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 longer 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. I 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. I 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. Check out the article What's the Best Butt Exercise for some great info on that.
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.