Abnormal patterns of trunk muscle activity could affect the biomechanics of spinal movements and result in back pain. The present study aimed to examine electromyographic (EMG) activity of abdominal and back muscles as well as triaxial torque output during isometric axial rotation at different exertion levels in back pain patients and matched controls. Twelve back pain patients and 12 matched controls performed isometric right and left axial rotation at 100%, 70%, 50% and 30% maximum voluntary contractions in a standing position. Surface EMG activity of rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique, latissimus dorsi, iliocostalis lumborum and multifidus were recorded bilaterally. The primary torque in the transverse plane and the coupling torques in sagittal and coronal planes were measured. Results showed that there was a trend (P = 0.08) of higher flexion coupling torque during left axial rotation exertion in back pain patients. Higher activity for external oblique and lower activity for multifidus was shown during left axial rotation exertion in back pain group when compared to the control group. In right axial rotation, back pain patients exhibited lesser activity of rectus abdominis at higher levels of exertion when compared with matched controls. These findings demonstrated that decreased activation of one muscle may be compensated by overactivity in other muscles. The reduced levels of activity of the multifidus muscle during axial rotation exertion in back pain patients may indicate that spinal stability could be compromised. Future studies should consider these alternations in recruitment patterns in terms of spinal stability and internal loading. The findings also indicate the importance of training for coordination besides the strengthening of trunk muscles during rehabilitation process.