One area where you need to be strong in your posterior chain, including your back muscles. It’s likely that you already do exercises that work your superficial back muscles, the ones just underneath your skin. But what about the deeper ones, the ones you don’t see?
The superficial back muscles include the:
Trapezius: The trapezius is a large triangular muscle that covers most of your upper back. It draws your shoulder blades together and together with other muscles helps to lift and rotate your arms. You use your trapezius to shrug your shoulders. The trapezius muscle also provides stability for your shoulder joint when you lift your arm overhead or hold something heavy in front of you with both hands (such as carrying groceries).
Rhomboids: The rhomboids (major and minor) are flat, diamond-shaped muscles that lie between the spine and shoulder blades. They draw the shoulder blades together, which helps to stabilize them. They also play a role in rotating your arms inward (adduction). They also stabilize your scapula and shoulder girdle.
Levator scapulae: The levator scapula is a thin muscle at the side and back of your neck that draws your shoulder blades up toward your ears. It also stabilizes your head when you’re looking up at something above eye level.
Latissimus dorsi (lats). The latissimus dorsi is a large muscle that covers most of your back, from just below your armpit down to the top of your hips. It helps elevate your scapula. You use this large muscle when you do pull-ups and with arm extensions, as when you do rowing exercises. The latissimus dorsi also helps to stabilize your back when you extend your shoulders.
Your superficial back muscles may already be getting a workout, but how much are you targeting the deeper muscles in your back? Deep back muscles are those that lie beneath the superficial ones and have names like splenius cervicis, splenius capitis, semispinalis, sacrospinalis, multifidus, rotatores, interspinales, intertransversarii, and your erector spinae muscles. But their names aren’t as important as their function.
The function of deep back muscles is to rotate, flex and extend your spine, so they rotate your vertebral column. They also help support your upper body while standing upright. What makes these important to strengthen is that they provide stability for your low back during everyday activities such as lifting heavy objects or walking up stairs.
Benefits of Strengthening Your Deep Back Muscles
Strengthening your deep back muscles can help you avoid injury. When you target your superficial back muscles using large movements, like deadlifts, these smaller back muscles that support your spine must be strong enough to withstand the stress and protect your spine. When your deeper back muscles are stronger, you can also lift things with less risk of straining your back or other parts of your body.
Strengthening your deep back muscles will also improve your posture and lower the risk of back pain. Studies show that a common cause of lower back pain is a weak multifidus muscle. Reengaging and strengthening this muscle that stabilizes your spine can reduce lower back pain and lower your risk of developing low back pain in the first place.
There’s another perk of training these muscles. Stronger deep back muscles are better able to support the rest of the spine when you carry heavy objects or work a desk job. Strong deep back muscles will also help you stand up straighter overall. Good posture reduces stress on your joints, making them less likely to get injured in your daily activities. Strong deep back muscles will also improve your performance when you play sports.
How to Target Your Deep Back Muscles
Now that you know the benefits of training your deep back muscles, it’s time to get down and dirty. How can you strengthen these muscles? Here are some exercises you can do to target and strengthen these muscles.
To do a superman hold:
Lay on your stomach with your arms outstretched in front of you and legs bent behind you and straight.
- Raise your arms, chest, and legs off the floor until you feel your lower back muscles contract.
- Hold for 3 seconds.
- Lower your legs and arms back down to the starting position.
- Repeat 8 times for one set.
- Do 2-3 sets.
Bird Dog Exercise
The bird dog exercise is especially effective at targeting your erector spinae muscles, the muscles that straighten and rotate your back. Plus, they also work your glutes. Here’s how to do one:
Get down on all fours. Keep your back flat and in line with your head and neck. Your hands should be directly under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Raise one arm and the opposite leg so they’re parallel to the floor.
- Hold this position for five seconds, then return to the starting position, lowering both limbs at once.
- Repeat 10 times on each side.
When you do the bird dog exercise, your movements should be slow and controlled and your core tight.
Other Exercises that Work the Deep Back Muscles
You’ll also work your deep back muscles when you do compound strength training exercises where you use weights. Some of the best for working your deep back is the deadlift, good morning, and the bent-over row. These exercises all work your erector spinae and other deep back muscles. But always use good form when you do these exercises since bent over rows and good mornings can be hard on your back since your torso is unsupported. Always perfect your form using light weights or no weights.
The Bottom Line
To protect against injury and reduce your risk of back pain, work on strengthening the deep muscles in your back. These muscles are used for almost every movement you make, so it’s important that they’re strong enough to support you. Make sure you’re showing your back muscles some love when you strength train and do them with good form.
Freeman MD, Woodham MA, Woodham AW. The role of the lumbar multifidus in chronic low back pain: a review. PM R. 2010 Feb;2(2):142-6; quiz 1 p following 167. doi: 10.1016/j.pmrj.2009.11.006. PMID: 20193941.
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“Anatomy, Back, Muscles – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf.” 10 Aug. 2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537074/.
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