Are Back Extensions a Good Exercise for Strengthening the Lower Back?

Apr 18, 2024

Opinions differ when it comes to the subject of whether back extensions are a good exercise for strengthening the lower back. In fact, I don’t often prescribe the back extension as I feel there are usually other exercises that can get you a better result.

But I’m aware there are people who don’t agree with me, so for the sake of balance, let’s look at the positives and negatives.


Performing back extensions – what are we actually trying to do

There are lots of ways of doing the back extension. One being on the floor, another with a machine. You’ll see in the tutorial video, that I demonstrate using a piece of equipment that allows me to hinge at the hips and then extend back up. This helps to activate and strengthen the lower back muscles.

In short, what we’re aiming to do with back extensions is to get the longissimus and the iliocostalis, along with other muscles of the lower back and even the glutes, to activate or come online. You can do this via a dynamic movement, as demonstrated, or simply using a static hold where the lever of the body is being held up by the low back muscles.

There’s no doubt that this muscle activation in itself, is beneficial. And you’ll be increasing  strength too. But what you may not get from a back extension is a resolution for any underlying problem you might have.

I talk more in the tutorial above about the specifics of how the back extension is effectively working the muscles.

But what concerns me the most, is how this exercise can impact a back that is already experiencing pain.



If you’ve come across the idea of compression in any of my blogs before, you’ll be familiar with the sponge analogy. Imagine you’re wringing out a sponge with your hands placed around the middle. That’s basically what your muscles are doing to your spine. And for some people, this can cause a painful issue. If your back doesn’t like getting into a back extension position, that compression could be the reason and it’s probably best not to do it.

And it’s not just compression that can cause a problem.     



Flexion, or extension, can also be an issue if your spine is intolerant of this movement. Does your back struggle when you sit at your desk? Or perhaps when you sit in your car? This is the impact of flexion..

Because  back extensions make you go through both the flexion and extension movement, if your spine doesn’t like either of these things, it’s likely to cause pain. Which again means you should probably avoid including it in your routine.

Best case your spine will complain. Worst case you could actually exacerbate your lower back pain by doing the exercise. Not only that, if you are a beginner and you have a deconditioned lower back it could be aggravated, simply because of what you’re expecting it to do.


What are the best alternatives to the low back extension?

The right alternatives for you will depend on whether you’re a beginner, or more advanced in terms of your training. Either way, there are alternative exercises which will do the same job as a back extension, if not better. In my opinion these alternatives will help you maintain a better posture through the spine as well as producing less compression.

Beginner? Come down onto all fours with your spine nice and straight. Then move

into bird dog and hold.

Why is bird dog a more effective exercise than the back extension? It’s because rather than isolating specific muscles, the bird dog allows us to concentrate on the lower back as just a part within a bigger system. With the bird dog we lift the arm to get the lats working, we lift the leg to get the glutes working. We get the thoracal lumber fascia working – that’s a layer of connective tissue that goes across the lower back and joins the lats and the glutes together. Being able to work that bigger system rather than simply putting pressure directly on the lower back is much more aligned with how our bodies are designed to work, and is almost certainly a healthier way to do it.

For a more advanced exercise, tune into just before 10 minutes in the video tutorial. There I discuss moving into a single leg RDL type movement. I talk more about how to bring all the different muscles online from this position. And then adding weight and other extensions.

In my mind, these alternatives will be better than the low back extension as long as we take into account the condition of your lower back. It’s important, too, to think about the context of what you want to achieve. Then we can start piecing together what it is that that you need to do.


If you want to build strength and endurance in your lower back, take a look at my how to build low back strengthen endurance 12 week online program.

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