Statistics suggest that eighty percent of adults experience back pain during their lifetimes (1). While many of these cases are mild and short-lived, many will experience recurring, debilitating back pain.
Back pain is the leading cause of disability, preventing many people from working. It’s the third most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office (2).
Lots of factors can lead to back pain, from being overweight to automobile accidents to occupational stress to pregnancy to poor posture. We also know that physical activity can help make back pain less debilitating and may help prevent it in the first place.
However, many of the things we do in the gym can directly result in back pain, both acute and chronic. While you might be able to work around mild back soreness, severe back pain can stop you from walking, let alone going to the gym.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a victim of lower back pain, and you can even turn what is often an area of weakness into one of strength.
In this article, we reveal some of the best lower back exercises you can do with cables.
- Lower Back Anatomy
- Why Train Your Lower Back?
- The Best Lower Back Exercises with Cables
- 1. How often should I train my lower back with cables?
- 2. What training split is best for training the lower back?
- 3. How many reps and sets should I do for my lower back?
- 4. Do I need to stretch my lower back as well as strengthen it?
- 5. Are lower back exercises with cables dangerous?
- 6. Should I train my lower back to failure?
- 7. What other exercises can I do for my lower back that don’t require a cable machine?
- 8. How can I train my lower back at home?
- Wrapping Up
Lower Back Anatomy
While you don’t need to know the names of the muscles that make up and are associated with your lower back, a basic knowledge of these structures may be helpful and could prove interesting.
The main muscles of the lower back are:
Erector spinae is the collective name for the muscles that run from the bottom to the top of your spine: spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. They’re responsible for extending your spine and play a part in lateral flexion. When they contract isometrically or statically, the erector spinae hold your spine upright and prevent it from rounding.
Known as the QL for short, this deep back muscle runs from the top of your pelvis to your lower ribs and along the lumbar vertebrae on both sides of your spine. Its functions include lateral flexion and extension of your spine, and it is also a critical back stabilizer.
To be considered a lower back exercise, the erector spinae and QL muscles must be actively involved. However, these muscles seldom function in isolation. The other muscles that invariably work alongside the erector spinae include:
Known as the glutes for short, this is the largest muscle in the human. The glutes are a powerful hip extender and are also involved in the abduction and external rotation of your hip. Most lower back exercises involve at least some hip movement and glute activation.
Located on the back of your thighs, the hamstrings work with your glutes to extend your hips and also flex your knees. The three hamstring muscles are the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
This is the collective name for the muscles of your midsection, namely the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. The core muscles contract inward to generate intra-abdominal pressure, which helps support and stabilize your lumbar spine.
It’s all but impossible to isolate your lower back muscles, but that’s probably a good thing. In most everyday tasks, gym exercises, and sporting endeavors, these muscles work with the rest of your body, so it makes sense to train them the same way.
For that reason, the exercises in this article don’t just work your lower back but also train your hips and core.
Why Train Your Lower Back?
When it comes to back training, most people tend to emphasize their lats, traps, and rhomboids. That’s not really surprising, given that these muscles have a significant impact on your appearance.
However, when it comes to function, performance, and health, it’s the lower back that’s arguably the most important.
That’s because almost every human movement involves your lower back. It’s only when you experience back pain for yourself that you realize how integral your lower back is.
Reasons to pay more attention to your lower back strength include:
Fewer lower back aches and pains
While you might not be able to avoid back pain entirely, you should be able to reduce your risk by strengthening the associated muscles. After all, strong muscles are more resilient and less likely to be injured when overloaded, e.g., when carrying your groceries or lifting a child or pet.
Poor posture is a leading cause of lower back pain. Posture refers to the alignment of your joints. Prolonged sitting causes your hips to tighten and your lower back to weaken. A lot of people look like they are sitting down even when standing, as their backs are rounded, and their heads jut forward, aka “nerd neck.”
Cable lower back strengthening exercises can help pull you upright against the force of gravity and put you into better posture. Better posture means less stress on your lower back.
Better muscular development and aesthetics
Just because YOU can’t see your lower back doesn’t mean it’s not on show! A well-developed lower back can add a lot to your appearance. Look at a ripped bodybuilder’s lower back – they often have an impressive “Christmas tree” at the base of their spines. You could have one, too, if you train hard enough and drop some body fat!
Improved function and exercise performance
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and for a lot of lifters, that weak link is their lower back. So, for example, if your lower back rounds during squats, deadlifts, or bent-over rows, the associated muscles are probably weak, and strengthening them will improve your lifting performance.
So, if you want to squat, deadlift, or row more weight or do more reps, you MUST beef up your lower back!
The Best Lower Back Exercises with Cables
While there are plenty of freeweight and bodyweight lower back exercises you can do, cable exercises are also effective.
Using cables keeps your muscles under constant tension, and you can make small adjustments to the weight to ensure your back workout is effective but safe. You can also finetune your range of motion to match your flexibility and mobility.
Here are seven of the best cable lower back exercises!
1. Cable stiff-legged deadlift
Most people are familiar with barbell stiff-legged deadlifts, but you can also do this exercise with a cable machine. Cable stiff-legged deadlifts keep the target muscles under constant tension, which means it may be a more effective exercise for some people.
How to do it:
- Attach a bar or rope handle to a low pulley. Then, grab the handle, stand up, and take 1-2 steps back to tension the cable.
- Stand with your feet between shoulder and hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Push your butt back and hinge forward from your hips, extending your arms out in front of you. Do not round your lower back.
- Drive your hips forward and stand back up, tensing your glutes as you do so.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Pro tip: Work one side at a time and train your lower back to resist rotation by doing single-leg cable stiff-legged deadlifts.
2. Cable Zercher good morning
Good mornings are so-called because, when you do them, it looks like you are bowing to meet an acquaintance. A Zercheris any exercise where you hold a bar or weight in front of your abdomen in the crook of your arms and is named after powerlifter Ed Zercher. The cable Zercher good morning is an excellent lower back exercise that also trains your glutes and hamstrings.
How to do it:
- Attach a straight bar to a low cable machine. Hold the bar in the crooks of your arms. Bend your elbows and clasp your hands together in front of your chest. Take 1-2 steps back from the weight stack to tension the cable.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, core braced, and knees slightly bent.
- Push your butt backward and hinge forward, leaning over as far as possible without rounding your lower back.
- Drive your hips forward, stand up, and repeat.
Pro tip: If Zerchers are uncomfortable on your arms and elbows, wrap the bar in a towel or use a squat back pad.
3. Cable pull-through
Powerlifters are known for their strong lower backs. In fact, the deadlift is classed as a test of back strength. That said, they often use assistance or accessory exercises to shore up weaknesses and improve their powerlifting performance. The cable pull-though is a posterior chain exercise that can help strengthen your lower back.
How to do it:
- Attach a rope handle to a low pulley machine. Stand with your back to the weight stack, feet astride the handle.
- With your abs braced and shoulders down and back, bend down and grab the handle with both hands. Stand up and take a couple of steps forward to tension the cable.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, hands in front of your hips. This is your starting position.
- Push your hips back and lean forward until you feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings. Maintain a neutral spine throughout, including your upper back and neck.
- Drive your hips forward and stand back up.
- Hinge forward again and repeat.
Pro tip: Make this exercise more lower-back-centric by reaching back between your legs as far as your mobility allows. However, take care not to round your lower back.
4. Seated cable back extension
The seated cable row is an excellent UPPER back exercise, but you can use the same machine to work your lower back. Don’t be surprised if your friendly neighborhood gym instructor tells you that you are misusing their machine, as this exercise looks a little unusual. However, it’s a legit way to train your lower back.
How to do it:
- Attach a straight bar to a low cable row machine. Sit on the machine and hold the handle with a shoulder-width, overhand grip. Place your feet on the footrests and sit up tall, knees slightly bent, and arms extended in front of you.
- Moving from your hips, lean forward as far as your flexibility allows. Keep your chest up and your shoulders back throughout.
- Next, lean back until your body is straight.
- That’s one rep – keep going!
Pro tip: You can also do this exercise with a regular low pulley machine. Just sit on the floor with your legs straight and get to work! Use a mat for comfort if necessary.
5. Cable side bends
No, you haven’t accidentally wandered onto an article about oblique training! The back muscles don’t just extend your spine; they’re also involved in lateral flexion or bending you to the side. This exercise also hits the quadratus lumborum, which is a small but critical lower back muscle. However, yes, you’ll also feel this one in your abs and obliques.
How to do it:
- Attach a D-shaped handle to a low cable machine. Take the handle in one hand and stand sideways onto the weight stack. Take 1-2 steps away from the machine to tension the cable.
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Lean sideways toward the machine as far as your flexibility allows.
- Return to the upright position and lean a few inches away from the machine to maximally engage your muscles.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and then switch sides.
Pro tip: Avoid turning your hips or shoulders and making the exercise less effective by imagining that you are pressed between two panes of glass and can only lean sideways.
6. Cable bent-over row
Bent-over rows are usually thought of as an upper back and latissimus dorsi (lats) exercise. However, that bent-over position means your lower back also gets in on the action and will get stronger as a result. You can do bent-over rows with a barbell or dumbbells, but they’re often more comfortable with a cable machine.
How to do it:
- Attach a straight bar to a low pulley machine. Hold the bar with an underhand grip. Step back to tension the cable and stand with your feet about hip-width apart.
- Lean forward from the hips and extend your arms. Pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your core. This is your starting position.
- Bend your arms and pull the bar into your abdomen. Keep your wrists straight, and make sure you lead with your elbows to maximize back engagement.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
Pro tip: Try doing this exercise with an overhand and a narrow grip to see if either option feels more comfortable or effective for you. You can also do this exercise with a single handle to work on anti-rotation of the spine.
7. Side plank cable row
This is another of those exercises that many people assume are for your abs that also work your lower back. During side plank cable rows, you’ll need to use your back to hold you in a laterally flexed position and also resist forward flexion and rotation. In short, it addresses every function of your lower (and upper) back in one movement.
This is a challenging exercise, so don’t go too heavy too soon. Instead, focus on maintaining perfect posture throughout.
How to do it:
- Lie on your side facing a low cable machine fitted with a D-shaped handle. Resting on your lowermost arm, lift your body to form a straight line. Take the handle in your free hand.
- Keeping your core tight and body straight, row the handle into your side. Do not allow your hips or shoulders to move out of alignment.
- Extend your arm and repeat.
- Rest and then do the same number of reps on the opposite side.
Pro tip: Rest your lowermost arm on a folded gym mat or foam pad for comfort. Tense your legs and glutes to maximize core and lower back muscle engagement.
1. How often should I train my lower back with cables?
Muscles only get stronger as you rest between workouts. So, you should train your lower back 2-3 times per week, and preferably not on consecutive days, i.e., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or Tuesday and Saturday.
2. What training split is best for training the lower back?
You can train your lower back after you’ve worked your upper body, after your legs, or on a separate day. However, you should generally leave working your lower back until the end of your workout. That way, tired back muscles won’t compromise your performance of any other exercises you plan to do.
For example, it would be a terrible idea to train your lower back before squats, deadlifts, or bent-over rows.
3. How many reps and sets should I do for my lower back?
Cable lower back exercises work best when done for medium to high reps with moderate to light weights, i.e., 12-20 reps per set. This will ensure you can focus on the target muscles and establish a good mind-muscle connection. Pick 2-3 exercises from the list above and do 2-4 sets of each, resting 1-2 minutes between each one.
4. Do I need to stretch my lower back as well as strengthen it?
Stretching is every bit as important as strengthening for a healthy lower back. If your back muscles are tight, you may suffer backache and are more likely to pull and injure a back muscle. You should try and stretch your back most days, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting.
5. Are lower back exercises with cables dangerous?
All exercises are dangerous if you use too much weight or perform them incorrectly, and that includes so-called rehab and prehab exercises designed to prevent and treat injuries! However, cable back exercises are not inherently dangerous when performed correctly.
The main things to remember are:
- Do NOT round your lower back.
- Move slowly and deliberately.
- Don’t use too much weight. It’s better to use less weight and do a few more reps than try and lift a load that’s too heavy for you.
6. Should I train my lower back to failure?
While it’s perfectly okay to train some muscles to failure and even beyond, it’s not a good idea with your lower back. Training to failure will leave your back muscles feeling weak and tired, but you’ll still need to use them to support your spine once you leave the gym. If they are too fatigued, they may not be able to fulfill this role effectively.
So, when it comes to lower back training, it’s generally best to stop your set 2-5 reps shy of failure to avoid completely exhausting your muscles. However, your workout will still be effective.
7. What other exercises can I do for my lower back that don’t require a cable machine?
No cable machine? No problem! There are plenty of alternative exercises you can use. We’ve included some of the best options in this article, complete with a tried and tested workout.
8. How can I train my lower back at home?
The best way to train your lower back at home is with resistance bands or bodyweight exercises. You can use a set of resistance bands to replicate all of the cable lower back exercises presented in this article. Good bodyweight lower back exercises include:
The lower back is an area of weakness for many people – both functionally and aesthetically. Too much time spent sitting, and general physical inactivity, means that this part of the body often does not get enough work.
While working out can help, some exercises actually compound the problem by providing loads of back support, such as leg presses, seated shoulder and chest presses, and recumbent bikes.
So, if you want a stronger lower back, you’re going to have to work for it, either by lifting barbells, doing bodyweight exercises, or using a cable machine.
1– PubMed: The Rising Prevalence of Chronic Low Back Pain https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4339077/
2– American Chiropractic Association: Back Pain Facts and Statistics https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4339077/