IT’S EASY TO forget about your lower back—until you get to the point where it’s hurting. What might be confusing for some people about about low back training is that it’s going to be done by strengthening your core.
The core is more than just your abs, after all—it enables movement and supports the spine. Your lower back is part of this muscle group. But if you walk around the gym, you’re more likely to see other guys repping out situps, crunches, and leg lifts to train the core. They’re focused on targeting the rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscles. For a complete core workout, you should be targeting lower back muscles, too.
“Having lower back strength winds up being really, really important if we want to build serious strength,” says Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and Men’s Health fitness director. Many of the major compound movements, like deadlifts and squats, require lower back strength. You’ll be able to make more gains when you address this key component with focused attention.
Worries about pain and soreness of the low back may divert people from actually targeting it, says David Otey, C.S.C.S. and Men’s Health Advisory Board member. If we don’t train this crucial spot, though, “the weakest point will begin to give out,” which may cause more problems in the long run. Here, Samuel and Otey show five exercises we can add to our routine that will help strengthen the lower back.
5 Exercises Your Low Back Needs
45 Degree Extension
3 to 4 sets of 15 reps
The low back and the hips work in tandem, and this exercise emulates that. The key to allowing the hip to engage is ensuring that you maintain a bit of rigidity through the spine. Focus on not allowing your spine to round out so that almost all of your movement comes through low back and hip extension. “It’s a baseline exercise to work on getting that lower back moving from folding forward to getting all the way up through extension, but it’s going to play a huge role in a lot of other lifts that we do,” Otey says.
It’s important to identify the difference between the feeling of fatigue and the feeling of pain in this movement. It’s safe and okay to work through feelings of fatigue, as that’s how we gain strength. If there’s any kind of shooting pain or aches, then see a specialist to get an individualized evaluation.
3 to 4 sets of 8 reps on each side
There’s value in simplicity. This is a simple movement that may not look like much, but it creates great baseline strength throughout the lower back. This will build stability throughout the spine and low back, ultimately allowing you to perform more athletically in other movements. This movements “sets the foundation” that allows us to add weight to other exercises down the road, Otey says.
“The goal here is basically to make the move look easy,” Samuel says. Stay mindful through each bit of this motion, making sure that you’re not allowing your hips to drop to one side when the leg gets extended out. Take your time to stay conscious about these things.
3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps
The good morning is a hip-hinging motion that will place significant stress on the lower back when loaded up with a barbell or kettlebell. As you descend down, the low back has to work extra hard to maintain control of the force pressing against your mid-back by the weight. Similar to the bird dog, take these slow and steady to get a feel for loading weight.
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps
This is where things pop up a notch. We’re going from loading just a little bit to being able to move big weight to build strength. The lowest portion of the movement, when the hips are flexed backwards, is when the most stress will hit the low back. Hang out in this position for a few seconds, Samuel says, to understand the tension being held before standing back up. That small portion of time is where you’re going to build the most strength through your low back, as the glutes power a majority of the energy needed for the drive that returns you to standing.
3 to 4 sets of 30 seconds, aiming for 8 to 10 reps
The lower back supports more than just slow, steady lifts. Many quicker movements depend on it as well. Samuel notes that the lower back plays a big role in acceleration (the speeding up) and the deceleration (the slowing down) of the flexion and extension of our hips and spine. That makes the kettlebell swing a great exercise for training the dynamic aspect of low back strength.
The weight you’re working with will determine how you approach your sets. If you have a lighter kettlebell, think about working for 30 seconds rather than aiming for a rep range. If you have a heavier kettlebell, only work to about 8 to 10 reps.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.