A strong lower back is essential to stabilize the torso and to prevent injury. Many people find that when they add extra lower back work to their workouts, their squats and deadlifts improve. In addition, a strong lower back is a healthy and pain-free lower back, which is important for desk job monkeys like me, as well as anyone who includes bending, reaching, and picking things up as part of their daily routine (mothers of small children, that’s probably you).
But it’s easy to screw up lower back work, and the most common error is rounding the lower back. To get a feel for the position that your lower back should be in, stand with your back against a wall, arms at your sides. Take a deep breath, pushing your chest up and out. Then slide your hand between the wall and your lower back. Feel that space there? There is (or should be) a natural arch in your spine as it curves gently forward towards your belly button then back towards your tailbone. This is the arch you wish to maintain at all times during lower back work.
For more on low back pain and preventing it, see my article series on low back pain. Beginners might consider starting with a broomstick or holding a light weight plate to their chest for the good morning, or using another exercise such as the back hyperextensions below. Folks who suffer from low back pain should focus on improving the endurance of their low back, abdominal, and oblique muscles (for more on this, see Stuart McGill’s work). The good morning ideally should not be done as a maximal strength exercise; rather it is best done with lower weight and higher reps, stopping well short of failure or total fatigue. It is essential for this type of exercise that the spine be able to stabilize itself, and when the muscles that surround it get tired, they will be less able to hold the thing together… which is a rather bad thing when there’s a weight on you.
This exercise is known as a good morning. The bar is placed across the shoulders as if about to begin a squat. Then, one bends at the hips, keeping lower back arched, and lowers the upper body till roughly parallel to the floor, or until one is no longer able to maintain the proper lower back arch.
The two most common mistakes, which are related to one another, is keeping the legs locked and hyperextended, and the lower back rounded. I cringe just looking at this picture, which makes me wonder if good form is also aesthetic form. Perhaps the eye knows instinctively what the body wants?
As I keep harping on, this exercise can be dangerous to the spine if not properly performed. If the back is rounded during this movement, it puts a great deal of load on parts of the spine, which can lead to herniated disks and all kinds of other nasty things. I would advise anyone with a history of back trauma to avoid this exercise. However, when performed correctly, this movement is a good lower back exercise for those who can tolerate it. The key is to learn proper technique and begin with very light weight. A 45-lb bar might be too much for a beginner, who should practice the movement first with no weight at all.
So, as I said, begin by placing the bar across the shoulders as if to begin a squat. I’m showing this exercise on the floor, but I suggest you do this from a rack instead of trying to lift the bar up and over your head to get it into position. Or have someone place it on your back for you, if you are using light weight (and you should be, in the beginning). Chest up and out, shoulders back, legs slightly bent (OK, they’re not bent in the first pic, but do as I say, not as I do hehe). As you come down, take care to keep lower back slightly arched and shoulders back. Do not hunch or round any part of your back. During this movement, keep looking up slightly. This will help you stay in position.
The pic on the right shows the approximate position of the bottom of the rep (I’m a bit high there, but you get the idea). The upper body is brought parallel to the floor, or as close as possible without rounding the back. I find I have to sort of stick my butt out and bend my knees a bit more to do this, as you can see in the pic. Some people find they have problems with the bar rolling around. Experimentation with bar position often helps with this, as does wrapping the bar in a towel.
A variation on good mornings that I almost prefer is doing them one-legged. With the bar on your back, step one foot forward in a big step. Keep legs straight with knees slightly bent. Then bend from the hips as you would with a regular good morning. Do one set, then switch sides for the next set.
Here is a safer lower back exercise, which is good for a beginner. The back hyperextension is done on a hyperextension bench, which most gyms have.
In the picture on the left is the bottom of the back hyper. For some reason, in the pics I have my hands on my hips, which I never do. I suggest you experiment to find the hand position which you prefer, though I recommend crossing your arms across your chest. Legs are slightly bent. You can’t see it too well in the picture, but my lower back is slightly arched.
Using the contraction of your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes, slowly unbend at the hips and raise your upper body. The pic on the right shows the top of the rep. At the top of each rep, take a deep breath pushing chest up and out, to get lower back in proper position again. While some exercises lend themselves well to fast, explosive reps, this is an exercise you should be absolutely fanatical about doing slowly and under control.
As you get better at these, you will want to add resistance. The best way to do this is to hold a weight plate against your chest, as shown at left. Don’t put it behind your head, as this will put pressure on the upper spine and neck, and encourage you to round the lower back.