Most of us have a bias toward working the muscles in the front of the body – the chest, biceps, and abs because those are the muscles we see when we look in the mirror. Yet, focusing too much on these muscles and not enough on the muscles in the back of the body can lead to muscle imbalances.
You already may be dealing with muscle imbalances if you sit at a desk most of the day. When you lean forward at a desk, the muscles in the front of your shoulders and chest, work harder than the muscles in the back of your body. That’s why it’s important to strengthen the back muscles to correct the impact of sitting.
In addition, strong back muscles support your spine and lower the risk of back injury and back pain. Not to mention, sturdy back and neck muscles help your posture. So, how balanced is YOUR back training?
First, let’s look at the anatomy of the back.
Back Training: Muscles of the Upper Back
The cervical vertebrae run through the upper back and are covered and supported by muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The muscles include the trapezius, the rhomboid major, and the levator scapulae that hold the clavicle and scapula firmly against the spine. These muscles are important for activities like reaching for something above your head and throwing a ball. Along with the chest muscles in the front, the upper back muscles support lung function and breathing. These muscles are also important for postural support. In fact, upper back muscles are a common cause of back and neck pain as well as poor posture. If you’re a sloucher, these muscles are likely to be especially weak.
Back Training: The Mid-Back
The thoracic spine, made up of 12 vertebrae, runs down the mid-back and is supported by muscles, tendons, and ligaments that limit the movement of this part of the back. The ribs in the front of your body attach to the 12 thoracic vertebrae as well. Because the mid back has more limited movement than the upper and lower back region, back pain in this area is least common here. Still, slumping over a desk affects this part of your back as well.
In terms of muscle support, the large, trapezius muscle extends from the upper back into the mid-back and attaches to the thoracic vertebrae. The even larger latissimus dorsi muscles, also known as the lats, join with the thoracic vertebrae in the mid-back as well as the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back.
Back Training: Lower Back
The lower back is often called the lumbar region because five lumbar vertebrae run through this region. These vertebrae curve slightly inward, leading to a mild lordosis. It’s this area of the back that’s most prone toward back pain and injury due to its considerable mobility. In fact, you move this portion of your back every time you twist or bend over. The lower end of the lumbar spine, around L4 and L5, is the most mobile part of the lower back and as a result, is most likely to be injured.
What about muscles? The lower edge of the latissimus dorsi muscle extends into the lower back as do the erector spinae. The erector spinae are three paired muscles, attached to the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back that allow your body to rotate from side-to-side. They also support forward bending at the waist as well as extending the back.
Keep in mind, that these are the external muscles in the back. You also have deeper back muscles that help support and stabilize the spine.
Back Training: Balanced Back Training
You’ll get the most benefits by working the muscles in all three planes of motion – the sagittal, frontal, and transverse. For training purposes, you can lump the upper and mid back together.
What exercises make up a well-rounded routine? Two exercises that effectively target the latissimus dorsi, or lats, are the pull-up and lateral pull-down. These exercises work the upper and mid-back muscles in the frontal plane while bent-over rows work the mid and upper back in the sagittal plane. You also activate the lower back to some degree with this exercise. Seated cable rows are another effective exercise for the upper and mid-back.
How about the lower back – the area of the back most subject to injury? One exercise that many people don’t do that targets this area is the bent-over row using a barbell instead of a dumbbell. However, the king of exercises for working the lower back is the deadlift. Strangely, you often hear that deadlifts can injure your back. However, this is usually a consequence of using bad form. In fact, a study showed that when you perform them properly, deadlifts strengthen the paraspinal muscles that run parallel to the spine and protect your back against injury.
If you’re new to deadlifts, use light weight or no weight until you master your form. A good “starter” deadlift is the hex bar deadlift as it places the least strain on your spine. Sumo deadlifts are another variation that places less strain on the back. Start with these variations until you’re comfortable with the movement.
Finally, if you have a bench, hyperextensions, although an advanced exercise, will help strengthen your lower back and protect it against injury. You can also do this exercise lying on a mat, the so-called, Superman exercise.
Back Training: Balance It Out with Yoga
These exercises will help you develop strength in your upper, mid, and lower back but flexibility is also important. One way to boost back flexibility is with yoga. When you sit most of the day, you tighten the muscles in your back and tight back muscles can limit your range-of-motion when you train and increase the risk of injury. Plus, studies show that yoga may reduce lower back pain symptoms. So, after a strength workout, cool down with some yoga moves or intensive stretching to lengthen the muscles.
The Bottom Line
You may like how defined your back looks in a summer top as a result of training but it’s even more important to have strong back muscles and protection against back injury. Make sure your back training is balanced.
Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. Brad Schoenfeld. (2016)
Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2011 Nov;92(11):1875-83. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2011.05.015.
J Strength Cond Res 25(7): 2000-2009, 2011.
National Institutes of Health. “Yoga or Stretching Eases Low Back Pain”
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