WANT TO GET STRONG? Look BEHIND YOU.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how many days per week they should be training their arms or legs, I would be quite well off. But rarely does anyone ask me how many days they should practice strengthening their backs. Ironically, if you look at the data behind the most common reasons why people visit the doctor, it never really has to do with how weak their biceps or calves are; people overwhelmingly see the doctor because they have hurt their backs. So we have to ask, Why this is happening so much, and how can we stop it?
Lack of core strength and improper posture are the root cause of most back ailments. At no other time in our history have we humans been so sedentary. “Sitting is the new smoking” is the new tagline for 21st century America. When we neglect muscles they get weaker, and when weak muscles cannot support the skeleton, we form bad postural habits and BANG you have injury and chronic pain.
To avoid a future path of doctor visits, chiropractic sessions and pain medication—and be able to continue participating in the obstacle course events you love—heed the advice I’m giving you because it is simple and easy to follow. Below, I break down the best back exercises into three categories: Isometric, Dynamic, and Accessory Strength Exercises.
All things being equal, longevity and quality of life are more important than any aesthetic goal that you can be focused on. Working the back muscles will give you better posture and, by default, less injury and pain. Training with a coach and others who also practice good habits in and out of the gym is also important. And finally, love the process. If you are struggling now, just remember that it took many years to get you into the place you are now; you have to have the diligence to work for six to eight months to get the life you want back. I will be here to support you the entire way.
Eric “EROCK” Botsford is the Creative Director of Tough Mudder Bootcamp. As Director of Training, Eric has leveraged his extensive experience as an athlete, athletic trainer, and gym owner to design a completely unique training program that is proven to deliver real world results. The philosophy on training is rooted squarely in the interval training methodology, with a focus on reaping cardiovascular benefits without losing power, speed and strength. This emphasis led to the creation of the complementary fitness pillars: Endurance, Strength, Agility, and Power.
Isometric Strength Exercises
Isometric exercise is defined as a position where the joint angle does not change during contraction. It goes like this: Pick up something in your hand, bend the elbow at 90 degrees, and hold. The strength that you are using to hold the elbow in place and not drop the object is an isometric force. So now let's talk about the how to use isometrics to strengthen the back.
The hip hinge is the best exercise for developing posture, position and strength throughout the entire posterior. Begin with the feet under the hips, the core tight and the arms extended overhead. Soften the knees and push the butt backward, and allow the head, chest, and arms to fall forward. Keep your arms full extended and keep reaching backward until your flexibility begins to round your back. Your goal is to be able to hold a 45 second Hip Hinge without rounding the back or breaking posture.
Front Loaded Hold
I want to tell you something that will make you smarter than most: The core (think abs) and the back are one in the same. That's right, what you do to one side of the body, affects the other—sspecially when it comes to holding things.
The Front Loaded Hold is exactly what it sounds like: pick up heavy stuff, bear hug it, and don't move. You will be firing every muscle in your body from your shoulders to your feet. In the gym setting this is a relatively simple exercise to perform; use a medicine ball, sandbag, stone, or weight plate. At home you can use heavy objects like a box filled with photographs, your kids, and even your dog. (Cats don’t work so well, sorry) The goal is to hold the heavy object for one minute and repeat three times.
Dynamic Strength Exercises
Now we get into the fun stuff. Everyone loves to clang and bang in the gym, lift , carry and pull. So I have some great exercises for you to incorporate into your current workouts or throw together for a three-times per week triplet.
This is the king of all back exercises, not because of how good it is for your hips and butt, but because the posture and position necessary for a good deadlift ensure that the back is firing from the neck through the hamstrings. Set up is key: Ensure the shoulders are rolled back and core is tight before descending to the weights. Remember to keep the knees slightly bent to allow the hips to travel backward and keep the hips high. Also, don't let the knees pass in front of the forearms.
No other exercise is more approachable and scalable than the ring row. It uses the core and trunk to stabilize the hips and the upper back gets toned because it specifically targets the rhomboids, trapezius, and deltoids. Remember to keep the hips upright and don't let them sag during the movement. Pull the rings ALL the way to the chest; if you need to, move the feet forward or backward to scale difficulty. Turn the palms inward, upward, or pull to wide to engage different muscles in the back.
Accessory Strength Exercises
Rounding out your workout each day with a few of my favorite back accessory exercises guarantees that you will never miss an opportunity to develop better posture and strength.
Demonstrating stability while moving is a great test of your ability to hold position under stress. The key is to retract the shoulders and keep the core engaged and, before you know it, you will feel your entire back light up.
This isometric exercise is awesome if you are working towards better pull ups because so much of that exercise depends on the strength you have in the back and not so much the arms. The key is to use bands to help you hold for 15 to 20 seconds with the chin neutral over the plane of the pull-up bar.
Once you have mastered the hip hinge and the back is able to stay straight during a deadlift, then you can begin to work dynamically. The kettlebell swing develops not just strength but power through the hips and low back. The key is to work slowly, progressing weight only when form dictates. Start with a Russian swing and keep the kettlebell in close to the body to enforce the hip hinging movement.