Back injuries are probably one of the most common and debilitating problems across the general population. Just to prove my point, how many times have you had even a minor back sprain, pull or injury which pretty much made your regular day-to-day life pretty uncomfortable? I’m betting a few times at least (if not, you have been very lucky!).
You see, the problem with a back injury is there really is no way to work around it. With just about any other injured body part you can at least find a way to be comfortable and continue to perform tasks. But, with a back injury, simply standing can cause pain, bending certainly causes pain, sitting causes pain, and laying down causes pain. It’s just inescapable!
With this in mind it’s not hard to see the importance of avoiding back injuries and weakness. In fact, by simply learning some basic safe lifting techniques, performing regular back strengthening exercises, and stretching for flexibility you can create a stronger more supple back that will be much more resilient and able to withstand (and avoid) injury much better. The importance of a strong, supple back can never be overstated.
I will now take you through several exercises — ones which involve the use of weights and ones which don’t — and also several stretching exercises which are all very good for developing and maintaining a healthy back.
Of course there are several muscles in the back — and I will take you through exercises which will hit each of these muscles — but, it is fair to say that most of the problems for people originate in the lower lumbar region so we’ll start there.
As a matter of fact, before performing any weight training on the back I recommend you do some rudimentary stretching and back strengthening exercises.
Stretching the back is easy. In a standing position with your feet together, slowly and steadily stretch downwards with your arms to try and touch your toes whilst keeping your knees straight. Never, ever, ever bounce as this is very dangerous for the spine. All movements which involve the back should be fluid and controlled, not jolting.
Perform this stretch once-a-day, each time trying to get a little lower and a little closer to your toes. Don’t worry if you have major flexibility issues, people often try this exercise for the first time and then give up believing they will never touch their toes — but by getting even have a centimetre closer each day it is all going to add up and you will eventually do it.
Also, this exercise can be performed by sitting on your butt with your legs straight out in front of you.
Once your back is more flexible, I would recommend using the following simple technique to build some strength in your lower back as well as some flexibility in the opposite direction: Lay down flat on your stomach with your legs outstretched behind you — the tops of your feet also flat against the floor. Now, whilst keeping the tops of your feet flat on the floor as well as your legs, make out is if you are trying to do a push up. The idea is to keep the entire area from your pelvis and below flat on the floor whilst bending your torso upwards as far as you can go. Hold this position for the count of five or ten and relax. You will likely find this exercise pretty strenuous at first and you will really feel it’s in the lower region of your back. Eventually, you should be able to straighten your arms all of the way out and feel completely comfortable.
I would recommend performing this exercise two to three times a week leaving at least one day in between each effort to allow your back to recover.
Now, once you feel ready you can move on to some of the more advanced back strengthening exercises which involve weights.
The deadlift is a barbell exercise designed to hit the lower back. As always, I recommend whenever new to an exercise you start with an extremely light weight to develop good and safe lifting form. And also, particularly in the case of working the back, always adds weight slowly as you have to be extremely careful.
Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart or slightly wider with your shoelaces directly underneath the barbell, toes pointed slightly outwards. Bend at the knees and form an alternating grip — one hand under-grip and one hand over grip — around slightly wider than shoulder width. Ensure that your arms are kept straight at all times – not bent at the elbows.
Your back should be in a flat position throughout the movement — never, ever round it. In setting yourself up in this position you should be able to lean back slightly and drive up from the heel of the foot — not the toes.
The key is, to drive up using the power of the thighs whilst keeping the bar in contact with your body at all times. When you reach a certain point in the lift, the back will become involved in straightening your torso up. To lower the bar simply reverse the movement, remaining in control at all times.
The secret to a good deadlift is not to lift, as such, but to pull the bar upwards. As with anything practice makes perfect and you will find your own technique in time — the main thing to remember is do not begin the lift with the back and do not round the back. Simply concentrate on keeping the back flat throughout the movement and powering with the legs, and the back will become involved of its own accord and in a safe manner.
Bent Over Rows
Bent over rows an exercise which works the latissimus dorsi muscle which is slightly higher up than the lumbar. Safely lift a barbell up into the following starting position: knees slightly bent, a double overhand grip of slightly wider than shoulder width, with a flat back with the torso bent over at the hip until almost parallel with the floor. The barbell should be hanging down below you at arms length. Now, maintaining this position and focusing upon lifting the bar using the back muscles, pull the bar up to the top of your abdomen and touch your sternum. Give a little squeeze at the top and slowly lower back into the starting position.
This is a pretty difficult exercise to get used to. The key is to maintain the same flat back position and stay parallel to the floor — and most importantly, to focus on lifting the weight is much as possible with the back rather than the biceps. Of course the biceps are involved in the lifting, but by focusing on the back you will learn to train yourself to lift using a lot more of the back.
Again, I advise you start out really light and try to develop a feel for this exercise in your back. I also believe by giving an extra squeeze at the top of this exercise you can further help to develop a feel. Also, you can develop coordination and muscular control in your lats by trying to flex them at will. Practice this regularly, and while tricky at first you will eventually get it.
Finally, we move on to the top of most muscle in the back — the traps. Shrugs are a simple exercise which can be done using dumbbells or a barbell. I’ll assume you are using a barbell. In a standing upright position, hold the barbell with a double overhand grip of around shoulder width apart, allowing it to hang down below you. Now, all you have to do is simply shrug your shoulders as high as you can, giving a good solid squeeze at the top and lower slowly.
You will notice as you start out this movement it is relatively easy, however, as you start to fatigue you will automatically have a tendency to bend at the elbows and begin assisting in the lift by using the biceps. Avoid doing this and ensure all of the lifting you are doing is coming straight from raising your shoulders.
Well, that just about wraps up this article — and about time too! One final point I would like to make is all the while you are lifting weights to strengthen your back I also recommend you continue performing basic stretching exercises to maintain and improve flexibility, as you should with all muscles in the body. It is a very good habit to get into. Now, get training that back before it seizes up on you!