Last month it was all about the almost-straight-legged deadlift, my all-time-favorite lumbar exercise after good mornings. I covered the reasons for including good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts in every fitness program; however, there are two more exercises for the lower back that should be a part of every program: hyperextensions and reverse hypers.
I consider them to be auxiliary movements, yet I believe that they are extremely valuable for young athletes who are striving to improve their strength so they can become more proficient in their chosen sports and also for those who want to maintain a high level of lower-back fitness, regardless of age.
One of the main reasons that I like hyperextensions and reverse hypers is that you can do them just about anywhere and they do not require any special equipment. Long before I ever saw a hyperextension bench and 50 years prior to the well-engineered reverse hyper machines, competitive weightlifters and bodybuilders were doing these exercises on a regular basis. It just took a bit of imagination.
The hypers required a partner. In just about every YMCA weight room there was a leg extension machine. If not, a massage table served the same purpose. You would lie across the leg extension machine or table, facedown, so that your upper body was extended out over the side. Then a training mate would hold tightly to your ankles while you knocked out a set of hypers.
Reverse hypers could be done solo. You’d just grip the sides of the leg extension machine or table, let your lower body hang off the end and proceed to do a set of reverse hypers, lifting your legs up and back.
With a bit of thought, anyone can figure out how to do one or the other of these exercises in a motel or at home. When I’m visiting friends, I use the kitchen counter to do reverse hypers or a narrow table that allows me to grip the sides. I place a towel on the surface.
I currently do hyperextensions in my apartment by padding a small table and hooking my h eels under the open space under my desk. That works just as well as having a bench designed for that purpose.
Of course, having a hyperextension bench or a well-designed reverse-hyper machine is more expedient. Still, it’s good to know that you can work your lumbars rather thoroughly even when you’re on the road.
Both exercises can be done with added resistance. For hypers wrap a 10- or 25-pound plate in a towel, and hold it firmly behind your head. More advanced strength athletes can do them with an Olympic bar. That was one of the favorite exercises of the foreign athletes at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City, and I watched some handle 220 pounds for as many as 20 reps.
I recommend that you do both types of hypers with no added resistance until your form is absolutely perfect and the number of reps you perform is quite high—as in 50 plus. While they are very simple and easy to learn, there is technique involved. I’ll start with the back hypers.
You need to position your body on the padded area in such a way that you are able to do a full-range motion. By that I mean you should be able to go low enough for your head to touch the floor. Or if the bench is high, until your torso is completely vertical.
The second form point: The full-range motion must be smooth and controlled. That is the main reason I don’t want beginners to add any resistance. Whenever a weight is fixed behind the head and the reps start getting really tough, there is always a tendency to twist and turn to make those final reps. Don’t let that happen.
Twisting, even if it’s very slight, puts a great deal of stress on the lumbars, and it’s not positive stress. Keep in mind that you can sustain an injury with a light weight just as you can with a heavy poundage if your form is sloppy. So you must do each and every rep precisely.
The biggest form mistake that most people make on hypers is that they come up much too high. Women especially are flexible enough that they can arch their backs until their upper bodies are almost vertical. That is a mistake—similar to bridging on the bench press and lying back while doing overhead presses. The back is not designed to lean back, and it’s potentially harmful to the lumbars. Bring your upper body only to parallel on hyperextensions. You’ll get the same results without any risk whatsoever.
The same idea applies to reverse hypers as well. Just lift your legs until your lower body is parallel to the floor.
I encourage all of my athletes to do either of these movements prior to every workout. They fit nicely with an ab exercise to warm up the entire midsection, and the athletes begin their workouts in a higher state of preparation. I even have them do a set of hypers or reverse hypers on the day they’re scheduled to do good mornings or almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Again, it helps prepare the lower back for the work ahead.
How many reps? The obvious answer is that it depends on your current strength level. I start everyone at 20 reps on both exercises; then I have them steadily increase reps. Some can add five reps a week for a couple of months, while others have to proceed more slowly. I encourage them to do the same number of reps on both exercises if possible. Keep in mind that you want the final few reps to be demanding. In order to make the lower back stronger, you must push it, not pamper it.
Where is the limit? I can’t answer that, but I can relate a story about one athlete who went to the extreme. At Johns Hopkins, John Saxe of Fair Haven, New Jersey, and I had a contest to see who could do the most hypers. John was one of my favorite athletes and was in fantastic shape. He was a three-sport athlete and an Academic All-American. He was captain of the tennis team and a defensive standout in football, and he competed in two National Collegiate Olympic Weightlifting Championships.
We kept running up the reps week after week until we got to 150. He came in for the next workout all fired up and knocked out 175. I conceded. You may be thinking, “Yeah, but he was one of those gifted athletes.” Not so. Had that been the case, he would have been competing at the D-I level and not D-III. What success he achieved in academics, strength training and sports was due to his perseverance and willingness to do the hard work. Genetics played, at best, a small role in his accomplishments.
Keeping your lower back strong is a lifelong venture. Continue to give your lumbars priority in your training, and you will be able to avoid the lower-back problems that plague about 90 percent of the adult population. A strong set of lumbars allows you to participate in a great many physical activities, which in turn lets you experience a higher quality of life.
I’ll close with a truism: No one has ever gone to the doctor to complain that his lumbars were too strong. —Bill Starr
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www