Gymnasts have long been darlings of the Olympics. They captivate us with the power, grace, precision, strength, awareness and body control…
From the iron itself, to our ability to withstand any kind of personal fight, the word strength can hold so many inspiring associations for each of us. Strength goes above and beyond the physical training, and for many, it’s an additional means of building confidence. This confidence boost in ourselves can come from reaching a physical goal (be it performance, health or aesthetics), and can be transferred to accomplishments in all aspects of life and living. Strength training is a powerful tool!
Metaphorically, when I think of strength, I think of a strong back and shoulders for carrying a heavy load. A strong back is a stable, tall posture that allows us to remain calm, sturdy and courageous in the face of uncertainty, pain or distress. To me, a strong back is both confidence and comfort.
Physically, a strong back is lends to the protection of our spine, helps us bear load and keeps our posture tall. Everyone talks about having a strong “core” and while that includes the pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis and obliques, it also includes the muscles in our back.
Aesthetically, during my days of competing in Figure, I was told that competitions were won from the back. Among other criteria, the V taper was incredibility important which is the shape from your shoulders to your waist. When training our backside, we have a large territory of muscles to cover including, but not limited to, our rear delts, our mid and lower traps, our lats and our erector spinae.
As with most exercise selections, there are certainly ones that provide a lot of “bang for your buck” along with others that may not scream “Wow!” on the coolness scale but are equally important. Here are five of my favorite back exercises that should cover all the bases:
1. Pull-Up / Chin-Up
I think it’s incredibly important to be able to master your own body weight. Mix your grips from time to time. It’ll change the exercise enough. I prefer a neutral grip pull-up because it’s shoulder friendly, but I still aim to perform traditional pull-ups because they’re a bit more difficult, plus chin-ups to incorporate my biceps more.
For those of you working towards pull-ups, check out Neghar’s tutorial here, and her recent article in The Washington Post! If you’re looking for an assisting tool, I like to use superbands hooked around the pull up bar and your knee. Last but not least, if you want to make them more difficult, load yourself with a weight vest, a weight belt or vary the tempo of your pull up.
2. Barbell or Dumbbell Bent Over Row
The movement will be different depending on the tool of choice, especially if it’s unilateral or bilateral. Both are excellent options for a horizontal pulling movement. Seated or standing cable rows are another variation you can do.
3. Inverted Rows
This is another one of my favorites for using your bodyweight as the resistance. It can be done using suspension training straps like TRX, or using a barbell with an overhand or underhand grip. The more horizontally you position your body, the more challenging the exercise becomes.
4. Y’s and T’s
I include Y’s and T’s in almost every warm up. Other times, I load them for a little more upper body work. Y’s and T’s help to strengthen our mid and lower trapezius muscles which are important for posture and function of the scapula. Many people tend to over use their upper traps and don’t spend enough focus on their mid and lower traps, which then continues to fuel the overuse of the upper traps because we’re not executing our upper body exercises properly.
Here’s a video featuring Jen Sinkler and me, talking about Y’s and T’s:
5. Good Mornings and/or Deadlift Variations (hip extension movements)
I like to perform Single-Leg Barbell Good Mornings, but many back extension exercises will do. Essentially, in addition to working the glutes and hamstrings, you get a solid emphasis on your erector spinae.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list. When training your back, as well as anything else, aim for foundational exercises, but don’t neglect the smaller muscle groups and movements or treat them as an afterthought.
Again, there are so many ways to add variety, from the tools used (dumbbells, barbells, bodyweight, TRX, etc), to the program design (exercise selection, sets, reps, etc), to the exercise selection itself (vertical movements, horizontal movements, angled movements, unilateral, bilateral, etc.). Hopefully, this gives you a good start.
We’d love to know: What does having a strong back mean to you? What’s your favorite back exercise? Share in the comments below!