Back your fitness, flexibility and power with our expert exercises designed to straighten out your training plan and add strength for good.
One thing the bench press and bicep curl obsessives forget is that your back is the foundation of pretty much every movement you do. So it pays to show it some love. We’ve all seen the guys in the gym whose incredible chest bulk means they’re hunched over the whole time. And we’ve all seen the people in the office who spend ten minutes trying to stand up straight whenever they get up to fetch a coffee. Take some advice: look after your back and your back will look after you.
“Exercising your back is very important and the benefits of a strong back go far beyond aesthetics,” explains Chris Antoni, expert trainer at Tailor Made Fitness. “Back exercises are proven to help improve your posture, enhance your physique and protect from back pain and injury.”
Antoni goes on to explain that engaging in regular back exercises not only helps us get some solid muscle behind us, it lets our spinal discs exchange fluid, which is crucial to keeping the spine strong and healthy as well as keeping the connective ligaments and tendons supple.
With that in mind, here are the best exercises you can do to build a stronger back and, crucially, a better basis for all-over fitness.
“A well-executed one-arm dumbbell row strengthens your shoulders, upper arms, and core,” says Antoni. “These benefits will help you perform many everyday activities with greater ease and less discomfort.”
Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, bend over to place your left knee and left hand on a bench to support your body weight. Ensure your knees are in line with each other – they should make a triangle with your left hand. Keeping your back straight, exhale and slowly pull the dumbbell upwards, bending your elbow and pulling your upper arm backwards to go slightly past your body. Hold, then inhale as you gently lower the dumbbell to your starting position while maintaining a flat back and retracted shoulder position.
A key mistake is thinking you have to row heavy. Not so, says Antoni: “If you cannot get the full range of motion or keep good technique then lower the weight.”
“This is a fantastic exercise to strengthen the lattisimus dorsi, the broadest muscle in the back,” explains Antoni. “Remember: form is crucial when perform the lat pulldown to prevent injury and reap the best results.”
At the cable pull-down machine, adjust the leg pad so you’re sitting in a snug but comfortable position. Grasp the bar with your hands wide, using an overhand grip. With your arms fully extended, lean back slightly, keeping your head in line with your body. Pull the bar towards your chest using your back while breathing out. Keep your elbows down and core tight throughout the movement. Pause, then slowly return the weight until your arms are extended above you for one rep.
“Again, if the move is too difficult to complete your repetitions, decrease the load,” says Antoni. “If it's too easy, increase the load.” And, for christ’s sake, don’t pull the bar down behind your neck – the 1980s called and it wants its shoulder injuries back.
“The plank is a classic exercise that strengthens your body from head to toe,” says Antoni. “In particular, the plank helps strengthen your core muscles, including your abdominals and lower back. Having a strong core is linked to reduced lower back pain, an improved ability to perform daily tasks, and enhanced athletic performance.”
Lie on the floor with your elbows under your shoulders, hands flat on the floor and core engaged. Keeping your forearms and knees on the floor slowly raise yourself upwards until your body is in a straight line from your knees to your head. Hold the position for as long as you can – 30 seconds is a good target for beginners.
We’re not here to impress other people, so if you find the plank difficult do yourself a favour and drop to your knees. “This is called the 3/4 plank,” explains Antoni. A few weeks and you’ll be up to the real thing, no problem.
“This exercise improves your upper body and grip strength,” says Antoni. “The main muscles worked are the trapezius, and latissimus dorsi with the biceps working as a secondary muscle.”
You’ll need to make use of the Smith machine for this one (a barbell slung across a squat rack works too, but best avoid if the gym’s busy). Begin by setting the bar at approximately waist level. Position yourself under the bar, facing up. Grasp the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart, using an overhand grip. With your legs extended and body in a straight line, pull yourself up towards the bar using your back while exhaling. The bar should be nearly level with your chest. Pause, then slowly lower back down for one.
“If this move is too difficult, place your feet closer to you with your legs bent,” advises Antoni. Still not working for you? Try raising the bar above waist level. If it’s too easy, elevate your feet on a box, keeping your legs extended.
“The TRX row can help strengthen the shoulder stabilisers, spinal erectors, and deep abdominal muscles,” explains Antoni. “This can help prevent injuries to the shoulders and low back while improving overall coordination for day-to-day life.”
Obviously, you’ll need a TRX rig for this. Grasp the handles of the suspension trainer and step back to the point where the ropes and your arms are forming a straight line. Position your feet about hip-distance apart. Roll your shoulders back and "lock them" in place so you're standing with good posture. Keeping your core locked, step your feet forward until your body is between a 30 and 60 degree angle with the ground.
Watch for sagging hips; your feet, core and arms should support your whole body weight. Turn the handles of the suspension trainer inward so your palms are facing each other. Pull your chest and torso up toward the handles of the suspension trainer, bending your elbows as you pull yourself up. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your elbows close to your body and your palms facing in. Hold then reverse the movement to slowly lower yourself down for one rep.
“If you start a set and it feels too hard, walk your feet back,” advises Antoni. “Likewise, if you perform a few repetitions and it starts to feel too easy, walk your feet forward a step or two to make the exercise tougher.”
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