Tips To Having A Healthier More Muscular Back. When it comes to building strong and defined muscles, the view from behind is not all about the glutes. Having a strong back and shoulders is not only attractive it is an essential part of feeling and performing at your best.
A strong, well toned back does more than allow you to look good in a tight t-shirt, it is also the key to having good posture, being and remaining able-bodied, and of course also preventing that dreaded back pain, especially as we age. Back pain is a problem that is currently estimated to affect more than 80 percent of Americans.
It has been suggested that the veritable pandemic of back pain is at least partially due to the amount of time that we spend sitting at a computer or craning our necks down to look at a device of some sort. But whenever someone brings that up I can’t help but think of my grandparents, craning their necks and backs at paperback books, knitting, or even simply the daily newspaper. Perhaps I am twisting my memories to defend technology because it is how I make my living and spend my leisure time but I believe humans have a long history of bad posture than our current smartphone obsession. But I digress.
Our Bodies and Gravity
Let’s start with this—gravity is a drag. Beyond the fact that it constantly pulls on our meat-sack bodies, making us look more and more droopy as we age, it also tugs directly on our backs, spines, shoulders, and neck. To simply stay upright doing the work day, you are basically locked in an epic battle with it and that can be seriously exhausting—especially if your muscles aren’t up for the challenge.
When you think about it, it is obvious that the stronger, more supple, and able your postural muscles are, the easier it is to maintain the optimal alignment of your body.
Picture this: your eyes are on the horizon, your neck is nice and tall, your shoulders are pulled back, your rib cage is relaxed, and your pelvis is aligned directly under your center of mass. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Regal, even?
Now try this: Keep everything the same as what I described above and align the outside edges of the feet with something straight. Now move your ankles so they are the same width as your pelvis. Then shift your pelvis (or your bodyweight) over your heels (not your toes). Now you are aligned. Congratulations!
So, why aren’t you standing like that all the time? Well, probably because you are currently reading this on your phone but perhaps also because you lack the strength and muscle balance to maintain that position. And by muscle balance, I mean that you have spent too much time developing those pecs and biceps and forgot about everything on your back because of “out of sight, out of mind.”
A Little Vanity Lifting Is OK
Let’s get bold for a second here. Aside from all the health benefits, having a strong, lean and toned back is attractive for both men and women. And speaking of women, I have heard more than one of my female fitness clients say that there is something particularly awesome about knowing they are strong enough to carry their boyfriend on their back. I second that notion!
I don’t like the term “strong is sexy” because it implies that we are all striving (or should be striving) to be sexy. Hope we are starting to grasp as a society that that notion is likely the root of many mental health issues, eating disorders, and the like. Prefer to think of it as “strong is capable” or “strength is freedom.” In any case, there is nothing wrong with wanting to have a cut core, tighter triceps or more defined calves, as long as we don’t do it at the expense of maintaining our overall fitness.
So, how do we get this life changing-ly strong back? Well, before we get into the workout, let’s first look at some ways to avoid or alleviate back pain.
Strengthen the Glutes
Your glutes are the muscles that are responsible for launching you forward as you walk, propelling you as you go up the stairs, stabilizing your hips when you land a jump, and perhaps most important of all, simply holding your pelvis upright when you stand.
If your glutes are weak, your lower back muscles will have to work harder than they should and that can make them fatigued and achy.
Keep Your Calves Mobile
Stiff and tight calves can really contribute to back pain. The imbalance that is caused by having tight calves can lead to a variety of aches and pains that can be found anywhere from your toes to your low back. In fact, the tighter and less mobile your lower leg is the more your gait affects the upper back, pulling it forward and down, which contributes to curling your spine forward.
Adding a daily calf stretch, or finishing every workout session with some calf stretches is a good way to keep them loose and to better align the spine. I suggest the using a three stretch approach: regular standing calf stretch, bent knee standing calf stretch, and the wall calf stretch. If you are really adventurous, downward dog and a little foam rolling can also loosen this part of the body.
Twist and Rotate
Unless you are into yoga or pilates, you probably don’t do a lot of twisting and rotating of the spine. If you could watch a skeleton move you would see that each vertebra not only bends forward and backward and side-to-side, but it also can rotate and twist. Bending, rotating, and twisting are all natural motions, so don’t simply limit yourself to one or two of them!
The benefits of twisting your spine include:
- Bringing blood flow to the spine, hips, and shoulders.
- Stretching the hips, glutes, abs, obliques, back, chest, shoulders, and neck.
- Increasing range of motion in the upper body.
- Alleviating lower back and shoulder pain.
- Helping to correct poor posture.
- Improving breathing.
Stop Wearing Shoes with Heels
This may come as a shock to a few of you out there but shoes with heels throw your body’s natural mechanics into a true state of dysfunction. In fact, British researchers found that wearing heels regularly over the course of a lifetime can actually shorten calf muscles by 13 percent. Also wearing heels has been shown to thicken your Achilles tendon. And if that wasn’t enough, high heels have been proven to compress and damage the lumbar spine which can increase the chances of getting osteoarthritis and degenerative disk disease in the low back.
How our shoes support our feet can have a large impact on all parts of our body. When we take a step, the way our foot moves instructs and directs how the rest of our body will follow. Sure, your foot seems far away from the back but the movement of one joint does indeed affect other joints through what is called the kinetic chain. And because of this, paying attention to your footwear can help to prevent back pain.
Don’t Walk Like a Duck
You can think of it like the wheels on your bike, your feet should point in the direction that you are heading. When your feet rotate outward, beyond the 12-to-15 degree range, you start to lose hip function. Biomechanically speaking, you are putting your back and lower joints at risk of injury.
If you do walk like this (like I do) a good way to practice getting your feet more parallel is to line up the outsides of your feet along a straight edge on a tile floor and walk along it. You can also check in on your position occasionally by looking down, but not by straining your neck by continually looking down.
A Back Building (Not Breaking) Workout
Now that your feet are ready, your hips are loose, your back is supple and ready to rock, you’ll have to wait for Part Two where we’ll talk about how you can make your back jacked, toned, ripped, swole, and all those other awesome muscular words that you hear at the gym!
Read next: Exercises For Back Pain
Photo credit: Pixabay