The Back Extension Machine Exercise : The Definitive Guide

The seated back extension is commonly found in most gyms. You sit on it and extend back pushing a stacked weight that you have selected.

In this post I am going to explain the best way to get started with this machine and reflect on some of the benefits this machine has provided.

In addition to this, I’m am also going to highlight some of the controversy that surrounds this exercise depending on some personal trainers school of thought.

What is the Seated Back Extension Machine?

The seated back extension machine is a machine that consists of a seat for your butt and a stack of weights which you can load to help you strengthen your lower back. Similar to the hyperextension bench exercise, the seated back extension machine targets the erector spinae muscle groups (iliocostalis, spinalis & longissimus).

The erector spinae as you probably know is responsible for helping you bend forwards, sideways and backwards.

Done correctly the seated back extension isolates these muscle groups so you can feel only your lower back being worked during the exercise.

Being able to isolate the lower back in this way is great as you can really concentrate on the key groups of muscles that help you at the lower end of the spine. 

My own personal experience from using this machine is that I walk away feeling a lot more stable and stronger in the lower back regions as a result.

Technique and Alignment

When using the seated back extension it is important that you select a low weight to begin with. Stacking heavy weights too soon and quickly could result in injury. The reason for this is that you are pushing the weight of the shoulder pad back using just your spine. BE CAREFUL!

Start with a low weight and develop the correct form so you can get accustomed to feeling the lower back muscle working.

When carrying out this exercise, please please hold the handle bars that are attached to either side for extra support. However, if you find there are no handlebars then try and hold the seat as you extend back and forth, see below.

I often see people performing this exercise without holding onto anything and the risk here is that you may force your back carelessly with speed while pushing onto a weight that provides a little more resistance which may otherwise be easier to push if you are holding the handlebars or at least help you realise that the weight you have selected is too heavy for you.

How to use this

1. Sit on the seat and position the upper roller against your shoulder blades.

2. Select a low weight that provides a little resistance. DO NOT LOAD HEAVY.

3. Hold onto the handlebars or hold onto the seat underneath.

3. Incline forwards a little bit using the machines mechanism.

4. Tense your abs and slowly push back against the pad and then slowly back to the starting position, with control at all times!

5. Monitor how your back is responding. If pain stop, this exercise might not be suitable for your back.

See below for a demonstration:

Why Is The Back Extension Machine Controversial?

Some people in the fitness industry don’t recommend using the back extension machine to strengthen a weak back.

Their reason is that they see this exercise similar to lifting a heavy object off the ground with your knees straight and your back rounded.

As you can see above, this is a BIG NO NO as there is a high risk of an injury or herniation in the lower back.

However, based on my own personal experience with using the back extension machine, I counter this argument.

Now, I’m not saying lifting a heavy sack of potatoes off the ground in this way is safe whatsoever… I agree one needs to bend the knees and squat down first and asses the weight risk before lifting.

But, when using a back extension machine for strengthening we are :

1. Seated on a seat, there is support.

2. We are in control of the weight we select. This needs to be a low weight to avoid injury.

3. We are in control of the angle of incline. I suggest not bending forward too much.

4. We will be holding the handlebars or seat, tensing our abs and pushing back slowly against the pad.

5. We can slowly monitor how the back responds while having lots of support to avoid injury if we need to stop.

6. Our knees are partially bent on a foot rest.

So, as you can see, you simply can’t liken this to lifting something heavy off the floor with a rounded back. There is a lot of support on the back extension machine which you could try and test yourself to see if it has positive impact on the lower back muscle groups.

If there is any pain felt any at point you simply return to the starting position and walk away. Providing you selected a very light weight to start with, you should have minimal risk to injury, based on my opinion of course. (Always seek advice from a medical practitioner first if unsure.)

Having said that, I would give precaution to people who are currently suffering from a herniated disc. This exercise is to be AVOIDED if your injury is still very fresh as it can increase the pressure on the vertebrae.

Speak to your doctor if you are currently in rehab. The reason I say this is that I too suffered from a herniated disc, however I didn’t dare use this machine until much later on once I had gained stability over my spine from some of the other body weight based exercises such as the bird dog.

In addition, Spinal nerves sensitivity people should also avoid this machine unless you have been advised by your doctor.

Back Extension Machine Alternative

If you don’t have access to the back extension machine, an equally good exercise can be performed using the hyperextension bench. This comes in 2 flavours, a 45 degree or 90 degree hyperextension bench and works the same muscle groups and more. You can read more on this here: What Is The Hyperextension Bench Exercise?

You may be wondering why not just use the hyperextension bench at all times?  For this I would say our bodies are good  at adapting when we exercise so doing a variety of exercises to strengthen the back is always going to help you in your strengthening journey.

I hope I have given you a good understanding of why you should at least try the back extension machine to see if it helps you strengthen your lower back. If at any time there is pain or discomfort then simply stop and seek medical attention if the pain continues.

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