The muscles of the lower back are like any other muscles in the body, they need to be strengthened. However, we often neglect these muscles during our workouts, as we fear it might set off lower back pain.
By incorporating lower back exercises in the gym, you can keep the muscles strong, reduce the risk of injury, and improve your performance.
If you want to develop a stronger lower back, add some of these 14 exercises to your lower back workouts:
- Bird dog
- Side plank
- Reverse plank/Chinese plank
- Sorenson hold
- Suitcase carry
- 45-degree back extension
- GHD back extension
- TRX back extension
- Reverse hyperextension
- Good morning
- Seated good morning
In this article, you’ll discover how to strengthen your lower back, how to perform these exercises, and pro tips on how to maximize your lower back workouts at the gym.
As you read on, you may wonder how to incorporate these 14 low back exercises. As a bonus, you’ll get a sample lower back workout routine at the end.
Anatomy of the Lower Back
The lower back muscles play an important role in stabilizing the spine and facilitating movement. These small muscles help create the 360 degrees that make up your core but don’t get a lot of attention in most workouts.
Erector Spinae Muscles
This group of muscles is made up of three smaller muscles and runs on the side of the spine from the neck all the way to the lower back.
- Spinalis. These are the most medial muscles, or the ones closest to the spine. They extend and laterally flex the spine or bend to the side.
- Longissimus. This thick band of muscle is the center of our erector spinae group. Like the spinalis muscle, it works to extend and laterally flex the spine.
- Iliocostalis. This is the most outer part of this group of muscles. They also extend and laterally flex the spine.
The multifidus muscle, which takes on a Christmas tree appearance based on where it starts and ends, is one of the deepest spinal muscles. It plays a key role in stabilizing the spine and acts in some rotation capacity.
The quadratus lumborum muscle, also called QL, is one of the deep muscles of the lower back and is sometimes the scapegoat for back pain. Its main function is to bend to the side, but it does play a role in breathing due to its connection to the 12th rib and diaphragm.
Benefits of Training the Lower Back
You can reduce the risk of lower back injuries by performing workouts for lower back strength, as the muscles become more resilient to strains or pulls.
Additionally, a more resilient spine can provide better support doing other exercises, like deadlifts.
If the lower back muscles are weak, chances are your posture is poor as well. This could lead to low back injuries. The stronger your lower back muscles are, the more support the spine has, which leads to your posture being better.
As you strengthen and stretch out your lower back muscles, you can create a more active range of motion, which makes it easier to move, bend, and twist. When that is easier, it can make other activities easier as well.
The more you do low back strength training, the stronger your muscles will be, and the more resilient they will be when performing compound movements like the deadlift or squat.
Wondering how and why you should train your back if you’re a powerlifter? Check out How Do Powerlifters Train Back? 3 Must-Do Workouts.
14 Best Lower Back Exercises
The cat-cow exercise is a mobility exercise that helps improve flexibility and movement in the spine, specifically the lower back. It is really useful as a warm-up exercise to bring blood flow to the muscles. It's perfect for anyone looking to improve the health of their lower back.
How To Do
- Start on your hands and knees, with the hands underneath the shoulders and the knees under the hips.
- Inhale, then arch your back and lift your head and chest towards the ceiling.
- On the exhale, reverse the movement and round your spine, tuck your chin towards your chest, and tuck your pelvis underneath you.
- Alternate between the two movements slowly for reps.
With most exercises, you aim to create tension and get a full range of motion. But for this, you want to stick with movement you can control to avoid pain.
It also helps to relax your shoulders and neck to get the most out of it.
2. Bird Dog
The bird dog is a bodyweight exercise that targets the lower back, core, and glutes while challenging your stability and balance.
It can be progressed or regressed, depending on what level you find yourself at. Beginners or those with weak lower back muscles can do it on their hands and knees. More advanced individuals can do it in a tall plank position or add weight to the exercise.
How To Do
- Start on your hands and knees, with the hands directly under your shoulder and the knees under the hips.
- Brace your core muscles, then extend your left arm and right leg straight out, trying to create a straight line between your hand and foot.
- Hold for a second, then bring them back to the starting position.
- You can repeat that side for all reps before switching or alternate sides until you’ve completed all your reps.
One of the common errors with the bird dog is lifting the arms and legs as high as you can, which creates more of an extension position. With this exercise, you’re looking to keep the limbs parallel to the ground so the back stays flat.
If you’re looking for a challenge on this exercise, place a ball on your lower back and keep it still as you lift your arms and legs.
This bodyweight low back exercise will make you look like you’re soaring through the sky while strengthening your lower back, hips, glutes, and shoulders.
You can do this exercise for repetitions or hold it for time. You can also use it on its own as a warm-up or a stand-alone exercise to strengthen your lower back.
How To Do
- Lie face down on the ground with your legs straight back and your arms straight out in front of you.
- Lift your chest, arms, and legs off the ground simultaneously while keeping your head down and your neck in a neutral position.
- Hold this position for a few seconds, then slowly lower back to the start.
- Repeat for the given number of reps in your workout.
While you want to achieve extension on this exercise, you also want to be mindful of avoiding hyperextension, which is where you overarch your back at the top of the movement. This may produce pain or a pinching sensation in your lower back.
Your best bet is to raise your arms and legs 1-2 inches off the ground to achieve maximum results.
4. Side Plank
The side plank is a core and low back exercise that helps improve stability in the muscles surrounding the spine. It can be beneficial for beginners and advanced lifters to do to learn how to brace when performing deadlifts and squats.
How To Do
- Lie on your side with your elbow under your shoulder and legs straight and stacked on top of each other.
- Brace your core and glutes, then lift your body up until it's parallel to the ground.
- Hold for at least 15 seconds.
If the standard side plank position is too challenging, you can bend the knees and make a straight line from the knees to the shoulders so that you’ll have to support less of your body weight.
Wondering if you can do squats when recovering from a lower back injury? Try these squat variations that are good for lower back pain.
5. Reverse Plank/Chinese Plank
While most planks have you facing down and working your abs, the reverse plank concentrates on the back muscles. It’s a great starting point when wanting to build more muscular endurance. With little to no moving parts, it's perfect for beginners to try.
How To Do
- You’ll need two equal-height benches spaced out about the length of your body.
- Place your upper back on one bench and the heels of your feet on the other.
- Brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and drive your heels into the bench.
- Lift your body off the ground until you’re parallel to the ground.
- Hold this position for 20 seconds or until you feel like your hips will drop.
This exercise can be progressed or regressed by changing the distance between the two benches and creating longer or shorter levers. If you want to make it more challenging, spread the benches further apart so that you have to support more body weight.
If it's too much of a challenge, bring the benches closer, so you are supporting less of your body weight.
6. Sorenson Hold
Much like the reverse plank, this exercise is great for testing and building endurance of the lower back muscles. For the Sorenson hold, you need a glute ham developer (GHD) machine to perform it fully.
How To Do
- Adjust the GHD so that your hips rest on the pads when your legs are straight.
- Get into the machine with the legs in the rollers.
- Extend your legs straight with your hands behind your head.
- Use your glutes, abs, and low back to maintain a straight position, parallel to the floor.
- Hold for at least 20 seconds or until fatigue sets in.
This can be seen as a progression from the reverse plank, so start off slow when performing these. Typically with the first exposure to this exercise, I will aim to have athletes accumulate 1-2 minutes in shorter bursts to build their endurance. Then over time, build to longer holds.
7. Suitcase Carry
Carries are great exercises to challenge the core and low back muscles. The suitcase carry is a variation that makes it look like you’re carrying a bag at your side. It targets one side as you walk for a certain distance or for time.
As a bonus, you will also test your grip strength with this exercise, which will carry over into other grip-dependent exercises, such as pull-ups.
How To Do
- Grab a weight in one hand and hold it at your side.
- Stand up tall, brace your core, and squeeze your armpit to keep the weight close to you.
- Walk forward, taking small steps and keeping your hips in line.
- Walk for 30 feet or 20-30 seconds, then switch to the opposite hand and repeat.
The tendency is to rush this exercise, especially if the goal is a certain distance. Slow, deliberate steps will help you keep alignment through the shoulders and hips.
If you want to level up this exercise, you can add a march, bringing the knees up to the chest with each step. Doing this increases the instability, so your core and lower back muscles must work harder to keep you balanced.
8. 45-Degree Back Extension
The 45-degree back extension requires a back extension machine that loads through the hip joint to strengthen the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings without loading the spine. It is a great exercise for beginners who want stronger low back muscles but don't want to stress their spines.
How To Do
- Adjust the height of the pads so that your hips are just above the pads.
- Place your legs against the pads, with your heels against the foot pads at the bottom of the machine.
- Place your hands behind your head or in front of your chest.
- Keeping your back flat, hinge at the hips and bend toward the floor.
- Reach down until you feel the tension in the hamstrings, then squeeze your glutes and lower back muscles to return to the start position.
For the first couple of times doing this exercise, it's important to get the technique down before adding load. You want to ensure you’re doing it correctly and targeting the right muscles.
Additionally, you can advance this exercise without weight by reaching your arms out in front of you.
9. GHD Back Extension
This variation of a back extension requires access to a GHD to target the muscles of the lower back. Learning how to properly engage your glutes and low back muscles is important before performing this, so it's suited for intermediate to advanced lifters.
How To Do
- Set the GHD machine to a desired height and adjust the footpad so that your hips align with the pads.
- Place your feet in the footpad, so your heels are against the pads.
- Place your hands behind your head or across your chest, then brace your core and bend at the hips as you reach for the ground.
- Keep your spine in a neutral position as you lower down, keeping your legs straight the entire time.
- Squeeze your glutes and lower back muscles to return to the starting position.
At the top of the movement, be sure you come back to parallel and try to avoid going into a hyperextension position, so you don’t put too much stress on the spine.
Adding weight to the movement can make this exercise more challenging. You can hold a weight close to your chest or hold it down in front of you with your arms straight.
10. TRX Back Extension
The TRX back extension uses the TRX system to train the low back muscles through their range of motion. This is an easier way to load those muscles if you can't access a GHD or back extension machine.
How To Do
- With the straps at mid-length, stand facing the anchor point with your arms straight out in front of you.
- Hinge your hips back with your knees straight, keeping tension on the straps the whole time.
- As you hinge back, your chest should lower towards the ground, and your arms should line up with your ears.
- Push through the floor with your feet to bring the hips back up.
To level up this exercise, start with the arms overhead, keeping tension in the straps. This will increase the length of tension on your muscles, making for a more challenging exercise.
If you’re in the market for a TRX trainer but don’t want to spend a lot of money, check out our favorite TRX alternatives that are more cost-effective.
11. Reverse Hyperextension
The reverse hyperextension is a great exercise to build the lower back muscles without loading the spine directly. Some gyms may have a machine for this exercise, but you can also perform it using a bench, a physioball, bands, or a cable machine to get a similar effect.
This exercise is great for everyone, whether you’re a beginner or advanced, as you can progress or regress it depending on what you need.
How To Do
- Lie face down on a reverse hyper machine, with your hips at the edge and your legs hanging off.
- Grab the handles and brace your core, and, using your glutes, lift your legs up until they are parallel to the ground.
- Slowly lower back down to the start and repeat for reps.
If you’ve never done this exercise before, start slow by using body weight to get used to the movement and which muscles need to work. Eventually, you can progress to using resistance bands or weights.
The deadlift is one of the best low back exercises with weights. It’s a compound exercise using a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells to strengthen the low back, glutes, and hamstrings.
If you have low back pain, you might avoid doing deadlifts out of fear of injuring yourself. But finding a variation and a range of motion that works best for you will benefit you in the long run.
How To Do
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart in front of a barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell, making sure the weight stays close to your body.
- Bend down and grab the weight with your hands, keeping your back straight.
- Brace your core, then drive your feet through the floor and stand up with the weight.
- Pause at the top of the lift, then reach your hips back, bending your knees slightly to bring the weight back to the ground.
If deadlifting from the floor is too challenging based on its range of motion, try elevating the bar to a height you can manage. This is often called a block deadlift. By decreasing the range of motion you have to move, you can focus on using the right muscles to perform the exercise.
You’ll also be able to load more weight from a higher starting point, thus strengthening your lower back muscles more.
Learn more about the block deadlift in Block Deadlift: Technique, Benefits, & How To Program.
13. Good Morning
If you want an exercise that will add strength and size to your low back muscles, the good morning is your answer. It’s a low back exercise with weights that you can load as heavy as you can safely perform, although it can take work to perfect the technique.
It’s an excellent exercise for advanced lifters, but if you are starting out, learning how to hip hinge should take priority before loading this exercise.
How To Do
- Place a barbell on your back, much like you would for a high bar barbell squat, and lift it out of the rack.
- Set your feet shoulder-width apart, engage your core, and then reach your hips back, bending at the hips.
- Go until you feel a big stretch in the back of your legs or until your torso is parallel to the ground.
- Push through the floor to stand back up, squeezing your glutes at the top.
While a barbell might be the standard way to load this exercise, it might be too much weight for some. In that case, you can use other training tools like bands or dumbbells to build strength and competence with the exercise.
14. Seated Good Morning
Much like the good morning, this seated variation isolates the hip extension part of the good morning, placing more demand on the lower back muscles to do the work.
This advanced exercise requires a strong core and a strong lower back. You also need a good amount of flexibility to accomplish it.
How To Do
- Sit on a bench with your feet flat on the floor and the barbell on your back.
- Lean forward, lowering your torso towards the bench, hinging at the hips.
- Extend your hips to raise your upper body back up to the starting position.
Since you’re unable to engage your legs with this exercise, it's important that you do it correctly. When bending over, move from the hips, don’t just bend at the spine. This will ensure you target the right muscles and are not affecting your spine.
How to Program Lower Back Exercises
Programming your lower back exercises comes down to your intent. Once you know that, you can pick the right exercises for the job.
Additionally, you’ll want to program a combination of mobility, stability, and strengthening exercises for a well-rounded approach to your lower back muscle workouts.
When training for strength, exercises that target the muscle groups you want to strengthen should be done first, as you are the freshest at the beginning of your workout. Therefore, if you want to build low back strength, doing big compound lifts like good mornings and deadlifts first is the way to go.
If you want to develop strength in the lower back, stick to reps in the 3-6 range for 3-6 sets.
The lower back muscles will respond to progressive overload the same way any other muscle in your body would, but I would caution that you wouldn't want to overload the spine too much, too soon.
If you want to grow your low back muscles, find a rep range between 6 and 12, where you aim to fatigue the muscles just before failure. You can do this for 3-5 sets.
Many lower back muscles, especially the deep ones, are considered postural muscles, so training them for endurance makes a lot of sense. You want to gradually build up the time they are under tension so that they are more resilient and strong for long periods.
Exercises for endurance are better suited towards the end of your workout, as you wouldn't want to do something like deadlifts when your spinal muscles are already fatigued.
For endurance programming, 3 sets of 12 or more reps work well, as does going for longer durations of time under tension. So for something like a side plank or Sorenson hold, the goal would be to hold as long as possible.
Sample Lower Back Workout Routine
You could work through your lower back routine in many ways, depending on your goal and what you have access to. By combining leg and back exercises, you can build size and strength through those muscles.
Below is a good workout for the lower back you can do at the gym and an at-home lower back bodyweight workout you can do.
Gym Lower Back Workout Routine
This workout starts off with a mobility and a core exercise to warm up the muscles before you hit them with your heavier strength exercises. You wrap up the workout with isometric holds for endurance.
This routine can be its own workout, or you can include these movements within a lower body day.
- Cat-cow – 2 sets of 10 reps
- Bird dog – 2 sets of 10 reps per side
- 45-degree back extension – 3 sets of 12 reps
- Deadlift- 3 sets of 6 reps @ RPE 7
- Good morning – 3 sets of 10-12 reps @ RPE 6
- Sorenson hold – 3 sets of 30-60 seconds
- Suitcase carry – 3 sets of 30-60 seconds per side
At-Home/Bodyweight Workout Routine
This workout starts with a mobility and a core exercise to warm up the muscles of the lower back. Without equipment, you’ll rely on more endurance exercises to keep the time under tension high. This routine can be used within other workouts to target the lower back.
- Cat-cow – 2 sets of 10 reps
- Side plank – 2 sets of 20 seconds
- Superman – 3 sets 10 reps
- Seated good morning – 3 sets of 15 reps RPE 7
- TRX back extension – 3 sets of 15 reps
- Reverse plank – 3 sets of 20-30 seconds
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Best Exercise for the Lower Back?
The best lower back exercises depend on the goal you have in mind. For better mobility and back pain relief, the cat-cow is your go-to. If the goal is more endurance, suitcase carries or Sorenson holds are good options. If the goal is more muscle or strength, deadlifts and good mornings are the exercises to pick.
How Do You Build the Lower Back Muscles?
If the goal is to build lower back muscles, you’ll want to start with exercises that require you to work against a load. The best bang for your buck is the good morning.
What Are the Three Best Exercises for Back Pain?
The three best exercises for back pain are the cat-cow, bird dog, and side plank. The cat-cow exercise safely increases lower back mobility and restores movement to the spine when you’re feeling tension. The other two bring strength and stability to the core and low back muscles, making for a more resilient spine.
Lower back exercises are essential to your training to maintain a strong, healthy back and reduce the risk of an injury. Just like other muscles in the body, with the right exercises, you can strengthen those muscles to make them more resilient.
The first place to start is by incorporating these 14 best lower back workouts at the gym, and you’ll be on your way to a stronger lower back.
About The Author
Chris Cooper is a certified personal trainer through the NSCA and a massage therapist in New York. He has over 17 years experience blending the two worlds to work with clients in their pursuit to get stronger and move pain-free as they return from injury. He runs his coaching services through CoachChrisCooper.com.