When it comes to training your spinal erectors, you might not have a very long list of exercises you can rely on to get the job done. It’s not exactly a muscle we commonly think or talk about training, like the biceps, shoulders, and quads, but that’s not because of a lack of importance. So if you want to improve your spinal erectors, what are the best exercises to do that?
The top 17 exercises to improve spinal erector strength are:
- Back Extensions
- Dumbbell Deadlifts
- Dumbbell Good Mornings
- Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
- Barbell Deadlift
- Stiff-Leg Deadlift
- Rack Deadlift
- Block Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift
- Sumo Deficit Deadlift
- Barbell Squat
- Front Squat
- Barbell Good Morning
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
- Cable Back Extensions
- Good Morning Machine
This list includes exercises you can do with a barbell, dumbbells, machines, or your body weight.
In this article, I’ll discuss what the spinal erectors are, the benefits of training them, and how to perform these spinal erector exercises.
Spinal Erectors: Overview
This list isn’t all that exciting or informative if you don’t have a good idea of what the spinal erectors do and why you would want or need to strengthen them, so let’s dive into the details.
What Muscles Make Up the Spinal Erectors?
The spinal erectors (or erector spinae) are muscles in your lower and middle back that run parallel with your spine on each side. They run along the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical regions of your spine. These are the areas of your lower back, mid-back, and neck, respectively.
These muscles are primarily responsible for helping you stand upright or erect, thus the name “erectors.”
Visually represented, imagine standing up, bending forward to touch your toes, and standing back upright. Your erectors are the primary muscles making this movement happen.
What Are the Benefits of Training the Spinal Erectors?
There are three huge benefits to training your erectors:
- Improved lifestyle mobility
- Improved strength in specific lifts
- Reduced risk of back injury
Improved Lifestyle Mobility
As you think about that primary motion of bending forward and standing back up, you realize it’s a key, fundamental movement of the human body. You’d be pretty limited in your mobility without that ability.
At a base level, training your erectors to be strong and mobile enables a certain quality of life and health.
Whether or not you plan to do a lot of bending over in your life, strong, healthy spinal erectors provide huge benefits to your posture, which is by itself a big plus to training your erectors.
Improved Strength in Specific Lifts
In the gym specifically, several movements require the erector spinae to stand us back up – think of the deadlift, the squat, and rowing variations. If your goal is to have a strong squat or deadlift, your erectors will be a key muscle in setting and exceeding personal records over and over again.
I’ll go so far as to say every lifter interested in squatting or deadlifting will be inhibited by their lower back strength at one point or another, and likely on several occasions.
It is a muscle that deserves constant training and attention to keep up with all the other muscles we focus on developing and improving to get a bigger squat and deadlift (such as the quads and hamstrings).
Reduced Risk of Back Injury
Many people avoid doing back exercises for fear of injuring their back when in reality, training your back is the best defense against back injury! Regularly training your spinal erectors with resistance training is a fantastic way to avoid lower back injuries.
Not only do the muscles themselves get stronger, but you become familiar with how your body is supposed to move when bending over and picking something up. This teaches you how to avoid the types of movements or mistakes that might lead to an injury while trying to help a neighbor move a heavy piece of furniture, for example.
How to Train the Spinal Erector
You can train the erector spinae muscles through a number of exercises, both by isolating them as much as possible (like with back extension variations) and by performing compound lifts that incorporate them among many other muscles (like deadlifts and squats).
Like with any other muscle, the important elements to training your erectors are to:
- Understand and maintain good technique for each exercise
- Train them regularly
- Train them with intensity
- Train them in a progressive overload that keeps challenging you
- Train them consistently for an extended period (more than 3 months)
As long as you incorporate those elements, each of the following exercises will benefit you as you focus on training your erectors.
Bodyweight Spinal Erector Exercises
Back extensions are the closest thing I can think of to isolating the erector spinae from other muscles involved in bringing your body to an upright position. They aren’t a true isolated exercise because we can’t avoid using other muscles, like our glutes, hamstrings, and hips, but this gets us close.
Perform back extensions on either a 45-degree hyperextension bench or a GHD bench by wedging your feet into the footplate and ankle pads and resting your hips against the hip pad so you can bend completely at the waist without any obstruction touching your abdomen or above.
Hinge at the hip to bend forward, and use your erector spinae muscles to bring yourself back to an upright position.
You can do these with your raw body weight, a plate or dumbbell in hand, or even a barbell in hand. You can also modify them with resistance bands and tempo commands, so they are extremely versatile and can be implemented in a variety of circumstances with a range of equipment you do or don’t have available.
Can’t do a back extension? Check out our Best Back Extension Alternatives
If using resistance bands, you can anchor one end of a band to a dumbbell or the bottom of the hyperextension bench with the other end stretched behind your neck or back, depending on your preference. As you extend upward away from the floor, you’ll feel the added tension of the band adding resistance to your lift.
If you want to implement tempo commands, simply set a time, like 5-second tempos, and slow your movement to fill a full 5 seconds going down and a full 5 seconds coming back up. You can also add tempos to your pauses at the top or bottom of the rep.
For example, try descending with a 5-second tempo, pausing for 1 second at the bottom, extending upward over 5 seconds, and pausing for 2 seconds fully flexed at the top.
To learn more about all of the muscles back extensions work, check out What Muscles Does Back Extension Work? A Simple Guide.
Another great bodyweight exercise for your erectors is the Superman. It gets its name from how this exercise makes you look like you are imitating Superman flying through the air.
Lie on your stomach to perform this exercise. With your arms stretched in front of you and your feet behind you, lift your arms and legs so that only your abdomen and hips are touching the floor. Hold your arms and feet in the air for 1 second at a time and repeat. Alternatively, you can hold them in the air for a static period of time like you would with a plank.
During this exercise, your erectors work hard to maintain this Superman position, giving them the attention and stress they need to grow and develop.
Add light dumbbells to your hands for an added challenge.
Dumbbell Spinal Erector Exercises
Just about any deadlift variation will hit your erectors, and using dumbbells is no exception.
Whether you’re using dumbbells to get comfortable with the deadlift movement using light load, using them as back-off sets after heavy sets, or just for variety, they’ll effectively hit your erectors just like a barbell deadlift.
You can perform a dumbbell deadlift almost exactly like a barbell deadlift. Step up to a pair of 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, then repeat for reps.
Dumbbell Good Mornings
To perform these, hold a dumbbell in each hand over your shoulder. Let the handle of the dumbbell rest on your traps (the muscles that run along the back of your neck and shoulders) or beside your neck so that one side of the weight is over your chest and the other side is over your back.
Perform the good morning rep by bending forward until your torso is parallel to the floor and you feel a stretch in your hamstrings before standing back up. Make sure to keep your back flat throughout.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
You may not think of bent-over rows as erector exercises because the primary muscles used are your lats and upper back as you row the dumbbell up and down in the bent-over position. However, the erectors get their work in by keeping your body in that bent-over position throughout the set.
Note that you lose much or all of this benefit when you perform these rows in a chest-supported variation, like a seal row or against an incline bench. Your erectors only have to work hard when they support your upper body to maintain the bent-over position while you row.
To perform a dumbbell row, place your feet shoulder-width apart and grab a dumbbell in each hand from the ground. Bend forward 90 degrees at the hip with your knees slightly bent. Row the dumbbell up to your chest and back down. You can do them one at a time or train both sides together.
Barbell Spinal Erector Exercises
I view the barbell deadlift as the king of all erector exercises. Sure, the erector spinae is just one of many muscles you need to work together to perform a deadlift, but the deadlift provides the perfect intersection of targeting the erectors and the ability to load the exercise with maximal weight.
My bottom line recommendation is this – if you want to build your erectors, then deadlift. All these other exercises are excellent options, but a conventional deadlift progressed over time will work wonders for your erectors.
To progress a deadlift over time, simply push yourself to keep the deadlift intense, even as you get stronger. Once you can do the weight you start with for several sets of 5-10 reps, add 5-10 more pounds, 2 more reps to each set, or another set. Once that becomes something you can handle, add more weight and offset it by doing fewer reps per set.
To perform a barbell deadlift, step up to the loaded barbell so it nearly touches your ankles and 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, then repeat for reps.
The stiff-leg deadlift is essentially the same as a good morning, but with the load in your hands below your waist instead of on your back.
It’s worth noting that the stiff-leg deadlift is more commonly used as a hamstring exercise, and the emphasis on your hamstrings won’t change just because you’re using it more for your erectors when you do it.
Try adjusting the flexion of your knee (or how much or little you bend your knees in your starting position) to adjust whether you hit your hammies or lower back more.
You may also find Romanian deadlifts (which are very similar to stiff-leg deadlifts but never call for you to touch the floor with the weights between sets) a preferable alternative, but both are effective for hitting your erectors.
To perform a stiff leg deadlift, step up to the barbell so it nearly touches your ankles and place your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend forward and place your hands shoulder-width apart on the barbell.
Bend your knees slightly and bend forward (mostly at your hips) to grab the bar. Don’t bend your knees so much that your hips get lower to the ground, like in a conventional deadlift. Hinging only at your hip, pull the barbell upward. This should feel like a back extension without the bench.
Return the barbell to the floor, then repeat for reps.
The rack deadlift, or rack pull, places the barbell on a rack (like a squat rack with pins or bars on each end of the barbell at your sides) so that you aren’t initiating the pull from the floor like a normal deadlift. Instead, the bar is elevated a few inches to begin with. From there, the lift is performed the same as a conventional deadlift.
This change means you don’t have the ability to use your momentum from the bottom of the lift (with the help of your quads and hamstrings) to pass into your lockout, which is primarily reliant on your erector spinae to finish the job. Instead, your erectors must work right from the start, in the middle of the pull, through the end.
By performing rack pulls, you essentially reduce the deadlift to being a lockout of a deadlift, putting more work on your lower back muscles instead of expending energy on the full range of motion.
Block deadlifts are similar to rack deadlifts, but instead of using a power rack to elevate the barbell from the start, you place the loaded plates at the end of the barbell onto blocks or some other sturdy surface that is higher than your feet on the floor.
This version is typically safer for the barbell, as it removes the risk of bending the barbell on the rack bars but offers the same benefits to your lower back as the rack pull.
Many people will point out that the sumo deadlift actually deemphasizes the erector spinae and puts more emphasis on your quads, and they’d be right. However, for 99% of lifters, you will still start the pull slightly bent forward and end upright, meaning your erectors are doing work in a sumo deadlift.
Don’t neglect sumos just because they aren’t as reliant on the erectors as the conventional deadlift – they are a great tool for building your lower back!
To perform a sumo deadlift, step up to the bar with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out about 45 degrees. Grip the barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart and make sure your shoulders are directly over the bar.
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, then repeat for reps.
Learn more about why the sumo deadlift isn’t cheating in Are Sumo Deadlifts Cheating? (No, Here’s Why).
Sumo Deficit Deadlift
One way to get even more lower back recruitment out of your sumo deadlifts is to pull from a deficit. Place your feet on mats or another sturdy surface to elevate them 1-4” higher than the floor, where the plates loaded on the barbell sit.
By elevating your feet this way, you have to bend forward more, even in the sumo position, to initiate your pull. By bending forward, you require more work from your erectors to get you upright by the end of the pull This makes it a great variation for emphasizing the erectors, especially if sumo is your preferred deadlift stance.
The barbell squat is another great fundamental builder of the erector spinae.
As you descend in a squat, your upper body naturally shifts forward to keep the barbell centered over your feet to stay balanced. That leaves you pitched forward at the bottom of the squat, which means you’ll need your erectors to get you back upright at the top.
Therefore, performing squats consistently with the proper load for you will build those erectors along with your quads, glutes, and every other muscle involved in the squat.
To find that weight, start with something you can do for 10 reps over 3-5 sets and go from there! Add more weight and reduce the reps per set over time as you get stronger and more comfortable with your starting weight.
Similar to deadlifts, you can progress the squat with significant load, making it a great exercise to train your erectors over time.
Learn more about how to determine the best rep ranges for squats in Best Rep Ranges For Squats (Science-Backed).
With the front squat, placing the barbell in your hands under your chin puts strain on the erectors as they fight to keep you upright throughout the lift.
Instead of intentionally bending forward slightly to stay balanced, the front squat requires you to stand as upright as possible throughout the lift. Tipping too far forward will lead to dumping the barbell out of your hands. But with the load in front of you, your erectors have to work to maintain your upright position.
This is why so many new lifters (and developed lifters) experience lower back fatigue as a result of front squats. But for the lifter interested in building their lower back, this is great news because it means those muscles have been targeted and worked, leading to the stronger, more capable erectors you’re looking for.
Barbell Good Morning
Another member of the royal family of erector exercises, the barbell good morning should be a staple for anyone looking to strengthen their lower back.
We are essentially exaggerating the forward bend that happens in a squat, turning it into a full bow to a 90-degree hinge at the hip, and then returning to an erect stance. That’s why you hear some bad squats (that lean forward too much) called a “good morning squat,” which is not a compliment.
When done intentionally in a good morning, we train our erectors to do that key piece of the squat and deadlift – bring our upper body back to upright – without expending all the energy required to do full squats and deadlifts over and over.
Bent-Over Barbell Row
As stated with the bent-over dumbbell row, the rowing motion itself trains your lats and upper back, but maintaining the bent-over position throughout the set is all done by your erector spinae, making this a great exercise for your lower back and upper back at the same time.
Remember these are only effective for your lower back if you’re freestanding – if you lean your chest against a bench or anything else, you lose the erector emphasis.
Cable & Machine Spinal Erector Exercises
Cable Row Back Extensions
Just like back extensions on a GHD or a 45-degree hyperextension bench, you can perform back extensions on a seated cable row bench or a low pulley on the floor.
Simply place your feet on the footplate, hold the bar (can be a straight bar, v-grip, d-grip, rope, whatever you like), and hinge at your hip. You’ll start in a 90-degree position, with your feet straight out and your back upright. Let the weight pull you forward till the cable stops, and then hinge backward as far as you can before returning to your start position.
I really like this variation for beginners or lifters who are coming back from lower back pain or injuries because they can get the erectors working without putting too much risk on them like a GHD or hyperextension bench might.
You can get a feel for how your erectors can/should work in a simple sitting position. We limit the range of motion and the load with this variation, making it a great option for many lifters.
Good Morning Machine
If you have the luxury, there are some machines designed for the erectors specifically, like the good morning machine.
This machine creates the same motion as the good morning, but with a loaded cable stack instead of a barbell on your back, making it significantly lower risk than a heavy-loaded barbell good morning.
This bench takes away the need for you to have to balance yourself throughout the lift, allowing you to focus on hinging at the hip and moving the weight.
Most gyms won’t have this machine, but if you do have access to one, you should take advantage of your ability to use it for relatively heavy loads with a lower risk threshold.
Additional Back Training Resources
- Can You Just Do Deadlifts For Back? Yes, But It’s Not Ideal
- Do Back Extensions Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How)
- Can You Train Back And Legs On The Same Day?
- Can You Work Out Back And Chest Together?
- Can You Train Back And Shoulders Together?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Back? (3 Must-Do Workouts)
- Are Rows & Pull-Ups Enough For Back?
About The Author
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.