When you do a core workout at the gym, your abs and glute muscles usually get most of the attention. However, the paraspinal muscles also deserve some love while you're working out. Strengthening this muscle group, which protects and moves your spine, is an important part of any fitness routine.
Exercises that emphasize spine extension can target and strengthen the paraspinal muscles that run along each side of your vertebrae from your neck to your low back. These movements also increase overall strength and conditioning.
What Are the Paraspinal Muscles?
The paraspinals are a group of muscles that line each side of the vertebrae bones in your spine. While they are commonly associated with your low back, these muscles actually run along the entirety of the spine — from your neck (cervical spine) through your mid-back (thoracic spine) and down to the lower (lumbar) spine. Individual muscles in this group include the multifidi, the illiocostalis, the longissimus, the spinalis and the erector spinae.
While many of these individual muscles are quite small in size, they work together as a group to provide stability to the spine and to move the back's various sections. These muscles assist anytime you stand up straighter and extend your spine.
Additionally, they help you side-bend or lean to either your left or right side and to rotate or turn your spine as you twist your body to look behind you. The paraspinals also work together to limit excessive spinal movement and prevent injuries to the spinal cord and vertebrae.
Why Are the Paraspinals Important?
In addition to the important roles played by the paraspinal muscles already mentioned, strengthening these structures can lead to many other important benefits for individuals with specific medical conditions, such as osteoporosis and low bone density.
A systematic review that was published in the April 2016 issue of Healthcare found that subjects with chronic low back pain who incorporated back extensor (paraspinal) strengthening into their daily routines (along with flexibility and aerobic exercises) saw a positive impact on their overall pain levels as well as on their ability to return to day-to-day tasks.
To add to this, a December 2018 meta-analysis in BioMed Research International found that paraspinal strengthening can benefit people with low bone density as well. In several studies, people with osteopenia or osteoporosis who incorporated extension-based strengthening exercises into their fitness routine experienced gains in their overall bone strength.
Try the listed back exercises to help you target these important spinal muscles and protect your spine from issues like back pain and decreased spinal strength.
Before beginning a paraspinal strengthening routine, be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any back-related health conditions to determine whether or not this type of exercise is appropriate for you.
Make a Bridge
While the hip bridge is typically thought of as a butt-strengthening exercise, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons found that this exercise is also an effective way to target the erector spinae muscles lining the vertebrae.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor.
Begin by squeezing your abdominal muscles —
but be sure not to hold your breath as you do this.
Keeping the squeeze, lift your buttocks off the ground and into the air.
When you are unable to lift any higher, hold the position for 15 seconds before lowering back to the floor.
Complete five repetitions of the hip bridge, and try to do this exercise once daily.
As you lift your butt off the floor, keep your body’s pressure centered in the middle of your shoulder blades. Try not to strain your neck muscles or shrug your shoulders towards your ears as you do this.
Fly Like Superman
While this exercise sounds very heroic, the superman is actually another easy way to activate your paraspinals, according to Princeton University.
- Lie on your stomach with your arms extended over your head and your knees held straight. You can place a rolled up towel underneath your forehead to make this position more comfortable.
- Without elevating your head off of the ground, lift your left arm and your right leg in the air at the same time. Be sure to keep your hips in contact with the floor the entire time.
- Hold your arm and leg up for three to five seconds before lowering them down and repeating the lifts with the opposite arm and leg. Repeat the superman 10 to 20 times per side each day
If the exercise becomes too easy, a small 1- to 2-pound cuff weight can be placed on each of your arms and legs to add to the intensity.
Try Prone Extension
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends the prone extension exercise as an effective method of targeting the posterior or paraspinal muscles that help extend and protect your spine.
- While lying on your stomach, reach your arms over your head with your palms facing inward toward each other. Begin by contracting your stomach muscles.
- Without moving your waist or legs, lift your arms, neck and chest off of the ground in one smooth motion. Be sure not to overextend your spine, and stop if you feel any pain.
- After holding this position for a second or two, lower back down to the ground. Repeat three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions of the exercise each day
If the prone extensions get easy, you can attempt to hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds before lowering down, provided you are able to keep proper form while doing this.
Grab a Swiss Ball
A simple Swiss ball, or stability ball, which is readily found in most gyms or fitness facilities, can provide your back extensor muscles with a great challenge. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, this paraspinal exercise challenges the tiny erector spinae muscles on each side of your vertebrae.
- Stand up tall using good posture, and place a Swiss ball so it's positioned in between your midback and a wall behind you. Your feet should be held shoulder-width apart and about 12 to 18 inches away from the wall in order to maintain proper balance.
- While keeping your spine in this position, lean into the ball by pivoting only at your ankle joints.
- Hold for a count of five seconds before relaxing. After a few seconds, repeat the hold until you feel your back or leg muscles fatigue.
- Try to work up to 15 to 20 repetitions of the exercise each day.
Do the Bird Dog
Admittedly, the bird dog is a strange-sounding exercise. However, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, this technique is another fantastic way to strengthen the erector spinae muscles in your back.
- Get on the floor on your hands and knees. Your knees should be directly under your hips and your hands should rest beneath your shoulders.
- Begin by squeezing your stomach muscles and flattening your low back like the top of a table.
- Without losing this contraction, lift your right arm straight over your head as you extend your left leg behind you. Hold this position for 15 seconds before returning your extremities to the ground. .
- Repeating the lift with the opposite arm and leg. Complete five repetition on each side per day.
Once again, 1- to 2-pound cuff weights can be fastened to each of your arms and legs to add to the challenge of this exercise.
Remember to Plank
While planks are admittedly a great way to target your abs, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the exercise also works your paraspinals. This occurs because your back extensors have to work in tandem with the rest of your core muscles to maintain the proper spinal position.
- Lie on your stomach on your forearms, with your elbows beneath your shoulders and your hands clasped together.
- Squeeze your stomach and butt muscles as you lift your waist and knees off of the ground. Remember to continue breathing and to keep your low back flat as you do this.
- Hold the plank for 30 seconds before returning your body to the ground, and repeat the exercise five times each day.
If you are unable to hold the position for 30 seconds without losing form, you can modify and lift only your pelvis up while keeping your knees in contact with the floor.
Thrust Your Hips
Another good way to activate your paraspinals is by performing hip thrusts. According to Princeton University, it's most effective to use a Swiss ball to add instability to this challenging back extensor exercise.
- Lie with your upper back and head resting on a Swiss ball and with both feet planted on the ground.
- Begin with your butt sagging toward the ground and your arms crossed over your chest.
- Squeeze your abdominal muscles as you thrust your hips and pelvis up toward the ceiling.
- When you have lifted your waist high enough so that your spine forms a straight line from your upper back to your knees, hold the position for three to five seconds.
- Finish by allowing your butt to sag to the ground once again, and do 10 to 20 thrusts each day.
A dumbbell or a weight bar can be placed across the front of your pelvis while you thrust your hips to make the exercise more difficult. Begin with a 10-pound weight and increase in 5- to 10-pound increments as the thrusts becomes easier.
- Healthcare: "A Systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain"
- BioMed Research International: "The Effectiveness of Physical Exercise on Bone Density in Osteoporotic Patients"
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Spine Conditioning Program"
- American Council on Exercise (ACE): "5 Lower Back Bodyweight Exercises to Ward off Low Back Pain"
- National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Osteoporosis Spine Strengthening Exercises"
- Princeton University: "Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises"
- Virginia Commonwealth University: "The Spine"
- University of Maryland Medical Center: "A Patient's Guide to Anatomy and Function of the Spine"