The lower back region is one of the few body areas which people target in their workouts for mobility and pain management reasons as much as muscle building reasons. When it comes to exercises or workout routines targeting the biceps or the upper chest, most of the time you will only find exercises meant to build mass and tone the area. The lower back, however, is a trickier area, because many of the people who are researching the best lower back exercises are doing so as part of their strategy of dealing with lower back pain or while recovering from spine injury and so on.
Therefore, the exercises you will find here can be divided into two main groups: lower back exercises for building mass and strength, and lower back exercises for spine-related problems. In addition to that, we also have a special section targeting special lower back exercises for women trying to sculpt a curvy body and nice “S” shape in their back and butt area. A nice and toned waist requires more than exercises targeting strictly the waist and the oblique muscles, but requires a good workout of the lower back muscles as well. As a bonus, you’ll also avoid the unpleasant muffin-top effect and lose the fat in the area of your so-called love handles, making them more defined. You can find video illustrations of all exercises on our page here at Workoutbox, and on Youtube as well. But first, let’s have a look at some general facts about the lower back area and its muscles.
Lower back muscles: anatomy and 101
Usually, when people talk about the back muscles, they often think only of the trapezius muscle (covering the neck and shoulder area), or of the latissimusdorsi muscles (also called the ‘lats’ – which cover the lateral sides of the back). But very few times the lower back muscles are also mentioned; possibly considering how small they are, compared to the other two. In truth, what we call the lower back area is moved and pushed mostly by the main back muscles or the lats, so the lower side of these muscles is what we should be concerned with when working out our lower backs.
Also, the lower back region contain a lot of delicate nerves and nerve endings, being one of the major bone marrow hubs in its communications with the brain and with our lower body. This is why any direct injury to the lower back area can result in dangerous effects which can even amount to temporary or permanent paralysis of the hips and legs. Therefore, even if you’re not experiencing any lower back problems (like dull or sharp pain or mobility issues), you should still take every precaution to protect the area during any lower back exercises and workouts. Usually, a trainer from any decent gym should know a thing or two on the subject and can show you exactly how to practice your exercises safely.
Lower back exercises for men (for mass)
The most popular and efficient exercises for men, designed to help them reach the desired shape in their lower back area, are a lot like strength training. Actually, a positive side effect of lower back exercises for men is precisely the fact that it helps build the strength to lift heavy objects from the ground as well, in addition to the mass building.
Hyperextensions– This is a type of extension specifically designed to target the lower back area, but it also works the glutes and hamstrings pretty well. You need a hyperextension bench (found at the gym) in order to practice this. To start, lie on the machine, face down, and tuck your ankles behind the footpads. Adjust the upper pad in the right position to allow you to move your waist without much restriction. Lie on it with your body straight and your hands behind your head, as a starting position. Bend from the waist downwards, inhaling and keeping your back as straight as you can. Keep moving forward until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings and you can’t extend anymore without rounding your back. Return to the original position slowly, take a 2 second break between stretches and repeat for 7 more times for a set.
Atlas Stones– For this exercise, you need to use a special type of weights called Atlas stones, which you can find at almost every men’s gym as part of PT workouts. As a note, you should take into account the fact that this is an intense strengthening exercise, handling weights which may feel extreme to some. If you’re really not into bodybuilding, then perhaps you should start with milder exercises, which you can do with more ease. To perform this exercise, begin with the atlas stone between your legs, standing up next to a wall with a sturdy shelf on it. Bend at the hips and grasp the stone, attempting to put your fingers underneath it. Pull the stone up to your torso, carefully. As the stone passes your knees, you may need to shift your bodyweight behind to allow your torso and chest to sustain the stone’s weight. Try to lift he stone on to the shelf in front of you, then slowly put it back down following the same way on which it came. This is a single stone of exceptional weight, so be extra careful not to drop it over your feet accidentally. Also, if you feel any pain or unpleasant pressure in a spinal disk, discontinue the exercise until you feel better.
Axle Deadlift– This is an intense exercise meant to strengthen the whole lower body area and to eliminate surplus fat from your back, butt and hips. If you feel a sore hip after a workout including a series of axle deadlifts, it’s perfectly predictable. If the axle is too heavy for beginners, you can replace it with parts of a dumbbell or a similar weight (ask your trainer for details). Stand in front of the weight, with your back as straight as you can. Keep your feet a bit under the bar, and at a shoulder length apart. Bend at the hip to grip the bar at hip length or shoulder length (whatever feels more comfortable), and pull it up by slowly straightening your back and legs again. After the bar passes the knees though, it’s time to pull it more aggressively up and back, pulling your shoulder blades together while you push your hips forward into the bar. Lower the bar back down by bending at the hips, take a 2-second break or so and repeat.
Barbell Deadlift– As a note, remember than this exercise can be performed with dumbbells or similar weights as well. Stand in front of a loaded barbell, and then lift it to your hips while standing perfectly straight and with your arms stretching towards the floor as well. Maintain the pose, and then put the weight back down by bending your knees and keeping your back as straight as possible. Repeat 7 more times as a set; 2 sets per training should be enough. Make sure your balance is kept at the center of your body and you don’t feel more pressure on the left or right side as you exercise.
As a note, women can attempt to do the exercises above as well, but replacing the hardcore weights with lighter foam weights, if they want.
Lower back exercises for women (for toning)
When women are the one seeking specialized training for the lower back area, their motivation is usually highly different from men’s, as we already mentioned above. What women want when performing lower back exercises (usually yoga poses) is to define a slender-curvy shape in their overall hourglass figure, by getting rid of lower back fat. These three exercises are just perfect for that, and they work perfectly together with ab exercises:
Cat’s stretch– For this exercise, you will need to stand on all fours on a training mat. Pull your belly in and arch your spine and back upwards, keeping you head hanging lower towards the floor (just as a cat would stretch). It’s important to allow your head to go down, in order to avoid neck strain. Maintain the stretch for 3-4 seconds, and then return to the initial position. Repeat 5-6 times per workout.
Hug a Ball– For this exercise, you will need a large fitness ball, the kind you can find in all gyms and most retail supermarkets as well, in case you’d like to use one at home. To perform the exercise, you need to sit on the floor (on an exercising mat, to be more precise) and have the fitness ball between your legs. Your soles must touch the ground and your knees must be bent. Extend your hands and arms and hug the ball all around, squeezing as tightly as you can. Maintain the pose for 3-4 seconds, keeping a firm grip on the ball so that it doesn’t slip from your grasp and send you flat on your back on the floor. Relax and repeat the exercise 5-6 times per workout.
Hug Knees to Chest– A variation to the previous exercise that doesn’t need even a fitness ball to enable the workout, this exercise has you starting out in the same position, only to hug your knees instead of the ball. After gripping them in a tight hug, allow yourself to slip back on the mattress on your back, still gripping your knees in a hug. Roll back and forth a few times, then return to the sitting position and relax the grip. Repeat 5-6 times per workout.
Lower back exercises for sensitive spines (recovered spine injury patients)
First of all, you need to understand that if you’re experiencing back problems, the first course of action needed would be to attend physical therapy or pain relief management. Exercising without a doctor’s consent and help can be dangerous, since a core disc may move in the wrong way and overlap the other, leading to potential nerve injury. Any bulging and painful protuberance along your spine should be looked at by a medical professional. A herniated back or one affected by a degenerative disease or lumbar painis not something to be taken lightly.
If you feel any spasms or lack of ease in your lower back after exercising, even in the absence of pain, you should still consider joining a spine rehab therapy program. Your physical therapist should recommend personalized exercises for your specific type of problem (sciatica, arthritis and stenosis can be very different from each other as far as exercising is concerned, and in order to avoid a bad outcome you need a professional opinion). Most probably, you will enter a form of pleasant therapy (which also includes a series of mild exercises, with the help of the foam roller but also without any equipment, personalized to your specific problem) called the McKenzie method. You can usually find pdf information about this therapy online easily.
If your problems are not worrying or acute, but more like in the area of chronic pain, then some mild exercises can be just the thing you need to relieve it. The following exercise is also useful for pregnant women, in order to reduce third trimester abdominal pressure on the spine.
The curl-up: Originally designed as an alternative to abdominal crunches which is milder on the back, the curl-up is considered today one of the best healing exercises for a troubled lower back area as well. The exercise is also good during pregnancy to help women deal with back pressure and pain. It was devised by Dr. Stuart McGill and it goes like this: sit on the floor as you would do normally, for a crunch, just with a knee slightly lifted from the ground and bent. Keep your hands behind your head and don’t strain to keep your lower back glued to the floor, a small space between your back and the floor is natural and most welcome. Gently lift your upper back area (your head and your shoulders), hold the pose briefly and relax back down.
Lower back exercises for home (with no equipment)
As you may have noticed, some of the most intensely stimulating lower back exercises presented above make use of specialized equipment such as Atlas stones or barbells. But for those of you who want to practice lower back exercises at home, on occasion or even all the time, the lack of equipment is an issue. Don’t worry: there are plenty of efficient exercises which you can practice with nothing but a mattress at your feet. Here are our most popular choices:
Child’s pose– This is another type of stretching exercise great for your lower back area, and that doesn’t require any type of machines at all. Another advantage of this exercise is that it’s not too straining or tiring at all, it just produces a good stretch in your lower back muscles and helps make it more flexible, as well as helping with the fat burning process in the area. To perform this exercise, sit on your hands and knees on a working mat. Put your arms in front of you on the floor and lower your butt down to sit on your heels. Also lower your upper body in order to make your forehead touch the ground. Let your arms drag in front of you while you round up your back, or arch it. Maintain the pose for 10 seconds or so, stretching your entire spine. Bring your hands next to your knees while you arch your back further. Relax and repeat. As a note, this exercise can become a bit uncomfortable for the knees, so avoid it if you suffer from any knee problems. Also make sure you always practice only with a comfortable exercise mat or thin cushion placed under your knees.
Crossover reversed lunge– This exercise is a variation on the classic lunge, which again needs no special equipment or a machine besides comfortable clothing and perhaps an exercise mat to protect your knees from the floor’s harshness. You will love this one. To begin, stand up with your feet at shoulder length apart. This will be the starting position, to which you will eventually return to. Step back with one foot and perform a rear lunge by flexing the hips and the front knee. Lower your other knee to the floor. As you perform this typical reverse lunge move, also rotate your torso across the front leg. Switch sides and repeat. This puts stretching pressure on the lower back area and is a very effective fat burner for both men and women. You will start feeling a tingling sensation in your lower back muscles after a while, so you will notice that the exercise is actually efficient.
Cat stretch– Already described above, at the section on lower back exercises for women.
Dancer’s stretch– Very similar to the cat stretch, the dancer’s stretch looks like it’s part of a warm-up routine of a dancer before a big show. You need to sit up on the floor (or on the work-out mat), with one leg crossed over the other. For example, cross your right leg over your left, with the knee bent. The left leg should remain straight on the floor. Put your left hand on your right leg and your right arm on the floor, supporting your bodyweight. Rotate your upper body to the right, keeping your lower body in place. Hold for 10-20 second, then reverse sides and perform the same pose on the other side of your body.
To perform a proper lower back workout, make sure you have the necessary props to feel comfortable and don’t adventure yourself way past your training level. If you’re a beginner in exercising, putting a lot of strain all of a sudden on a certain area isn’t recommended at all, especially when the area at hand is full of delicate and accident-prone nerves. Therefore, a lower back workout for beginners should be limited to 10 series of exercises, to not risk any nerve damage. Compose your own routine from the types of exercises we presented above, adapted to your own physical shape and your workout goals. Those with more experience in gym training can extend this limit to 20 series of exercises per workout. Also, just like in the case of any other type of workout and sports of any kind, don’t forget to breathe properly and to drink a little water from time to time, for optimal effects in the well-being of your body and your mind. Enjoy and good luck!