A strong lower back is key for lifting heavy weights in the gym and for decreasing your risk of injury.
If you want to build a big, strong lower back then this article is for you!
- Part 1: Deadlifts
- Part 2: Barbell Rows
- Part 3: Back Extensions
- Part 4: Good Mornings
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you 13 of the greatest lower back exercises of all time.
The lower back is one of the most important muscle groups in the entire body. The lower back plays a key role in many exercises such as the squat and deadlift.
Just look at this video of Hafthor Bjornsson deadlifting 1,105 pounds:
Talk about a strong lower back! If you want to build a lower back like Hafthor Bjornsson then you have to start using the best lower back exercises.
The best lower back exercises include deadlifts, heavy barbell rows, back extensions and good mornings. You should include all of these exercises in your training program because they all strengthen your lower back in a different way.
Deadlifts are probably the best exercise you can do for building your lower back.
The legendary strongman competitor Jón Páll Sigmarsson says the deadlift is the king of all exercises. Check it out:
“There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift!”
Deadlifts work your lower back plus all of the muscle groups in your lower body and your upper back. They are what you call a “most bang for your buck” exercise.
There are many different types of deadlifts you can perform in your training program. Conventional deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts and snatch grip deadlifts are all great options.
One of my favorite deadlift variations for strengthening the lower back is actually the stiff-legged deadlift against bands. Check it out:
The stiff legged deadlift with bands overloads your lower back in the bottom position AND the top position of the exercise. The feeling is unbelievable!
In part 1 of this guide I will show you all of the best deadlifting variations for building your lower back. It doesn’t matter if you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter or strongman competitor: these deadlifting variations are for you!
Another great exercise for training the lower back is the barbell row.
Most people think of the barbell row as an upper back or lat exercise. This is true – the barbell row is great for building your upper back. However, it is also one of the best lower back exercises you can perform!
Cailer Woolam (AKA “Dr. Deadlift”) says that the barbell row is his #1 accessory exercise for strengthening his lower back and building his deadlift.
Here is Cailer Woolam showing you how he likes to perform his barbell rows:
Cailer Woolam says that the barbell row works more than just the lower back: it actually works every major muscle group used in the deadlift. Check it out:
“The barbell row involves every single major muscle group that’s involved in the deadlift.
We’re getting the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, lats, even out traps. So all-around this is going to be a very, very efficient movement for your deadlift.”
Many bodybuilders also use the barbell row to build up their lower back strength.
In fact the legendary bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman relied exclusively on exercises like heavy barbell rows and t-bar rows to build his lower back. Barbell rows gave Ronnie enough lower back strength to squat and deadlift over 800 pounds!
In part 2 of this article I will show you how to use different variations of the barbell row to build up your lower back strength.
Reverse hyperextensions are another fantastic exercise for strengthening your lower back. Here is a perfect demonstration of the reverse hyperextension:
The reverse hyperextension machine was invented by the powerlifting guru Louie Simmons. He broke his back trying to squat 900 pounds and needed a way to rehabilitate himself.
The reverse hyperextension is so effective because it strengthens your lower back AND rehabilitates it at the same time! The machine actually decompresses your lower back as you use it.
When you squat with several hundred pounds you are compressing your lower back bones together. The reverse hyperextension does the opposite: it decompresses your lower back by increasing the space between your lower back bones.
There are many other back extension machines that you can use to strengthen and rehabilitate your lower back. I will cover the reverse hyperextension machine, the 45 degree back extension and the 90 degree back extension in part 3 of this article.
Good mornings are another underrated lower back exercise. Here is a perfect demonstration of the safety squat bar good morning:
The good morning is an exercise where you lower your upper body down so it’s almost parallel with the ground.
The good morning feels a lot like a stiff-legged deadlift. The big difference is you are performing the exercise with a barbell on your back instead of in your hands!
Good mornings are a tremendous lower back assistance exercise. They build your lower back, glutes and hamstrings almost as well as a regular deadlift.
There are many different ways to perform a good morning. One of the best variations is the safety squat bar good morning. The safety squat bar forces your lower back to work even harder because your center of gravity is further forwards than normal.
In part 4 of this article I will teach you all of the best good morning variations for strengthening your lower back.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of the best lower back exercises! Now let’s down to business…
Part 1: Deadlifts
The deadlift is often called the “king of all exercises.” I don’t know about that but the deadlift is easily the best exercise you can use to strengthen your lower back!
The deadlift lets you use more weight than any other lower back exercise which is fantastic for building maximal strength.
There are many different deadlift variations that you can use to target your lower back. Here are some of your best options:
The Best Lower Back Deadlift Variations
- Option #1: Conventional deadlifts
- Option #2: Stiff legged deadlifts
- Option #3: Trap bar deadlifts
- Option #4: Snatch grip deadlifts
All of these deadlift variations have their own advantages and disadvantages.
The first deadlift variation that you should know about is the conventional deadlift. This variation is very simple: you just deadlift a barbell off the ground.
Here is the legendary Russian powerlifter Konstantin Konstantinovs giving a perfect demonstration of the conventional deadlift:
Konstantin Konstantinovs makes 800+ pounds look like a walk in the park!
The conventional deadlift is a superior exercise for overloading the lower back. It works the lower back through a large range of motion and lets you use a lot of weight.
The main drawback of the conventional deadlift is that it is very hard on your recovery ability.
A lot of bodybuilders and powerlifters will perform rack deadlifts instead of regular deadlifts. The rack deadlift is a partial range of motion deadlift performed in a power rack with the barbell resting on safety pins.
Here is a bodybuilding-style workout performed by John Meadows that you may want to try. Check it out:
John Meadows’ Back Workout
- Exercise #1: Machine pulldown (wide / pronated grip), 3 sets of 15 reps
- Exercise #2: Seated cable row (v-handle), 4 sets of 8 reps
- Exercise #3: Bilateral bent-over kettle bell row, 4 sets of 8 reps
- Exercise #4: Rack deadlift (just below knees), 3 sets of 5 reps
- Exercise #5: Reverse hyperextension, 2 sets of 15 reps
Here is the training video for this workout:
John performs the rack deadlift at the end of his workout after his back is pre-fatigued with different pulldown and rowing exercises.
This is a great strategy for a bodybuilder who wants to use deadlifts to strengthen their lower back while minimizing their risk of injury. You can lift more weight with rack deadlifts but overall they are easier to recover from than regular deadlifts.
Another great deadlift variation for strengthening your lower back is the Romanian deadlift. Here is a perfect video demonstration:
The stiff-legged deadlift is normally thought of a hamstrings exercise. The truth is the stiff-legged deadlift works the lower back, glutes and hamstrings incredibly hard.
One of the big advantages of the stiff-legged deadlift over the conventional deadlift is it’s easier to keep your lower back arched.
Sometimes you will see someone round their lower back during a really heavy set of conventional deadlifts. This may help you lift more weight but it increases your risk of injury.
With the stiff-legged deadlift it is much easier to maintain perfect form with an arched lower back. Many people find the can use stiff-legged deadlifts to build their lower back strength while recovering faster from their workouts and reducing their risk of injury.
There are many ways to make the stiff-legged deadlift more challenging. My favorite is to use powerlifting bands. Check it out:
Normally the Romanian deadlift is hardest at the bottom position and easiest at the top position. With the bands the exercise is hard at the bottom AND at the top!
The bands are literally pulling you down faster than the speed of gravity which places a huge overload on your lower back.
In case you were curious Josh Bryant used this as part of an eccentric-focused lower body workout. Check it out:
Josh Bryant Romanian Deadlift Routine
- Exercise #1: Romanian deadlift with bands, 4 sets of 6-12 reps
- Exercise #2: Lying leg curl, 4 sets of 6-12 reps**
- Exercise #3: Machine squat, 4 sets of 6-12 reps****
- Exercise #4: Hatfield squat, 4 sets of 6-12 reps
**Performed using the 2/1 method. Lift the weight with 2 legs and slowly lower the weight down with 1 leg. Perform 6-12 reps on one leg, then 6-12 reps on the other leg. This counts as 1 set.
****Perform 3 separate 3-second isometric pauses on the eccentric range of each rep.
So far we’ve talked about the conventional deadlift and the Romanian deadlift for strengthening the lower back. Another great deadlift variation is the trap bar deadlift.
Here is Steve Johnson demonstrating the trap bar deadlift:
The trap bar deadlift is performed with a specialty barbell called the trap bar. You actually stand inside the trap bar to perform the exercise. If you don’t have a trap bar then you can click right here to purchase one.
The trap bar deadlift almost feels like a hybrid between a squat and a deadlift. The center of gravity for the exercise is right under your feet so you can almost “leg press” the weight up using your legs.
The trap bar deadlift is an extremely safe way to overload your lower back. It is very easy to keep an arched lower back while performing this exercise and it puts less compressive forces on your lower back.
Many powerlifters like Steve Johnson use this exercise in the offseason to strengthen their lower back while giving their body a break from regular straight-bar deadlifts.
There is one last deadlift variation that you should know about: the snatch grip deadlift.
Here is Dmitry Klokov giving a perfect demonstration of the snatch grip deadlift:
The snatch grip deadlift is just like a regular conventional deadlift. The only difference is you grip the bar with an ultra wide grip. This increases the range of motion of the exercise and puts your body in a weaker mechanical position.
Your lower back and upper back have to work much harder on snatch grip deadlifts than regular deadlifts.
This exercise is so effective that the strength coach Charles Poliquin calls it the #1 exercise for strengthening your lower back and the rest of your body.
Here is a great quote by Charles Poliquin on this exercise:
“If you told me you were going to jail and only had a barbell and didn’t want to get raped in the showers and could only do one exercise to put mass and strength on, then I’d tell you to do the snatch deadlift.”
Charles often has his athletes perform snatch grip deadlifts in the 3-8 rep range for building size and strength. I think you will be shocked at how strong your lower back gets after a few weeks of using this exercise.
The bottom line is deadlifts are the #1 exercise for strengthening your lower back. Deadlifts recruit more muscle fibers than any other exercise and let you train your lower back with very heavy weights.
The regular conventional deadlift is a great choice but some people find it is too difficult to recover from or too dangerous to perform. If that describes you then you have to try the Romanian deadlift, trap bar deadlift and snatch grip deadlift.
Part 2: Barbell Rows
Most people think of barbell rows an upper back exercise.
It’s true that barbell rows are great for training your upper back. However, barbell rows are also one of the best exercises you can perform for your lower back if you know what you are doing.
There are 2 types of rows I want to talk about:
- Option #1: Barbell rows
- Option #2: T-bar rows
There are many other great rowing variations that you can perform. However, barbell rows and t-bar rows are your best options if your goal is to build your lower back.
Here is a great video of Ronnie Coleman performing the barbell row. Check it out:
Talk about a huge barbell row! Ronnie Coleman is rowing 495 pounds like it’s nothing but a peanut!
Ronnie Coleman performs his barbell rows in a really interesting way.
The start of his barbell row looks just like a deadlift. He starts to stand up with the weight using his lower back. Then once the bar reaches his knees he throws his elbows back and contracts his upper back while keeping his lower back still.
This technique places a HUGE amount of stress on both the lower back and the upper back. I mean this in a good way!
If you are an advanced bodybuilder or powerlifter then the “cheating” barbell row can be a great way to shock your lower back into size and strength gains.
Another great variation of the barbell row is called the barbell dead stop row. Here is the 4x World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw demonstrating this exercise:
This is a really interesting exercise! Brian Shaw literally deadlifts the weight up to his knees. Then he stops pulling with his lower back and starts driving his elbows back to pull the bar into his stomach.
The barbell dead stop row is like a hybrid between a conventional deadlift and a barbell row. It places a huge overload on your lower back.
In the first half of the movement you are accelerating the bar as fast as possible to gain momentum. Then in the top half of the movement your lower back has to contract isometrically to keep your upper body from falling over.
This exercise is very taxing on your body but it works incredibly well for building up your lower back strength.
Another great rowing exercise for your lower back is the t-bar row. Check it out:
Dusty Hanshaw is giving a perfect demonstration of the t-bar row. If you watch closely you will see that Dusty initiates the movement with his lower back.
He performs the start of the exercise like a deadlift to get the bar moving and gain momentum. Then he pulls his elbows backwards to contract his upper back.
The lower back works very hard to initiate the pull at the start and at the top where it has to contract isometrically.
Dusty Hanshaw relies exclusively on deadlifts, barbell rows and t-bar rows to build his lower back and he can deadlift over 700 pounds for reps. This just shows you the power of heavy rowing exercises for building your lower back!
Sometimes you will see bodybuilders perform the t-bar row with lots of cheating. Check out this video of Ronnie Coleman performing the t-bar row:
Ronnie Coleman is t-bar rowing 9 plates – wow!!
Using looser form like this places a huge overload on your lower back. The exercise becomes a hybrid between a conventional deadlift and a t-bar row. The downside is that it increases your risk of injury.
I recommend most bodybuilders or powerlifters copy Dusty Hanshaw’s t-bar rowing form in the first video.
If you are going to model your form after Ronnie Coleman then you have to be very, very careful to stay as “tight” as possible during the set. In other words make sure your lower back is at least a little bit arched and that the weight does not get too far out in front of you at any time.
The bottom line is heavy barbell rows are a fantastic exercise for strengthening the lower back. There is a reason Cailer Woolam calls them his #1 assistance exercise for building a huge deadlift: they work!
I recommend you experiment with barbell rows and t-bar rows to find the form that works best for you.
For most people there is a middle-ground where they can use some momentum or “cheating” so they can handle a heavier weight without increasing their risk of injury.
Part 3: Back Extensions
Back extensions are easily one of the best exercises that you can perform for your lower back. Back extensions are great because they keep your lower back strong AND healthy.
In the bottom position of any type of back extension exercise you get a traction force on your lower back. This just means that your lower back is decompressing as the spine bones are being pulled away from each other.
If you perform a lot of squats and deadlifts then it is a GREAT idea to also perform some back extensions to decompress your spine and keep your lower back healthy.
There are three main types of back extensions:
- Option #1: 90 degree back extensions
- Option #2: 45 degree back extensions
- Option #3: Reverse hyperextensions
All three of these exercises are great for strengthening and rehabilitating your lower back. They also have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Here is a great video of the 90 degree back extension. Check it out:
The 90 degree back extension is one of the most difficult lower back exercises you can perform.
Most lower back exercises like deadlifts and good mornings are hardest at the bottom of the exercise when your lower back is flexed. The 90 degree back extension is the complete opposite: it is hardest at the top when your back is straight!
This exercise also decompresses your lower back in the bottom position. Your upper body is pointed straight down towards the ground which takes the pressure off your lumbar vertebrae.
This makes the 90 degree back extension one of the best exercises for strengthening AND rehabilitating your lower back.
One of the best ways to make this exercise more challenging is to hold a barbell across your upper back.
Here is Dorian Yates giving a perfect demonstration:
Dorian Yates is using perfect form. He even pauses for a second in the top position to overload his lower back even more. I absolutely love this stuff!
If you have access to a machine where you can perform 90 degree back extensions then I highly recommend you give it a shot. It is a very unique exercise with a ton of benefits.
Another great back extension variation is the 45 degree back extension. Check it out:
The 45 degree back extension is MUCH easier to perform than a regular 90 degree back extension.
This exercise overloads your lower back in the middle of the exercise when your upper body is parallel to the ground. This gives it a completely different feel than the 90 degree back extension.
Most people find that they have to add extra weight to make this exercise more challenging.
For example you can hold a dumbbell at your chest, hold a barbell on your upper back or hold a barbell in your hands with a very wide grip.
However, my favorite way to make this exercise harder is to use extra band tension.
Here is a perfect demonstration of the banded 45 degree back extension:
I first learned about this exercise from Bret Contreras, AKA “The Glute Guy.” Brett believes this is an incredible exercise for your lower back and I agree 100%.
The bands add a ton of tension at the top part of the exercise. This forces your lower back, glutes and hamstrings to work even harder as you fully straighten your upper body.
If you have access to resistance bands then I strongly recommend you experiment with them on this exercise. The banded 45 degree back extension is just an unbelievable exercise for your lower back!
Now let’s talk about the craziest back extension exercise of all time: the reverse hyperextension.
Here is the powerlifting guru Louie Simmons giving a perfect demonstration of the reverse hyperextension. Check it out:
The reverse hyperextension is the “secret weapon” for Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell powerlifting team. Louie used this exercise extensively when he was training to squat over 900 pounds in his 50’s!
The reverse hyperextension is so effective because it provides traction to the lower back while strengthening it.
When your legs swing underneath you the space in between your lumbar vertebrae increases. This allows rejuvenating spinal fluid to enter the area as you exercise.
The 45 and 90 degree back extensions are also great for decompressing the lower back but the reverse hyperextension is by far the best exercise for this purpose.
The bottom line is back extensions are some of the best accessory exercises that you can perform for your lower back. They strengthen AND rehabilitate your lower back at the same time.
Back extensions will never replace exercises like squats and deadlifts. However, they can help you isolate your lower back so you can lift more weight on these big compound movements.
Part 4: Good Mornings
Good mornings are another under-rated lower back exercise.
Most powerlifters focus on other exercises like deadlifts, barbell rows and back extensions to build their lower back strength. These are all great exercises but I believe the good morning also deserves a place in your training program.
There are three main good morning variations that you should know about:
- Option #1: The standing good morning
- Option #2: The seated good morning
- Option #3: The safety squat bar good morning
Each of these exercises has their own advantages and disadvantages.
The standing good morning is a classic powerlifting exercise. Check it out:
The standing good morning is actually very similar to a stiff-legged deadlift. The big difference is you have a barbell on your back instead of in your hands.
To perform the barbell good morning you push your glutes backwards and slowly lower your chest down to the ground. You want to stop before your upper body is parallel to the ground for safety reasons.
The good morning is great for strengthening your lower back but it can be dangerous if you train too heavy. Most powerlifters use it as an accessory exercise for 5-15 reps per set.
The seated good morning is another interesting exercise. Check it out:
This exercise was a favorite of the strength coach Charles Poliquin. He likes this exercise because it isolates the lower back and the rest of the spinal erectors better than the standing good morning.
The seated good morning is usually performed for sets of 8-20 reps during higher-rep muscle building phases of training.
It is a bad choice for low-rep strength work because it would put too much compressive force on your lower back.
There is one more good morning variation that you MUST know about: the safety squat bar good morning. Here is Dan Green demonstrating this exercise:
The safety squat bar good morning is an UNBELIEVABLE lower back exercise!
The safety squat bar has a built-in camber which throws the center of gravity forwards. The bar feels like it is trying to throw your face down on the ground as you perform this exercise!
This forces your lower back to work much harder to stabilize your upper body.
The safety squat bar is also incredibly comfortable on your back as you perform the exercise. In my opinion the safety squat bar is superior to a regular barbell for good mornings but I will let you decide for yourself.
The bottom line is good mornings can be a good accessory exercise to strengthen your lower back. They tend to work best in higher rep ranges but you can go as low as 3-5 reps per set if you are using a safety squat bar.
The lower back is one of the most important muscle groups in the entire body. If you want to reach your size and strength goals then you need to train your lower back hard.
The best overall exercises for your lower back are deadlifts, barbell rows, back extensions and good mornings. All of these exercises have their own advantages and disadvantages.
Heavy deadlifts may be best for building maximal strength but back extensions and reverse hyperextensions are better for rehabilitating your lower back and decompressing your spine.
I recommend you experiment and find which exercises work best for you and your goals. Training the lower back is hard work but the results are worth the effort!
Here is a great quote by the legendary strongman Jón Páll Sigmarsson to pump you up even more:
“There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift!”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!
Milos Sarcev is an IFBB professional bodybuilder and one of the greatest bodybuilding coaches of all time. His nickname is “The Mind” because of his intelligent approach to training and...
Milos Sarcev is an IFBB professional bodybuilder and one of the greatest bodybuilding coaches of all time. His nickname is “The Mind” because of his intelligent approach to training and...