How much priority do you give to your back muscles during your workout? The back muscles often take a back seat (<—see what I did there?) to the muscles on the front such as the pecs, abs, and biceps. But when our backs hurt, it’s a good reminder to give those muscles as much attention in the gym, if not more, than the front side.
The epidemic of sitting for the majority of the day is really compromising our back health. Sitting compresses the lumbar tissue which causes intracellular fluid to leave cells. The cells get dehydrated due to compressive forces, not because you’re not drinking enough water. Although….you may not be drinking enough water! Then your spine gets cranky and your muscles get tight.
So here is a list of back exercises that will relax tight muscles and strengthen weak muscles. The result is feeling better, increased mobility, improved posture and a happy back!
Tennis Ball on Shoulder Blades
Rolling a tennis ball on your back will help to release tender trigger points. This form of self-myofascial release works in the same way a massage does. It’s not quite as effective as a skilled massage therapist, but it will feel amazing! Do this exercise for 1-2 minutes per side as part of your warmup.
Mobility Back Exercises
Extension Over Foam Roller
The movement of extending your spine over the roller counteracts the rounding that typically happens when sitting at a computer all day. This exercise may look like a crunch, but it’s designed to mobilize your spine. Be very careful to not arch your lower back while extending back. The movement should be in your thoracic spine, not your lumbar. Keep your chin tucked to your chest for the same reason: thoracic extension, not cervical/neck extension. Include this in your warm up and perform 6-8 reps.
Side-Lying Arm Circles
This is a mobility exercise for your spine. Unlike the exercise above which moves the spine forward and backward in one plane of movement, this exercise asks your spine to rotate. Plus, you get the extra benefits of shoulder mobility and a nice chest stretch. Do 3-4 reps per side.
This is another mobility exercise that rotates your spine, but may be kinder on your shoulder than the above exercise if you have concerns with that joint. Do 4-6 per arm. If you play golf or tennis, this is a great exercise to do as you warmup.
Strengthening Back Exercises
There are lots of ways to do a row. It’s a go-to exercise for strengthening your back because it’s effective and safe for almost everybody. Choose one version and do it often. TRX Rows (as shown below,) Bent Over Rows, 1-Arm Rows. You can use a dumbbell, kettlebell, bar, band, or cable. 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps at a challenging weight should do the trick!
Wall Slides are great for teaching the scapulae to rotate. Plus, you have to think about the middle of your back. The lower trapezius muscle fibers are often weak and this exercise connects the brain to those fibers. Do 8 reps slower than in the video. Keep your head, shoulder blades, and tailbone against the wall as you do it. Maintain arm contact with the wall as much as possible. Never move through a range of motion that causes pain.
Now, of course you need healthy shoulders and a pullup bar to do these. And before you scoff at the idea of doing pullups/chinups, watch this video of progressions. It’s pretty impressive to be able to do a pullup….wouldn’t you say? But it takes time and effort to build up to them. Figure out your starting point and build from there. Also note that if you have depressed shoulders, this isn’t a great choice of back exercise for you.
No Money Drill
The no money drill is great for the middle of your back. It’s surprisingly challenging even with light weight. You can do this exercise lying on a foam roller on your back as well. Do 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps.
Tubing Pull Aparts
Pull Aparts are similar to the No Money Drill except that the palms are facing the floor and arms stay straight throughout the movement. It will strengthen the muscle fibers slightly higher up than the No Money Drill. Think about squeezing your shoulder blades in to each other to do this exercise. Use a tube that challenges your upper back and do 10-12 reps per set.
Face Pulls are another strengthening exercise for your middle back. They strengthen the same muscles as the rows, but the angle of pull is a little different. So, this is a good one for variety!
This type of back extension is a popular choice for strengthening the lower back. However, because the majority of clients I see have excessive lumbar curve, I don’t advise doing this exercise as a general guideline. You can read more of my reasoning in this blog. And I encourage you to check your pelvis posture with the video in the link above to see if you have anterior pelvic tilt/excessive arch.
Knee Hug Stretch
The knee hug is a nice stretch for releasing the lower back. In many cases, you won’t feel this stretch in your lower back, but it is still a good one to include at the end of your workout. You could also do child’s pose to stretch your lower back if your knees like being in child’s pose. Either stretch is appropriate if you have the excessive lumbar curve mentioned above…..and you may because it’s very common! 30 seconds holding this stretch and then you’ll be relaxed enough to take a nap.
I wouldn’t do all of these in one workout, but doing double the amount of back strengthening exercises over chest strengthening exercises is a good idea. Here’s an example of how I write back exercises into my clients’ workouts:
Roll tennis ball on shoulder blades
Choose either the extension over roller, arm circles, or wall scoops depending on that clients mobility needs
Rows: 2-3 Sets of 10 Reps at a challenging weight
No Money Drill: 2 Sets of 10-12 Reps