There's a movement term invented by Original Strength's Tim Anderson: good, better, and best. Even if a movement is performed poorly, it's still "good" because any movement is better than sitting on the couch. But the number of times I've seen lifters make back extension mistakes over the years challenges Tim's ethos.
When performed correctly, the back extension exercise engages the muscles of the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings through a wide range of motion, resulting in increased strength and hypertrophy. And it's a highly versatile exercise that can be loaded in a variety of ways to increase size and strength.
The problem is that this exercise is either neglected on far more TikTok-worthy exercises or just plain sloppy. The correct form works "best" with the back extension.
Here's how to perform this awesome exercise, what it takes, and some common back extension mistakes that are preventing you from getting the most out of it.
How to do the bodyweight back extension
- Secure your feet on the back extension machine with your hips over the padding.
- Cross your arms in front of your chest.
- Then, keeping your chest up and shoulders down, slowly lower your torso until you feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings.
- Be careful not to round your lower back.
- Raise your glutes and lower back until your body is in line with your legs.
- Reset and repeat.
What is required for good form
There's not much to do with back extensions, and after watching a YouTube video or two, you too can get some good reps on the back extension machine. It is an exercise that is easy to progress and regress and will benefit all strength athletes. Because you can't have enough strength in your lower back and glutes.
- The setup is crucial for this exercise. This simple step causes some lifters to stumble. Make sure your heels are secured and your pelvis is NOT on the pad.
- Neutral spine throughout the range of motion, because when you flex and straighten your lower back, you're not working the intended muscles.
- Some thoracic (upper back) mobility is required to lift your chest up and lower your shoulders so you can maintain a good lift posture.
- Walk slowly, not fast. Some exercises are designed to be done quickly, but the back stretch exercise is not one of them. You want to feel the muscles working.
4 Common Back Extension Mistakes
Although this is a simple step, mistakes can still be made that reduce the effectiveness of this exercise. Here are four things NOT to do with this excellent lower back and glute exercise.
Artificial range of motion
With exercises that target the lower back and glutes, there's a temptation to hyperextend the lower back to allow for more range of motion. This is an absolute no-no because if you continue like this, in a way, your lower back will be telling you that this isn't working properly. If you feel this in your lower back rather than your glutes, that's a sign you're going too far.
Fix it: Finish the range of motion with the glutes by tightening them vigorously until you lockout your approach. Just make sure you don't go too far.
Too much momentum
The back extension is not a 1RM exercise, but rather adds toning volume to the glutes and lower back. It's better to exercise in a controlled manner and feel the glutes and hamstrings than to use momentum. Here it is better to focus on tension rather than speed.
Fix it: It's easy to say to slow down, which you should, but performing the back extension at a tempo of, say, 3 seconds eccentric and concentric with a 3 second glute press-down (tempo 3033) is sufficient.
Know the difference between hip and back
As with the bird dog exercise, some lifters find it difficult to tell the difference between the hip stretch and the lower back stretch. To do this exercise well, it's important to know how to articulate the hip joint and not the lumbar spine.
Fix it: Tempo is a good place to start, and it's important to feel the stretch in your hamstrings, not your back. Knowing how to move your hips is also important. If you're struggling to understand the difference between hips and backs, it may be necessary to go back to basics.
The back extension is easier to perform when the hips are on the pad, but is less effective. The movement for this exercise occurs at the hip joint, and if you tighten your hips you lose the muscle building benefits for your lower back and glutes.
Fix it: Adjust the padding so it rests on your quadriceps and not your pelvis.