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Many clients are after the aesthetically appealing look of the well-developed back. However, a strong back is more than just a look. A properly trained back can help reduce back pain, improve athletic performance, and support core movements throughout the day (lifting, bending, etc.).
To build strength, it's important to add extra load and stress to the muscle. However, engaging the muscles properly without weight is much more important than doing an exercise incorrectly with a bunch of weight. So, correct form and muscle activation first and then continue to stress and strengthen the muscle.
There are a variety of exercises you can use with clients to help strengthen their back. Review the following beginner, intermediate, and advanced moves for three of the main muscles in the back. You can also use the order of exercises as a way to progress. But keep in mind, any fitness level can do any of these exercises as long as they are done correctly.
The traps are a fairly large diamond-shaped muscle of the back. It attaches to the back of the head, neck, and upper spine and then again near the shoulder. The trapezius has three parts (lower, middle, and upper). Each part has a specific functionality. The trapezius, as a whole, is known as the muscle that helps you shrug your shoulders. But, that is the functionality of the upper traps. Many people put a lot of emphasis on the upper traps when training the muscle. However, for a strong and stable back, clients should emphasize the lower and middle trapezius which helps support proper posture and stabilizing the shoulder.
To train the lower portion of the traps, you will need to learn how to engage them first. The Prone "Y" is a simple exercise that does not require weight. Lay face down on a flat surface or bench. Arms should be extended above the head and out slightly to the side (about 45 degrees), creating a "Y" with your arms. The outside of the palms should be resting on the ground but palms should be facing each other with the thumbs pointed up at the ceiling. Focus on keeping the shoulder blades back and down and slowly raise and lower your arms.
The pulley should be set to about face height. Grab the rope with an overhand grip, thumbs up. Step away from the machine to put tension on the cable. Engage glutes and core muscles in an athletic stance. Squeeze shoulder blades together while pulling the rope towards your face. Work on keeping the shoulders dropped and the elbows high. Slowly release and return to the starting position.
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and soft knees. With dumbbells in each hand, slowly hinge at the hips while keeping the back straight. Let the arms hang directly in front of you. Keep your core tight and still and slowly bend the elbows while pulling the weights up to your sides. Keep the elbows in tight and focus on squeezing the back muscles together. Slowly release back to the starting position.
Lats are one of the largest muscles in the body. They are flat, triangle-shaped muscles that go underneath the arm and insert on the front side of the humerus bone. They connect to the lower half of the spine and down to the iliac crest. The lats connect on a few other places on the back as well. Because of this, they help our bodies perform a variety of different movements and are strong stabilizing muscles.
Before progressing to a bodyweight or weighted pull-up, focus on doing the exercise correctly and engaging the lats. You can do this by using the assisted pull-up machine or by attaching a resistance band to the pull-up bar and your foot to offset part of your body weight. Follow the form for the Intermediate Exercise Pull-up below.
Grip bar with both hands, about shoulder-width apart and palms facing out. Fully extend your arms so you are in a hanging position. Engage the lats and slowly pull yourself up. Keep your shoulders back and down and drive the elbow towards the floor while the lats contract. Keep your chin and chest up and imagine pulling your chest towards the bar. Slowly lower back down.
Once you have mastered the form of a bodyweight pull-up, you can challenge yourself by adding a weighted vest to your body. You can also change the grip position into a wide grip pull-up. So, instead of gripping the bar shoulder-width apart, grip the bar about 30-45 degrees out from each side of the body. So, when you hang, your arms look like a "Y". Follow proper pull-up form.
The erector spinae is a group of long muscles that run vertically alongside the vertebral column from the sacrum to the upper ribs and cervical vertebrae. They primarily support the head and spine and assist in back extension, head rotation, and lateral flexion (side bends). The erector spinae group isn't considered a major muscle, so it is sometimes overlooked. But, it is an extremely important muscle because it helps stabilize our spine, support proper posture, and plays a key role in our core strength.
Lay face down on a flat surface. Both arms and both feet should be stretched out about shoulder-width apart. Slowly raise both arms and legs off the floor at the same time. Aim for about six inches off the floor. Focus on lifting your chest off the ground using just your back muscles. Visualize engaging those muscles each time you lift up. Keep face pointed at the floor to keep the neck in a neutral position. Pause for a one-second hold at the top. Slowly lower legs and arms back down to the ground. If needed, you can modify this exercise by alternating between raising one arm and one opposite leg at a time.
Position yourself face down on top of the stability ball. Toes should be stretched out behind you and legs spread apart enough to create a solid, stable base. Place your hands behind your head and engage glutes and core muscles. Raise your torso upward using your lower back muscles. Feet should remain firm on the ground. Slowly lower back down to starting position.
Ensure you are using appropriate weight to start your dumbbell or barbell deadlift. Remember, correct form is more important than more weight. Keep your shoulders back and your torso straight throughout the deadlift movement. Hands should grip the dumbbells with palms facing the top of the thighs. Slowly hinge at the hips and lower the torso until it is about parallel to the ground, keeping the weights close to the shins. Push through the bottoms of the feet and pull yourself back to standing. Extend hips and contract glutes at the top of the lift.
Keep in mind that there are more muscles in your back than just these three. And, there are a variety of exercises that can effectively strengthen the back muscles. Learning to engage the proper muscles correctly during an exercise is the key to a strong functional back. These exercises are starting point to help your clients build the back they want and need.
If you are interested in learning more about how back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain can be reduced when muscle imbalances and movement dysfunction are corrected, check out ISSA's Corrective Exercise Specialist Course.