Articles  >  Weightlifting Program Design
The Back Extension: Strengthening the Back for Weightlifting
Greg Everett
January 7 2013

If one of your problems with the Olympic lifts is a weak back arch, that needs to become a focus for you in just about everything you do. Some of you have become very strong in round-backed postures and are finding yourselves unable to set a proper back arch in the pull of the snatch or clean, or even all the way through your squats. Reversing this can take a long time and a lot of patience and consistency.

One of my favorite exercises is the plain old back extension (or hyperextension as we used to be allowed to call it). I think this is a great way to feel proper and complete forceful back extension because of the postioning (i.e. no competing tension), and it's an easy way to build up a large volume of repetition without killing yourself. This is an exercise that can be done every day before and/or after training.

Remember that we're talking about a back extension, not a hip extension—literally flex and extend your spine. Adding hip flexion and extension into the movement is fine, but you should be able to control your back directly and develop dynamic strength, not just isometric.

When you get to the point at which you're ready to add resistance, hold weight behind your neck instead of in front of your chest. This can be in the form of a dumbbell, but a barbell is a lot more comfortable. Have a pal hand it to you if needed, but you won't be using huge weights, so you should have no problem lifting it into position yourself. Holding it behind the neck allows you to get better and more consistent resistance with less actual weight--holding it in front makes it easier to let the weight move down toward your stomach, reducing the resistance and tricking you into believing your back is a lot stronger than it really is.

Isometric holds at the top of the extension reps are great too. I like doing a normal set of extensions with a very brief pause at the top, then finishing the final rep of each set with a near-max time hold.

If you're doing back extensions daily, modulate the volume and intensity somewhat day to day. That is, alternate between days on which you use resistance and days on which you do the reps unweighted. I prefer putting heavier/harder back work on training days that also have heavier/harder lifts and squats--nothing like going into a heavy lifting day with a tired back from the day before, although this is not entirely impossible or necessarily bad. If you have conditioned yourself properly, you should be able to manage.

I also really like good mornings with only very slight knee bend (really just unlocked, not bent) in your squat stance. However, these MUST be done with a complete and solid back arch, even if that initially means a limited range of motion. There is no point in just bending over with a round back a bunch of times--it will make your back strong, but not in the way we need it to be for the Olympic lifts. We're interested in specific postural strength. Over time, if done without sacrificing the arch, the good morning will serve as a hip extensor stretch as well as a back strength exercise. Focus on extending the entire length of the back--create an arch from your sacrum to the base of your skull.

In addition to developing better back extension strength, you need to be improving hip mobility to allow your back to extend in flexed-hip positions, e.g. squats and pulls. No amount of back strength will overcome really tight hip extensors. Make sure you're actually stretching your hip extensors and not further mobilizing your lower back. The best way to do this is always stretch with an arched back. A simple way to do this is to lie flat on your back with a rolled towel, ab mat or similar support under your lower back and stretch one leg at a time with the other remaining flat on the floor to help prevent the pelvis from rotating back and softening the lumbar curve.

With every exercise you do in training, if you should be arching your back (which is pretty much everthing but jerk-related exercises in weightlifting), you better be working on arching your back. Don't get lazy and think you're going to solve your problem by continuing to train the way you always have and throwing in a few sets of back extensions. In addition, force yourself to always be aware of your posture and your back arch. When you're sitting, standing, bending over to pick something up, work on arching your back properly. This is the kind of consistency that will really add up over time.
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January 7 2013
Hi Greg, a timely article as I am adding in some supplementary exercises. Can you describe the stretch you alluded to in the second to last paragraph in a little more detail?
January 7 2013
Greg, this is something that i've been struggling with for sometime. i understand the importance of what you are talking about here. i understand that the demands on the spine in a weightlifting context are primarily anti-flexion. we've discussed a few years back that in your opinion hyperextension can act as a hedge against the flexion that will naturally occur with near maximal weights.

but since then, from everything i've been reading and learning, from Kstar to Mike Robertson to PRI all are advocating something a little different. even for strength athletes. ill quote Robertson to save myself some effort, "when you hyperextend the lower back, you also drive your pelvis into a position of anterior tilt. When you fall into anterior tilt your abs are lengthened on the front, as well as your glutes and hamstrings on the back." from a biomechanical standpoint, not only are you risking injury to your facet joints over time, but you are potentially in a less advantageous position for both concentric contraction along the posterior chain as well as isometric contraction along the anterior trunk.

for beginner lifters i definitely teach the concept of global extension as that is a much simpler concept for them to understand. but for people that have been lifting for sometime, i don't shy away from working them towards a more neutral pelvis.

Greg Everett
January 7 2013
Pat -

Yes, severe hyperextension is not a good idea, but that's not what I'm talking about. I also explain to people that the closer to vertical your posture, the closer to neutral extension you need.

Extending the entire back doesn't require hyperextending the lower back, and maintaining a back arch properly in lifts doesn't mean hyperextension.

At any rate, I would prefer being slightly hyperextended then at all flexed under loading with any forward lean of the trunk.
January 7 2013
No disrespect, but If I were posting this article, I would find a better picture.
January 7 2013
What are your thoughts for people with herniated discs in the low back? It seem to me that flexion movements are the devil!
Sri M
January 8 2013
Adding to Stew's comment, what modifications if any should be done for performing the general lifts?
Greg Everett
January 8 2013
Stew & Sri -

Definitely not my area of expertise, but certainly the goal would always be to maintain the spinal position that was soundest, which will likely be neutral. This means back extensions as described in this article are probably not advisable.
January 12 2013
I find that a weak lower back arch is the limiting factor for many Oly lifters. I do back extensions myself and find they help tremendously with all my Oly lifts, squats, deads and just about every lift involving lumbar stability.
However, being a movement based trainer with a physical therapy background I am torn about how healthy extensions are for the lumbar spine in the long run. I don't prescribe them to many of my clients, especially beginners and intermediate athletes. Besides the obvious, that back extensions simply help with hip hinge movements... How do you go about justifying the fact they put hundreds of "unnecessary" pounds of pressure on your lumbar spine? Thanks
Greg Everett
January 12 2013
Nicki -

I'm not convinced of that fact, I suppose. Any pressure on the back from extensions in that position can't be anywhere near as significant as any loading done during the lifts. That you do extensions yourself even with a PT background makes me think you're not totally convinced yourself that it's a problem. It seems kind of like the argument that doing physical activity of any kind is "wearing the body down", which I don't buy.
March 29 2013

The back extension at my gym is one of those that is angled instead of horizontal. I've always found those to be far inferior. What about supermans on the floor with a hard contraction and pause at the top?
Greg Everett
April 1 2013
Tony -

Give it a shot. You can also try holding a weight at against your chest so as you extend upward, you're keeping some weight farther forward rather than unloading so much of it by being at a higher angle.
March 20 2014
Greg, this is an interesting POV with regards to the back extension and places more intention behind the use of back extensions and good mornings.
Would you be able to share images of what we should be looking for when coaching our athletes with this in mind? And if we notice hinging from one specific spot on the back, what drills might help to re-pattern the movement?
Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!