Back Exercises: Sculpt a Healthy Back (cont.)

The "show" muscles, as Cotton calls them -- chest, biceps, and shoulders -- tend to get our attention because they are the ones we see and show to the world.

Life Is Hard on the Back

But just the nature of daily living tends to tighten the front of the body, leaving the upper back weak and overstretched, he says.

"We spend a fair amount of our day at computer keyboards," he says.

There's no back work in that. Besides that, without the strength of the core -- the abdominals and the lower back -- posture suffers and lower back pain ensues. Abdominal strength is essential to back strength. You cannot have one without the other.

"If you're only working the abs or only working the back," says Cotton, "you're only doing half the job."

Weakness or tightness in other muscles can pull the back out of alignment as well, says Calabrese, including the hamstrings (back of the thighs) or hip flexors.

Since the back tends to be prone to injury, Cotton says to work back muscles no more than three times a week, being sure to include a rest day in between. He advises beginners to proceed very slowly when strengthening the back, particularly the lower back. Start by trying to complete only five repetitions, he says, wait a day, and be sure you don't experience any discomfort or pain.

It's About More Than Big Muscles

Strength training alone is not enough when it comes to a healthy back.

"It is important to stretch every day," says Calabrese.

As we age, without a balance of strength and stretching, we tend to develop poor posture, she says, which encourages injury as well as making us look and feel weaker, older, and heavier.

Stretching should include a flexion and extension of the spine. For flexion, sit with your knees bent, butt on your heels and arms out in front of you (child's pose in yoga). For extension, place your hands on your lower back for support and gently arch, tightening your abdominals for support.

The Exercises


Reverse Fly

1. Starting position: Standing with a slight bend in your knees, bend forward at the waist. Keep your back flat, with dumbbells hanging down towards the floor. Be sure to choose a light weight as the shoulder muscles are small.

2. Begin contracting the muscles of the upper back as you lead up with a slight bend in your elbows. Stop when the elbows are even with the shoulders, pause for a second, and slowly lower to the starting position, stopping just short of the arms hanging down without tension.

3. Picture hugging a beach ball as you return to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times.

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