technique break down as you add weight or get fatigued. 

The most common form issue I see with the deadlift is the lower body and upper body moving independently.

For example, some lifters will push with their legs right away, shooting their hips upward, but their upper body stays bent forward. Ideally, your muscles should all be firing at once and moving the weight together, so the top of your shoulders moves upward in sync with your hips moving upward. 

These issues can happen to anyone, so be vigilant – set up a camera and watch your sets so you can see how your technique looks from the side. Meet with a coach or someone experienced with deadlifting regularly to get tips and advice. 

Competitive deadlifters continually review and monitor their deadlift technique to make sure it’s as perfect as can be, and you can learn from that level of attention in your own efforts to have a good deadlift, even without competing. 

Learn more about proper deadlift form in our complete guide to powerlifting rules for the deadlift.

2. Dumbbell Deadlift

Whether you use a barbell or a dumbbell doesn’t change the fundamentals – a dumbbell deadlift is still an excellent hip hinge exercise that will target your erector spinae just like a back extension will. 

How To Do It

  • Step up to the dumbbells so a dumbbell sits in front of each foot, ideally over your toes.
  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend forward and grip the dumbbells.
  • Bend your knees and lower your hips so your back is in a straight line from your shoulders to your butt.
  • Push the floor with your feet and pull on the dumbbells with your hands until you come to an upright, standing position.
  • Return the dumbbells to the floor.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

Pretend like the dumbbells are connected as though you are holding a barbell. Perform dumbbell deadlifts the same way you would perform barbell deadlifts! It’s a great mental cue to keep your form consistent, even as you change the equipment you use. 

However, dumbbells aren’t quite like a barbell, especially because they often sit lower to the floor than a barbell with a full plate on either side of it. This means you’ll need to bend farther forward to actually touch the ground with the dumbbells than with a barbell, even if the weight of the dumbbells adds up to the same weight you would do with a barbell. 

Feel free to note where a barbell meets your shins and lower the dumbbells to that point instead of touching the floor with each rep.

3. Rack Deadlift

A rack deadlift, or rack pull, is kind of like the second half of a normal deadlift. Instead of starting with the barbell and plates resting on the floor, we set it on a squat rack or other platform so that the bar is higher off the floor to begin with. 

By starting with the bar already higher off the floor, you focus on the portion of the lift that mimics the back extension most – the lockout

How To Do It

  • Place a barbell on squat rack safety bars so that the barbell is just below your knees.
  • Step up to the bar so it nearly touches your shins.
  • Grip the bar with a shoulder-width grip.
  • Keeping your back flat, pull the bar upward until your body is upright.
  • Return the barbell to the rack.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

Many lifters can perform a deadlift off the floor with heavier weight than they can on a rack pull. They benefit from the momentum built at the bottom of the lift, where their quads and hamstrings are doing most of the work. Other lifters can pull more from a rack than they can off the floor. 

Be sure to start with relatively light weights so you can get a sense of your own abilities when you attempt rack pulls. 

As always, monitor and correct your form if you notice it slipping with added weight or fatigue. 

For more exercises that can both work the lower back muscles and strengthen your deadlift, check out 12 Deadlift Accessories To Increase Strength & Technique.

4. Block Deadlift

The block deadlift is similar to the rack deadlift but requires different equipment. If you don’t have access to a squat rack as a means to elevate the barbell to your knees, you can set the plates on the end of the barbell onto blocks, boards, or other surfaces to perform a block deadlift. 

How To Do It

  • Place the plate-loaded ends of a barbell on blocks so that the barbell is just below your knees. 
  • Step up to the bar until it just touches your shins.
  • Grip the barbell with a shoulder-width grip.
  • With a flat back, pull the bar upward until your body is upright.
  • Return the barbell to the blocks.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

Block deadlifts can be a little less comfortable than rack deadlifts as the barbell can roll off of the blocks when you let go. Be sure to use sturdy, even surfaces as blocks to avoid this safety hazard. You could use plywood boards, smooth plates, or rubber mats that you can stack up to the desired height. 

As with rack pulls, some lifters will be able to do more off blocks than they can off the floor, and others will be able to do more off the floor. Be sure you test your own abilities with low weights so you can set the right weights for your sets and reps of block pulls. 

5. Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift is a wide-stance variation of the deadlift, but it is still allowed in powerlifting competitions as an accepted deadlift alternative.

While there is less emphasis on the lower back muscles in a sumo deadlift than in a conventional deadlift, it is still very much an excellent alternative to the back extension that will absolutely strengthen and grow your erector spinae. 

How To Do It

  • Step up to the bar with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes slightly pointed out about 45 degrees. 
  • Grip the barbell shoulder-width apart.
  • Push against the floor with your feet as you pull on the bar upward with your hands. 
  • Focus on getting your upper body as upright as possible as soon as possible. 
  • Extend your hips forward to lock out the deadlift in an upright position. 
  • Return the barbell to the floor.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

The biggest issue I see with the sumo deadlift is people attempting it by simply taking a wider stance and performing the same mechanics they would do with a conventional deadlift. In this case, you aren’t doing a sumo deadlift, you’re just doing a wide-stance conventional deadlift and missing all the mechanical advantages the sumo variation offers. 

Take the time to learn and practice what makes the sumo deadlift unique, including less forward/backward movement in your lower back by starting in a more upright position and using your quads to do most of the work before locking out your knees. If you need help getting the technique right, hire a coach or watch instructional videos from powerlifters on YouTube

It will take time, effort, and correction to get it right, but it’s worth it!

6. Sumo Deficit Deadlift

The sumo deadlift can be further altered to pull from a deficit, or with your feet in a higher position than a standard sumo deadlift. 

This variation means more distance for your upper body to bend forward to grab the bar and more distance for your lower back to travel to lock out the deadlift. All this means more emphasis on your lower back.

How To Do It

  • Place your feet wider than shoulder-width apart on an elevated surface, like 1” boards or plates.
  • Make sure your shins are just about touching the barbell and your toes are pointed out about 45 degrees.
  • Grip the barbell with a shoulder-width grip.
  • Push against the elevated surface with your feet as you pull on the bar upward with your hands. 
  • Extend your hips forward to lock out the deadlift in an upright position. 
  • Return the barbell to the floor.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

This variation will pitch your upper body further forward right from the start. One of the advantages of the sumo deadlift is that it limits the forward/backward travel of your upper body during the deadlift, but all that goes away with your feet elevated. 

Anticipate that change and focus on getting your upper body as upright as possible before you lock your knees to finish the lift. The sooner you overcome the forward angle this lift puts you in, the more likely you’ll be to finish each rep. 

7. Barbell Squat

You might be thinking the squat is a leg exercise, but that’s just part of it. Most of a successful squat is due to strong erector spinae, making it a great alternative to the back extension. 

In order to stay balanced in a squat as you descend and stand back up, your upper body naturally bends forward to keep the bar centered over your feet. At the bottom of the lift, you’re fairly pitched forward. As you stand back up, your erectors work to bring you back to an upright position. That’s what makes this a hip hinge movement. 

How To Do It

  • Step under a barbell so it rests across your back, just below your neck.
  • Grip the barbell just outside of shoulder width with each hand.
  • Stand the barbell up off the rack hooks and step back from the hooks.
  • Sit downward in a controlled manner until the crease of your hip descends below the top of your kneecap (also known as “breaking parallel”). 
  • Stand back up to an erect position.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

There are some bad examples of squats where lifters will exaggerate the hip hinge element and bend way too far forward. Some brag that this is superior, showing off their strong lower back muscles, but the truth is it’s just terrible form. 

You can always tell how far you should bend forward by videoing your sets from the side. You should only have to bend far enough forward that the barbell stays centered over your feet. If the barbell gets in front of your feet, you’re too far forward. 

Bending too far forward in the squat is commonly referred to as a good morning squat. Learn more in The Good-Morning Squat: Why It Happens? 4 Ways To Fix.

8. Front Squat

An interesting wrinkle with the front squat is that the barbell in your hands in front of you means you can stay way more upright the entire lift. This means it limits the forward/backward travel of your torso, which makes you think there would be less erector spinae involved, right? 

But with the load placed in your hands in front of you instead of on your back, the barbell tries to pull your body forward, out of the ideal, more upright position, making your erector spinae work harder to stabilize you and keep you upright. 

For that reason, it’s a great back extension alternative to hit the erectors. 

How To Do It

  • Place a barbell across your shoulders, under your chin, with your hands crossed, stabilizing the bar. 
  • Keep your elbows up and out in front of you to prevent the barbell from rolling off your arms in front of you. 
  • Squat down until the crease of your hip descends below the top of your kneecap, but focus on keeping your torso upright.
  • Stand back up until your knees are straight again.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

The grip of the bar in front of you is often the most difficult part of a front squat. Many lifters will be limited by how much weight they can hold this way long before their squat muscles limit their abilities to keep adding weight to the lift. 

The safety squat bar (SSB) mimics the way a front squat loads the weight, but without making you hold the barbell like a front squat. If you have access to an SSB, I highly recommend it for a safer, easier way to perform front squats without worrying about holding a barbell under your chin. 

Front squats also require a great deal of mobility in the wrists, hips, ankles, and shoulders. Try these front squat mobility drills if you need to improve your mobility.

9. Barbell Good Morning

A good morning is the ultimate hip hinge isolation exercise. All it does is have the lifter bend forward at the hip as far as they can to about 90 degrees and then stand back up to erect. 

While the glutes and hamstrings are certainly helping, the good morning is very much reliant on the erector spinae, just like a back extension. The good morning is essentially the back extension without the hyperextension bench.

How To Do It

  • Place your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold a barbell on your back just below your neck with a shoulder-width grip.
  • Bend your knees slightly, but keep them in the same position the whole time.
  • Bending at the hip, bend your torso forward until it is parallel or nearly parallel with the floor.
  • Return to the standing position.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

You can manipulate how much of your hamstring is working versus your lower back with the flexion of your knees. Locked knees will use more hamstring, while slightly bent knees will let you focus more on your lower back muscles. 

As with any lift, start light and see where your abilities are when you first attempt good mornings. You can (and should) also perform this in a squat rack with the safety bars set high so that you don’t have to dump the bar to the floor or get pinned under it in the event that you fail a rep. 

Monitor your form from the side to ensure your spine stays straight and neutral throughout the lift. 

10. Dumbbell Good Morning

Just like with a barbell, you can perform good mornings with dumbbells. The principles are the same, but this variation gives you options when you don’t have access to a barbell or some jerk is hogging the squat rack. 

How To Do It

  • Place your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand with the dumbbell resting on each shoulder to keep the weight on or at your shoulders the whole time.
  • Bend your knees slightly, but keep them in the same position the whole time.
  • Bending at the hip, bend your torso forward until it is parallel or nearly parallel with the floor.
  • Return to the standing position.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

You’ll be able to load more weight on a barbell for good mornings than you can with dumbbells, so use dumbbell good mornings strategically in your program. Do them after barbell good mornings when your erectors are fatigued as a burnout or back off set. Or do them as a warm-up early in the workout before adding the kind of weight better suited for a barbell. 

Just because they are similar exercises doesn’t mean they are perfectly interchangeable, so think critically about when and how you can use this alternative to meet your goals and constraints. 

11. Bent-Over Barbell Row

Again, the bent-over barbell row is an exercise you probably expected on this list because the rowing motion you do with the barbell targets upper back muscles, like the rhomboids and lats. 

But the ability to stay in the 90-degree bent-over position you need to get in to do these rows is all thanks to your erector spinae. Similar to the front squat, this exercise calls on your erectors to hold your position steady during the exercise. 

How To Do It

  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend forward 90 degrees at the hip with your knees slightly bent.
  • Grab a barbell on the ground in your hands.
  • Row it up to your chest and then lower it until your elbows are straight again.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

Your erectors won’t need to do much stabilizing if you’re performing rows with the assistance of a chest support, like an incline bench or seal row bench. Be sure to perform these rows free-standing to get the most out of your erectors doing their job to stabilize and support you in that bent-forward position. 

The bent-over barbell row is often confused with the Pendlay row, but the exercises are performed differently. Learn more in Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: Differences, Pros, Cons.

12. Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Bent-over dumbbell rows are just like the barbell variation of a row but can be done unilaterally (one arm at a time) or bilaterally (both arms at the same time).

Whatever equipment you have access to, you can get the same benefits to your erectors by making them hold you steady in a bent-forward position while you row the weight upward and back down. 

How To Do It

  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Grab a dumbbell in each hand from the ground in your hands.
  • Bend forward 90 degrees at the hip and keep your knees slightly bent.
  • Row the dumbbell up to your hip, and hold it for a moment at the top (can be one arm at a time or together).
  • Lower the dumbbell until your arm is straight again.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

Single-arm rows are great for your lats and rhomboids but are often done with a free hand on a bench or against a dumbbell rack. Remember that your erectors are only involved in this exercise if we are doing them free-standing. Not relying on those chest-supported or stabilized versions of dumbbell rows will give your lower back the chance to do some work, too. 

13. Supermans

Supermans are the one exercise in this list that isn’t an obvious hip hinge movement when you look at it from the outside. Instead, they hyperextend the hips so we are lifting our torso backward, beyond our normal upright position. But this is done with – you guessed it – the erector spinae. 

This exercise is also one you can do for static holds instead of reps, making it a great addition in terms of variety as you look to add variation in your back extension alternatives. 

How To Do It

  • Lie on the floor on your belly with your arms out in front of you and your feet straight out behind you.
  • Lift your arms and feet from the ground so only your belly is touching the floor. You should look like Superman flying through the air. 
  • Perform this for reps with 1-second holds at the top, or hold it for several seconds at a time as you would do with planks.
  • Return your arms and legs to the floor.
  • Repeat for reps.

Pro Tip

Since this is the only exercise in this list that’s well suited for static holds, throw these into your program to build endurance in your erector spinae. While it’s important to develop their ability to bend you forward and stand you back up, training them to hold your position is equally important and valuable. 

Like with planks, progress this exercise by adding time to your hold periods. Go from 10 seconds to 30-60 seconds up to 3 minutes over time and watch how your hip hinge exercises improve along with it. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What Exercises Can I Do Instead of Back Extensions?

Any exercise that targets your erector spinae and/or is a hip hinge movement is a great alternative to the back extension. This includes deadlifts, squats, good mornings, supermans, and most of their variations. 

How Do You Do Back Extensions at Home?

Without a hyperextension bench, it’s difficult to do traditional back extensions at home. Instead, you can focus on exercises that target your erector spinae muscles or incorporate a hip hinge movement, like the deadlift, squat, good morning, or supermans.

How Do You Do Back Extensions Without a Bench?

While back extensions are difficult to do without a hyperextension bench of some kind, you can perform alternative exercises that target the same muscles and include a similar movement pattern. Deadlifts, squats, good mornings, and supermans target the same lower back muscles and can be done without a bench.


About The Author

Adam Gardner

Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.