The back muscles are key to many activities women perform, whether it be everyday activity or sports or fitness activities. Despite the frequent use of the back, these muscles are often overlooked in resistance training routines. Strengthening the back muscles can help improve fitness performance as well as avoid injury in everyday activities.
Anatomy of the Back
The back is a complex network of muscles that works to support the spinal cord and provide movement along multiple planes of motion. The major muscles of the upper back --- trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus, teres major --- all assist in movement of the arm, shoulder and neck. The major muscles of the lower back --- erector spinae, iliocostalis lumborum, quadratus lumborum — function largely in movement of the trunk and support of the spinal column.
Bent rows are exercises that target many of the upper back muscles. Hinging forward from the waist and pulling a weighted bar or dumb bells toward the waist against the force of gravity engages the major muscles of the upper back .
Similarly, seated cable rows strengthen the majority of upper back muscles. Pulling the cable against the force of the weight stack forces the upper back muscles to engage. Using a narrow-grip triangle handle focuses work on the center of the upper back, and using a wide grip on a bar handle focuses work more on the lats and outer edges of the upper back.
Cable lat pulls specifically target the lats. A wide bar works to enhance width of the lats as well as strengthening the upper portion of the muscle. Performing the pulls with a narrow grip focuses development and strength on the lower portion of the lats closer to the spine.
Bent rows also strengthen the lower back simultaneously with the upper back.
“Good mornings” are exercises that also strengthen the lower back. With the weight placed behind the neck and across the shoulders, extra torque is added in resisting gravity when hinging forward at the waist, then rising to a standing position. This movement targets the work onto the lower back more intensely, especially when straightening the trunk again within the range of motion.
Hyper extensions also focus work on the lower back. With the legs braced and the upper body leaning forward at an angle in the hyper extensions machine, hinging forward at the waist and then returning to the starting position places emphasis on the lower back through the resistance to gravity. Whether straightening the trunk against the force of gravity, or doing reverse hyper extensions --- starting the exercise hinged at the waist and lifting the legs against the force of gravity while the trunk remains stationary --- the lower back is strengthened while working to support the weight of the upper or lower body against the force of gravity. Hyper extensions can be performed holding dumbbells or a weight plate, or by placing a weighted ball or dumbbell between the knees or ankles if doing reverse hyper extensions. However, the natural resistance to gravity is often enough that additional weights are not required, especially if you are learning the movement.
The muscles of the back play a vital role in support for the entire body, and precautions should be taken when performing exercises that target back muscles. Obtain a doctor's approval before engaging in any exercise, especially if you have had a back injury or a history of back problems. Always begin a back workout with active cardiovascular work and stretching to warm up the muscles. Start with low to moderate weights to familiarize the muscles with the movements before advancing further. It is important to employ proper form and technique. Improper technique is less effective at building strength and can lead to injury. Strengthening the back does not necessarily create excessive mass in the back. Working with low to moderate weights and performing higher repetitions will avoid developing bulk while still increasing strength and improving performance.
- Human Anatomy and Physiology; Elaine N. Marieb, RN, PhD
- Strength Training Anatomy; Frédéric Delavier
- The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuiding; Arnold Schwarzenegger
- National Academy of Sports Medicine Essentials of Sports Performance Training; Michael A. Clark
Jullie Chung writes regularly for various websites. She is a nationally certified fitness trainer and performance enhancement specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and trains regularly in yoga, flatwater kayaking, boxing and mixed martial arts. An avid outdoor fan, she regularly hikes, climbs and trail runs.