When it comes to squatting and deadlifting strength, the thoracic extensors play an even greater role in stabilizing the spine than the abdominals. And while many lifters perform accessory movements for the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, and abs, most lifters don't do any accessory work for the erector spinae. That's a mistake.
For years powerlifting experts such as Louie Simmons and Dave Tate have stressed the importance of targeting the erector spinae, especially when it's an inherent weak link for the lifter, but until now we haven't had any research to back up their methods.
A recent study by Fisher et al. showed that performing the Romanian deadlift (RDL) didn't improve lumbar extension torque, but lumbar extension training was found to improve both RDL performance and lumbar extension torque.
This shows that performing isolation movements for the spine can directly improve deadlifting performance. According to Hamlyn et al., the lumbar erectors fire harder during squats than deadlifts, but the thoracic erectors fire harder during deadlifts than squats.
Needless to say, both the lumbar and thoracic spine need to be incredibly strong to hold the pelvis in place and prevent the spine from buckling during heavy squat, deadlift, and good morning variations.
Below are eight go-to-exercises for accessory erector work. When you perform thoracic extension exercises, it's very important to do them properly. You want to move mostly at the thoracic spine and not so much at the lumbar spine.
While the lower back does flex slightly when performing thoracic extension exercises, trying to maintain a lumbar arch ensures that it doesn't round excessively and that the vast majority of motion comes from the upper back. Moreover, the lower lumbar spine and pelvis will remain stabilized with any lumbar motion occurring in the upper lumbar spine.
A variety of barbell, safety squat bar, chain, kettlebell, band, and dumbbell exercises can all be used to develop upper back strength.
1. Seated Good Morning
The seated good morning is a powerlifting staple for upper back building. Do these in a power rack and make sure you set the j-cups and safety pins at the appropriate heights.
You can do these from a higher bench height or a lower bench height (I prefer higher benches); with the legs bent or with the legs more out in front of the body; with a traditional barbell, or even better, with a safety squat bar.
The trick with seated good mornings for upper back building is to make sure you feel it in your upper back. If you keep a big arch you can make it more of a hamstring movement, but you don't want this. Keep the bar high up on your back and let the t-spine flex and extend.
2. Safety Squat Bar Upper Back Good Morning
These aren't traditional good mornings – not even close. You're not bending over at the hips so much as just bending the upper back over. You can do these with a traditional barbell, but a safety squat bar is even better.
Moreover, you can do them with the safety squat bar in the regular or backwards position. Both work well but they feel differently from one another.
3. Chain Upper Back Good Morning
Chain upper back good mornings are my favorite t-spine exercise. The only problem is that if you're very strong, you'll need a lot of chain. Just drape the chains around your neck and then flex and extend the upper back.
You can hyperextend the t-spine with these and obtain good resistance through the entire range of motion. Hell, just standing with the chains on for extended periods murders the upper back.
4. Chain Upper Back Extension
This is an exceptional exercise and probably the most versatile of the group. Set up in a glute-ham developer (GHD), round the torso over the pad, and make sure your knees are bent so the hamstrings don't contribute to the movement.
Chains are my favorite way to load this movement, but you can pretty much use anything – bands, a barbell, a safety squat bar, a cambered bar, or a dumbbell.
What's best about this exercise is that you can tinker around with torso hinging placement to target different areas of the t-spine. Lower torso placement on the pad targets the lower thoracic region, mid placement targets the mid thoracic region, and upper placement targets the upper region.
5. Seated Kettlebell Deadlift
The seated kettlebell deadlift is highly effective for thoracic building, but you need a heavy kettlebell. The video shows me using a 48-kilogram (106-pound) kettlebell, but it's still a bit light. If combined with chains, however, the exercise can be even more effective. Focus on upper back movement and push the chest tall at the lockout.
6. Front Squat Isohold
The front squat isohold is a great thoracic strengthener. Load up a barbell with 130-150% of your 1RM front squat, un-rack, keep the chest tall, squeeze the abs and glutes, and hold for time.
7. Band Upper Back Good Morning
Another convenient way to load the upper back is with bands. Simply stand on the elastic band (or on multiple bands if you don't have strong ones), wrap it around your neck, and flex and extend the upper back. Get full extension as it will provide resistance through the entire ROM.
8. Dumbbell Upper Back Extension
The upper back extension performed with a dumbbell is another simple way to load the t-spine, assuming you have access to a GHD. Try to hold the dumbbell up near chest level, because if you let it sink to navel level it reduces the torque loading on the spine.
Powerlifting legend Fred Hatfield used to perform this exercise with 225 pounds for sets of 10 reps using a special contraption that allowed him to hold a loaded barbell up closer to his chest so he could achieve full ROM. He felt that this exercise was very helpful in allowing him to achieve a 1,000-pound squat way back in the day.
Squats and deadlifts can build a world class back, but isolating joint actions can thicken your thoracic region and help you blast through plateaus.
I recommend hammering the erectors for three weeks by incorporating some of these movements into your regular training. Test your max on the fourth week to see how your hard work paid off!
- Fisher J et al. A randomized trial to consider the effect of Romanian deadlift exercise on the development of lumbar extension strength. Phys Ther Sport. 2013 Aug;14(3):139-45. PubMed.
- Hamlyn N et al. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1108-12. PubMed.