When strength training, many of us focus our routines on our arms and legs—squats to challenge quads, curls to firm biceps. Those muscles (and the bones beneath them) are surely thankful for all that hard work. Think for a moment, though, about why: Not only do you look more toned, but you can climb stairs and lift groceries with far more ease. Your back, an area you may overlook when at the gym, could similarly benefit from some attention. After all, you engage it during virtually every move you make throughout the day.
The impressive collection of large and small muscles in your back supports your spine so you can stand up straight, bend, turn and more. That means they are called on for everything from sitting in a desk chair to loading the laundry to walking the dog. Since these muscles play such a critical role in supporting your body and its movement, it’s probably not surprising that weakness is often at the root of back injury, as well as chronic back pain, which 80 percent of adults (perhaps just like you) face.
Showing your back muscles some love can actually be achieved with moves that target them specifically as well as total-body exercises that help promote fluid movement and prevent your back from becoming overburdened. Try our five key back exercises, and consider these other strategies for a healthy back when crafting your next workout.
Strengthen Your Core
If you think core exercise is code for “abs,” you’re only getting half the story. They are but one part of the network of muscles that link your upper and lower body together. When all work together in harmony, the body is evenly supported.
Unfortunately, many people already have a natural imbalance between their abdominal muscles and deep, spinal muscles; ideally, you want both areas to be strong and stable, allowing you to control joint movement and prevent injury. Focusing on working out your abs and neglecting the deeper muscles beneath them will only encourage that imbalance, making you more susceptible to pain. Aim to build a strong, supported midsection that will improve the stability of your entire core, including your back.
Try: Side Plank
A well-rounded core routine should include exercises that work the front, sides (obliques) and back of your midsection, as well as the hips and pelvis. Try a static position like a side plank to work all of these muscles at once, stabilizing the core as a single unit:
Starting from a regular plank position—arms perpendicular to the floor, shoulders directly over the wrists, torso parallel to the floor—shift onto the outside edge of your left foot, and then stack your right foot on top of the left. With your right hand on your right hip and your torso turned to the right, your bodyweight is supported by your outer left foot and left hand. Your left hand is slightly in front of your shoulder as you straighten your arm and press the base of the index finger against the floor. Firm your shoulder blades and the base of your spine. Sturdy the thighs, and press through the heels toward the floor. If you feel comfortable, extend your top arm toward the ceiling, keeping your head neutral or gazing up toward that hand. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
If you suffer from back pain, try a modified side plank:
Lie on your left side and, with your legs stacked, and bend your knees 90 degrees. Prop your upper body up on your left elbow and forearm, which are aligned directly under your shoulder, and contract your abs. Raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your head to your knees. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Increase Flexibility and Range of Motion
While you don’t need to bend like a gymnast to keep your back healthy, improving your flexibility and range of motion is key. Tight, shortened muscles can limit motion in your pelvis, which increases stress on your lower back and hampers healthy posture. Some of the most common culprits are tight hips and hamstrings (especially if you’re sitting all day), as well as stiffness in the obliques and lower back. And while spending time on flexibility routines can be preventive, practicing stretching or yoga has also been shown to help those already suffering from chronic back pain.
Try: Cat Pose
Spending just 5 to 10 minutes stretching each day can make a difference—and yoga postures can be great additions to your routine. Try the cat pose to extend your spine and surrounding back muscles:
Start in a “tabletop” position on your hands and knees. Make sure your knees are directly below your hips while your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in line and perpendicular to the floor. Center your head and gaze toward the floor. As you exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, keeping your shoulders and knees in position. Release your head toward the floor without forcing your chin to your chest. Exhale, coming back to “tabletop” position. Repeat 10 to 20 times.
Keep in mind that you should only be moving through a pain-free range of motion—if you suffer from back pain, avoid holding the rounded spine and, instead, maintain a fluid movement without reaching a point of pain.
Encourage Healthy Circulation
Maintaining a healthy blood flow helps distribute nutrients to the discs and tissues in your back, keeping your muscles, ligaments and joints strong. It’s no surprise that aerobic exercise gets your blood pumping, of course. But while cardio is most likely already a part of your routine, it doesn’t always need to be vigorous in order to reap the benefits. Low-impact conditioning promotes healthy circulation and keeps your muscles warm and pliable without pushing your body—or your back—too far.
Try: Walking or Swimming
Get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity a week by incorporating low-impact exercises like walking or swimming. When you’re in the pool, try alternating strokes to engage different muscles:
Start with a couple of laps of breaststroke, which mostly uses back muscles while coordinating arm and leg movement. Move on to freestyle, or front stroke, engaging the chest muscles along with the back muscles while also working the glutes, hamstrings and quads.