Written by Dr. Gaia Domenici, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise
Following up on my previous article, 5 Lifestyle Hacks to Prevent Back Pain in 2022, here are 7 exercises that will help you build a bulletproof back and a rock-solid core. As already written, strengthening your posterior chain and core muscles, while lengthening their antagonists, is key to fighting and preventing back pain.
However, other relevant practices include an active lifestyle and a good diet, based on wholesome ingredients, and free from refined produce and vegetable oils. Combining strong back and core muscles with clean nutrition and an active lifestyle will help you get rid of your back pain for good.
Here are 7 exercises (with their variations) that you should be including in your training routine, regardless of your level and goals.
1. Conventional and Reverse Hyperextensions
Conventional hyperextensions are your number-1 choice if your goal is to strengthen:
If you are strong enough to perform a weighted variation, holding a barbell with a snatch-grip will even target your mid and upper trapezius, making it an excellent upper-back exercise, too. Depending on which muscle you wish to target most, you can adjust your seat at different heights:
lowest to mostly target the hamstrings;
medium height to target hamstrings, glutes, and erector spinae in equal measure;
highest to mostly target the erector spinae.
When you do the setup, make sure your feet are placed flat and evenly; when you execute the exercise, make sure you use your hamstrings and glutes to pull your back up while keeping your back muscles fully engaged, and your legs still at all times. If you have not got access to a hyperextension machine, you can replace this exercise with superman raises.
If you are lucky enough to have access to a reverse hyperextension machine, you should give this variation a try. Reverse hyperextensions (“reverse hyper”) were allegedly invented by the late powerlifter, founder of the Westside Barbell Club Louie Simmons (1947-2022), to rehabilitate his lower back from one of his many injuries. However, other athletes have been reported to have invented similar exercises for similar purposes. Differently from conventional hyperextensions, in the reverse hyper, the load is placed on the lower body right under your feet, and the movement requires you to use your posterior chain to pull your legs and lower back up while keeping your upper back still. Albeit popular and effective within the powerlifting community, this exercise has not reached mainstream gyms yet, so, likely, you have not got access to a reverse hyper machine. Should that be the case, a suitable alternative would be to lie prone on a bench, legs hanging down.
2. Glute Bridges, Hip Thrusts, and Reverse Hip Extensions
One of the largest and most important muscle groups of the posterior chain is glutes. Strong glutes sustain the spine, especially when combined with strong latissimus dorsi (lats), and prevent back pain. The best way to build bulletproof glutes is to target the movements they are designed to execute:
Glute bridges, hip thrusts and reverse hip extensions cover all 3 movements, and have been shown to elicit the most relevant muscle gains when it comes to glute-building.
Lift your hips without hyperextending your back. As you get stronger, you need to do is lie supine on the floor, bend your knees, press your feet firmly against the ground, and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips without hyperextending your back. As you get stronger, you can add weights and bands to increase both concentric and eccentric loads. A progression to this exercise would be going unilateral by raising one leg and only using the other one to do the movement. Placing a yoga block under your feet and creating a deficit is another great progression.
Hip thrusts are a further progression to glute bridges, requiring you to start from an incline position (upper back resting on a bench or other surface), to increase the range of motion (ROM) and stimulate the glutes even more. In this case, too, a staggered or unilateral stance and a deficit can be implemented to add variety to your routine.
Under the umbrella term “reverse hip extensions” are included different exercises to be performed prone, one leg at a time, such as donkey kicks, kickbacks, and cable kickbacks. Similar to the previous 2 exercises, make sure you contract your glutes to extend the hips without hyperextending the spine. The best way to progress hip extensions is by increasing the intensity over time or incorporating advanced training techniques to increase time under tension (TUT), metabolic stress, and muscle damage (for example, slow eccentrics, drop-sets, cluster-sets).
3. Horizontal Rows
Nothing prevents poor posture better than building horizontal pulling strength. In fact, horizontal pulling movements counterbalance the effects of slouching over when working at your desk or looking down at your phone.
Pendlay rows, bent-over rows, inverted rows, and seated rows are all excellent movements that should be included in every programme. Even more important is to incorporate unilateral movements, such as single-arm dumbbell rows, to fix and prevent muscle imbalances.
Here are some cues to execute rows correctly:
keep your chest “proud” (imagine reaching the barbell or dumbbell with your chest at each repetition);
drive back with your elbows without changing angles (imagine you have a thread connected to your elbow with the ceiling or the wall behind you);
do not compensate by rounding your lower back (when your lower back starts to fatigue, take a few seconds to reset, then imagine you are a duck pointing its tail up and back when you restart the exercise).
4. Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups
To build a strong back, vertical pulling movements must be included, too. The “king” of such movements is the pull-up. Assisted or banded pull-ups are most suitable to start with, then unassisted and weighted pull-ups are natural progressions.
Neutral and supine chin-ups are excellent alternatives to target lats and biceps, while prone pull-ups are a more-comprehensive exercise involving posterior deltoids, teres major, rotator cuffs, traps, and rhomboids, too.
Another alternative is the lat pulldown: ideal to build strength and hypertrophy as you improve your pull-up technique.
If you are still struggling with your pull-ups, do not panic. Click and download my FREE pull-up guide here: you will be able to learn your first pull-up in as little as 12 weeks.
5. Face-Pulls, Reverse Flyes, and Wide-Grip Rows
The last group of exercises to build a bulletproof posterior chain, and prevent back pain are exercises targeting traps, rear delts, rotator cuffs, and rhomboids. These muscles are of crucial importance to stabilize the shoulders, extend the thoracic spine, and correct posture.
Face-pulls can be executed at a cable station, with dumbbells, or with resistance bands. Different heights and grips can also be utilized to target one muscle over the others:
pulling from the top, in a lying position or with a neutral, reverse grip accentuates shoulder external rotation, primarily working the posterior head of the deltoids;
pulling from the bottom and with a pronated grip will emphasize the work of the trapezius and the rhomboids more.
Reverse flyes also present several dumbbell and cable variations; they can be executed on both sides simultaneously, or one side at a time; and grips can also be played with to target one muscle over the others, in a similar way to face-pulls.
The wide-grip row is another excellent upper-back builder that can be executed in several ways and at different incline angles. For example, it can be done while standing, lying, or at a 45° or 60° using a set of dumbbells, a barbell, or an E-Z bar. Alternatively, a cable station, a low pulley, or a row machine can be used, if a seated version is preferred. They all are great variations that should be rotated over the course of the macrocycle (1-year period of training).
When training the upper back muscles, the most important clue is not to drop your elbows (do not change your elbow angle): pretend to have a pencil between your shoulder blades, and use your shoulder blades to squeeze it. However, when you want to specifically target your posterior deltoids, a bit of back rounding is expected.
6. Pallof Holds and Presses
Other than the posterior chain, another muscle group that needs to be strengthened to prevent back pain is the core.
Anti-rotational exercises such as Pallof holds or presses (for an advanced version) work the obliques and prevent scoliosis. To resist rotation, the obliques work in antagonist pairs: internal oblique on one side and external oblique on the opposite side. Therefore, an isometrical application of force on each side (one at a time) is a powerful resource to train the obliques functionally and prevent scoliosis. Moreover, the transversus abdominis (transverse) is also involved. This is an inner muscle responsible for generating intra-abdominal pressure. By training this muscle, the lumbar spine is stabilized, thus preventing hyperlordosis, too.
Once you master Pallof holds and presses, you can progress towards kneeling Pallof holds and presses. An alternative to Pallof holds and presses are wood chops, albeit a bit less effective on anti-rotation.
7. Hanging Leg Raises
The last exercise to build a bulletproof core and get rid of back pain for good is the hanging leg raise (HLR). This exercise forces you to engage the abdominal muscles (especially the lower section of the rectus abdominis) to raise your legs above the hips. By so doing, it creates the opposite movement to when we sit down; hence, it strengthens the portion of our core that is otherwise excessively lengthened by a sedentary lifestyle (or an office job).
Several variations and progressions of the HLR exist. The most basic version would be with a supported back and bent knees; the most advanced version would be from a dead-hang position, raising straight legs above the head. While it is part of the exercise to lift the lower back, too, to execute the HLR correctly, it is important to not let the lower back and the hip flexors take over. This can be done by keeping the core engaged at all times: imagine having your belly button firmly pressed against your spine throughout.
A few tips
As you execute each of these exercises or their variations, make sure you are consistent with your repetitions they all have to look the same and go full range of motion (ROM). Should your ROM be too short, do not worry and do not push too far: as you progress, so will your ROM. Indeed, the stronger you get, and the smoother each movement becomes, the greater your ROM becomes naturally.
In addition to these 7 exercises and their variations, start working on hip hinge movements, starting from good mornings and progressing towards rack-pulls and deadlifts. Contrary to what many people believe, if executed correctly, deadlifts will strengthen your back dramatically. As you get stronger, make sure you include squats in your program, too. A safe progression would be:
If you are unsure about your form, make sure you hire a coach or a trainer, and do not be ashamed of filming yourself: this will not only help you check your form but also allow you to track your progress visually.
Building a strong posterior chain and a bullet-proof core is your natural safeguard against back pain. In this post are highlighted 7 exercises, plus their variations, that you should be including in your training routine to bid farewell to back pain for good. In addition to these exercises, stretching the anterior antagonist muscles, working on mobility, and staying active are also paramount habits to eliminate back pain and prevent poor posture (as explained in my previous post).
Before you undertake any physical activities, make sure you are cleared by your GP, and you work with a certified coach or PT if you are new to exercising. Feel free to check out my website for free fitness content and guides, and do not hesitate to get in touch, should you need personalized support.
Dr. Gaia Domenici, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Dr. Gaia Domenici, also known as 'The Strongest Shield-Maiden', is a certified Nutrition and Health Coach, Strength and Conditioning Coach, Personal Trainer, and published author, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
After spending a decade juggling between gym and academia, Gaia realized that body, mind, and spirit are a whole, and, as such, they need to be trained together. So she founded 'Fitnosophy: Build Your Body Realise Your Self', a platform to share the spiritual meaning of fitness, and the impact of a strong body on a meaningful life. Following the sense of void and uncertainty left by the 2020 pandemic, Gaia founded the 'Shield-Maiden Tribe', a community in which women from across the world can share their inner and outer strengths, and nourish their Inner Warrior, empower each other, and grow stronger together.
Since 2018, Gaia has coached countless clients and athletes worldwide, helping them get in tune with their Inner Warrior, and achieve physical, mental, and spiritual goals.