No matter what workout split you’re following, exercising the back has to be done with a lot of care. Given the sheer number of muscles the back has and how sensitive the spine is, there are many back workouts out there, but they are not all easy to learn. It takes a while to master something as common as the deadlift or even a pull-up, but once you get it, nothing can stop you.
When it comes to taking care of the back, there are multiple components to consider including posture and general health, apart from just lifting. Continuing on from last week’s piece on leg activation exercises, this time, the focus is on back activation exercises. You could add these options to your general warm-up routine, but they are particularly helpful on the day you’re working out your back, or, on pull day if you’re following a push-pull-legs split.
Wall angels: Extremely useful for anyone with a stiff back or any other back issues as they help activate all the back muscles in the easiest way possible. Wall angels are good for posture too. They look very easy, but doing wall angels will show you how much your back is resisting a simple motion. Sit or stand against the wall with your hands with your butt, back, shoulders and head all in contact with the wall. The lower back might naturally cave away slightly from the wall but keep the spine neutral and reach your arms up like in an overhead press. Then bring the arms down by bending at the elbow until they are at 90 degree angles while maintaining contact between the arms and the wall at all times.
For a demo, follow this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UU4VvklQ44
Band pull-aparts: This needs a resistance band and will activate your back and rotator cuffs, which always come into action while exercising. Super easy to learn, use a light long resistance band and an underhand grip and pull them apart. It is actually that simple, but make sure the move is controlled, especially when you are returning to the start of the rep. A Masterclass article titled Band Pull-Apart Guide: How to Master Band Pull-Aparts says: “To initiate the backward movement, squeeze your upper back and posterior deltoids and begin to pull the band apart. Your shoulder blades should begin to retract as your arms begin to move backward.”
Watch this video to understand the move: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OYSIWaJJk4
Incline bench Y-W-Ts: Next time you hear someone say Y-W-Ts, know that it simply refers to the shape your arms make when you are on an incline bench with the chest resting on the bench rather than the back (like when you’re doing a chest press). Raise your arms up to make a Y-shape, then to the sides in nearly 90-degree angles so that it looks like a W, and then to your sides to make a T-shape. This can also be done lying face down on a mat.
“When this exercise is performed correctly, it engages and strengthens many critical muscles that help control some of the most common postures and movement patterns. A slouched posture with a forward head and rounded shoulders can be associated with common pains including neck pain, headaches, upper back pain and shoulder pain,” says an article on thephysicaltherapyadvisor.com titled, How to Properly Perform I’s, T’s, and Y’s Exercises. Trainer Luka Hocevar’s YouTube channel has a back activation video which consists of Y-W-T holds.
Watch it here: https://youtu.be/G4NtoPrXzYU?si=NoYm3il_tsPUdipL&t=55
Quadruped Reach: Jeremy Ethier is one of my favourite trainers because of the sheer simplicity with which he approaches his workouts. He lists the quadruped reach as one of his favourite back mobility exercises, along with YWTs and band pull-aparts. Doing this exercise helps loosen your back and gets it moving so that you don’t workout with a stiff spine. In his article titled, How To Straighten Your Back, Ethier explains how to do this move. He recommends using a pillow or a foam roller to hold between the knees.
“Get on all fours with your knees under your hips and hands under your shoulders. Squeeze the pillow or foam roller between your legs. This will help prevent you from cheating. Place one hand behind your head and try to touch your elbow to the opposite wrist. Continue squeezing the pillow as you do so. You should feel a deep stretch in your mid-back.” The other option is to do a reach through, in which the entire arm is stretched out rather than just the elbow, like in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4WrgK5KuaY
Hanging lat activation: Slightly more advanced to learn, but probably the best one to activate your lat muscles. You'll need a pull-up bar to hang on. I'd written a detailed piece for Lounge on how important it is to hang everyday to decompress the spine, but this activation exercise goes a step further where you are readying yourself for all the lat work. It requires you to get into the hanging position and pull the shoulder blades down towards your waist while squeezing and activating the upper back. Only the shoulder blades move – this is not a full pull-up. The video below is a good demonstration: https://youtu.be/CG5B_aXsucY?si=khC7DN1Kww4wYgwg&t=233
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator, podcaster and writer.