How to Do Back Extensions?

How to Do Back Extensions?

The back extension is a versatile exercise that can be performed virtually anywhere. It can be used as part of a training program to build strength or a rehabilitation program for injury recovery. Numerous back extension adaptations that can fit all fitness levels and needs are available.

Back extension exercises can be performed with or without any equipment. While back extensions are relatively low risk in terms of injury, it’s important to ensure that you maintain the correct back extension form when performing these exercises.

What Is a Back Extension?

Back extension is an isolation exercise that mainly targets your low back. It’s a low-impact alternative to many back exercises, so it still activates the same muscle groups that more intense movements do but with lower injury risk.

Back extension exercises may be used in training programs to support other more complex exercise movements. They’re also extremely beneficial when used in recovery programs to help people who have back injuries or limited mobility.

Back extension is also one of the most versatile isolation exercises. Back extension exercises can be done using only your body weight or with additional weights, resistance bands, or specific machines. You can use specific machines like a Roman chair or a Hyperextension bench to do these exercises.

What Muscles Do Back Extensions Work?

Back extension exercises specifically focus on the low back and the erector spinae muscle groups — which help you support, protect, and extend your spinal column and entire back.

  • Posterior chain muscle group. These are the muscles of the backside of your body and include the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and  calf muscles. They work together to help you jump, rotate, lift, or land.
  • Erector spinae muscle group. These muscles form the intermediate layer of the back muscles and comprise three subgroups. They work together to help you with spine extension.
  • Quadratus lumborum. This muscle is located in the deep areas of the spine and involves the iliac crest, the lumbar vertebrae, and the 12th rib. It helps neighboring muscles in the posterior chain muscle group exert tension better.
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Back extension muscles worked may also include the middle and upper back muscles as well as the oblique muscles for stabilization.

How to Do a Back Extension

There are multiple versions of back extensions which can be performed depending on the equipment you use.

To perform floor back extensions with just your body weight and no equipment, follow these steps:

  1. Lie on your stomach in a comfortable and spacious area with your hands behind your head.
  2. Exhale and raise your chest off the floor by squeezing your gluteus muscles and contracting your lower back.
  3. Pause for a second at the top while continuing to squeeze the lower back muscles.
  4. Inhale and slowly lower your chest back to the floor by releasing the contraction of your glutes and lower back.
  5. Aim for two or three sets of 8 to 15 repetitions (reps).

To perform back extensions using a Roman chair or Hyperextension bench, follow these steps:

  1. Lie face down on a Roman chair/Hyperextension bench and tuck your ankles securely in the catches. Adjust the pads so your upper thighs lie flat across them, leaving room to bend at the waist.
  2. Cross your arms in front of your chest or behind your head. Maintain a straight line in your body.
  3. Inhale and slowly bend forward at the waist.
  4. Exhale and raise your torso up from the waist by contracting your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Keep raising your torso until your body is in a straight line. Do not overextend.
  5. Aim for two or three sets of 8 to 15 reps.

To perform a seated back extension, follow these steps:

  1. Sit comfortably on a back extension machine. Adjust the back support pad so that it’s right below the back of your neck and above the middle of your back. Adjust the leg settings so you have a slight bend in the legs when doing the exercise.
  2. Cross your arms in front of your chest and keep your back straight.
  3. Exhale as you lean back with a straight spine.
  4. Inhale as you return to the starting position.
  5. Aim for two or three sets of 8 to 15 reps.
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Aim to stay in control and maintain the correct range of motion. If working with weights, pick a load where you feel challenged but can still perform 8 to 15 reps with correct form.

Back Extension Adaptations

Back extension exercises are relatively simple to perform. However, there are some adaptations and alternatives for people with limited mobility or people who also want to target other muscle groups not normally targeted in traditional back extension exercises. These are some of them:

  • Stability ball reverse extensions. This adaptation uses an inflated stability ball. You start by lying face down with your stomach on the ball and both hands and feet on the floor. Slowly walk yourself forward until your hips are directly over the ball, then lift both legs off the floor so they make a straight line with your torso. Pause for a second and then slowly lower both legs at the same time back toward the floor while keeping them straight.
  • Cat-cow. Kneel on the floor with both knees and feet hip-width apart and toes pointing toward your body. Place your hands on the mat directly under your shoulders facing forward. Your knees should be directly under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Start with a straight spine. Bend your spine upwards (flexion) toward the ceiling, holding for 10 to 15 seconds. Then relax and arch your lower back (extension) so your stomach moves toward the floor, holding for 10 to 15 seconds.
  • Supermans. This is similar to floor back extensions but with your arms extended overhead and moving to a position where both your chest and legs are off the floor.

You may also choose to perform the traditional back extensions with weights or resistance bands. Make sure to use the correct load when performing these.

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Benefits of Back Extensions

Back extension exercises improve the stability and strength of your erector spinae muscles. They also improve the range of motion of your lower back and can have a rehabilitative effect on people with poor lumbar or thoracic back posture. Back extensions help with exercises that require significant use of the posterior chain muscles:

  • Improved back stability. This helps with better posture and better performance during other exercises.
  • Reduced injury risk. Strengthening your back helps you avoid overextending your spine. Improving your lower back flexibility also reduces the risk of injuries to your spinal column and low back.
  • Improved body awareness. Stronger back stability helps with other exercises where you need to maintain a straight back, such as deadlifts and barbell rows.
  • Low impact alternative for recovery. Back extensions are good low-impact alternative exercises for people recovering from back injuries or who have limited mobility for various reasons.

Back Extension Mistakes to Avoid

A proper back extension form is essential to make sure that you get all benefits of back extension exercises and stay injury-free. The most common mistake people make when performing back extensions is hyperextending the back. That’s when you arch your back past a straight line.

Working with weights carelessly can also lead to injuries. Excessive weight can put a strain on your smaller muscles and eventually lead to overuse injuries. To prevent this, choose the right weight where you feel challenged but can still perform 8 to 15 reps with the correct form.

Back extension exercises should be performed slowly and with control — your aim should be to improve stability and strength by activating specific muscle groups. Avoid relying on momentum or “swinging” yourself during the movements because this can reduce the total resistance you place on your muscle groups and lower the training effect overall.


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