Most of the common trouble spots—tummy, thighs, arms—are front and center every time we get dressed or check our reflections in the mirror. It's easy to overlook the areas that aren't as visible to us, like our backs. You might go days without seeing it, but you can bet your bottom dollar that your back is getting plenty of face time with anyone who happens to be behind you, especially when you're wearing tank tops or swimsuits.|
Although there's no way to spot-reduce fat in certain areas, including back-targeting exercises in your routine a couple times a week will help to build up those muscles. In addition to achieving a sculpted appearance, exercising your back can help to improve your posture and strengthen your core. And because back muscles are some of the largest in the body, building them up will help to burn more calories and fat all through the day. That said, all the pull-ups in the world won't counteract the effects of a poor diet or lack of cardio.
"As far as showing definition in the back, that comes down to growing your muscles while cleaning up your diet to reduce overall body fat," says Ashley Pitt, personal trainer, group fitness instructor and blogger at A Lady Goes West. Try to include plenty of whole foods that are high in lean protein and low in added sugars and refined carbs. "You should also focus on perfecting your posture by standing up straight and rolling your shoulders back and down—this will help to show off your back muscles."
If you haven't done back exercises before, patience is key—don't expect visible results overnight. "Sculpting your back will take time and focused effort, especially since you're probably a good bit behind in your back training compared to the muscles that you can easily see in the mirror," says Tyler Spraul, head trainer with Exercise.com. "You might have a hard time initially 'feeling' the right muscles firing because they're so under-used, but don't let that discourage you."
Spraul recommends keeping the weights light enough for you to handle properly in order to get the correct muscles firing, then gradually going heavier. How heavy? According to trainer Catherine Basu from Fit Armadillo, you should choose a weight that only allows you to complete 12 to 15 repetitions of any given exercise. Shoot for two to three rest periods in between sets, which should be no more than 90 minutes long in order to work the muscles effectively. "It's also important to give yourself 48 hours between strength training sessions that focus on the same muscle group," says Basu. "That means if Monday is back day, Tuesday can’t be another back day, but Wednesday could be."
To keep from getting bored, try a variety of exercises from all angles using different types of equipment. Read on for some of our experts' favorite back-boosting moves.
To build definition in the back, it's tough to beat the effectiveness of the classic pull-up. "Lots of different muscles have to work together to allow you to pull yourself up to the bar," says Julia Buckley, one of Britain's top fitness trainers. "This means you'll be strengthening, toning and firming up your whole upper back, shoulders and arms in just one power-packed move. Plus, pull-ups also work the core, so you'll be shredding your abs and building very functional strength at the same time." The extra muscle activation and intense effort also mean that more fat is burned.
If a pull-up seems like an impossible feat right now, start small and stick with it—over time, regular training will pay off. For beginners, Buckley suggests using a resistance band for extra support, then transitioning down to lighter bands as you build strength. If you belong to a gym, you can also try using an assisted pull-up machine until you're able to perform the movement on your own.
If you'd love to have a swimmer's broad, strong back, personal trainer Kasey Shuler suggests incorporating swimmer squeezes into your routine.
Yoga is about more than stretching and de-stressing—it can also be a great way to strengthen and tone your muscles. Yoga instructor Irena Miller recommends the crocodile pose for a strong, sculpted back and improved posture.
Images courtesy of Irena Miller
Spraul recommends this exercise for improving your posture and building your trapezius muscles. For those who do a lot of pushing exercises, like push-ups and bench presses, this move helps to balance out the shoulders. The face pull can be done with a cable machine and rope attachment or with a resistance band.
Rachel Straub, co-author of "Weight Training Without Injury", recommends this exercise to work the middle back muscles, as well as the chest and shoulders. This requires a cable system with the stirrups attached to the end of each cable.
Lat Pull Down
Straub likes to use the lat pull down machine to work the latissimus dorsi muscle, as well as the traps, shoulders and biceps.
Low Lunge with Twist
Miller recommends this stretch to unlock the tight knots in the upper back that limit you from moving and strengthening your upper back. "Twists are wonderful poses for detoxification," she says. "They also help to improve your posture and tone your abs."
Images courtesy of Irena Miller
If you belong to a gym, the seated row machine is an effective way to work the middle back muscles, as well as the biceps and shoulders.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Spraul recommends the one-arm dumbbell row as a great back builder. "This exercise is ideal for starting to build your lats if you're having a hard time seeing or feeling them," he says. "It's important to really get the form down so that you're targeting these muscles instead of relying on momentum and arm strength."
Back Tendu Lifts
If you've always wanted a dancer's body, emulate the moves of a dancer while adding weight and repetitions. Shuler recommends using barre-based moves, like back tendu lifts, as an effective way to slenderize the back. "Back tendu lifts strengthen your lower back, abdominals and glutes when performed correctly," Shuler says.
Image courtesy of Kasey Shuler
For a strong, healthy back, Carole Frazey, trainer with The Fit School, recommends doing one minute of pushups each day. Set your timer for one minute, then do as many pushups as you can.
Can't do a full pushup? No problem—Frazey suggests starting with modified pushups from your knees. When you need a break, stop and do the cobra stretch followed by child's pose, then return to the modified pushups again until your minute is complete. When you get to a point where you can do modified pushups for the entire minute, start your session with one regular (military) pushup, followed by modified pushups,resting when needed. The following week, start with two regular (military) pushups, followed by modified pushups. Continue adding one more regular (military) pushup each week, for at least two or three sessions per week.
Including a variety of back-targeting moves in your routine two or three times per week—in combination with a clean, calorie-controlled diet and regular cardio workouts—will get you on track to a sleek, sculpted rear view. For more options, check out our full library of back exercises.