When you go to the gym, what’s the one part of your body that’s at the forefront of your mind? Chances are it’s your legs, your core, your chest or your arms — the areas where you can actually see the results of your hard work.
Yet fitness experts say you should also be mindful of working on the parts of your physique that are out of sight.
We spoke to personal trainers and IsoWhey Sports ambassadors Andrew Pap, Alexa Towersey and Lauren Hannaford about why your back needs a bit of love, and how to go about strengthening it.
Why backs are important
Your back plays a significant role in the body. Along with the rest of the “posterior chain” — including your glutes, hamstrings and calves — it’s responsible for a number of functions and key movements.
“Our core keeps our body stabilised and balanced but our backs need to be strong so they can help keep our shoulders, neck and upper back stabilised also,” Hannaford says.
Focusing on the spine is particularly important given how much time we spend sitting down (hello, office workers). Pap says a sedentary lifestyle can cause our bodies to become imbalanced — tight through the front yet weak at the back.
Watch: Paper Tiger shares their tips for a healthy working day in the office. (Post continues after video.)
“This inevitably leads to habitual poor posture and eventual injury, whether it be because we are sedentary or because we then go and train and reinforce these incorrect movement patterns even more,” he adds.
Continual poor posture can also result in back pain, neck pain, headaches, and lectures on “slouching” from your loved ones. All of this is best avoided where possible.
Why we neglect them
Obviously, one of the reasons our backs are forgotten is visibility — or lack thereof. “I think a lot of the time if people are focused on the aesthetic benefits of training only, it can definitely be overlooked,” Towersey says.
However, this could also be tied to misconceptions about how the body works in combination.
For example, despite popular belief your “core” is not just your abdominals. “[It] also includes all the muscles of the hips and lower back, so a balanced core regime would include exercises that train the spine in neutral, flexion, extension and rotation,” Towersey explains. (Post continues after gallery.)
The best back workouts
So, now you’ve been given the guilt trip about loving your faithful spine, you’re probably wondering how you go about strengthening and mobilising it.
Here are some workouts that will get you started — as with any exercise you haven’t tried before, it’s best to proceed with caution and ask for guidance from a qualified personal trainer if possible.
1. Dead lifts
This involves lifting a weight from the ground to your hips, before lowering it again. Andrew Pap describes the dead lift as the most “functional” lift because it’ll engage all your muscles.
“Ensure that you’re pushing through your heels, to switch on your posterior chain. Drive through your feet, engage your lats and squeeze your shoulder blades together, all whilst keeping a neutral spine,” he advises.
“Complete the lift by thrusting your hips forward, by contracting the glutes until your hips are at full extension.”
2. Pull ups
According to our experts, the pull up is a go-to for strong posture. Towersey says this workout, along with the regressed version (i.e. the vertical pull, using a pull-down machine), will strengthen and shape a number of muscles in the mid- and upper back, if even under the shoulderblades if done correctly.
"Rather than simply starting in the hanging position, you want to begin in the 'active hang'. This should be the bottom phase of your pull up, when your arms are at full extension but engaging your lats and pulling back your shoulder blades," Pap advises.
"Keeping that same posture throughout the movement, drive your chest to touch the bar."
Pap says this bodyweight movement tends to be overlooked, but it'll deliver the foods. Start by lying on the ground, belly-down, with your arms resting above your head.
"Then, proceed to splay your arms up by engaging your upper back, trying also pull your chest off the ground ... simultaneously contracting both glutes to raise your feet and knees off the ground," he explains.
Once you've achieved this 'upside down banana' pose, hold it for eight to 12 seconds. Then repeat six to eight times.
Watch: Sam Wood demonstrates a simple bodyweight circuit you can do at home. (Post continues after video.)
4. The bent-over row
This one is great for your mid-back — and if you've ever tried a Pump class, chances are you've done it before.
Pap explains this move has the same setup as the dead lift. When you start, ensure there's a slight bend in the knees, your hips are propped back, and your torso is hinging forward at the hips. Your back and neck should be neutral.
"With your hands placed over the bar and your arms hanging below you, pull through your upper back, driving your shoulder blades rearwards (towards the sky) and repeat this movement," he says.
5. Gymnastics-style movements
Unsurprisingly, Hannaford — who happens to be a former elite gymnast — says many of the sport's movements will help strengthen your back. One example is handstands and the drills that lead up to them.
"So much of gymnastics is about having your whole body work as one, which is how we train it," she says.
"Your core, your legs, your arms and of course your back are working to stabilise each other through every movement. We are coming to realise ... that gymnastics-style exercises are the best for all over body mobility, function and strength."
6. Yoga and pilates
Hannaford says yoga and pilates can also help with back strength and good posture.
Do you ever focus on your back during training? What's your go-to workout?