8 Effective Back Extension Alternatives (With Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 30, 2022

The back extension exercise, as its name suggests, is a compound movement that involves the exerciser fully extending their lower back and other parts of the posterior chain for the purposes of inducing dynamic and isometric contraction in the muscle groups found therein.

This, of course, comes with its own set of drawbacks and risks, as full extension of the lower back is one of the most precarious positions an exerciser may put themselves in with concerns to the chance of injury.

As such, for this reason or for a variety of others, many exercisers seek to substitute the back extension with an alternative exercise that is just as capable of inducing the same type of training stimuli in the same muscle groups, but hopefully without the risks and drawbacks involved.

Why Should the Back Extension be Alternated Out?

The back extension is an often debated exercise due to the concerns revolving around its relative safety and effectiveness as a strength and mass building exercise, wherein the particular mechanics and form utilized throughout the exercise will either result in hyperextension related injuries or insufficient training stimulus due to improper repetition performance.

lever back extension

These factors, alongside the relatively less common presence of a back extension machine in most home gyms and public gyms, can result in an exerciser requiring an alternative exercise be utilized instead.

What Muscle Groups are Trained by the Back Extension and its Alternatives?

The back extension primarily activates the lower back muscles, hamstrings and glutes muscle groups in summarily equal intensities throughout the repetition, with such stabilizer muscle groups like the erector spinae and obliques being activated in an isometric capacity throughout the entirety of the exercise.

Thus, any potential alternative exercise to the back extension must also activate the majority of the aforementioned muscle groups to some extent, with the primary purpose of the back extension being a strengthening of the lower back and thereby requiring any potential lower back exercise to also induce training stimulus in that area.

How to Alternate Out the Back Extension in a Workout Program

Generally taking the place as an auxiliary, supplementary or rehabilitory exercise performed after major compound exercises involving the lower back have been completed - the back extension may be substituted out in a workout program with an exercise that provides a similar impact on the muscular fatigue and training goals of the exerciser.

As such, any alternative exercise must also share a similar capacity to act as an auxiliary or rehabilitory exercise as well, unless the exerciser is willing to make significant changes to the structure and function of their workout program to accommodate for such a substitution.

Alternatives to the Back Extension for Weak or Bad Lower Backs

Among one of the most common complaints about the back extension is its ability to aggravate or even induce lower back pain and lower back injuries when performed in an improper manner or with an excessive amount of resistance.

This can easily be remedied in a training program by substituting the back extension exercise with one that does not place as much stress on the lumbar spine and its surrounding muscular and connective tissues, allowing the exerciser time to recover from any injuries found in that particular area.

1. Glute Bridges

A bodyweight exercise performed on the floor with the exerciser lying on their back and subsequently raising their hips so as to activate the lower back and glute muscle groups, glute bridges make an excellent low impact alternative to no resistance back extension exercises - all with the added benefit of being rehabilitative to the lumbar spine and its surrounding tissues.

glute bridge

The glute bridge may act as a direct volume alternative to the back extension without the need for any sort of special machine or resistance equipment, allowing the exerciser to perform this particular movement practically anywhere with enough space to lie down in.

In terms of volume of repetitions, the back extension and the glute bridge are completely interchangeable, with every repetition of the glute bridge generally being of similar intensity and activating the same muscle groups as the back extension itself.

This equates to the glute bridge being capable of replacing the back extension in a 1 to 1 ratio, with no need for any change in rep scheme or number of sets to be performed.

2. Non-Machine Back Extensions

A variant of the back extension performed on the ground instead of with the aid of a back extension machine, this particular type of back extension generally only requires the exerciser to find a wide enough space to lay on their stomach in, as well as a yoga mat or similar object to make the exercise more comfortable.

lying back extension

Lying on the front of their torso with their arms extended ahead of them, the exerciser will contract their erector spinae, glute muscles, and lower back - which, if performed properly, will have the intended effect of raising their extremities off the ground, resulting in significant isometric contraction of the aforementioned muscle groups.

This particular exercise differs from the traditional machine based back extension by way of its muscular contraction type, with the lying or non-machine back extension generally activating the lower back, core muscles and glutes in a static (isometric) capacity that does not make as much use of large ranges of motion.

Such a change allows the lying back extension to be performed by individuals with lower back pain or injuries in that particular area, as the greatly reduced amount of spinal column pressure and shear force of this back extension exercise presents little to no risk of inducing injury.

3. Supermans

Similar in form and equipment requirements to the lying back extension, supermans are another form of back extension exercise with a larger focus on the three muscles of the erector spinae muscle group, though with a significantly reduced risk of injury due to the angle and reduced pressure of the exercise itself.

supermans

Much like other exercises listed in this section of the article, supermans are performed with only the bodyweight of the exerciser as the source of resistance, and as such will generally need to be performed at a similar or higher volume of repetitions in order to induce strength conditioning or muscular hypertrophy in the activated muscle groups.

Alternatives to the Back Extension of Similar Training Stimulus

If the exerciser is choosing to alternate out the back extension exercise for reasons other than a weakened or injured lower back, choosing an exercise of similar intensity and complexity should allow them to retain their training stimulus without compromise towards their training goals.

This, of course, will be highly variable depending on what particular alternative exercise the exerciser chooses to use, as some of the following candidates may activate a larger variety of muscle groups or possess a rate of exertion significantly higher than ordinary back extension repetitions.

4. Barbell or Dumbbell Good Mornings

The free weight counterpart of the machine based back extension exercise, good mornings are a commonly seen exercise in many higher level powerlifting or athletic training programs owing to the excellent training stimulus they may provide to the erector spinae, glutes, hip adductors and core stabilizer muscles.

barbell good morning

However, such benefits come at the cost of an increased risk of injury - of which good mornings are often debated over due to the compromising position it places the exerciser’s spinal column in.

As such, good mornings are best left as an alternative to the back extension for exercisers of at least intermediate free weight training experience, or those with access to professional athletic coaching services, of which will ensure that they are utilizing proper form and appropriate levels of resistance.

5. Balance Ball or Resistance Ball Back Extensions

The balance ball back extension is arguably the best alternative for exercisers wishing to retain the presence of back extensions in their workout program but do not have access to a back extension machine.

This is due to the fact that the particular shape and angle of the balance ball will allow the exerciser to perform a traditional back extension with the added benefit of significantly reduced injury risk due to the more natural curve of the spine throughout the exercise.

exercise ball back extension

Such a benefit is only furthered by the resistance presented by the material of the balance ball, enabling even individuals with significant abdominal fat deposits or minor to moderate spinal deviations to perform the exercise comfortably.

In terms of workout programming and repetition volume, no change is needed in any manner as the balance ball back extension is entirely interchangeable with the traditional machine based back extension, allowing the exerciser to simply plug and play the exercise as they wish.

6. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts

A variant of the “king of exercises”, stiff-legged deadlifts are an alternative exercise best used by athletes seeking a far more intense substitute for the back extension, as the stiff-legged deadlift is not only far more wide reaching in terms of muscle group activation, but also will significantly fatigue the entirety of the body.

barbell stiff legged deadlift

In the event that the exerciser is of novice training experience or is otherwise unfamiliar with the correct kinetics and mechanics of proper deadlift form, it is best for them to consult a professional athletic coach or to otherwise choose another alternative exercise, as the stiff legged deadlift’s risk of injury surpasses even that of the back extension when performed improperly.

Otherwise, the particular primary mover muscle groups involved in the stiff legged deadlift mirror that of the back extension, though in a far more effective manner and with the addition of practically every other muscle group in the body to some extent.

Alternatives to the Back Extension for Supplemental Injury Recovery

The back extension has its place in many physical rehabilitation or athletic recovery programs, as its performance with proper form combined with other rehabilitative recovery methods can provide significant benefits to exercisers with back injuries or weaknesses.

As such, it is all the more important that such patients keep in mind the potential alternatives to the back extension in this particular capacity, as unforeseen circumstances may otherwise interrupt their recovery and prolong the pain and disability they could be experiencing.

7. Lumbar Spine Extension

The lumbar spine extension motion, otherwise known in the practice of yoga as the sphinx pose, is a position that places a minute amount of isometric contraction on the lower back by way of erector spinae and oblique extension.

lumbar spine extension

While this is nowhere near the level of intensity of other lower back exercises, it more than serves its purpose as a supplementary injury recovery movement, allowing the back extension to be alternated out in the event that the exerciser’s range of motion has been significantly reduced, or a back extension machine is unavailable.

Unlike the back extension exercise, however, the lumbar spine extension pose is not performed in repetitions and is instead performed for a period of time per set, and as such it is best for the exerciser to consult their physical therapist on how best to translate the two exercises.

8. Yoga Cat Pose

Also a pose commonly used in yoga for the purposes of stretching or loosening the hips and lower back, the cat pose is performed with the exerciser lying on their hands and knees as they inhale and tilt their pelvis inwards while tucking their tailbone inwards.

This will have the effect of creating a circular arch to their back, hence the term “cat pose” - and will have the biomechanical effect of greatly stretching the lower back and lumbar spine, aiding in active recovery of range of motion as well as reinforcing the neurological control over the muscle groups found therein.

Just like the previous entry in this list, the yoga cat pose is generally performed over a period of time as opposed to a set of repetitions such as in the case of back extensions, and as such it is up to the exerciser’s own personal preferences and the advice of their physical therapist to decide how best to structure this exercise.

References

1. De Ridder, E.M., Van Oosterwijck, J.O., Vleeming, A. et al. Posterior muscle chain activity during various extension exercises: an observational study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 14, 204 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2474-14-204

2. Allegri M, Montella S, Salici F, Valente A, Marchesini M, Compagnone C, Baciarello M, Manferdini ME, Fanelli G. Mechanisms of low back pain: a guide for diagnosis and therapy. F1000Res. 2016 Jun 28;5:F1000 Faculty Rev-1530. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.8105.2. PMID: 27408698; PMCID: PMC4926733.

3. Yaprak Y. The effects of back extension training on back muscle strength and spinal range of motion in young females. Biol Sport. 2013 Sep;30(3):201-6. doi: 10.5604/20831862.1047500. Epub 2013 Jul 22. PMID: 24744489; PMCID: PMC3944566.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2022