April 10, 2022
Back extensions are a great exercise to train the lower back, glutes and hamstrings. Together, these muscles are the foundation of a strong lower body and good posture, so it's important to train them as a unit, which the back extension does beautifully.
Be that as it may, it's not the only effective exercise for training the posterior chain, and the low back in particular. Having a wide selection of exercises in your arsenal is always beneficial, whether that's to switch things up or simply because you don't have access to certain equipment, such as a hyperextension bench. Variety is an essential element of progression.
On that note, we put together the 9 best back extension alternatives that work the same muscles. Let's strengthen that low back and posterior chain!
When people refer to back extensions, they typically mean a back extension done on a hyperextension bench. The hyperextension bench allows you to stabilize your lower body while you hinge at the hips, lowering and raising your upper body against resistance. Each time you raise your upper body back up, you are performing a back extension.
The reason it is called a "hyperextension" bench is because you can extend your hips a little past neutral against resistance (the resistance being your bodyweight going against gravity). This causes maximum contraction of the low back, glutes and hamstrings.
While the hyperextension bench is the most common option for back extensions, it is not the only way to do back extensions. There are various ways to do back extensions, such as from a regular weight bench or even the floor.
However, the hyperextension bench is arguably the best choice for strengthening the lower back via back extension. This because it's a quick set up and you can easily load the movement to progress beyond just bodyweight resistance. You can do this by simply holding a weight plate, dumbbell, or a band attached to the base. What's more, the hyperextension bench allows you to move through a greater range of motion.
Nevertheless, back extensions of any sort are a good way to strengthen and improve muscle development of the posterior chain, which can give more complex movements, like squats or deadlifts, a nice boost, as well as improve your spinal/core strength and posture.
The main muscles trained by back extensions are the hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae - with emphasis being on the erector spinae.
Note: Although the hamstrings and glutes are trained effectively, back extensions are as close of an isolation exercise as you can get for the lower back.
Back extensions work the lower back, glutes and hamstrings as a unit, they are easy to perform and can be loaded for progression (making them suitable for all levels), and they provide a major benefit of strengthening the lower back...As such, a good alternative must be very similar on these fronts:
Here are the 9 best back extension alternatives to work the same muscles and provide very similar benefits:
The barbell good morning works the body very similar to the back extension, making it a great alternative exercise. There is one catch though, if you have poor shoulder mobility or lower back pain, it is best to go with other alternatives on this list, or at least start very light. Overall, this is a great exercise as it puts the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings through a large range of motion for better muscle-building potential. The major difference between this and a hyperextension is that when squeezing the glutes at the top (neutral spine), you are not contracting against resistance.
Best rep range: 6-15
Reverse hyperextensions can be done with a variety of equipment, but for this one, we are demonstrating with a reverse hyper machine. The targeted muscles are similar to the back extension, except the movement is reversed - your upper body is stabile why your lower body moves up and down. Either way, this exercise is also excellent for building strength and muscle in your posterior while improving lower back stability. It's also great for decompressing the spine!
Note: You can do this same movement with a Glute Ham Developer (GHD) machine. If you don't have access to either, don't worry as we have some other reverse hyper variations for you below. The good thing about the reverse hyper machine is that it is made to load with weights, but for most beginners, your bodyweight alone is more than enough to start.
Best rep range: 8-20
Bird dogs are often dismissed as a legitimate exercise because they are "easy", and people often butcher the movement thinking more range of motion is better. However, when the bird dog is performed correctly, it strengthens your core, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings very effectively, while improving spinal stability and anti-rotation strength too, which is essential for when you are doing heavy barbell lifts or any kind of high impact sport. This is a fantastic bodyweight, low back endurance exercise that goes a long way in keeping back pain at bay too. You can even add resistance to it with bands.
Best rep range: 10-15
The superman is essentially a back extension on the floor but with your arms extended forward (hence the name). This exercise does a great job of strengthening the lower back, as well as the glutes and hamstrings. Your lower back keeps your chest and hands off the ground as you extend your spine, and together with your glutes and hamstrings, your lower extremities off the ground. Although it’s only a small range of motion, it's a surprisingly challenging and effective isometric-based exercise.
Best rep range: 8-15
The glute-ham raise exercise is a great bodyweight movement that strengthens the hamstrings and glutes. For this one, the movement occurs at the knees, with the hamstrings doing most of the work isotonically and the lower back working isometrically to keep the spine stable and neutral. In other words, the hamstrings will be lengthening and contracting while the erector spinae contracts without movement. All in all, the glute-ham raise will develop a strong low back and eccentric strength in the hamstrings to help prevent hamstring injuries. When bodyweight is mastered, this can be progressed easily with load just like a hyperextension can.
Best rep range: 6-12
If you don't have a GHD machine, we have alternatives for the glute ham raise too!
Kettlebell swings train similar muscles to the back extension but with two important advantages. Unlike the other exercise on this list, the kettlebell trains the posterior muscles explosively, which directly translates into powerful movements in areas like sports and big lifts. What's more, kettlebell swings are really a total body endurance exercise. It's going to burn a ton of calories AND work stabilizer muscles from the ground up.
Best rep range: 10-50
The stability ball reverse hyper movement is like the machine reverse hyper above. It trains the lower back, glutes, and hamstring, but with a twist - the unstable ball makes you really focus on your technique. In other words, it makes dealing with just your bodyweight a lot harder, requiring your low back, glutes and hammies to really work. It's a great alternative to back extensions.
Best rep range: 8-15
This reverse hyper variation involves a weight bench. The downside to this variation is the range of motion is a little restricted due to the heigh of the bench. However, you can stack some plates (carefully) underneath the base to raise it up, or simply perform the reverse hyper with an added knee flexion/extension each rep (bend your knees as your legs come down, and straighten your legs as you extend up - this will make the exercise considerably harder). If you want to increase resistance, hold a dumbbell between your feet.
Note: If you have a very strong and stable adjustable bench, you can also perform this exercise with the bench at an incline, which would give you a larger range of motion.
Best rep range: 10-20
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) should be a staple in everyone's training program. It's a great exercise for isolating the hamstrings, glutes and low back, and it has great carryover carry over to your regular deadlift because of the increased time under tension on your posterior muscles. While one could consider it a great alternative to back extensions, it is actually ideal to do both. RDLs emphasize the hamstrings, while back extensions emphasize the low back. A match made in posterior-chain-building-heaven.
Best rep range: 6-12
How you program the exercises exactly is going to depend on what kind of workouts you do. For example, do you do full body workouts or a training split like an upper/lower program?
Either way, in nutshell, aim for around 10 sets of hamstring-glute-low-back focused exercises per week. We recommend doing two bigger exercises like good mornings and RDLs and one or two bodyweight or light resistance exercises like back extensions, reverse hypers, or bird dogs per week.
If you don't like planning your own programs, check out these articles as they will direct you to exactly what you need to be doing (and if back extensions come up, you know what exercises can replace them!):
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