Back Workouts

Considering the prevalence of lower back pain, it is surprising that people are not more driven to do back exercises. Many may assume that back pain means they should refrain from physical activity rather than start an exercise regimen.

In reality, back pain probably is the most compelling reason to do back exercises; that said, it is important to make sure you are using proper technique and not overdoing it—then it could cause pain. For those who want a toned upper back: Many upper arm and shoulder exercises actually target the rear deltoids and trapezius muscles (upper back muscles).

back muscle photo

Therefore, thorough arm workouts probably give sufficient upper back exercise. Practitioners of Pilates, yoga, and other core-targeting workouts already get sufficient total back exercise.

The likely culprit in right-above-the-butt pain is the erector spinae muscles. The erector spinae actually extend down the center of the entire back, so just because an exercise does not seem to specifically target the lower back does not mean you have failed to engage the right muscles. A simple way to work the erector spinae is the “cat and cow” yoga move: Get on hands and knees and alternate between arching your back (like a stretching cat) and bowing your torso downwards (more like a cow).

A slightly more intense exercise is to lie on your stomach, position arms flexed at a 90 ⁰ angle with palms on the floor, then lift your upper body about 12 times. Another, rather intense, exercise for the erector spinae is borrowed from Pilates: Lie on your stomach with arms and legs extended; simultaneously lift upper body and legs, so you are suspended on torso; try to hold this for about 30 seconds (or more if you have worked up to it).

back muscle photo

The largest back muscle is the latissimus dorci, which spans two symmetrical triangular regions at both sides of the back, comprising parts of the back pelvic, rib, spinal, and shoulder area. Despite its being such a dominant muscle of the back, the latissimus dorci, or “lats,” are heavily involved in what would look like upper arm exercises—the most common of which is the lat pulldown.

Most gyms offer a lat pulldown apparatus, although chin-ups or pull-ups provide the same exercise. The page cited in this article notes that you should never attempt to perform a lat pulldown by pulling the gripping bar behind your head—this will cause shoulder injury. If you desire a more practical/athletic exercise, rowing will also work your latissimus dorci (Nunley 2017).

For those who are less interested in muscle-building and just want pain relief, there are gentler moves that work the same muscles described above. The cited page gives examples of such exercises. The first is like a reclining “cat and cow”—lie down with knees bent, make an upward arch with back, keeping butt on the floor, and hold for 5 seconds, then push back into the floor so that your back is flattened and hold 5 seconds.

The second example exercise involves lying down in the same starting position—reclining with bent knees, and then rotating knees toward the floor on one side and then the other, holding each side for 10 seconds and keeping shoulders down on floor for the duration of the motion. The American population spends about 50 billion dollars a year on lower back pain treatment; therefore, these exercises not only improve physical functionality but may also save money.

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