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Back Extension

The back extension is a simple exercise that can have excellent benefits for the back.

Back extensions help develop lower back strength and flexibility. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Back extensions help develop lower back strength and flexibility.

Back Extension

The back extension is a simple exercise that can have excellent benefits for the back, hamstrings, shoulders and the gluteus maximus muscles (glutes). The exercise can be performed with or without the help of exercise equipment, and it can even be done with weights for added strengthening. According to the Journal of Exercise Physiology, numerous studies have shown back extensions to improve spinal health, flexibility and job productivity in workers.

Benefits of Back Extension Exercises

The main benefit of back extension exercise is increased strength in the lower back. However, the exercise also increases the following:

  • Overall strength
  • Flexibility
  • Lifting ability
  • Back comfort
  • Morale and productivity (in people who suffer from back pain)

For sprinters, football players and other athletes in power sports, the back extension can be used to increase speed by building strength in the posterior chain, making it a good complement to squats, dead lifts and other core exercises.

Basic Back Extension

Perhaps the most basic form of this exercise is the prone back extension. To perform the exercise, participants simply lay face down on the floor preferably on a yoga mat or cushioned carpet and lift their head and shoulders into the air. Depending on the desired effect, the arms may either be folded behind the head or held away from the body during the extension. To increase the benefit of the exercise, the legs may also be lifted at the same time as the head and shoulders; this targets muscles in the lower back and legs, as well as the upper back, shoulders and neck.

Some athletes like to perform the extension very quickly, while less-trained individuals may prefer to take their time, slowly raising the legs and shoulders off of the floor. Either way, the key to keeping this basic movement safe is only moving the back within its natural range of motion. According to Equisearch, fitness types for horse riders, straining for too much extension (hyperextension) can cause early fatigue and potentially injury.

Using a Back Extension Machine or Apparatus

The prone back extension is a good basic exercise, but it has a relatively small range of motion, limiting the potential for strength gains and increased postural stability. For a better workout, people often use back extension machines in the weight room. These come in two main varieties: one seated and one standing but inclined. Both machines offer benefits, but the standing machine (sometimes called a hyperextension machine or roman chair) provides a better overall workout by forcing users to activate their glutes and hamstrings during the exercise. On the seated machine, however, users only press their backs backwards against a padded roller, meaning most of the work is done by the lower back and abs.

Weighted Back Extension

The weighted back extension is the most advanced form of this exercise. Using a 45-degree hyperextension machine (one that allows users to lean forward and brace some of their weight with the knees), participants hold a medicine ball, dumb bell or barbell plate to their chests while performing the back extension. To exercise the upper back and spinal erectors, they can also hold the weight behind their heads, although this is best done with medicine balls plates and dumbbells are likely to cause bumps and bruises. According to Mens Fitness, this version of the back extension is a good substitute for the hamstring curl, since it not only works the backs of the thighs, but also works the glutes and lower back.

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