Our backs are often over looked mostly just because of the simple fact we cannot see it. How do you know if you are working your back correctly if you can’t see what is going on during your training? The best answer I’ve come up with is feel. Understanding how your body moves is serious business and hard for most people to figure out. Lets start with the basic principles. The back is made up of many muscles and there are over 700 skeletal muscles in the body. Why is it important to train your back? Our back is one of the most under utilized areas on our body. With the constant forward motion (i.e. typing on a computer, driving, eating, etc) the muscles in the back are constantly stretched and forgotten about. The movement patterns then created can cause stress on your shoulders, neck, and low back. The back also supports your shoulder complex, spine, and hips. Movement in our spinal discs keeps fresh blood and healthy fluids flowing which our body needs to stay youthful and mobile. Everything in the body is connected and optimal performance is best when the entire body is being challenged.
Traditionally we identify muscles from an aesthetic point of view but there is much more going on other than what we can see moving under the skin. The muscles in our backs are important for things like; posture, injury prevention, and functional movement. Aesthetically our backs can help men look more masculine by creating that V-tapper and more feminine for women by creating a confident posture. Strengthening your back is vital when we think about the aging process. Building muscle helps prevent osteoporosis and our backs are our second largest muscle group on our bodies. That’s a huge opportunity to take advantage of and get the benefits of hormone response. Considering, we live in a society that “throws their backs out” from picking up a pen at the office, imagine if we could avoid that with exercise. Full functional movement and mobility allows our bodies to move smoothly and more efficiently in everyday activity.
When thinking about your back workout we are looking to contract these main muscles and some. Lats, rhomboids, upper and lower traps, teres major and minor and erector spinae. Some of my favorite back exercises include; Pull ups- one of the most basic exercises with some of the best benefits. Pulls up can be done a variety of ways (wide grip, narrow grip, under grip/ chin up, assisted etc.) and can be done almost anywhere. If you don’t have the strength yet, a lat pull down is a great exercise to start with. As always, once you build up strength progress your exercise. Rows – a simple and effective movement that is great for shoulder stability and mobility in the thoracic spine. The row motion can be done in so many different ways (standing, seated, bent over, supine, single arm etc.) but getting the motion down seems to be most challenging. I find a lot us want to pull with our shoulders and arms and don’t have the mind body connection to pull from our backs. Often I am repeating “Shoulders down, chest up, as you pull stick out your chest.” I probably sound like a broken record but eventually a new movement pattern is established and my nagging subsides.
Lastly I want to touch on spinal mobility. Stiff spines are the cause of most back pain along with “weak cores”. As areas of your spine get compressed and tight pressure is then dispersed and injuries begin to occur. Thoracic spinal mobility is probably most important following hip mobility. Our thoracic spines are made for flexion, extension, and rotation. Understanding these movements of your body is vital. Your lower back is made for stability, not to take the added pressure for lack of movement. If it’s at the beginning, in between sets, or end of your workout (I incorporate all 3, always) make sure you are consciously enhancing this area of your body. Remember, bodies are happiest when they are challenged and being used for what they were meant to do, Move! In yoga it is said “the more movement you have in your spine the longer you will live.”
(Photography: Honeytree Gallerie)