Exercises for the “core” are an indispensable part of strengthening the back, particularly the lower back. In referring to the core, it can mean the following:
- The body’s core musculature; this describes unified and robust musculature for the entire body. Core musculature considers balanced development of large muscles – like the pectoralis – as well as deeper, smaller, supporting muscles – like those of the rotator cuff.
- The individual’s core strength; this is baseline, basic, or essential strength throughout the body. Core strength suggests coordination, stability, control, and power.
- The core region of the human body; this is the musculature of the abdomen, i.e., mostly the stomach, waist, and lower back, but also hips. Muscles of the core (i.e., the rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae) support the spine and stabilize the torso.
Here we are focused on exercises for the core region of the human body such that they will specifically develop the lower back, as part of that region; but, these spine-articulating exercises will further core musculature and contribute to core strength. In other words, a weak lower back will be a hindrance to realizing a unified and robust musculature for the entire body and be a hole in the body’s essential strength.
Core exercises for the lower back involve extension/hyperextension of the spine. This means, from a hunched or bent over position, straightening the vertebral column, resulting in an increase of angle between the thorax (i.e., your torso) and pelvis. This articulation utilizes primarily the erector spinae (i.e., muscle of the spine most relevant to the lower back) and quadratus lumbaorum (a second, deeper muscle of the lower back) in the “posterior chain.” The posterior chain is a group of muscles, tendons and ligaments on your backside. These muscles include the biceps femoris (i.e., hamstrings), gluteus maximus (i.e., butt), erector spinae muscle group, trapezius (i.e., upper back/shoulders), posterior deltoids (i.e., the rear of your outer shoulder), and so on.
Example core exercises for the lower back are back extensions (using a Roman chair) and the straight-legged deadlift (using a barbell). These are principal, compound, pulling movements. The straight-legged deadlift is very effective at building mass and strength in the rear of the thighs as well as the lower back.
Another awesome, though too often neglected, core exercise is the conventional deadlift; another principle, compound, pulling movement that primarily employs the erector spinae. Deadlifts are perfect practice for those troubled to lift items off of the floor; you’ve probably heard the advice, “use your legs.”
Conventional (i.e., hands grasping the bar with the feet placed between them) deadlifts have more lower-back activation. This exercise is an essential component of a well balanced, total-body routine. Unfortunately, most casual or amateur weight trainers ignore just about every compound movement – like deadlifts, squats, and bent-over rows – except for the bench press, which most will do too much of while neglecting a multitude of other exercises for the rest of the body. This neglect is a significant contributor to their failure to develop fully their core musculature and they remain weak in terms of core strength.
The value of the deadlift is tied to extension of the spine and requisite use of the erector spinae; although it is associated with lifting heavy, there’s no basis for you to assume that the deadlift is unnecessary in your workout because you do not lift heavy.
“I’ve got a bad [lower] back” is a popular claim. The truth of the matter is more often than not a case of someone with a weak and inflexible lower back, a shortfall of knowledge, and an abundance of fear of injury. The presumptions, ignorance, and fear lead to a widespread aversion to the core exercises, such as the deadlift, that are precisely what are needed to address many of the “bad” backs in the populace. Many novice lifters, and even those who have spent years in the gym, are simply intimidated by the deadlift.
Those willing to attempt it too often compromise the movement through bad form motivated by lingering fear and uncertainty. At first try, they conclude, based on difficulty with the deadlift, that they movement is in some way not suited to them. The dominant issue, in my experience, is inflexibility and posterior chain weakness. Simply put, the people having trouble with the deadlift find it nearly as difficult to get into or out of a deep crouching position with bodyweight alone!
If you cannot crouch, you’ll be hard pressed to deadlift correctly. If you cannot crouch, it will be essential to improve your flexibility. Then, when appropriate flexibility is gained, it will be also essential to get accustomed to the deadlift and learn proper form with light to moderate weight. The key is maintaining a flat back, that is, a posture without spinal rounding.
Back extensions, straight-legged deadlifts, and conventional deadlifts synergize when performed in the same routine. If you have difficulty with one, the others will aid and abet improvement in the exercise.
Back extensions don’t require the flexibility that the deadlift requires; but, they also don’t have the same potential to encourage muscle growth as the deadlift. The back extension will be useful if the person trying to deadlift is flexible but weak in the lower back, especially the erector spinae, and has troubling lifting dead weight off of the floor. It could be helpful for someone to use a Swiss ball in place of a Roman chair to do back extensions, or even to train the lower back more conveniently at home.
Straight-legged deadlifts require flexibility in the hamstrings and lower back more than in the hips and calves. The straight-legged deadlift will be useful if the person trying to deadlift is flexible enough to get down into a crouch but needs help “locking out” the deadlift.
Performing these core exercises for the lower back will yield a more unified core musculature and a robust body with greater core strength.