How to build low back strength endurance without damaging the spine

Apr 18, 2023

When clients ask me about building endurance I always tell them there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it when it comes to impacting the spine. In this tutorial I want to look at the right way to do it.

The anatomy of the spine and surrounding muscles

The main components of the spine are the vertebrae, the discs and the facet joints. The vertebrae are the boney bits, the discs sit between them and then the facet joints sit in between the vertebrae to the rear, between the processes that are positioned at the back of the spine.

Then there are the muscles.

When it comes to the spine, there are 3 main muscles, iliocostalis, longissimus and QL. You can watch the video above for a detailed description (with diagrams) of exactly where these muscles sit. But in summary, the longissimus and iliocostalis anchor onto ribs. While QL connects the pelvis, the spine and the rib cage.

What are these joints and muscles doing?

I often say it, but as a quick reminder - strength is the ability to hold a position, while endurance is the ability to hold that position over time and resist fatigue – that’s why it’s important to build endurance for longer term spine health.

  1.  Stabilising the spine

The main aim of the iliocostalis and the longissimus is to hold up the spine using anchor points on the rib cage, joining to each of the vertebrae. When the muscles contract they hold the spine in place. This means we’re better able to maintain the posture of the spine and then – over time - better able to maintain the fitness and strength of the spine. The QL, meanwhile, goes between the pelvis, up the vertebrae and across the ribs,  so it’s using a slightly different anchor point.

There are of course other muscles using other anchor points that I’m ignoring for the purposes of this.

  1.  Neutralizing anterior sheer

When we bend or lean over forwards, our spine is at the mercy of gravitational pull, meaning the top vertebrae naturally want to ‘fall off’ the lower ones. This is known as anterior sheer and can cause damage to the discs and facet joint resulting in herniation and pain. So one important job of these anchored muscles is in neutralizing this force. Contracting the iliocostalis, longissimus and QL along with other supporting muscles, holds the vertebrae in position and reduces the likelihood of issues.

Do you want to a strong low back? Click Here to start my How to Build Low Back Strength Endurance 12-Week Online Program

How can the spine become injured?

There are plenty of different ways we can create weakness or injury in the spine, particularly if we haven’t yet worked on strengthening the muscles.


Flexion, or bending forward when sitting or lifting can create the anterior sheer discussed above and  can cause damage to discs, particularly if the flexion is repeated, particularly fast or awkward, or there is a weight involved thus increasing the load on the spine.


Extension of the back creates a backwards bend in the spine. This occurs during superman type exercises where you would lay on the floor and lift your legs and arms creating a bend in the back. This, particularly when repeated, can cause issues with the facet joints that sit on the back of the vertebrae as they can get squashed together, creating inflammation and, over time, pain.

Lateral flexion

Lateral flexion is essentially bending the spine to the side. We might do this during stretching exercises with kettle bells and the like. Repeated lateral movements, particularly where there is already a weakness in the lower back will impact particularly on the discs and facet joints as they are squeezed together in both directions.

When we’re training and rehabilitating a low back injury it is important we don’t create a routine that will exacerbate an existing injury. Lots of people think they need to do back extensions and side bends which will contract the muscles in this area. But they are not the most effective exercises for spine stability.  Instead, to maintain good health of the spine, we want to access longissimus and iliocostalis – those muscles that are grabbing onto the rib cage so they’re holding the lower spine up and supporting it.

Exercises that build low back strength and endurance

It’s important to avoid back extensions and lateral bends of any kind and instead aim to maintain a proper curve of the lumbar spine.

These are only a selection of my top suggestions:

  1. Bird Dog

Get down onto hands and knees.  Lift the arm and the opposite leg smoothly and in a controlled way and keeping chest up. This is great for activating the longissimus and iliocostalis.

  1. Carrys

Hold kettle bells or weights in each hand, keep spine nice and straight and walk. This is a great way to activate the QL. And if you’re standing up nice and tall you’ll also get iliocostalis and longissimus working as well as plenty of other muscles such as the lateral seat too.

  1. Good morning / SL RDL

This is a front flex from the hips – it’s vital to keep the correct position here, keeping the spine neutral and  lifting the chest to activate the iliocostalis and longissimus. Check out the last few minutes of the tutorial above to make sure you’re  getting the posture correct and not risking further damage.

Do you want to a strong low back? Click Here to start my How to Build Low Back Strength Endurance 12-Week Online Program

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