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The best exercises for a strong back

A strong back is vital, not just for better fitness fitness, but also for a basic pain-free life of mobility and activity 

A strong back is vital for your overall fitness.
A strong back is vital for your overall fitness. (Istockphoto)

The back is one of the biggest muscle groups in your body. As a result, if your back isn’t strong enough, then you won’t be able to do anything, including sitting straight. Whether it is running, jumping, walking, standing and even, sitting, the posterior chain muscles—back, lower back, glutes and hamstrings— play a big role in making it all possible. “The chest, abdominal muscles and quadriceps are for aesthetics and the posterior muscles of the human body are for athletics,” says Mumbai-based Preetesh Manas, who is an American Council for Sports and Medicine certified personal trainer. 

However, we don’t pay attention to the muscles we don’t see in the mirror, says AK Abhinav, Bengaluru-based fitness coach and founder of Namma X-Fit. “The day-to-day activities we perform mainly use anterior (front) muscles, so our posterior muscles aren’t as strong. One needs to work on posterior muscles as they support the anterior ones and also prevent injuries,” he adds.

Also Read: How to get the perfect chest workout

Given our sedentary lives sitting in front of computers, one that has been exacerbated by the pandemic reality of never-ending Zoom meetings, we end up spending about 14 to 18 hours either lying down or sitting. And that is not healthy for our bodies. “The first victim of our sedentary lives is our back which leads to a poor posture with a very curved spine. The only way to fix this is strengthening your back muscles so as to regain the natural position,” says Manas. 

If this is your only goal, you don’t really need weights and can achieve results with simple body-weight workouts. Performing three to four sets of cobra, superman, downward dog and glute bridges for 30 to 60 seconds will go a long way towards maintaining and improving the spine and back health, says Manas.

Also Read: The science of the pull-up

Other than helping maintain posture, the back plays a huge role in improving your overall strength and aesthetics too. The highly coveted V-shape body won’t be possible without putting in hours working on the back. The pull-up, that most difficult of the basic exercises, is the secret to the V-shaped back. A 2014 study, published in the Strength And Conditioning Journal, found that as many as 21 muscles in your back, arms, shoulders, chest and core go to work—concentrically on the way up and eccentrically on the way down—when you do a pull-up.

“I love the pull-up and it not only builds strength in the back muscles but it is also an indispensible exercise if you want the V-shaped body,” says Manas. “Go get a pull-up bar if you want to get fit and in shape.” Other than the pull-up the other effective body-weight back exercise is the inverted row. Beyond this, to work on your back you will need weights (deadlifts, barbell and dumbbell rows, single arm dumbbell rows) and machines (seated rows, T-Bar rows, lat pull downs), says Manas. 

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In case you are still wary of hitting the gym and don’t have any equipment, your best alternative is to buy some resistance bands and use them for exercises such as deadlifts, lat pull downs and various kinds of rows. The extra weight in these exercises aids strength and size gains, says Manas. Compound movements such as deadlifts are excellent for your back as they involve multiple muscles and work the entire posterior chain muscle group. The bent-over, seated and single arm rows, lat pull downs and T-bar rows work on specific back muscles. The only thing you need to keep in mind while performing these movements is form and technique. If your form is compromised, you are sure to pick up a serious injury. Turning your back on form is injurious to health.

Also Read: Why strength training can help you build muscle and burn fat

Preetesh Manas’s Back workout routine

Deadlift: 2 Warm-up sets with light weights followed by 3 actual sets

Pull ups: 3-4 sets of 10 reps

Lat pull down close grip: 20, 16, 12 reps

Bent over barbell/Dumbell row: 20, 16, 12 reps

Single Arm Dumbell Row: 16, 12, 10 reps

Shrugs (for the Traps): 20, 16, 12 reps (use heavy weights)

Leaning Phase:

Go for higher repetitions, lower weights and shorter rest intervals between sets.

3-4 sets of

Pull ups: Till failure in each set

Lat pull down (Wide grip): 15 to 20 reps

Bent over barbell row: 15 to 20 reps 

Lat pull down (close grip): 15 to 20 reps

Single arm dumbbell row: 15 to 20 reps

Hyperextension: 12 to 16 reps

Gaining phase:

Go heavy. Use weights that are about 90% of your one rep max. Take longer rest intervals between sets.

Warm up with 2 sets of 10 deadlifts using light weights

Deadlift: 4 sets 4 to 8 reps

(2 warm up sets)

3 sets

Weighted pull ups: 10 

Barbell/dumbbell row: 4 to 8 reps 

Lat pull down (wide grip):4 to 8 reps

T-Bar rows: 4 to 8 reps

Lat pull down (close grip):4 to 8 reps

Seated rows: 4 to 8 reps

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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