Targeting the muscles in your back during an exercise will undoubtedly help tone the area—a welcome benefit, especially during summer months—but personal trainers say that giving attention to the back also helps to prevent injury and keep the body functioning at peak performance.
“Your back is the secret weapon for a better and stronger workout,” says NASM-certified personal trainer Casey Cohen. “By strengthening your back muscles, you increase your overall muscle mass, improve bone density, stabilize the back and get more out of your exercises like a plank or even cycling. If you’re looking to get rid of back pain or improve your athletic abilities, working out your posterior is key.” Ahead, top trainers offer their favorite back workouts to try today and how to execute them properly.
“Bent-over rows require you to hinge at your hips, and, holding a weight in each hand, pull weights towards your respective hip with elbows pointing straight back,” says FitOn trainer Bree Koegel. “If you feel pinching in your back—and this goes for any exercise—stop immediately. You may need to lighten your load or decrease your range of motion. Your personal range of motion is only as far as you can hinge without rounding the back. Past that benchmark, you are at risk for injury.”
Cohen offers the Arnold press as an alternative for the standard shoulder press. “Adding the rotation will hit all angles of the deltoid muscles and target a ton of stabilizing back muscles,” she says. “Stand tall with feet hip-distance apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Start with your arms bent and palms facing towards your shoulders. As you press your arms up overhead, twist them on the way up so that your palms are facing away from you. Make sure to reach full extension where your biceps are touching your ears, then rotate your arms as you lower back down and repeat.”
Yoga instructor Tara Bradley Connell has a handful of moves for stretching and strengthening the back, but her favorite is cobra. “To do cobra, lie on your stomach with your legs extended behind you, forehead on the mat and hands by your shoulders. Exhale. Press the hip bones into the ground and hug your elbows by your side. Straighten the arms on an inhale, lifting the upper body off the ground without straining the back or spine. Wiggle the fingers to ensure the majority of your weight isn’t on your hands. Press the shoulder blades together and extend the chest. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Release on an exhale. Repeat.” She adds that doing this pose daily is a great way to wake up the body in the morning or relieve stress after a long work day.
“Good mornings can be done with or without weight,” says Koegel. “For the bodyweight version, begin standing with hands behind the head. Hips hinge forward until maximum range of motion is reached, and then activate the posterior chain to reset back to starting position.”
“This is a full-body exercise move that not only targets the back, but also requires stabilization through the core,” says Cohen, adding that you can modify this move by lowering your knees to the floor. “Start in a plank position with hands on dumbbells directly under your shoulders and feet hip-distance apart—you can increase stability with a wider stance. Maintain a strong and stable core while you lift the right weight off the floor and drive your elbow up towards the ceiling. Pause at the top, then return to the start position. Repeat on the left side.”
“Begin by standing with weights in hand, and as you hinge the hips back, glide the weights along the front side of the body until the maximum range of motion in hip hinge is reached,” says Koegel. “From there, activate the entire posterior chain to reset back to starting position.”
Cohen explains that plank up-downs are a great bodyweight movement that strengthens everything from the back to the core. To do this move correctly, begin in a high plank position and keep your core engaged. “Lower one arm at a time into a forearm plank and then, one arm at a time, return to a high plank position.”
To ensure that you’re doing your back exercises correctly, Cohen recommends maintaining proper form—keeping your chest out, shoulders pulled down and back, head tall, stomach in and core tight—perfecting the two-second pause in the contracted position and making sure you’re not using too heavy of a weight.
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