Don’t neglect what we don’t see.
We use it a lot. Every day, all day. And when it’s injured we realize the limitations we have without it.
I want to use this post to talk about muscles of the back and also to give you a picture of how these muscles work so you can have a better understanding and maybe that will help you the next time you work your back.
The main one
We have back muscles that start at the lower spine and run up, right up to the base of the skull. This group of muscles is called the Erector spinae. You can imagine them as large ropes running side by side in parallel with the spine, more or less. As they travel up the back they connect to the ribs and upper vertebrae. They are responsible for spinal extension (moving your back backwards like a big stretch), lateral flexion (moving the back to either side). These muscles help make up our core and if they are strong will add to performance increases and provide stability for the spine when needed.
Knowing that the erector spinae starts at the bottom of our spine and all the way up to the base of the skull we need various exercises to work the whole length of the muscles. Let’s look at what exercises we can do:
Spidermans: This exercise will place focus on the lower part of the back. Lying on the ground on your stomach, hands under your chin, raise your shoulders about 2 inches off of the ground. Focus on the lower back when doing this and try to feel the contraction. It’s a simple exercise but difficult to do only hitting the back muscles. I would recommend that you have someone knowledgeable show you and work with you on this exercise.
Bird dog: This works more the length of the erector spinae since the muscle is used to stabilize you while carrying out the exercise. Get down on all fours hands at shoulder width and knees in line with yoru hands. Raise your right hand extending your right arm straight out in front of you. Then slowly raise your left leg out behind you. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds and repeat on other side. Be sure to actively engage your core when doing this.
Stability ball back crunches: Start by lying on the stability ball with your stomach and chest. Your legs should be fully straight out behind you on the floor. Having your hands behind your head, contract your core and glutes. Slowly raise your upper body upwards for a movement of 2 – 3 inches. Hold at the top for 3 – 5 seconds holding onto that contraction. Lower yourself down until your chest touches the ball. Repeat about 8 to 12 times.
Close grip cable rows/ band pulls: Having your hands close together targets the centre of your back and being seated it also targets the middle area of the back. Think about half way between your waist and the bottom of your skull. I’m going to explain this one using the bands. Sitting on the floor legs straight out in front of you, having one end of the band against the bottom of your feet, with arms straight out holding onto the band, pull back until hands are close to your stomach. Hold for a second or two then straighten out your arms. Try to do this for 8 to 10 repetitions.
Now the next muscle I’m going to cover is technically a muscle of the shoulder girdle but I think we all look at it as a muscle of the back. This is the muscle that when developed gives you the highly sought after V look. Pop a couple of big shoulders on top of this V and you’ll be turning sideways just to get through the door. You got it, the latissimus dorsi. It starts at vertebrae T6 – S5 (around the centre of your spine) and inserts at our humerus bone. Makes sense right? If pull ups builds this muscle, the movement of the arms when we do pull ups is how the muscle contracts. The lats aid in pulling and lifting type movements and provide support to the shoulders.
What can we do to build the lats, keeping them strong? Good question.
Pull Ups: An awesome exercise over all since it’s a body weight exercise and also works more than just the lats. You can use a wide grip or a narrow grip target different areas of the muscles of our back. I think we all know what a pull up is so instead of explaining, I’m going to give some tips. If you cannot do a pull up because you can’t yet pull up your body weight, don’t worry. If you work out at a gym you are probably lucky enough that they have a machine where you can rest your knees and adjust how much weight is removed from your body when doing the pull up. Yeah that sounds strange doesn’t it. In a sense instead of adding weight we are removing weight so if you weight 200lbs, you can adjust the machine so the weight you are moving is 140lbs as an example.
A way to do this if you aren’t working out at a gym is to use a chair or something else to put your feet on (the tops of your feet will be on the chair, not the bottom). This allows you to push with your legs when doing the pull up. Please be careful if you do your pull ups this way! Be safe!
Pull Downs: The inverse of pull ups. You will need a machine for this but if you have one, use it. The nice thing about pull downs is you can adjust the weight. When doing this try not to sway your torso. Keep strict form.
Reclined Pull Over: Lying on the floor on your back, legs bent and feet on the floor, straighten your arms so they are stretched over your head like you are giving two high fives. Using a barbell or a dumbbell in each hand engage your core as you raise the weight up until your arms are perpendicular to the floor. As you raise the weights, keep a small bend in the arms. Hold at the top for a few seconds then slowly lower. Do this for 8 to12 repetitions.
There are other muscles that benefit from these exercises such as our trapezius, teres minor/major, posterior deltoid muscles, etc. I’ll probably get to some of these muscles in another post more specifically to do with their respective area such as the shoulder or rotator cuff.
Try these exercises out if you haven’t already. Build a solid back and rock that V like it’s no one business. Your back will thank you for it.
Yours in health,