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Exercises for a strong back

Don't overlook this important body part or pain and stiffness might crop up. Three Los Angeles-area trainers offer their favorite moves.

February 02, 2009|Jeannine Stein

The back often gets short shrift when it comes to strength and conditioning because people tend to focus on muscles more prone to easy definition, such as those in the arms, abs and chest. But neglecting this body part can lead to trouble: aches, stiffness, chronic pain.

A healthy back is flexible, allowing you to bend, turn and reach without even a twinge. It should also be strong, since it helps stabilize the rest of the body. But because many of us sit all day with shoulders rounded forward, our backs have become weak and stiff.

"Having a strong back is huge," says Torri Shack, a trainer at Sky Sport & Spa in Beverly Hills. "The stronger your back, the more weight-bearing exercise you can do. People think your abdominals are just your abdominals, but the stronger your back, the stronger your stomach is going to be. A strong back also allows you to do more and different types of ab exercises without feeling pain."

To help restore backs to their proper shape, we asked three trainers for their favorite back exercises. Repetitions and set numbers are given only as a suggestion, so adjust numbers up or down according to your fitness level.

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Torri Shack

Trainer, Sky Sport & Spa, Beverly Hills

For the back, I like doing a combination of body resistance and weight-bearing exercises.

* My favorite overall back exercise is the front plank. I tell my clients to do it in the morning and before they go to bed. It's really simple, and you can do it anywhere. Facing the floor, support your body up on your lower arms and your toes, and try to hold it for a minute, eventually progressing to a minute 15 seconds, a minute and a half, etc. To create more instability, raise the right leg, then the left leg, holding for 10 seconds. That move strengthens the overall core. The plank helps people begin to increase the weight they lift because they have a stronger back.

* The other exercise I like is the Superman, where you lie on your stomach, with hands and legs outstretched. Lift the arms and legs at the same time, hold for 10 seconds, come back down and do it again. Work up to doing sets of those 10-second intervals for a minute. To add more resistance, do this while holding water bottles or cans of soup. This especially targets the lower back.

* A more advanced exercise is dumbbell pullovers on a stability ball. Rest the upper shoulders and head on the ball and place feet on the floor. Hold one dumbbell with both hands, arms extended overhead, directly over the chest. Squeezing the lats and keeping elbows straight, lower the weight over the head, then bring the weight back up.

* Another favorite is the reverse fly, which is great for people who have shoulders that roll forward. Sitting on a bench, bend over so your chest is between your knees. Start with dumbbells down by your feet, and then raise them up to the side, giving the back muscles a little squeeze. Keep arms parallel to the ground, or just a little bit higher. For weight-bearing exercises, do one to three sets of 12 to 16 repetitions, using light weights.

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Rob Sham

Fitness manager at Bally Total Fitness in Culver City

The back is part of the posterior chain, which is all the muscles that make up the backside of the body, including the upper and lower back, the glutes, hamstrings and calves. Also included are your rear deltoids, or shoulder muscles. The whole shoulder girdle stabilization is key, since it's one of the major areas that gets injured.

Most people sit hunched over, and when the shoulders slump forward, that stretches out the muscles in the upper back. Sitting in that position for a prolonged period of time shortens the muscles in front. Also, people often complain of upper back and neck tension, which can be addressed with flexibility training. They often scrunch their shoulders up.

* For an upper trapezius stretch, sit in a chair facing forward while maintaining good posture. Holding onto the chair with the left arm, gently pull the head toward the right shoulder with the right hand. You should feel a mild stretch, but it shouldn't hurt. Repeat on the other side.

* If your shoulders are rounded forward, you need to strengthen those muscles that will pull your shoulders back again. One good exercise is the T-bar row, or a high row. On a machine meant for this exercise (where the weight is on a fulcrum), grab the weight and start pulling it toward your chest with your elbows out to the side.

* Dead lifts target the hamstrings and glutes and incorporate the lower back. It may sound intimidating, but it's a very functional movement. Start with legs bent, making sure the spine is in alignment. The only movement is bending forward at the waist to raise and lower the weight from the ground. If you don't have full range of motion, you don't have to lower the weight all the way to the ground. Always start with light weights, and do about 12 to 15 repetitions.

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Gregg Miele

Beverly Hills-based trainer and owner of Selfdiscipline.com

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