If you want to get stronger and ward off injury, a strong core is key. But it’s not just about abs exercises—a lower back workout is also an important addition to your routine, since those muscles are part of your core too.
Your lower back consists of a group of muscles called the erector spinae muscles, which help hold your body upright, ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, owner of Strong With Sivan in Baltimore, tells SELF. “You use your lower back muscles in your day-to-day life, when you are walking or simply standing,” she says. “Your erector spinae contract isometrically to keep your body from flexing forward.”
This lower back workout created by Fagan will help build lower back strength—though it may not exactly seem that way. In some of the exercises, you’ll be working your lower back muscles dynamically through movement, but in others you’ll be working them isometrically through a contraction without movement. So not all of the exercises will look (or feel) like traditional “back” exercises, say, like the ones you’d expect in a dumbbell back workout. Instead you’ll probably consider some of them (mainly, the squat and deadlift) to be lower body moves.
There’s a reason for this: Big compound moves like the squat and deadlift require serious core strength to complete. That’s because all of your core muscles—yes, including those lower back muscles—need to fire to stabilize your body while you safely move the weight and resist the forward bend of your spine, Fagan says. It’s also why the cue “engage your core” is super important when you’re lifting weights.
Your lower body muscles like quads, hamstrings, and glutes will be the primary players in those moves—and that’s mostly where you should feel it—but your lower back muscles will still be firing too. In fact, if you do feel exercises like the squat or deadlift in your lower back, something’s not quite right. In many cases, you might be using too much weight, and your lower back needs to come in to assist your lower body muscles a little too much. In this case, Fagan says to reduce the weight.
Are lower back exercises safe if you have back pain?
Unfortunately, as with many questions in the fitness world, there’s not one blanket answer for this. Depending on what’s causing your back pain, some lower back exercises can make your pain worse, Fagan says. Some people’s pain may be triggered when they extend those muscles, while others may feel it more when they flex those muscles. So one exercise that hurts someone with back pain might be tolerated by another person, and vice versa.
That means if you have low back pain—whether you’ve pulled a muscle in your back or aren’t really sure what’s causing it—your best course of action is going to be to talk with your doctor or physical therapist before exercising. They can help make sure you’re not doing back exercises at home that are making any existing pain worse, and can choose moves that are individualized to your specific needs.
One quick note though: A strong core (including those lower back muscles) is also important when talking about lower back pain or discomfort. In fact, people who complain about tightness in their lower back might not actually have “tight” muscles, says Fagan. Their lower back muscles might be weak instead. So rather than focusing exclusively on lower back stretches or yoga poses, it may be more important to focus on building up the strength in that area for lower back pain relief.
And that’s where a workout like this comes in. This four-move strength routine, which was created for SELF by Fagan, targets the muscles around your erector spinae to help build strength and improve stability. All you need is a kettlebell to get started!
What you need: A moderately weighted kettlebell and an exercise mat for comfort. If you don’t have a kettlebell, you can complete the weighted moves with a pair of dumbbells instead. (Looking to buy a kettlebell for your at-home gym? Here are some of our favorite kettlebells.)
SupermanRomanian deadliftGoblet squatBear crawl
Complete 8–12 reps of each exercise in circuit fashion, going from one to the next without rest. Rest for 1–2 minutes after you’ve completed all four exercises. Complete the circuit two times total.
Demoing the moves below are Amanda Wheeler (GIF 1), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and cofounder of Formation Strength; Angie Coleman (GIFs 2 and 3), a holistic wellness coach in Oakland; and Shauna Harrison (GIF 4), a Bay Area–based trainer, yogi, public health academic, advocate, and columnist for SELF.