As long as it feels good or there is minimal additional discomfort with the activity, back hyperextension is a fine exercise.
They are beneficial as they strengthen the erector spinae muscle groups and can help to build the endurance of these muscle groups.
Is it important to have a strong back to prevent lower back pain?
As a powerlifter, physical therapist, and strength coach, my bias is to say yes. However, if you look at much of the research, in terms of pain reduction, walking, yoga, and other active strategies can be just as effective for lower back pain, depending on the person.
What “works,” for someone is largely dependent on their preferences of activity, their beliefs in regards to what is safe and not safe as it relates to movement, and how much they trust the practitioner they are working with.
It is my opinion (based on my work with clients) that people who do not lift weights and are untrained, that if they start to become more physically active, including lifting weights and working on improving the endurance and strength of their lower back, that this may have an impact on the prevention of severity and frequency of bouts of lower back pain.
For instance, I have a client and friend, who is a physician. We’ve worked together for nearly two years. He originally started working with me because he was having recurrent back spasms that would happen every 6 months or so, Sometimes it would be from lifting a suitcase, sometimes moving a couch, and other times it would just happen randomly.
Tired of this continuing to happen, he contacted me. Now, after two years of working up to heavy deadlifts, bent over rows, lunges, and practicing pull-ups, he hasn’t had any recurrence of symptoms. This is just one example of many clients i’ve worked with, some of whom did have a recurrence but it was much less intense, and only lasted a couple days, instead of a couple months.
If you look at some of the literature as it relates to athletes, stronger athletes have a lower injury risk, by quite a large margin. This doesn’t mean that they’ll never get injured, things happen, but you’re making yourself as resilient as possible if you are stronger. I apply this same logic to my clients.
Why does back strength matter?
This is my opinion, I don’t have research to suggest that this is unequivocally true, so please, don’t take this as gospel.
Let’s say you need to move a couch in your house. You don’t lift weights and you don’t know what it feels like to maximally contract your low back muscles or any muscles for that matter.
You lift the couch, you’re muscles are maximally contracting (or contracting very hard), and all of a sudden you feel a spasm. This is a very common experience of clients that I work with.
Here’s my hypothesis of why that happens, and again, this is conjecture. Here’s what we know for certain, our body adapts to the stresses that we place on it. If we stress the muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons routinely, muscle size increases (cross sectional area), bones become more dense, ligaments and tendons become thicker and more robust.
If all of those changes happen, they in turn make the structures within the body more resilient and able to withstand higher force outputs. Put simply, it takes a lot more stress to induce injury or pain.
An example: Person 1 doesn’t train and lift weights. Let’s say they have a max deadlift of 70 pounds. They lift a couch that requires 50 pounds of force output. Person 2 does train and lift weights, their maximum deadlift is 150 pounds and they do this every week.
I’ll ask you the question; who is more likely to experience discomfort with this activity?
Summing that all up; someone who trains regularly and knows how to maximally contract their muscles, are less likely to experience injury or pain as it relates to bending, twisting, and moving through life.
I also want to add a caveat — there is nothing wrong with lifting heavy weights, in fact, I think everyone should lift heavy. What I AM saying is that if you are pushing your body to it’s capacity, and you are untrained, you are likely at a higher risk of experiencing discomfort because your body likely is not as resilient as the person that does train regularly.