Back strength, posture and back pain can all be put in the same pot. An increase in back strength creates better posture, leading to a decrease in back pain.
In this article we will cover the what, the how, and the why of all things back strength. We'll talk about the benefits - but also the rationale behind the why and the how.
Why is strengthening the back a good idea?
Unfortunately the modern world we live in right now can be a precursor for all things back pain. With 42% of UK adults admitting they sit up to 14hours longer each week than pre-pandemic, this can have devastating short term and long term effects on our physiological and psychological health.
Back strength is vital for an improved posture, to prevent and/or reduce back pain (upper, mid or lower) and also creates stability around the spine. All of these help towards living a more fruitful and fulfilling existence. Longevity is the buzzword right now and back strength is key to this.
Being able to pick up your children or grandchildren as they get bigger and heavier and still being able to carry a week's worth of groceries into the house in one go are all longevity goals that can be achieved and maintained with a strong back.
What are some symptoms of a weak back?
A weak back mostly leads to some form of pain or discomfort. This can be extremely debilitating.
Whether the pain is acute or chronic, pain in your back is very much a sign that there is a weakness there, and you are not going to go far wrong by working on increasing strength, power and control through your posterior chain.
Symptoms of a weak back can include but are not limited to neck pain, aching around one or both of your shoulders/shoulder blades, lower back pain when sitting or doing any movement, poor balance, low standing endurance and bad posture.
Symptoms can range from shooting pains, to aches, to burning sensations as well as referral to different parts of your body. For example a radiating shooting pain down your leg to your feet, or up into your neck and top of your spine.
Pain or discomfort anywhere is our bodies can increase stress levels but back pain can be especially stressful as the pain can sometimes never let up. Indirectly this pain/weakness leads to sleeplessness, anxiety, irritability. An inability to focus on anything but the pain can then lead to a reduction in productivity throughout your day, whether that be in education, at work or around your family. Direct or indirect back pain is stressful and annoying, so spotting the symptoms early and nipping bad daily habits in the bud are key to not making matters worse.
If pain is relentless, completely debilitating and causing any numbness or tingling you are advised to seek medical help immediately.
How does a strong back improve posture and physique
When your back and shoulders are stronger, it makes keeping them in the right place easier.
Your back is a huge muscle group, and these muscles are used every minute of the day when sitting, standing, moving and also pulling or pushing anything. By building up and improving strength through your back, you increase muscle mass, strength, bone density (think spine health), as well as improving the health and strength of all the connecting and supporting tissues of the back and surrounding areas.
Slouching becomes less of a go-to because you have the strength to hold yourself up naturally and you don’t have to curl yourself up into a small ball to reduce any pain. Internally rotated shoulders are one of the major contributors to poor posture. If your back and shoulder muscles are weak they don't have the ability to “stand tall”, so they cave inwards. Strength training can improve strength through your shoulders and trap muscles in turn allowing your upper back and neck to be supported fully.
Correct posture allows your whole body to be aligned. Your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, the lot. Correct posture allows all these things to work correctly and in symmetry. When your body is allowed to work how it was designed to work, tension and stress are reduced and pressure on your joints is reduced.
And all the benefits of strength training come as an added bonus. Not just the physical benefits but the psychological as well. Self esteem and confidence improves and anxiety decreases.
Back strength exercises
When we talk about back strength exercises we are talking about targeting multiple muscles through different planes of movement. This allows for a fully rounded training programme.
The primary muscles you want to target are the lats, rhomboids, traps and erector spinae.
Working these muscles through ranges of flexion, extension and rotational planes of motion is going to not only improve muscle strength and posture but also increase bone density of your spine. And with your spine literally being the backbone of you, an increase in bone density is warmly welcome.
Your back is also considered to be a part of your core as the main muscles of the core reside in the area of the stomach and mid to lower back. So a weakness through your ‘core’ muscles can also contribute to weakness of the back or back pain.
Glute Bridges or Supermans are perfect for improving strength and mobility through the lower back.
Glute Bridges work a person’s gluteus maximus, which is the large muscle of the buttocks. This muscle is engaged when there is movement from the hips. Whether this be into squat movement or a hip hinge movement. The gluteus maximus is one of the most important muscles in the body, and keeping it strong can help support the lower back.
To perform a bridge:
- Lie on the ground and bend the knees, placing the feet flat on the floor hip-width apart.
- Press the feet into the floor, keeping the arms by the sides.
- Raise the buttocks off the ground until the body forms a straight line from the shoulders to the knees.
- Squeeze the buttocks with the shoulders remaining on the floor.
- Lower the buttocks to the ground and rest for a few seconds.
- Repeat 15 times and then rest for 1 minute.
- Do 3 sets of 15 repetitions.
The superman exercise helps improve strength through the back extensors. These help to maintain good posture and run along either side of the spine. Weak back extensors can reduce spinal and pelvic support, but superman's can help with this.
To perform a Superman:
- Lie face down on the ground and stretch both arms out in front of the body, keeping the legs stretched out and flat on the ground.
- Raise both the hands and feet, aiming to create a gap of about 6 inches between them and the floor.
- Try to pull in the belly button, lifting it off the floor to engage the core muscles.
- Keep the head straight and look at the floor to avoid neck injury.
- Stretch the hands and feet outward as far as possible.
- Hold the position for 2 seconds.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat 10 times.
Both of these exercises can be progressed by increasing the number of reps performed.
Any form of row is going to target your mid back. How you perform these rows will determine which muscle groups within your mid back you will target more. Let's take a seated cable row for example. Bilateral or unilateral (your choice). For a more lat focused row you would need to keep your elbows tucked in and have a neutral grip on the handle. For a more upper back focused row your elbows would be high and you would have a pronated grip.
When performing a seated row on a machine, during the eccentric (lowering) phase, allow the shoulders to round forward and scapula (shoulder blades) to protract. This provides an extra stretch on the mid-back muscles, ultimately allowing for a stronger contraction and more work to be done by the mid-back.
Face Pulls will always be my favourite upper back exercise. The elbows are flared high and wide and the main muscle groups being worked are the rear deltoids, rhomboids and mid traps. All huge contributors to good posture.
Face Pulls can be progressed and regressed relatively easily. They can be done seated, half kneeling, tall kneeling to target that core more and also standing. They are very versatile but also a big bang for your buck exercise. A cable machine can be used or a resistance band making it a very accessible exercise.
If you'd like to work towards a stronger back - we can help! Contact us today and we'll talk you through some of the benefits of personal training here at Fitness Lab.