Key Points

  • Back pain is not from a bad back
  • Exercises to strengthen your lower back should focus on glutes and hamstrings
  • The back extension machine might be the worst piece of equipment since the Shake Weight

Back pain is a bitch.

No matter what you do, it hurts.

Most people chalk it up to a bad back or old age.

More likely than not it’s not your back that is the issue; it’s just a symptom.

It’s the stuff around it that needs a bit of work.

So in this article I’m going to show you how to bulletproof your lower back so you can go back to enjoying life pain free.

How To Strengthen Your Lower Back 

Back in school there was always a freeloader when it was time to work on a group project.

They’d always skate through while the rest of the group did all the work.

That’s what is happening here.

Your glutes are the freeloader and your lower back is the rest of the group doing more than their share of the heavy lifting.

Lower back pain, and muscle pain or tightness in general, is more likely tied to weak surrounding muscles.

So it’s not that you have a bad back, it’s that they are overworked.

We sit too much which leads to pancake ass and your ass “forgetting” how to work.  Dan John calls this gluteal amnesia.

What you want is two fine hams in your pants.  

A strong rear end is going to take the excess pressure off your lower back, help you lift better, and give you confidence in everyday life that a sneeze isn’t going to throw your back out.

To strengthen you back, strengthen your glutes.

Exercises To Strengthen Your Lower Back

The best glute exercises are all the ones where you have to hinge at the hips.  Think about it like you are working on your sex strokes.

By hinging at the hips you engage your glutes and hamstrings.

^^ Proper hip hinge form btw, not the Ace Ventura form

These are my favorite ones and the ones I most often give to clients:

Romanian Deadlifts (DB/Barbell/trap bar)

Barbell Hip Thrusts

Glute raises

Glute focus back extension

Work these exercises in 3-4 sets on your full body and/or lower body days.  The rep ranges will depend on the exercises so here is what I recommend:

Romanian Deadlifts (DB/Barbell/trap bar) 6-10 reps/set

BB Hip Thrusts 8-12 reps/set

Glute raises As a warmup: 10-15 reps/set; As an exercise within your workout: 10-20 reps/set

Glute focus back extension 8-12 reps/set

Once you address the glutes,the next important part is to build up your core.  Again the sitting thing and the lack of a need to brace your core (in turn causing it to weaken) can put more pressure on your lower back.

The next part of the plan is to work your abs smart.

Smart Ab Work

When it comes to your core, there are two categories of ab exercise you need to perform.

  1. Activation 
  2. Spinal Flexion

Activation ab exercises strengthen and activate your core when it’s flexed (arched back, bending sideways) or to prevent excess rotation. 

Moving forward we’ll call these anti extension, anti lateral flexion, and anti rotation aka the big three of ab exercises.

You want your core to resist all those excess movements to protect your spine and to transfer force up and down your body.  When you have a lot of excess movement due to a weak core you that force will rear it’s ugly head in the weakest part, aka your lower back.

With these activation exercises, bodyweight is more than enough.  The idea is to activate the muscle, not kill it. So there’s no need to bro out here.  

The second category is spinal flexion.  This is your crunches and situps.  Anything that flexes your spine is going to engage those ab muscles.

Check out my favorite Smart Ab Exercises.  That article will tell you how to put them in your workout to strengthen your core and save your lower back…and get abs if you’re into that.

If you can strengthen your glutes and your core, you’ll essentially have a bulletproof back.

Exercises For When Your Lower Back Is In Pain 

IF you’re in pain, the best thing to do is to wait it out.  Adding more stress to the area when it’s already sensitive is asking for trouble.

If you can do some things then anything that doesn’t load your spine is going to be key.  Hip thrusts and glute raises would be my top two.  Anything that activates and builds up the glutes is going to be your answer.

My suggestion is to start with body weight.  Once you can crush 3 sets of 12-15 with perfect form, then start adding weight.  

Once your back is better and pain free, add in your RDL’s. 

Lower Back Pain Exercises To Avoid 

When it comes to investing you want to make sure there is a good risk to reward ratio.  If the downside is too great you’re better off not doing it.  

Picking exercises is no different.

There are certain exercises due to a lack of coordination, experience or mobility that present a greater risk of injury than they are worth.

Number one on that list is Good Mornings.

The slightest arch in your back or twist and you just secured yourself a spot on the couch popping ibuprofen for the next few days.

The risk to reward ratio is way outta whack here.  You can get a lot more glute activation doing RDLs or glute raises and greatly reduce the risk. 

Totally pointless exercise.

Another totally pointless exercise with a lesser risk to reward ratio is the back extension machine.  This doesn’t address your weak points (glutes and core) so there is no point to doing it.

Life Fitness Pro1 back extension | Life Fitness Pro1 | Fitness Superstore |  Life Fitness Pro1 | back extension

Wrap it up B

Lower back pain is a bitch.  

It can bring your quality of life down REAL QUICK.  As a guy that was couch ridden for the first 8 months of my marriage due to a herniated disc and back surgery recovery, I know the struggle.

Any exercises to strengthen your lower back should involve you getting a stronger rear end. A strong rear end is THE BEST thing you can do for your lower back pain and quality of life.