How to Do Back Extensions: Muscles Worked & Proper Form

Back Extension exercise technique

Muscles Worked in Back Extensions

Muscles worked in back extensions

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Back Extensions

  1. First, adjust the machine: The top pad should be positioned against the top of your thighs.
  2. Step onto the machine and position yourself with your feet shoulder-width apart and your upper thighs against the top pad.
  3. Your upper body should be hanging off the edge of the machine, with your arms crossed over your chest or your hands behind your head.
  4. Hold a weight plate against your chest or a barbell across your shoulders if you want to use additional weight.
  5. Prepare to lift: Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, engage your lower back muscles to lift your upper body until your body forms a straight line.
  6. Hold this position for a second, then inhale as you slowly lower your upper body back down to the starting position. Make sure to keep your movements slow and controlled, and don’t use momentum to swing your body up or down.

Introduction to the Back Extension Exercise

The back extension is a classic exercise for strengthening your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.

Back extension start and top position
Start and top position of the back extension exercise.

The back extension exercise can be performed on the floor (see floor back extension) or on a bench like the one pictured above. It involves lifting your upper body up to form a straight line, and lowering yourself back down to the starting position again.

Benefits of The Back Extension Exercise

The back extension exercise offers numerous benefits for anyone looking to improve their strength and overall fitness, particularly regarding spinal flexibility, posture, and lower body function.

  • Stronger spinal extensors. The back extension works your erector spinae, which is a group of muscles that run along your spine and help you maintain an upright posture. When you lift your upper body, these muscles are engaged to keep your back straight.
  • Improved spinal flexibility and control. Performing the back extension exercise can improve your spinal flexibility, which can help you maintain a comfortable posture and reduce the risk of back pain and injury. By engaging your spinal muscles and lifting your upper body, you can stretch and strengthen the muscles along your spine, which can improve your overall spinal mobility.
  • Variation from neutral spine training. In many heavy compound exercises, like the deadlift or squat, a neutral spine position throughout the lift is often emphasized. While that may be a good idea in those exercises, the reality is that in our real life, we bend our spine all the time, and often under load. Allowing for spinal movement in the back extension prepares and strengthens your back for these situations, which might lead to a more resilient and healthy back.

Back Extension Variations

The back extension exercise can be varied in several ways to target different muscles, increase the difficulty of the exercise, or add some variety to your workout routine.

Here are some common variations of the back extension exercise.

  • Using different equipment. The back extension exercise can be performed on a mat or bench, or using a back extension machine. Each piece of equipment will offer a slightly different challenge, and you can choose the one that works best for your fitness level and goals.
  • Changing arm position. To change the difficulty of the exercise, you can change the position of your arms. Hold your hands behind your head to make the exercise harder, or place them on your hips to make it easier.
  • Adding resistance. You can add weights to increase the difficulty of the exercise. Two ways to add weights is to hold a weight plate or dumbbell against your chest or place a barbell over your shoulders.
  • Changing tempo. By changing the tempo of the exercise, you can alter the difficulty of the exercise, and also target and strengthen specific positions. For example, you can hold the top position with a static contraction for an amount of time, or you can perform the eccentric portion slowly.
  • Stiff Spine vs. Roll-up. You can choose whether you want to keep your spine straight throughout the movement (well, as straight as possible) and mostly use your hips and lower back, or you can try the “roll-up” technique: in this variation, you try to extend one vertebrae joint at a time, creating a rolling or wave-like motion in your spine. This should be done very slowly and controlled initially.

Back Extension Alternatives

While the back extension exercise is a great way to strengthen your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, it’s not the only exercise that targets these muscles.

If you’re looking for variety in your workout routine, or if you have limited equipment and space, there are several alternative exercises that can help you build a stronger, more flexible back and reduce your risk of back pain and injury.

In this section, we’ll explore some of the best back extension alternatives, including exercises that target your core, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles.

1. Good Morning

The good morning exercise targets your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, and can be performed using a barbell or dumbbells.

To do a good morning, place a bar across your shoulders, and hinge forward while keeping your back straight and your knees just slightly bent. A good cue for nailing the proper form is to think “butt back”.

The key to the good morning is to start with very light weights and focus on control and form. Then you can gradually increase the weights from there.

2. Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is one of the most popular back exercises in the world. It is a compound exercise that works many of your major muscle groups at the same time, with an emphasis on your glutes, lower back, and hamstrings.

You perform a deadlift by lifting a barbell off the floor up to a standing position, using your back and lower body muscles.

Once again, proper form and starting light while you build up your back’s tolerance are key here. Done this way, the deadlift has been shown to decrease back-pain in patients.1

If the traditional barbell deadlifts feel uncomfortable, you might want to try trap bar deadlifts.

3. Trap Bar Deadlift

Trap bar deadlift with high handles
Trap Bar Deadlift (with high handles)

The trap bar deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift where you use a trap bar (also known as hex bar).

Trap bars usually have two levels of handles: one pair at standard barbell height, and one pair slightly higher off the ground. Thanks to the high handles and the slight change in position, the trap bar deadlift moves some of the load away from your back and hips and instead onto your legs.2 This can be useful if you want to train your back and lower body, but feel that the regular deadlift is to intense or uncomfortable.

You can read more about the trap bar in our article about trap bar deadlift benefits.

4. Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift exercise is another variation of the traditional deadlift, emphasizing your glutes and hamstrings, although it also works your lower back.

To perform the Romanian deadlift, lift a bar up to the starting position (the top position of a deadlift). Then hinge forward and lower the barbell close to your thighs and knees. Like in the good morning exercise, thinking “butt back” can help you maintain proper form.

5. Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell swing is the most classic kettlebell exercise, and works similar muscles to the barbell deadlift or good morning.

Perform a kettlebell by swinging it back between your legs, then forcefully extend your hips to send it flying forward and up. Let the kettlebell travel to about chest height before you lower it and swing it back between your legs again.

Think of the kettlebell swing as a hip hinge exercise, not a squat.

6. Floor Back Extension

Finally, the floor back extension is a body-weight alternative when no equipment is available.

This exercise works your lower body muscles, but the resistance is fairly light, meaning that well-trained people might find this exercise too easy. For beginners or for just getting some blood flow to your lower back muscles, it’s still useful.

Back Extension Workout

You can train the back extension on its own or as part of a complete back workout.

How many sets and reps should you do in the back extension?

A good rule of thumb is to do two to three sets, each with ten to twelve reps.

The back extension lends itself well to a medium number of reps, whereas low reps (with heavy weights) or high reps usually doesn’t feel as comfortable. If you can do more than twelve reps using just your own bodyweight, consider adding weight, for example by holding a weight plate against your chest.

The back extension is part of our sample back workout, creatively named the StrengthLog back workout. Here’s how it looks.

StrengthLog’s Back Workout

  1. Deadlift: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Pull-Up (or Lat Pulldown): 3 sets x 8 reps
  3. Dumbbell Row: 3 sets x 10 reps
  4. Back Extension: 3 sets x 12 reps
  5. Reverse Dumbbell Fly: 3 sets x 15 reps

This back workout is available for free in our workout log app.

By tracking your workouts in our app StrengthLog, you can keep track of your weights and reps and increase them the next workout, which is the key to long-term muscle growth and strength gains.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

Back Extension FAQ

Let’s answer some of the most common questions about back extensions.

  1. Do back extensions hurt your back?
  2. How often should you do back extensions?
  3. Where should I feel back extensions?
  4. Are back extensions good for the glutes?

1. Do Back Extensions Hurt Your Back?

Here’s the thing: any exercise has the potential to hurt you, and at the same time, the potential to strengthen your body and make it more resilient. The key with any strength training exercise is to begin light, with a low number of sets, and gradually increase the weight and training volume.

That way, you don’t shock your tissues with a movement they’re unused to, and they get time to adapt to the new stimulus. This enables them to grow stronger and more robust.

So, do back extensions hurt your back? If you do too much, too soon, they can. If you start light and gradually increase your training, on the other hand, they will build muscle and make your back stronger.

2. How Often Should You Do Back Extensions?

Similar to the last question, the answer is that it depends. If you train very light and with low volume, you can do almost any exercise daily. If you train very hard and do many sets, you might need a week of recovery.

A good rule of thumb is to do back extensions once or twice weekly and do two to three sets per workout. Combined with starting light and gradually increasing the weight and reps, this should give you good conditions for strength and muscle gain at a low risk of injury.

3. Where Should I Feel Back Extensions?

You should feel back extensions in your glutes, lower back, and hamstrings. More specifically, it should be a feeling of pump or tiredness in your muscles, not an aching feeling deep in your lower back.

If you get back aches after doing back extensions, consider taking a week or two off from training back extensions. When you pick it up again, lower your training volume and weights, revise your form, and perhaps ask a personal trainer or gym instructor to help you with your form.

4. Are Back Extensions Good for the Glutes?

Yes, back extensions work your glutes. Your glutes extend your hips, which is what you do in the back extension.

To ensure that your hips can bend and your glutes can work properly, make sure to keep the top pad against the top of your thighs. You don’t want it to hinder you from leaning forward, as that will decrease the movement in your hip.

When lifting your upper body, make sure to squeeze your glutes hard. You can also hold the top position (with your glutes squeezed hard) for a second or two before lowering yourself back again.

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  1. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2015 Feb;45(2):77-85, B1-4. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2015.5021. Individualized low-load motor control exercises and education versus a high-load lifting exercise and education to improve activity, pain intensity, and physical performance in patients with low back pain: a randomized controlled trial.
  2. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jul;25(7):2000-9. A biomechanical analysis of straight and hexagonal barbell deadlifts using submaximal loads.