Improving posture is probably not among the top concerns of gymgoers looking to sculpt a stacked physique. However, bad posture and weak backs plague the modern-day era due to the nature of our tech-filled lives and careers.
Getting better posture and improving back strength can boost your overall quality of life as these can help eliminate back pain and improve lifts in the gym.
While many tend to focus on upper back exercises for posture and strength, the erector spinae muscles should not be neglected as they are responsible for many crucial functions.
What Exactly Are Your Erector Spinae Muscles?
When we think about muscles we’d like to bulk, the erector spinae muscles are probably one of the last to be named. This is because building these muscles does not contribute to any sort of shredded aesthetic like training traps or delts do. Still, erector spinae muscles play an extremely important role in the function and movement of the entire body and are especially important for those who lift.
The erector spinae muscles, also known as spinal erectors, run vertically down your entire back on either side of your spine. These are not muscles you can typically see bulging underneath your skin, as they are below other muscles, yet they still make up a large portion of the posterior chain.
Stretching from your sacrum, or lower back and hips, all the way to the base of the skull, the erector spinae are comprised of several muscles and tendons. The erector spinae group is made up of three main parts: the iliocostalis, the longissimus thoracics, and the spinalis. Each of these muscles has individual functions that overall aid in many main movements of the back and torso.
The erector spinae has several incredibly important functions. These muscles are the reason you can straighten your back and keep yourself upright. Additionally, they also aid in the rotation of your torso and certain movements of the head.
Why Should I Train These Muscles?
While you may think of the erector spinae as just back muscles, they actually play a vital role in the stabilization of your overall core. This is because the core, which typically brings to mind the abdominal muscles and obliques, also includes your erector spinae muscles. The largest part of the muscle group is in your lower back, which is an area of high concern in weightlifting.
Having strong spinal erectors will likely:
- Improve your lifts: Many lifts require core stabilization, which can only occur when the core is properly strengthened. Developing good core strength can not only improve your lifting technique and form but also may also allow you to lift more weight. Think of having a thick tree trunk rather than a flimsy branch, there is much more support for weight and movement. Even runners can benefit from building stronger core muscles as this is what stabilizes them and reduces unnecessary movement during runs.
Help with posture: Having good posture is synonymous with having a good quality of life. Those with poor posture suffer immensely from back pain and even immobility. Growing older also has a large impact on our posture, so strengthening your back now can save you some issues later in life. Furthermore, poor posture can cause severe back pain, specifically erector spinae pain, over time.
- Strengthen your back: Having a strong back is not only vital for moving big weight but will also reduce injury risk and protect your core. Injury to the erector spinae muscles or any other area of your back can be debilitating, but strengthening these muscles helps prevent injury. This is especially important for athletes such as powerlifters, which include high-risk movements and lifting stressful amounts of weight.
7 Best Erector Spinae Exercises
There are several movements you can incorporate into your workouts to strengthen those spinal erectors. You may already be doing some of these movements in the gym and not even realize they are improving your erector spinae strength, but adding more of these exercises to your routine can reap major benefits. Here are our top seven best exercises for your erector spinae muscles:
Of course, we have to start off with a bang: the deadlift. The conventional deadlift is one of the most popular movements in the gym and it is likely you have done them at least a few times.
While most people use deadlifts to focus on strengthening legs, they are also an efficient way to gain low back strength. Proper form with your deadlifts is vital since they can put your body under a lot of stress. Here is how to do a conventional barbell deadlift:
- Prepare the barbell by loading the plates and placing the bar on the floor in front of you.
- Position your foot halfway underneath the bar, you should see your toes on the other side. Your foot stance should be shoulder-width.
- Next, hinge at your hips, bend your knees slightly, and grasp the bar using a standard overhand grip about one thumb-length away from your legs. However, where you choose to grip the bar should be comfortable, so if you feel more natural with a grip closer or farther away from your legs, this is fine.
- Prepare for the lift by bracing your core and feeling your feet well-grounded. Be sure your shoulders aren’t rounded by keeping your chest high. It may also help to look outward in front of you rather than down at the bar to ensure a straight, neutral spine.
- Lift the weight in a slow and controlled manner by slowly unhinging your hips until you’re standing upright. The bar should stay close to your body grazing your legs. It is normal for this to cause bruising or scraping, but this can be avoided by wearing shin guards or tall socks. Be sure to maintain good posture and a stable, engaged core throughout.
- At the top of the movement, avoid overextending the hips outward. This is a common mistake and you have probably seen it done several times, but this over-arching of the lower back can cause serious injury. A slight extension forward is all you’ll need.
- Lower the weight back down slowly, still focusing on a neutral back and a forward gaze. Remember to avoid rounded shoulders by keeping your chest out.
Congrats! You have successfully done a conventional deadlift. There are many variations to deadlifts, a popular choice being to replace the barbells for dumbbells, which can be a good option for new lifters.
2. Good Morning
Like the deadlift, good mornings are another great compound movement, meaning it works multiple muscle groups. With this exercise, you’ll not only be getting a workout for your posterior chain, but also for your legs and glutes. Here is how to execute the good morning movement:
- Prepare a barbell on a squat rack and place it on your back just above your shoulder blades. It is important you do not rest the barbell on your neck, but rather on a “shelf” created by holding the bar on either side and squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Position your feet at shoulder-width.
- Prepare for the movement by engaging your core and checking in with your back posture.
- Begin the movement by hinging forward at the hips, moving your torso down towards the floor in a slow, controlled fashion. Keep your back straight, neck neutral, and your gaze forward. Allow your knees to bend.
- Stop hinging when your upper body is parallel to the floor unless the stretch in your hamstrings is too much at any point prior, in which case you’ll want to stop there to avoid injury. Though, you should work up to a fully extended movement for optimum results.
- Finish the movement by returning to the upright position.
Good mornings can also be done with bodyweight if you are uncomfortable using a barbell.
Rows are highly beneficial for your back and there are many variations to fit your specific needs. They are also not the most difficult exercise in terms of form, so rows can be a great way to get started on working out your back in the gym. Bent over rows are one of the best variations for your erector spinae, and here’s how you do them with a barbell:
- Prepare your barbell and sit it on the floor in front of you. Always remember less weight is better when learning a new movement, especially one involving sensitive areas like the back.
- Position your feet shoulder-width apart and hinge at your hips, bending your knees and keeping a neutral back.
- Grab your weight from the floor with the standard overhand grip, remembering to engage your core. However, unlike the deadlift, your reps will not start and end at the floor, but rather at the end of the arm extension.
- Begin the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades together and bringing the weight to your chest. It should mimic the movement needed to row a boat, hence the name. Be sure to keep a neutral spine and avoid rounded shoulders by keeping your chest out. Maintain proper neck positioning by keeping your gaze forward.
- Lower the weight back down to the full extension of your arms. Always maintain a slow and controlled approach.
Popular variations include substituting the barbell for dumbbells or even using resistance bands. Your gym may also have a row machine, which can also be utilized to build your erector spinae muscles.
4. Bird Dog
If you don’t have access to weights or can’t lift weights, bodyweight exercises such as bird dogs are great for your spinal erectors. The bird dog movement is common in yoga practice, which has been shown to ease lower back pain. You can incorporate bird dogs into warm-up or cool-down sessions as part of a more rigorous workout routine. For a bird dog, the movement is very simple:
- First, you’ll need to get on the floor. A yoga mat is recommended.
- Prepare for the exercise by getting on your hands and knees.
- Engage your core and lift your right hand off the floor, extending it out in front of you. Also lift your left leg off the floor.
- You’ll notice the hardest thing about this movement is balance, but be sure to maintain an engaged core and a straight back as this will aid in stabilizing your body.
- Hold this pose for a few seconds, then switch to the left hand and the right leg. The alternating motion should be slow and controlled while maintaining good posture and a stabilized core.
5. Rack Pull
The rack pull is a similar movement to the deadlift and requires a very similar form. The main difference between rack pulls and deadlifts is the range of motion required to move the weight. This is because deadlifts come from the floor while rack pulls come from a higher position on a power rack, typically from knee height.
Because of the shorter range of motion, most lifters find they can move more weight with rack pulls than with deadlifts. It is also a great alternative for people who may lack the range of motion needed for a deadlift. Here is how to do rack pulls:
- Start by preparing the rack so that the barbell will sit at about knee height.
- Position your feet shoulder-width apart and slightly under the bar like you would for a deadlift.
- Hinge at your hips and bend your knees in order to grip the bar. Grasp the bar outside of your legs in an overhand position.
- Prepare for the lift by engaging your core and maintaining a neutral back. Keep your gaze forward throughout the movement. Feel your feet grounded into the floor.
- Lift the bar off the rack keeping the weight close to your body.
- At the top of the movement, like deadlifting, avoid overextension of your hips as this can lead to injury.
- Slowly place the weight back down on the rack, maintaining good posture throughout.
The position of the barbell on the rack can vary depending on your needs. Some lifters choose a position that is much higher or much lower.
Like bird dogs, supermans are another great bodyweight movement you can do to work those spinal erectors. They are great for beginners or can easily be added to your warmup and cool-down sessions. Supermans require no equipment and can be done at home, as well. The form is quite easy for the superman exercise, here is how to execute it:
- This is another movement done on the floor. A yoga mat is recommended.
- Prepare for the movement by laying facedown on the yoga mat.
- Extend your arms out above your head.
- Next, lift all your limbs off the floor so the only thing in contact with your mat is your torso and lower body.
- Stay in this position for several seconds, staying as stable as possible, before releasing back to the ground.
It is not uncommon to add a small amount of weight to this movement. Simply hold a dumbbell in your hands for some resistance.
7. Back Extensions
Back extensions, also called hyperextensions, are similar to the superman exercise but are done using a back extension machine, allowing for a much larger range of motion. Back extensions can be done with or without weights. Form is important when using the back extension machine to avoid injury, but learning the movement is easy:
- Get onto the back extension machine. Your thighs should be against the machine’s pad and your feet secured.
- In the upright position, cross your arms over your chest and check in with your posture. Your back should be neutral.
- Next, begin lowering yourself forward by hinging at the hips. The machine will force the form of the movement to some extent, but be sure to keep your shoulders back and avoiding a caved chest.
- Slowly lower yourself down to the floor as far as desired or is possible for your body.
- Next, lift yourself back up to the upright position. Be sure to not overextend at the top by keeping your neck and back in a straight line.
Once you get comfortable with this movement, you can hold a weight plate in your arms or lift a barbell off the floor for extra resistance.
Strengthening Your Erector Spinae: Last Thoughts
The erector spinae is often neglected in bodybuilding regimens since building these muscles does not result in direct benefits to your physique. However, performing spinal erector strengthening exercises is especially important for those who often engage in movements that cause pressure to the lumbar spine, such as squats.
When faced with a back injury, you’ll wish you had been training your back muscles.
Furthermore, if you’re really struggling with obtaining desired muscle hypertrophy, strengthening your erector spinae muscles can provide a good foundation in other lifts allowing you to move heavier weight, thus aiding in the overall effectiveness of building muscle.