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December 11, 2021 9 min read

Back extensions are well-known for building low back strength and they can also bolster your leg day and glute routine. But what if you don’t have a roman chair or back extension machine?

We've got good news!

There are plenty of variations and alternative exercises that will help you target your neck, back, hips, and legs just like back extensions without the expensive machinery. Read on to find out how back extensions work and the best variations for performing this exercise at home.

What Is A Back Extension?

For the uninitiated, back extensions with a machine or Roman chair are exercises performed with leg movement totally restricted. The main movement is a forward bend at the waist all the way forward and then a reverse movement back to the starting position. These machines have bars with cushions at the lower end that go against the back of the leg. Another larger cushion holds the front of the body just beneath hip level so the user can bend forward over the top of it.

Back Extensions: A Back or Leg Exercise?

Judging by its name, you’d think this is strictly a back exercise. While it is true that your back does a substantial amount of the work during the second half of this exercise, your lower body and core also kick in to lift the weight of your upper body. The back extension works the following muscles and muscle groups:

Semispinalus & Multifidus

These two deep back muscles share responsibility with the rotatores for  stabilizing the vertebral column and maintaining posture.

They also play a role in proprioception, also known as kinesthesia, which is our sense of body position and self-movement. In addition to helping us balance, these two deep back muscles also help us move without having to consciously think about it first. The semispinalis is located on the upper back part of your neck near the spine while the multifidus stretches over the entire length of your spine.

Splenius Capitis & Cervicis

Both located on the superficial (top muscle layer) on your neck, these two muscles flex, support, rotate, and move your neck from side to side. During a back extension, these muscles work hard to keep your head and neck in the same place.

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae are on either side of the spine and run the entire length of the back. Their job is to rotate the torso and straighten the spine. In addition to back extensions, squats and hip hinge exercises like good mornings activate the erector spinae.

Glutes & Hamstrings

These are two of the human body’s primary hip extensors. They power common movements like running, jumping, sitting, standing, and climbing the stairs. Anything you do that propels the body up and/or forward involves the glutes and hamstrings. As you can see, the majority of the muscles targeted by back extensions are in your neck and spine.

While the glutes and hamstrings are also activated, they aren’t the main players and back extensions are far from being the only exercises for hamstrings or glutes.

We can comfortably count back extensions as primarily a back exercise with secondary lower-body benefits.

There is some evidence that such lumbar stabilization exercises could help  reduce lower back pain.

When looking for alternative back extension exercises that can be done at home, it’s vital to find exercises that can target all these same muscles if we’re to hope for similar benefits.

7 Back Extension Variations You Can Do At Home

Although these exercises aren’t exactly the same as back extensions, they will allow you to target the same muscles in your home workout. Some of them do so by putting you through a similar motion to a back extension with a back extension bench while others have a different movement pattern.

In any case, use these back extension alternatives to strengthen your neck, spine, and posterior chain with little to no workout equipment.

1. Front Plank Hip Extensions

Electromyographic analysis showed that front planks with hip extensions provoked 106% of the maximal voluntary muscle contraction (MVIC) of the gluteus maximus.

Pair that with the core workout and the rigid placement of the spine and you have a perfect bodyweight replacement for back extensions. What you’ll need: Nothing! You can use resistance bands around your legs or hold a weight plate or lightweight dumbbell on your back to make the exercise more difficult, but neither is necessary.

How to do front plank hip extensions:

  • Begin on your knees and then lean forward and place both palms on the ground. Move to prop your upper body on your elbows rather than your hands.
  • Stack your elbows directly beneath your shoulders and maintain a 90-degree angle in your elbow. Kick your legs out behind you so that your lower body is supported on your toes. Your feet should be between hip and shoulder-width apart.
  • You need a straight line from your neck to your glutes. Pull your shoulder blades together to make sure your spine isn’t sinking or bulging. 
  • Now that you’re in the plank position, engage your back and core to maintain it. 
  • Raise either foot into the air so that the knee on that side is at 90 degrees. Extend it without moving your foot toward your glutes at all - that 90 degrees is supposed to hold. Slowly lower back to its original height to complete one rep.
  • Continue for 10 - 15 reps on one side and then rest for 30 seconds before repeating the same number of reps raising the opposite leg.

    2. Superman Exercise

      The starting position might be a bit uncomfortable, but that’s another benefit of being able to do this exercise from the comfort of your own home gym. Plus, it focuses on extending through the range of motion of your lower back muscles.

      Try some of our  CHARGED-AF pre-workout for more focus to help maintain your position during the superman exercise. 

      What you’ll need: We highly recommend a yoga mat for this one unless you’re going to run through your reps in a carpeted room. Many people also wear a loop resistance band around their calves to get a better workout out of this move. 

      How to do the superman exercise:

      • First, roll out that yoga mat if you have it. Lie down on your stomach and stretch your arms straight out above your head. Place the tops of your feet against the floor rather than your toes. 
      • Simultaneously raise both feet and both hands. Concentrate on keeping your core against the floor and engaging your back and glutes to raise your limbs. 
      • Hold this raised position for several seconds and then lower back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times if you’re able. 

      Remember that this is a core exercise that aims to build strength in the muscles that help raise your chest and thighs off the floor. If you can’t get them off the ground that high or have trouble keeping them in place, that just means your core needs some work. Keep at these superman exercises and try the T-boosters and lean muscle builders in our  MASS STACK and you’ll build up muscles to hold that superman pose for longer.

        3. Reverse Hyperextensions

          Although it requires a bit of setting up, this reverse hyperextension is a great glute exercise as well as a fair workout for the hamstrings and lower back. The key to the exercise is to extend your legs slightly further than your torso height.

          That’s why it's called  hyperextension.

          What you’ll need: If you don’t have a flat bench available, find a small sturdy table or bench with enough room for your upper body. Find a cushion for your stomach as well if your chosen surface is uncomfortable otherwise. Wear a resistance band around your thighs to give the hip extensors a greater workout. 

          How to do reverse hyperextensions at home:

          • First, lie your upper body across the table or bench starting with your core and ending at the pecs. Reach out and grab the end of the table or bench to keep yourself in place. 
          • Next, spread your feet about hip-width apart and then raise them both behind you. Squeeze your glutes and make sure those feet pass the height of your torso. You should feel a slight bend in your lower back. 
          • Hold for a brief pause and then slowly lower your feet. Don’t bring them all the way down to the floor. Count one rep when they’re an inch or two above and then lift them into the next repetition. 

            4. Stability Ball Back Extensions

              Targeting your lower back with these stability ball extensions will put you at a lower risk of injury and help give you the room to work at your own pace. If you have back issues or haven’t been exercising those muscle groups much, a stability ball is a great help.

              What you’ll need: a stability ball or medicine ball and a flat wall you can place your feet against.

              How to do stability ball back extensions:

              • Place your hips on the stability ball and lean forward so you can place both hands on the ground. Support your weight on your hands in front, on the ball in the middle, and on the wall with both feet. Your toes should be on the floor, not raised.
              • Once your feet are in position, you can cross your arms across your chest and support your weight entirely on the ball and the wall. Push your hips down and draw in your belly button.
              • Lift your torso until there’s a straight line running from your heels through your knees and hips and all the way to your shoulders. Hold that position for a few seconds and then slowly lower your chest to the ball again. Raise your arms for extra difficulty.

                5. DIY Glute Ham Raise

                  Some people build their own devices for this exercise, but you might be able to find a suitable piece of furniture like a couch or footstool that works just as well. As you can tell from the name, your glutes and hamstrings are targeted here. Your lower back muscles and  erector spinae are as well.

                  What you’ll need: A low horizontal bar that you can slide your feet under. It has to be strong enough to keep your legs in place while you lift your upper body on the strength of your hip extensors and the muscles of your lower back. Padding for your knees will probably be helpful as well.

                  How to do DIY glute ham raises:

                  • Stick your feet beneath a low horizontal bar, footstool, couch, or into your DIY contraption. Place your knees on a mat or other cushion, then lean forward a bit to put tension on your hamstrings. 
                  • Keep your back straight and bend at the waist until your forehead touches the ground. Lift back into the starting position to complete one rep. 
                  • For an even harder exercise, lower by bending your knees instead of your hips. You’ll have to catch yourself with your hands to prevent injury. Rebound with a short push off the ground to get back into the starting position.

                    6. Resistance Band Deadlifts

                      The banded version of this classic bodybuilding move will save you money on a barbell and still give your glutes, hamstrings, lower back muscles, lats, and core a stellar workout. Your risk of injury is significantly reduced and you’ll be able to do these banded deadlifts pretty much wherever you want. 

                      What you’ll need: a loop resistance band or a tube resistance band with a low anchor point.

                      How to do resistance band deadlifts:

                      • Take a large resistance band in both hands and stand on the middle of it. 
                      • Keep your hips back and your back flat. Your hands should be holding the resistance band just outside either knee.
                      • Lift your hands by reversing your  hip hinge and then unbending your knees. You should be standing up at the top of the move. 
                      • Get back into the starting position by hinging forward at the hips and bending the knees slightly at the end.

                        7. Kettlebell Swings

                          Kettlebell swings may seem like a strange back extension variation, but since they’re such a stellar workout for the entire posterior chain, it makes some sense. The extension comes in about halfway through the move when the kettlebell is swung out in front of you - don’t overdo it, but remember that that is the part that will help work your lower back and hip extensors.

                          What you’ll need: A kettlebell and plenty of room.

                          How to do kettlebell swings:

                          • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell on the ground in front of you equidistant between your feet. 
                          • Hinge at the hip and bend your knees as if you were about to big up a barbell to start deadlifting. Grab hold of the kettlebell with both hands and lift it between your legs and slightly behind you. Don’t let your back hunch over. 
                          • Let the kettlebell swing forward and then up until it’s at shoulder height. Drop it down in an arc until it's behind your legs and continue swinging it back up for 10 - 15 reps. 

                          Great Workouts With Back Extension Variations

                          Back extensions are a great exercise whether you just want a bit more flexibility or you’re training for more difficult strength training moves like  deadlifts and squats.

                          Even if you can’t make it to the gym, you can include some of the back extension variations in this guide in your home workout routine to get the same benefits in your lower back, hip extensors, and core.