Back Extensions: How To, Variations, and Common Mistakes

If you frequent the gym, you’ve probably seen a back extension bench used to increase lower back strength, hamstrings, and glutes. Back extensions – otherwise known as hyperextensions – is an exercise that is suitable for everyone. However, many assume that it isn’t beneficial because it doesn’t involve moving weight.

This assumption, however, is incorrect. Little do people know, there are many back extensions that only some very advanced trainers can perform, but I will cover this later in the article.

What Muscles Do Back Extensions Work?

Don’t be fooled by the name here, as back extensions do not just work the back and increase lower back strength; they work the posterior chain, the muscles on the rear of your body.

The muscles involved in back extensions are, primarily:

Let’s take a look at these muscles in more detail.

Hamstrings

The hamstring’s role is to use your glutes to extend your hips and to help flex your knees. The names of the three hamstrings are the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus.

Gluteus Maximus

The glutes – believe it or not – are the largest muscle in the body (and you wonder why people have major issues with tight glutes?), which are on the back of the hips.

They extend your hips during back extensions.

Erector Spinae

These muscles play a major role in deadlifts, squats, and bent-over rows. They are responsible for extending your spine and holding it upright.

The erector spinae muscles can help reduce back pain and injury, running up both sides of the spine.

The Iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis make up the erector spinae group.

How To Do Back Extensions With Proper Form

Back extensions are about doing them slowly and resisting the urge of jerking in one direction as it is an injury waiting to happen potentially. The same applies to arching your back. Avoid this, too, as tempting as it may be.

A back extension machine uses gravity as resistance, and you will face the floor with your thighs on the pad, allowing your spine to extend upward.

It’s vital to adjust the pad on the back extension machine so it sits just below your hip bone, as achieving a full range of motion is key during this movement.

If you’re unsure how to use the machine, seek help from a member of staff in the gym or a personal trainer.

  1. Place your feet on the footplate and rest your thighs on the leg pads, ensuring your feet are in line with your knees and extend your arms towards the floor.
  2. Slowly lean forward and smoothly lower your upper body down towards the floor. The majority of the movement should come from your hips.
  3. To lift your upper body back up, drive your hips into the pad while not leaning back too much.

Your head and neck should be in a neutral position throughout the movement.

You can also choose to let your arms hang throughout or fold them across your chest for an added challenge.

Benefits of Back Extensions

Here are the benefits of including back extensions into your workouts:

Uncomplicated

The good news is you don’t need a sports science degree to figure out how to do back extensions, so they’re perfect for beginners upwards.

They Work Multiple Muscles

Back extensions help you have an effective posterior chain, so your hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae muscles will be stronger if you do back extensions with correct form.

Never Outgrow Them

Though back extensions are known as a bodyweight exercise, that doesn’t have to be the case as you get stronger. The aim is to build strength continually; therefore, adding weight to the exercise will ensure you are making progress.

Reduced Lower Back Stress

The risk of injury is low with back extensions, assuming you don’t overextend too much and don’t round your back. Aside from that, your back isn’t under any load, so it is very much a gentle movement on the spine and doesn’t put it under any undue stress.

Accessible

You can perform back extensions from pretty much anywhere, which means you don’t necessarily have to be in a gym. That said, you will find a back extension bench in most gyms if you do visit one.

However, if you work out at home, then fear not, you can either use a home bench, a stability ball or do the exercise on the floor, which I’ll cover later.

Carry Over To Other Exercises

Back extensions help the core muscle groups, hip flexors, and back for compound exercises that utilize all these muscles, such as squats, deadlifts, barbell bent-over rows, and pull-ups.

May Improve Posture

Both back and abdominal muscles contribute to having good posture. Hence, it is worthwhile to include back extensions with abdominal exercises such as planks, sit-ups, and hanging leg raises to activate your core muscles from both sides.

Important note: Though back extensions are considered a safe exercise, an increased risk of injury is likely like any exercise done using poor form. Therefore, do not use too much weight, hyperextended too far, round your back excessively, or do each rep too quickly. 

Back Extension Variations

Like any exercise, the more you do it, the easier it can become tiresome so consider adding some variations and alternatives into your workout to keep things interesting.

Good Mornings

Good mornings are very similar to back extensions; however, you can do them using a resistance band or barbell, which are superb for developing an effective posterior chain.

Weighted Back Extensions

At some point, you should look to add some weight to your back extensions, especially if you’re doing lots of reps without feeling challenged. While it seems reasonable to be repping out until the cows come home, it’s not doing you any favors towards getting a stronger back, so it’s energy wasted.

Barbell Hip Thrusts

Barbell hip thrusts are a great exercise when it comes to the benefit it has for your lower back. Whether you do these using bodyweight only or by adding weight using a barbell, dumbbell, or weight plate, the pressure on your lumbar spine is significantly reduced compared to some other exercises.

Another variation to this exercise is by doing the glute bridge exercise, which doesn’t require a bench, thus can be performed in the comfort of your own home.

I have written a “how-to” guide on hip thrusts which you can read.

Superman

The Superman back extension is perfect for home workouts.

The trick is to keep your upper body and legs on the ground throughout, as you may incur an injury if you overextend the lumbar spine.

Reverse Hyperextensions

To perform reverse hyperextensions, you’ll need to go to a gym unless, of course, you have the appropriate bench to complete them at home.

The focus is on lifting your legs as your upper body remains stationary during each repetition. The idea is to use weight to activate your posterior chain; however, don’t panic as it’s doesn’t place stress or pressure on the spine.

Stability Ball Back Extensions

Who says you can only work your posterior chain by using a bench? Not at all! Welcome to the stability ball.

This is perfect for those who love to work out at home.

  1. Lie across the stability ball face down to position your hips under the ball.
  2. Cross your arms over your chest or place them on your temples (either is fine) while bending your knees a little. Ensure you keep your legs locked out throughout the set.
  3. Gently lean forward from your hips and bring your chest down towards the floor while ensuring you do not round your lower back excessively.
  4. Push your hips into the ball while lifting your upper body until your shoulders, knees, and hips line up straight. Never hyperextended your spine here.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Cable Pull-throughs

You use a cable machine for cable pull-throughs, and it hits the posterior chain. The great thing about this exercise is that it’s perfect for anyone, whether an average gym trainer, a powerlifter, a bodybuilder, or an athlete – it is a movement most should incorporate in their workout regime and a good alternative to back extensions.

Romanian Deadlift

Romanian deadlifts are a fantastic alternative to back extensions, and you do the exercise using a dumbbell or barbell. Many people have issues nailing the technique; however, if you watch the video closely, you will see you do this using slightly bent knees.

Another great exercise for the posterior chain.

Back Extensions Using Bands

A band’s job is to increase muscle tension as you approach the top of each rep, which is ideal for working the posterior chain and activating the glute muscles. However, another benefit is that the band alleviates some tension, making the movement easier.

Single-leg Back Extensions

You can opt to do single-leg back extensions with weights or bands to make it more difficult or stick to bodyweight-only. The choice is yours. Ultimately, this exercise overloads the posterior chain and places an additional load on the hamstrings and glutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do back extensions really work?

They do, as long as the form is proper. Back extensions can strengthen the lower back muscles, which helps support the lower spine. The exercise also works your hips, shoulders, and glute muscles.

2. Are back extensions harmful?

Some people get injured from this exercise because of the temptation to hyperextend their back. This is necessary. Drive from the hips and glutes without going too fast. Staying in complete control will reduce the risk of injury.

3. Is back extensions good for glutes?

Yes, they work the glutes and the hamstrings, although they are primarily a lower back exercise.

About the author

Chris Jones

I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).