The erector spinae is not a muscle group that is often talked about when it comes to working out, however, it is undoubtedly one of the most important muscle groups in our entire body. It is one half of our core and more. If you aren’t doing exercises that hit the erector spinae and erector spinae specific exercises, you are creating a major weak link in your body.
In this article, we are going to cover what and where the erector spinae is, the anatomy of the erector spinae, the function and importance of the erector spinae, the best erector spinae exercises, and how you can incorporate erector spinae exercises into your workout program without needing to spend more time in the gym/working out.
The erector spinae is a group of muscles and tendons that connect your entire back from your hips and sacrum (lower back/lumbar) to the base of your skull (cervical region). The muscles of your erector spinae line both sides of your spine and they are in charge of many functions, like lateral flexion and extension, and side-to-side rotation.
Your erector spinae is a vital part of your core, as it links to your abdominal and oblique muscles, which stabilizes and helps you move your entire upper body.
Note: Your erector spinae is also referred to as, sacrospinalis group of muscles, spinal erectors, and most commonly, your lower back muscles.
The muscles and tendons of your erector spinae are located on both sides of your vertebral column (the bony points of the spine), which runs from your sacral and lumbar (lower back) to your thoracic (middle back) to your cervical region (upper back and neck).
The erector spinae varies in size and structure at different points along your vertebral column.
At your sacral region, it is narrow and pointed, and tendinous in structure. These small fibers of the erector spinae connect to your iliac crest (top of your hips) and the sides of your sacrum. Some of the fibers actually extend to your gluteus maximus.
In your lumbar region, it is larger and thick in structure (this is the area that most people think of when discussing erector spinae exercises).
From there, the erector spinae divides into three columns. In this region, they gradually become smaller as they move up your spine, connecting into your vertebrae and ribs. It looks akin to branches on a tree.
Then, the erector spinae continues to ascend your spine until it inserts into the base of your skull.
All in all, this group of muscles covers a large area of your back. So you can discern how important the erector spinae is if you want to function at your best.
But before we go in-depth on the importance of your erector spinae, in terms of fitness, let’s take a look at the muscles that play the biggest role during workouts, sports and other activities.
The three main muscles of the erector spinae are:
The spinalis is the smallest muscle of the erector spinae, and the closest to the spine. It enables you to turn/rotate side to side and it is partly responsible for controlling your head when you look up.
This is the middle part of your erector spinae and the largest muscle. It enables you to bend to the side and extend your spine. It also helps turn your head side to side.
The Iliocostalis begins at the sacrum and it enables you to bend to the side and extend your spine.
Now, these three muscles can be subdivided into different insertions, but let’s not get too technical. The above is all you really need to know to understand how the exercises to come target your erector spinae.
Moreover, even though the three main muscles of the erector spinae work together to achieve certain functions, it is important to do various erector spinae exercises. That way you can have well rounded back strength and be ready for anything that comes your way.
As we now know, the erector spinae is formed by multiple muscles, which can also be subdivided, but as a whole, they have two major functions.
Bonus: The erector spinae also helps turn your head side to side, which is why if you ever pull a muscle in your back, you will notice it hurts to turn or lift your head.
Now, let’s look at some more specific examples of the erector spinae’s functions and the importance of keeping it strong.
Before you start training a muscle, it’s good to know the importance of that muscle (or muscle group). That way, you’ll fully understand the benefits you are reaping. This will help amplify the results.
First, let’s make sure we understand that the erector spinae is part of your core…
When most people think “core”, they think abs, and maybe obliques too…however, your core is like a cylinder that wraps around your front and your back. So, as important as your abs and obliques are for many things in life, your erector spinae is equally as important. It is half of the puzzle to a strong core.
With a strong lower back comes some major benefits:
Erector spinae becomes weak through overstretching…Now, you may be wondering, but I don’t even stretch my erector spinae! Well, through a sedentary lifestyle and prolonged periods of sitting, our heads and spines pull forward, which stretches/lengthens our erector spinae. Over time, this leads then to chronically lengthened erector spinae muscles.
This overstretching can also cause you lower back pain. The weakness and overstretching often feels like tightness, which is why many people feel the need to stretch their lower back. Although this will provide temporary relief. It is not the way to combat pain and tightness in your lower back. What you need to do is strengthen them!
Strengthen DON’T Stretch
When it comes to the erector spinae, there really is no need to stretch them. They are being stretched all day as we sit and bend our necks down at our phone or computer!
By stretching an already overstretched erector spinae, it creates a major weakness in the lower back.
What you want to do is strengthen them, which we are going to show you how just below.
TIP: One way to combat overstretching, which causes weakness in your lower back, is to always think about your posture. Sit tall and stand tall - Don’t slouch! Also, try not to bend your neck down too much. Keep your chin parallel with the ground….Yes, it can difficult at first, to constantly remind yourself to sit and stand tall, but over time it becomes natural.
The best way to combat weakness of the erector spinae is straightforward - Erector Spinae strengthening exercises! The following exercises are the best erector spinae exercises you can do. We are sure many of them you already know too!
We are going to break our exercises down into three categories:
We will have a mix of compound exercises and erector spinae isolation exercises (as both will be useful for achieving overall strength and performance of the erector spinae.
Let’s start with exercises that will not only strengthen your erector spinae, but will also strengthen multiple muscle groups - aka compound exercise.
These are Free Weight Exercises that we all know and love (if you don’t love them, it’s time to spark that romance!)
The deadlift is the king of back exercises, and arguably all exercises. The deadlift is one of the true tests of overall strength. It is a must-do exercise for anyone who takes fitness seriously. Moreover, it is a go-to exercise for athletes, as it is a pure mass and strength builder.
Deadlifts are a compound exercise, so you will be working a lot of muscle groups. The deadlift works your entire posterior chain.
Starting from the top down, you will be working your entire back - so traps, rhomboids, lats, AND your erector spinae. Deadlifts will also work your abs, forearms, and even biceps. As for your lower body, it works your hamstrings and glutes, and as a secondary mover, your quads will also be engaged.
In terms of the erector spinae, the great thing about the deadlift is it works all of your erector spinae muscles, so it gets your lower back, mid back and upper back. Every fiber of your erector spinae is going to strengthen with this one! And of course your other back muscles too.
How to do a conventional deadlift:
You will want to have a loaded barbell for this as you want the barbell to be about 8 inches off the ground. Also, small 5 pound plates won’t be great either, unless they are the larger bumper plates used in Crossfit…The point is, if the barbell too low, you will likely round your back forward at the bottom portion of the lift. So, aim to keep it around 8 inches from the ground. You can use other objects to elevate it if your plates are high enough to achieve the ideal starting position.
Note: Although the deadlift is the BEST exercise for the erector spinae, it is also the riskiest. So, the risk to reward ratio is high. This means you need to be smart about attacking deadlifts. First, get the form down and go light, then slowly build up to heavier weights. This is how you can reduce risk of injury and maximize your gains. Moreover, lighter weight deadlifts will be effective for the erector spinae when first training, even if the light weight isn’t as effective for your hamstrings and glutes. This will allow your erector spinae to catch up, so when it’s time for heavy lifts, you can do them without fear of a lower back injury.
Moreover, if you were to have a rounded back on the lower portion of the lift, which sometimes happens when going extra heavy, strong erector spinae muscles will make the difference between being ok and being injured.
As this is a power movement, you will eventually want to train heavy. It’s not about high reps with deadlifts. Heavy (relatively to your strength) sets of 5 reps are perfect. But, if you are going light, you can up the repetitions.
Tip for Beginners:
A lot of people don’t realize how important the erector spinae muscle group is for deadlifts. It is often the main limiting factor. So, if deadlifts are very difficult for you, even at a light weight, try to do some other erector spinae specific exercises before jumping back into deadlifts. You will likely see a big difference in your deadlift game.
Rack pulls will train your entire back, just as a deadlift does on the top portion of the lift. However, with a rack pull, since you don’t have to lift it off the ground (you are lifting from just above knee level), you can go heavier than you can with deadlifts. But your grip strength will have to be up to par.
The rack pull is a serious power movement, so you can really maximize muscle size and strength in your back. Every single erector spinae muscle will be engaged during this exercise, and with it being a heavy-centric exercise, you can really build incredible strength in your entire back.
Note: Heavy sets of 5 reps are all that is needed for best results.
What’s more, rack pulls are less risky, as you don’t need to bend down to pick up the weight. Most injuries caused by deadlifts are on the lowest portion of the lift, as people roll their back when letting the bar down to the ground and when first picking it up. This is due to hip mobility issues, not resetting properly with each rep, or simply going too heavy.
The point is, in terms of specifically training the erector spinae muscles, the rewards far outweigh the risk compared to deadlifts. That said, don’t get the idea that rack pulls are great and deadlifts are too risky. Both are important exercises to incorporate into your training. Deadlifts build total body posterior strength, rack pulls build back strength…However, if we had to choose between the two, we’d choose deadlifts every time because big compound movements are always the best for overall fitness…Thankfully, though, we don’t have to choose only one…You can make time for both! Add rack pulls into your workout every other workout or every so often, and do deadlifts every week!
How to do rack pulls?
All in all, rack pulls are a total back exercise, yet it is also very erector spinae specific. If you are really trying to hone in on your erector spinae muscles, this is the best exercise you can do. Just prepare to have your grip strength tested, as to go heavy (like you should with this exercise), your grip will need to keep up.
Stiff legged deadlifts are fantastic for posterior chain development. It is a variation of the conventional deadlift and another go-to on leg day. It won’t be as taxing on your body as a conventional deadlift, and you will want to do higher reps, in the 8-12 rep range, but you will still want to go heavy enough where those 8-12 reps are challenging.
You can do stiff-legged deadlifts and deadlifts on the same day or do stiff-legged deads on leg day and deadlifts on back day.
The main muscles being worked during stiff-legged deadlifts are your hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae, but you will also be hitting your upper back and forearms as well.
You might be thinking, it’s similar to a deadlift, why do both? Well, here’s the difference…
With stiff-legged deadlifts, there is much more emphasis on the hamstrings than the back.
As for your erector spinae, the meaty part, which is in your lower back, is going to be doing the brunt of the work as well. It is a terrific exercise to strengthen your erector spinae, and it is quite a bit less risky than a conventional deadlift as it is easier to maintain a posterior pelvic tilt when you aren’t squatting down to the floor like you are with a deadlift.
So, although stiff-legged deadlifts work a lot of the same muscles as a deadlift, you shouldn’t replace them with deadlifts, which unfortunately a lot of people do. Deadlifts are going to be the testosterone releaser that really hammers your whole body. They simply aren’t the same, even though they are very similar in nature.
How to do the Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Things to keep in mind:
You won’t be lowering your body down with your legs, you will be using your upper body, so your legs will be stiff the entire time. Hence the name. That said, you legs will not be completely straight, you should have a bend in your knee as you lower the weight down, and you won’t be bringing the barbell down to the ground, you will be stopping a little below the knees (you can go as low as the middle of your shins). As you perform the negative part of the movement, you will feel a great stretch in your hamstrings.
Also, keep your entire core tight the whole movement (as you should with pretty much every exercise)
Good Mornings are another posterior chain exercise with an emphasis on the erector spinae. The focus of the movement is on the hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae.
As with deadlifts, Good Mornings need to be performed with good form or it can be easy to injure the lower back. You’ll be in a vulnerable position as you bend your upper body forward. It’s important that you maintain a posterior tilt and you keep your knees bent as you bend forward. Also, you will want to keep your shoulder blades retracted and your chest up. That way you can’t round your back forward. Spinal protection should be of the utmost importance.
Although you can use a Smith Machine for this movement, we highly recommend using a barbell, as a Smith machine will restrict your range of motion.
Also, you will want to start light when first learning Good Mornings…That said, you should never go too heavy when it comes to Good Mornings, even when you are experienced. This exercise requires very strict and controlled movement and it provides the best results with lower weights and higher volume.
How to do a good morning
Banded Good Mornings:
You can also use a resistance band for this exercise, which will pretty much eliminate any chance of injury, and it will be equally as effective since you won’t be going heavy anyway. Bands are much easier on your joints. It is a good exercise for any fitness level, but Banded Good Mornings are especially great for beginners who simply aren’t ready for Good Mornings with a loaded barbell. And Banded Good Mornings will be much more effective than a barbell without any plates on it.
Bent over rows are going to work your erector spinae in an isometric fashion. The will be no movement in your erector spinae during the main part of the movement, but they will be fully engaged, as they will be keeping you in the proper position.
You will be using a barbell for this exercise. However, dumbbells work well too. This movement should be slow and controlled, although you could use more explosive force to pull the bar towards your body on the concentric phase. On the eccentric phase (negative phase), always lower the bar slowly, as to maintain the posterior tilt, which is what is protecting your spine from rounding forward.
How to do the bent-over row
You will have a slight bend in your knee and a posterior pelvic tilt during this movement. Keep your shoulders back and your chest out. Moreover, when getting in and out of this exercise, never arch your back. Get into the bent-over position just like you would a convention deadlift, don’t just pick the weights up off the floor carelessly.
The following bodyweight erector spinae exercises will train your erector spinae muscles in a completely different manner. These are great as accessory work for those who powerlift and bodybuilding, and they are great for those who train calisthenics or bodyweight only.
Back extensions are a lower spinal erector exercise. So, it will mainly work your lower back. It is arguably the best isolation exercise for the erector spinae.
Although we have this as a bodyweight exercise, and your body weight should be enough to work your erector spinae effectively. You can add weight once a 15 rep range becomes too easy. You can add weight by holding a weighted plate or dumbbell at your chest.
How to do the back extension:
For this exercise, retract your shoulder blades and keep your chest up. You never want to round your back forward. Your spine will be rigid the entire movement.
Moreover, never hyperextend your back. Once your spine is aligned with your legs, lower back down. As you lower down, stop when your spine is parallel with the floor. If you hyperextend or go too low, you will be at risk of injury.
The Glute Bridge is a good isometric exercise for the hamstrings and erector spinae. When you get into the glute bridge you will be using your hamstrings and erector spinae to hold the position.
Since your lower back will be one of the main focuses during this exercise, you can expect some good strength improvements with this one. The glute bridge will also greatly help with improving posture and lower back pain.
So, after a long day of sitting, instead of stretching your lower back, get into the glute bridge!
How to do a glute bridge:
The bird dog is a great exercise to tone and strengthen your entire core, which includes your erector spinae, of course!
How to do a bird dog:
The prone superman strengthens muscles along your entire spine. So that means your entire erector spinae will be engaged on this one.
How to do a prone superman:
To make this erector spinae exercise more comfortable, do it on a rug or place a folded towel underneath you.
This is a great dynamic erector spinae isometric exercise that also improves balance. The Standing Superman is very effective because it hits all of the musculature running up and down your spine.
Focus on your mind to muscle connection, really try to keep your erector spinae tight the entire time you are holding the position. This is how you will fully engage your back muscles, thus making this exercise super effective.
How to do a standing superman:
Tip for beginners:
As this exercise is especially tough for beginners due to the balance and mobility needed to achieve the position, keep a chair in front of you so you can place your palm on it. This will greatly help you keep balance, allowing your to focus on engaging your erector spinae muscles.
***The above four erector spinae exercises are great for those who have pain in their lower back from sitting all day. Instead of stretching, do those four bodyweight exercises!***
Although this exercise only has glutes and hamstrings in the name, it is also a fantastic exercise that heavily relies on the erector spinae. It’s going to work your lower back, which is the largest portions of your erector spinae.
You will need a roman chair to do this exercise, which most gyms have.
How to do a Roman Chair Glute Ham Raise:
To make this already difficult exercise even more difficult, hold a weight at your chest level (like you would with a back extension).
The following exercises are unconventional as they employ different equipment and movement patterns than conventional training. These are dynamic exercises that are going to train your erector spinae in an explosive and dynamic way…
The kettlebell swing is a total body exercise that burns tons of calories. It is an explosive exercise, so you will be moving with explosive force, not slowly. Nevertheless, you should be in complete control of your form.
Kettlebell swings work your hamstrings, glutes, back, shoulders and forearms. Your erector spinae will be fully engaged for the entire movement. It is like the hinge of a door, allowing you to maintain proper form. Again, being that this is an explosive exercise, your erector spinae will be training for explosive power. This is a great exercise for athletes, as they need to move with explosive power without comprising their lower back. So this will strengthen your back in a very dynamic way.
How to do a kettlebell swing:
For those who aren’t familiar with steel maces, these are going to be mind-blowing exercises. We put these two together as they are similar in nature and they go hand-in-hand.
Steel mace 360s and 10-to-2s are going to train your entire upper body, but the main focus is going to be your core and grip strength. You can read all about the benefits and muscles work for steel mace 360s and 10-to-2s here, as there are many - we go in-depth in that article. For the sake of this post, let’s just talk in terms of the erector spinae.
Steel mace 360s and 10-to-2s are special in that they are both rotational and anti-rotational. You will need to turn at the spine slightly as you swing the mace around you, but you will also need to keep your hips, core and spine tight to maintain control at different points of the movement.
Rotation - As you swing the mace around your back and to your front side, you will be using torque, which builds rotational strength through the core.
Anti-rotation (core stability) - When the mace is swinging along your backside and once it passes over to your front, you will need anti-rotation strength (core stability) to not let it pull you or lean to the side. This will train your hips and your entire core, as stability involves all of the muscles in your hips, glutes and core (abs, obliques, and erector spinae).
How to do a steel mace 360:
Tip for beginners: Choke up on the mace if it’s too heavy or if you want to practice the movement before lowering your hands to the bottom of the mace handle.
How to do a steel mace 10-to-2:
Tip for performing these exercises with good form:
Overall, this is an amazing exercise for those who want to train their erector spinae for the true demands of life, which involves twisting and turning. It will allow you to accelerate and decelerate in different directions with more force and with less chance of injury, as most injuries is sports and life happen when you are moving and twisting and turning at the same time. This is the best exercise you can do for your erector spinae in terms of rotational and anti-rotational strength.
BONUS ERECTOR SPINAE EXERCISE: STEEL MACE STORK WALK
It should be noted that the erector spinae muscles are almost entirely made up of slow-twitch fibers. This means they are made for endurance and they will be hard to grow in size. They will, however, become stronger.
That said, if you want to see your erector spinae muscles grow, moderate to high reps and sustained time under tension is the best way for erector spinae hypertrophy. If you are a bodybuilder or physique model, training you erector spinae like this can lead to a very well-developed set of spinal extensors, which will instantly set you apart on stage.
It won’t be difficult or time consuming to work in erector spinae exercises to your current training schedule. All you have to do is incorporate the compound movements into your split and add one or two of the bodyweight or unconventional exercises at the end of your workout.
The unconventional exercises we listed will also be great for burning fat!
For example, on back day, make sure you do deadlifts and bent over rows. Then at the end of the workout, do some back extensions and supermans. You can superset those for 3 sets of 10-15 reps. That’s all it takes!
For leg day, do stiff-legged deadlifts and good morning instead of ham curls on a machine (only do ham curls if you have time) and you will be working your hamstrings in the most effective way possible, while also hitting your erector spinae to great effect too. Then do a quick finisher of kettlebell swings.
On chest or shoulder day, do some 360s and 10 to 2s to finish off your workout. Don’t forget the importance of rotational work!
And that’s really it. All you have to do is train smart. Fewer isolation exercises and more compound movements for the majority of your workouts and you will be able to train all your muscles, and to a greater effect. You really don’t need to spend more time in the gym to train your erector spinae.
Sample Training Split:
Your split should look something like this:
Day 1: Legs (and Lower Back)
Day 2: Shoulders/Arms
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Back
Day 5: Chest
Day 6: Rest
Cardio/HIIT and Core should be done at least two days a week. You can do those on rest days or at the end of your workout as a finisher. This is a great time to do the free weight and unconventional exercises we discussed.
Sample Leg Day Workout (that will hit your erector spine too)
Exercise 1: Squats (erector spinae will be worked) - 4 sets of 5-8 reps
Exercise 2: Stiff Legged Deadlifts (erector spinae will be worked) - 4 sets of 8-12 reps
Exercise 3: Split Squats - 3 sets of 10-12 reps
Exercise 4: Good mornings - 3 sets of 8 reps
Exercise 5: Leg Press - 3 sets of 8 reps
That’s it! Hit a core finisher after and you are done! Train heavy, relatively speaking, and you will become a beast with a strong lower back.
Sample Back Day Workout:
Exercise 1: Pull ups - 4 sets of max reps
Exercise 2: Deadlifts - 4 sets of 5 reps
Exercise 3: Rack Pulls - 3 sets of 5 reps
Exercise 4: Bent over rows - 3 sets of 8 reps
Exercise 5: Back extensions x Supermans - 3 sets of 10 reps (each)
Hit a quick HIIT finisher after and done!
Building a strong set of erector spinae muscles doesn’t have to be time consuming or complicated. If you train smart, you will be able to train all of your muscles effectively and efficiently.
Also, remember, there is no special stretch that is going to alleviate erector spinae pain. What you need is to strengthen them. So, don’t wait to create a strong back. Start doing erector spinae exercises now! After some time, you may realize that your erector spinae muscles were your weak link. Your posture will get better, your lower back pain will be alleviated, you will surely get stronger in all your big compound lifts, and if you are an athlete you will be able to move more explosively with less chance of injury. That’s a certified quadruple win!
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