Strength Training Strategies for Low Back Health

A lot of people have achy backs. In one survey, over 80% of Americans self-ascribed themselves as having low back pain. This article is going to run through strength training strategies to combat, prevent, and even reverse low back pains.

Before we go on, it’s important to note this advice is only for mild to moderate muscle achiness. If you have a structural cause of low back pain such as a ruptured disc or fused vertebrae, speak with a medical professional before using this advice.

What is one of the largest causes of low back pain?

The English poet once wrote that no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. That means that every person is connected to and affected by every other person in their community. This also holds true for muscles. No muscle operates wholly by itself. Rather, they often work in chains or groups of muscles that collectively perform the same function. The muscles of the low back, the spinal erectors, are part of what I refer to as the posterior chain. Extension of the body (standing up and standing tall, think like “good posture”) is usually distributed between the muscles of this chain. There’s a mess of muscles in this chain, but for simplicity and maximal effect, I usually only speak of four groups within that chain. Those four are the latissimus dorsi  or “Lats”, Gluteal muscles or “Glutes” (Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Maximus, and Gluteus Minimus), Hamstrings (comprised of the Biceps Femoris, Semitendonosis, and Semimembranosous), and low back muscles (the spinal erectors which comprise of iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis).

As you can see from the parenthetical lists, even though we’ll only talk about four muscle groups, there’s still a lot of divisions one could make. On top of that, I’m also ignoring a great deal of smaller pelvic muscles that, although they don’t participate in the motions of most “posterior chain” movements, they often help stabilize during those motions. We already mentioned that muscles work in groups, so we’re just going to focus on bigger chunks of muscle instead of the small parts.

Human bodies have four muscle groups that make up the posterior chain. Let’s look at them and then we can figure out why the low back tends to get so achy for so many people.

As you can see, the spinal erectors are the smallest in that chain. Unfortunately, daily habits have created a tendency for people to rely heavily on the spinal erectors to do the bulk of the work of the posterior chain when it really should contribute the least (or close to the least). The spinal erectors simply get overloaded and then complain about it.  What we want to do is then strengthen the underworked muscles and then learn to reintegrate the whole posterior chain with proper muscle recruitment and load distribution.

Let’s start with the lats

Two exercises that are really good for strengthening the lat muscles are going to be pulldowns and Rows. Let’s talk about Lat Pulldowns first. When you first do this, you may notice you use the biceps more than the muscles in your upper back. Again, remember we said most low back injuries occur because of using the wrong muscles? If you’re noticing you’re using the biceps more than the lats, you will want to mentally focus on pulling your elbows down to your side and squeezing the muscles behind your armpit. It doesn’t matter how low the bar actually goes to the body. You just want to focus on the lat muscles and learn how to engage and squeeze them properly. Here is a video demonstration of the Lat Pulldown using a neutral grip attachment

Once you’ve learned how to engage the lat muscles, a great follow up is a seated row. As you perform this exercise, focus on pulling the shoulder blades together to really get the upper back muscles to engage. This is a great upper back exercise for low back health as it starts to have the low back begin to stabilize the body during the motion. Please note we do NOT encourage people to lean forward and rock the body during this motion, the trunk should remain upright.

Then to work the Hamstrings and Glutes

For the most carry over to back health, we’re going to work on hip extension based exercises here. The first exercise is again to really learn how to engage the hamstrings and glutes. We’ll recommend Feet elevated hip bridges to teach how to feel the back of the thighs and the glutes. Often times with this exercise, people will arch their low back to recruit those muscles. Again, back injuries occur from over-reliance on the low back, so we want to prevent relying on the back for these leg exercises. If you feel the low back at any point, reset by resting the low back on the floor and resetting the hips/spine alignment. Check the exercise below for a demonstration.

Once you’re good with that exercise and feel you’re recruiting the hamstrings and glutes by intentionally squeezing those muscles during the movement, then we get a little more dynamic and progress to a sliding hamstring curl. Same rules apply as from the hip bridges above. If you feel the low back, reset by resting the back on the floor and realigning the hips and spine.

Put it all back together now

Now that the lats and the glutes/hamstrings have better recruitment and strength, we want to integrate them back into the posterior chain with the low back in a way that downplays the spinal erectors and relies more on the larger, stronger muscles. The first exercise to kind of learn this motion with is going to be a Dumbbell RDL. The keys to this exercise is keeping the spine neutral (a pretty straight column instead of a curved arc), having the lats lightly engaged throughout the whole motion, using the hamstrings to control the movement, and then squeezing the glutes when standing tall to offload pressure from the low back. For proper demonstration, check the video below and note how the lats keep the shoulders back the entire time. (Start very light with this exercise and record yourself to make sure form is correct before adding weight.)

After the RDL has been mastered, we can extend this range of motion and add some more resistance by doing a full deadlift. The same cues apply to a deadlift as with the RDL. Keep the lats lightly engaged to keep shoulders back and spine neutral, use the hamstrings to control and initiate the movement, and squeeze the glutes at the top to offload weight from the spinal erectors. This one also adds the cue of using a smooth, controlled motion to lift the weight off the floor rather than jerking or ripping the weight off the floor. You can see a proper demonstration in the video below.

Now that you’re armed with these simple exercises and the knowledge of the posterior chain, you have the tools for creating and keeping a healthy low back. Now you can be successful with your low back fitness.