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The Ultimate Guide To Your Back Muscle Anatomy

The muscles in and around your back can be an asset or a liability. Strong, pliable, well-oiled muscles allow you to achieve high levels of physical performance, while weak, tight, and knotted muscles contribute to fragility and pain. This guide will teach you specifically which muscles to be aware of to ensure your back is the best pain-free machine it can be.

Back Muscle Anatomy Diagram


1. Why Care About Back Muscle Anatomy?

Only you can answer the why behind being knowledgeable about back muscle anatomy, but here are reasons I have found in my time coaching the subject of back muscles and health, ranked in order of importance:

  1. Back Pain Relief
  2. Improved Training
  3. Health/Wellness Professional

If you are in the pain relief camp, learning the following muscles and pain patterns may be extremely liberating for you. Pain relief is why I started my back muscle anatomy research journey; it is the sole reason I live and train pain-free today.

Another benefit to back muscle anatomy knowledge is improved training. Whether your goal is to get stronger, gain weight, lose weight, improve endurance, or be a better athlete - the last thing you want is your lower back getting in the way. Understanding the following muscles will help improve your physical performance (especially when it comes to core strength) and assist you on the way to your fitness goals.

Lastly, if you are an athletic trainer, massage therapist, or healthcare professional looking to touch up on your back muscle knowledge - this will also benefit you. Follow the links to internal pages that go deeper into each muscle for more information as well.


2. Back Muscle Anatomy Mastery: The Muscles

There are 6 muscles that I am going to cover. It may surprise you that many of the muscles do not live in the lower back specifically, but rather connect to around the lower back or pelvis. Do not leave any piece of the back muscle puzzle out - especially if you are in the pain relief camp.

Yes, there are more than 6 muscles that connect to the back and play a part in a healthy, functional back. However, the following muscles are what I have found to be the most potent and crucial. Some muscles will be more important for your case than others, so make sure to take each into account!

2.1 Quadratus Lumborum (QL)

Quadratus Lumborum Muscle

QL Muscle

We are starting with a hot one. The Quadratus Lumborum, or the "QL" muscle for short, can quite literally make or break your lower back health.

Anatomy: The QL is a deep, 4-sided muscle that lies along both sides of the lumbar spine. It connects from the top of the hip (Iliac Crest) to the bottom of the ribcage (12th rib) and along the lumbar vertebrae [1].

Function: The QL muscle functions primarily in side bending and spinal stability. When you bend sideways, one QL muscle lengthens while the other contracts. When you lift a heavy object, carry an uneven load, or stand on your feet all day - the QL muscle works to keep your lower back strong, sturdy, and neutral.

Pain Pattern: Quadratus Lumborum can cause a ton of lower back pain when it is left tight and weak. The pain pattern caused by Quadratus Lumborum trigger points can be felt directly in the lower back, the tailbone, and/or the outer gluteal muscles.

Muscle Optimization: The key to carrying a well-oiled QL muscle as an asset is deep tissue massage and strengthening. An effective deep tissue massage (or a QL release tool) will eliminate the QL of its trigger points and constant tension while building strength and endurance through movements such as the side plank and suitcase carry builds sheer lower back resilience.

2.2 Gluteus Medius/Minimus

Gluteus Minimus Muscle Anatomy Gluteus Medius Muscle Anatomy

Gluteus Minimus (left/top) and Gluteus Medius (right/bottom) Muscles

Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus are upper buttock muscles that lie on top of each other. In my opinion, these are hands down the two most overlooked and pain-wreaking muscles in the human body.

Anatomy: Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus lie in the upper buttock region and connect from the pelvis to the femur. Visually these are the highest part of your butt muscles [1].

Function: Gluteus Medius and Minimus function in hip abduction, as well as pelvic stability while on one leg. To feel these muscles contract, swing one leg out to the side or feel for the active spot when you stand on one leg.

Pain Pattern: The physical pain patterns felt by these muscles are slightly different, but the pain relief process is the same. Gluteus Medius pain tends to refer exist more towards to lower back, upper gluteals, and tailbone by pulling the pelvis posteriorly when it is tight. Gluteus Minimus pain is felt lower on the body in the outer glute and occasionally down the leg. If your back just hurts and you do not know why: try the pain relief steps below and I would be willing to bet your condition will improve.

Muscle Optimization: If pain is present, perform Gluteus Medius/Minimus release via deep tissue massage first. If no pain is present, Gluteus Medius stretch and strengthening exercises are your friends to stay loose, strong, and out of Gluteus Medius pain.

2.3 Psoas/Iliacus Hip Flexors

Psoas Muscle Anatomy Iliacus Muscle Anatomy

Psoas (left/top) and Iliacus (right/bottom) Muscles

If you are thinking "What the hell do these hip flexors have to do with my back?" you are not alone. The Psoas and Iliacus muscles lie on the front of the body, but they are crucial in lower back health and pain relief.

Anatomy: Psoas connects from the femur to the lumbar spine, and Iliacus connects from the femur to the top of the hip [1].

Function: The Psoas and Iliacus muscles function as hip flexors in bringing the knee to the chest. They also support pelvis stabilization and tend to get extremely short, tight, and pain-inducive when we stay in a seated position for long periods of time.

Pain Pattern: Psoas and Iliacus refer pain directly to the lower back. This is commonly caused by excessive sitting with a lack of hip flexor lengthening (through activity or stretching).

Muscle Optimization: Stretching to lengthen the Psoas and Iliacus muscles is the best thing you can do immediately. This will not only relieve pain caused by the Psoas and Iliacus muscles but can also restore balance and tension release to the entire pelvic region. Additional deep tissue massage and an Iliacus release tool may be required in cases of high muscle rigidity and tension, but stretching and natural strengthening through walking and running is a great place to start.

2.4 Multifidus

Multifidus Muscle Anatomy

Multifidus Muscle In Red [1]

The Multifidus is another widely unknown muscle group that is extremely important in a strong, resilient lower back. For this post, the term Multifidus is a general term applied to a collective of several deep, small spinal muscles.

Anatomy: The Multifidus muscles span a short distance from vertebrae to vertebrae along the entire spine [1].

Function: Multifidi (plural of Multifidus) allow the spine to move fluidly and bend in a nuanced manner due to its short and frequent connections. It is vital for spinal stability and holding a strong, healthy posture [2].


Pain Pattern: Multifidus pain commonly stems from the weakness of this muscle group. Often after periods of back pain Multifidi atrophy, which further causes a downward spiral of tension -> pain -> lack of muscle use -> weakness -> more tension -> more pain. Fortunately, Multifidi do not send their pain very far. Pain from these muscles tends to be felt directly adjacent to the muscles that cause it.

Muscle Optimization: Strengthening. There is not much room for lengthening the Multifidi muscles, but there is a ton of room for strengthening them. Dr. Stuart McGill frequently discusses spinal stiffness and the importance of strength and endurance in these muscles. The Bird Dog exercise of his McGill Big 3 is a great Multifidus strengthening exercise.


3. Back Muscle Anatomy Conclusion

The muscles in and around your back can be an asset to your performance or a liability to your pain. It is in your hands whether you carry strong, flexible, pliable, resilient muscles or weak, tight, and angry ones. At Back Muscle Solutions we optimistically believe that if you fix the muscles, you can fix the pain. Follow us on all socials @Back Muscle Solutions, and check out this video on a few key muscles on how to build a lower back bulletproof from pain!


Now that you've read about back muscle anatomy, check out our page on Erector Spinae Stretch!



[1] Donnelly, Joseph M. Travell, Simons & Simons Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: the Trigger Point Manual. 3rd ed., Wolters Kluwer Health, 2019.

[2] Davies, Clair, and Amber Davies. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief. 3rd ed., New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2013.

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