We often neglect our back muscles and focus on toning and building “mirror muscles” ( abs, biceps, thighs, chest, etc.). But, it’s a rookie mistake: back muscles are utterly important and bodyweight back exercises can make all the difference especially as we age.
The Importance of Back Muscles
Muscle groups come in different shapes and forms and have particular functions.
For instance muscle groups such as the trapezius, latissimus dorsi and rhomboids.
These superficial back muscles support and manage the movement of the upper body including, most importantly the arms. They connect to the shoulder bones from the vertebral column.
There are also a group of spinal muscles working together to support the torso and lower body giving an upright stance and allowing the body to twist, turn and bend.
These are the flexor, extensor and oblique muscles which allow huge freedom of movement which is gradually lost over time if the back muscles aren’t looked after.
The Benefits of a Strong Back
- Improved mobility and flexibility.
- A strong back is vital to maintain good posture. Poor posture results in muscle imbalance. It almost inevitably leads to back or neck pain (or both). There are a few more muscle groups involved, but you can’t have a good posture without decent back muscles.
- A strong core prevents back pain. Once again, it’s not all up to your back muscles but they are crucial as they hold the core structure. Each and every treatment of back pain include strengthening your back muscles. So, why wait for the trouble?
- Strong back muscles improve the stability of the spine. A strong back help prevents damage and injuries associated with the spine.
- Improved performance. Strong back and core will make you an all round fitter person with a solid base for the rest of the muscle groups.
- It looks good. Good looks help in more ways than we want to admit. While it shouldn’t be your top priority, a well defined back is nice.
Bodyweight Back Exercises
There are many bodyweight back exercises you can do, simply each day, that will maintain and improve back strength, flexibility and overall balance. Back exercises will be particularly good for those with aches and pains over 50.
The plank is the gold standard of core training according to experts. This popular exercise works your abs, back, shoulder, glutes, and calves.
Start in a push-up position with your hands shoulder-width apart. Keep your body in a straight line. Hold the position for approximately 20 seconds before relaxing. And that’s it.
Experts disagree on how long you should be holding a plank. Some believe that 10 seconds bursts are the best while others suggest holding for 30 seconds. It’s best to start easy and listen to your body.
A full plank uses your hands and a half plank your forearms. Other variations include a reverse plank where you’re facing up and your arms behind.
Half to full plank, moving one arm at a time.
For a really fun time, one of my favorite moves, a spiderman plank. Start in a full plank and alternate knee moves to the adjacent elbow and back again. The thigh should hover just above the floor, although I cheat a bit and sometimes slide it.
Ooh and plank jacks are fun too. In a half plank, kick both feet out to the side and back again as you would a jumping jack.
Some people call it glute bridges or hip raises. This exercise strengthens your lower back, lower abs, and glute muscles. It’s a very safe exercise so it’s often recommended to improve posture and reduce lower back pain.
Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your hips until you create a straight line from your shoulders to your hips to your knees. Hold the position for up to 10 seconds and then return to your starting position.
Avoid arching or sagging your back and aim for 10 repeats. This is much more comfortable if you have a good exercise mat.
It’s another easy and safe exercise. Maybe it won’t make you the strongest man or woman on Earth but it will strengthen your back, abs, glutes, and hips. As I have said, it’s very safe so doctors often recommend it for a recovery process after a back injury.
Begin on all fours with your shoulders directly over your hands and hips over your knees. Brace your abs to maintain a neutral spine position.
Raise your right arm and opposing left leg simultaneously until they are parallel to the floor.
Once again, avoid arching or sagging and keep your neck and head aligned with your spine (don’t lift your head). Hold for a couple of seconds and return to the starting position. Switch to the opposite arm/leg.
Aim for 10 repeats and if it gets too easy do 2 or 3 sets of 10 reps.
There might be a balance issue at first. If so, just stretch one arm first, then the opposing leg, then the other arm and so on. Make it a purposeful action to get the most out of the exercise and hopefully your balance will also improve.
This exercise will gently work your abs and stretch your lower back. Lower back strength and flexibility are vital to maintain a good posture and prevent injuries and lower back pain.
It’s a low movement exercise but don’t be put off by that.
Lie down with your back on the floor with your knees bent and arms by the sides.
Tighten your abs and slightly bend your pelvis up. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and relax. Slowly increase the number of reps until you can perform 5 sets of 10 reps.
Rotational Torso Stretch
It’s another exercise that focuses on flexibility and is a gentle workout. While strength is important, you should never underestimate flexibility. Your back muscles (or any other muscles, for that matter) should be both supple and strong.
Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Stretch your arms out to your sides with your palms facing down.
Roll your knees to one side slowly, while keeping your shoulders on the floor. You don’t have to reach the floor with your knees. It’s enough whenever you feel that you’ve reached your natural range of motion. Hold for a couple of seconds and return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
Once you gain some strength in your back it’s time to include more demanding exercises. The push-up is a classic exercise that never goes out of trend for a good reason.
It works lots of different muscles from chest, arms, and shoulders to back and abs. However, it puts a lot of strain on your shoulders and wrists, so start slowly. And make sure you perform them properly.
A wide stance and elbows extending outwards is a big no-no if you don’t want to overstress your shoulders.
Begin in a prone position with your hands directly below your shoulders. Lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor. Then, press your body up to the starting position.
It’s one of the most effective exercises for your back as well as your arms and shoulders. At the same time, it’s one of the most difficult to perform. Along with push-ups, they are the definitive bodyweight exercise.
If you find them too challenging you can start with assisted pull-ups or chin-ups. A chin-up is a form of pull-up with an underhand grip that activates the same muscles but targets the biceps more.
Just like pushups, pullups can put some extra pressure on your shoulders when performed incorrectly. The trick is to keep your shoulders back and avoid swinging your legs.
A traditional pullup starts with your hands gripping the bar at shoulder-width or slightly wider. Lead with your chest and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Return slowly to the starting position.
My Friend Who Had Back Aches & Pains
I must confess to being a little in awe of one of my clients. I used to put her through her paces with HIIT but she always seemed to come out the other end unscathed even after I upped the intensity to the max.
However after having cooled down after a session one morning, she admitted to things being very different.
Some years ago, she told me, my life was pretty hectic. Running from home to the office and back, going shopping, seeing friends, and answering countless emails and text messages.
Even though I felt like I was “running” all the time I was really physically inactive. Most of the time I was sitting behind the wheel or desk.
I just couldn’t squeeze any form of exercise into my busy schedule. Until I started feeling back pain. I thought it would go away, but with time it got worse.
When I finally went to see my doctor she told me that my sedentary lifestyle was the cause.
Moreover, my back muscles were getting weaker and my posture was bad. It wasn’t awful, but more serious issues were around the corner.
If I continue with my lifestyle, with age comes increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, slower metabolism and weight problems, loss of flexibility, and even increased chances of depression and anxiety!
I wanted to scream: doctor I just have a sore back! But, I understood the bitter truth. My lifestyle was harmful and it won’t get any better unless I change dramatically.
And so I did.
It started with simple bodyweight back exercises to help ease the pain in my lower back and along either side of my upper spine.
To cause further relief between stretching and workouts there were some handy massaging devices that worked well for me.
Today, I’m an avid runner, swimmer, and gym-goer. It now seems so much easier to find the time. I guess these good habits have become a part of who I am.
It took some time, but my back recovered and I can barely remember how it feels to have a lot of immobility from back pain.
You can learn the truth the hard way, like my (now) friend did, or you can start strengthening your back right now and avoid unnecessary pain or worse. Make good habits a part of who you are.
Q: How can I strengthen my back without weights?
A: Weights are traditionally the most popular way to build muscles and strength. But, there are dozens of exercises that will help you reach the goal without barbells, weights, or even going to the gym.
You can use your body weight and gravity, as we have shown above. Also, you can improvise and use towels, foam rollers, exercise balls, stretch out straps, and so on.
Q: How do I lose back fat?
A: Unfortunately, you can’t target your back fat exclusively, or any other area, for that matter. To lose your back fat you need to lose overall fat. A combo of workout regimen and calorie deficit will do the trick.
Toning your back muscles will not work on its own, but combined with the diet and other workouts, it will help you lose fat and make your back look good.
Q: How do I cure an aching upper back?
A: It depends on the issue, but usually a couple of days of rest followed by a gentle exercise period should provide relief. Stretching exercises such as rotational stretches, cat-cow, and bird-dog should help you ease the pain.
Heat and massage will help you with stiffness while ice will decrease swelling and inflammation.
All these do-it-at-home remedies will work for minor strains and burns. Seeing your doctor is the safest method to find a cause and cure for your pain.
Q: How do I cure an aching lower back?
A: It’s the same formula: you need a flexible and strong back to prevent pain and injuries. Some exercises are also great to relieve the existing pain. Hamstring stretches, knee-to-chest, birddog, and cat-cow exercises will alleviate pain more often than not.
You should be patient, though. You can’t build a strong back overnight.
Q: Can back exercises cause injuries?
A: There’s always a risk especially if you work too hard or too often. However, some workouts are quite safe while others can cause injuries very often. We have presented some back exercises that are safe even if you’re slightly injured.
On the other hand ab crunches, heavy weights, and squats can be very hard on your back. They are not necessarily bad, but if you have any kind of back problem avoid them.
The most important thing is to perform the exercises properly. Even the smallest deviations in form can turn a beneficial exercise into a risky, injury-prone business.
Quite often we take the most important things for granted. Like our loved ones. Our natural talents. Our back muscles. A bit dramatic? Maybe you think back muscles don’t belong to this group.
Well, you’re probably right. But it’s your strong back you should thank for good posture, lack of pain, your spine’s integrity and a graceful entry into a mobile midlife.
And it’s all down to a few bodyweight back exercises – yes, no equipment necessary.
So, don’t take your back for granted! Maintain or improve your back strength and flexibility to be healthier and stronger especially as you get older.