The upper back is one of the most important areas of the body that requires our attention in our exercise routine. Because the bulk of the physical activity we do in our day-to-day life happens in front of us, those muscles (the chest and shoulders especially) become overly tight and unequally strong compared to their counterparts, the muscles of the upper back and rear shoulders. Since muscles keep each other in check, this imbalance can create postural problems and can make one susceptible to future injury. For this reason, we need to keep the muscles of the chest and shoulders flexible, and the muscles of the upper back strong. However, upper back exercises are some of the most difficult to perform on your own without some form of equipment. Short of pull-ups or the modified pull-ups that I featured a few weeks back, you need some implement to assist you. The following exercise can be done in the gym with a cable machine or can be done at home or outside using a very inexpensive tool called resistance tubes. They come in different thicknesses and can be purchased at any sporting goods store. The have handles attached to the ends and usually come with a door anchor for home use. The greater the thickness, the more resistance and the more difficult the exercise. For a couple of dollars, you can add dozens of potential exercises to your routine. One of these is the Standing Tube/Cable High Row. Here’s what you do:
Set the cable machine at its highest height with handles attached, or set the tube anchor at a height at or above your head. Grasp the handles and stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. With arms extended in front of you and up towards the cable/tube attachment, set the shoulders down away from the ears and pull the handles towards the chest. Keep the elbows close to your body and use the muscles of the back and arms to perform the movement. Slowly return the starting position. Avoid using the neck and keep the shoulders down throughout the exercise. Exhale as you pull, and inhale as you return.
Featured Exercise: Side-Lying Thoracic Rotation Stretch
The spine has four major segments: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral. The thoracic spine is the segment of the spine below the neck, comprised of the 12 vertebrae that serve as attachment points for the ribs. Not only do they allow us to bend forward, backward, and side to side, but they are the vertebrae responsible for the bulk of our torso rotation. The vertebrae of the thoracic spine are designed for mobility, while those of the lumbar spine are designed for load-bearing and stability. However, years of sitting at a desk in school, followed by years of sitting at a desk at work have left people very tight in the thoracic spine. The result is that when we attempt to rotate our spine, (golf, tennis, housework, gardening, driving) our tight thoracic vertebrae force us to also rotate the lumbar vertebrae, which are not designed for twisting. This leaves us at risk for muscle injury, as well as disc bulging or herniation. The following stretch helps increase thoracic mobility, while eliminating rotation of the lumbar spine. Plus, it just feels GOOD! Here’s how it goes:
Lie on your side with your knees pulled up towards your chest and arms extended out in front of your chest. Your head should rest on the floor. If you need to some extra support for the neck, use a small pillow or roll up a hand towel and place it underneath your head. From this position, rotate the top arm and torso across the body towards the floor on the opposite side until you feel a full stretch or until the top knee starts to lift off of the bottom knee. Don’t allow those knees to come apart. Otherwise the stretch will begin to go into the lumbar spine, where we don’t want it. This stretch can be done as a dynamic flexibility exercise before activity, where you rotate to the full stretch, pause for a 2-count, and then return to starting position and repeat 6-8 times. Or, it can be done as a static flexibility exercise after a workout where you hold stretch for 20-30 seconds, then return to start position. Whichever method you choose, make sure you stretch both sides. It’s a great stretch to start your morning with, and a must for everyone to keep that back HEALTHY!
The Side Push-off Lunge is another great exercise working in the frontal plane (side to side or lateral). Like the Speedskaters, it works the muscles of the hips by bringing the legs out away from the body. This makes the exercise effective for strengthening the muscles of the outside of the hips, as well as loosening up the muscles of the inner thigh. Done correctly, this exercise is very effective for counteracting the tightening effects of walking, running, cycling and sitting, all done with legs close to the midline of the body. It is also a great exercise for those who enjoy activities such as tennis, soccer, basketball, and dancing, which involve lateral movement of the lower body. Here’s how it goes:
Starting in an upright position with hands at your sides (empty or holding dumbbells) and feet together, step out to the side with one leg and shift the body weight over that leg, keeping the other leg planted on the ground. Bend the outside knee and bring the body down towards the ground, reaching the hips back behind you and hinging forward at the waist, keeping the back in a neutral position and bringing the hands or dumbbells down, one on each side of the bent knee. The planted leg should remain straight or nearly straight. The bulk of the weight should be on the bent leg out to the side. You should feel a slight stretch in the glutes of the bent leg side. Using the muscles of the glutes, push off the ground and back towards the planted leg, returning to standing position. Switch sides and complete the same instructions on the other side. Only bend the outside knee as far as you feel comfortable, and keep the knee behind the toe so as to eliminate excessive forces at the knee. The key to this exercise is the lateral movement. You should be stepping out to the side, and then pushing yourself back to the middle, forcing the muscles of the outside of the hips to engage. This one may take a little practice, but give it a shot. Be safe and enjoy!
Featured Exercise: Quadruped Opposite Arm/Hip Extension Hold
Primary Muscles: Abdominals, Lower Back
Secondary Muscles: Hips, Shoulders
Sounds like a mouthful, but it is a great exercise to work on stabilization of the core muscles of the abdominals and back, as well as to promote coordination between front and back, top and bottom, and side to side. Here’s how it works:
Working in opposites the way the body does functionally (think how the right arm swings forward as the left leg swings forward during the walking motion), the position is held with the opposite arm and leg supporting while their counterparts are lifted off the ground and held stationary. This exercise starts in the abdominals. The deep transverse abdominal muscle that acts as the body’s internal weight belt contracts, drawing the navel in towards the spine, before the exercise begins and is held for its duration. Assume quadruped position (prone on hands and knees with hands directly below the shoulders and knees directly beneath the hips). Once activation of the abdominals is achieved, lift one arm and its opposite foot off of the ground until both the arm and leg are in line with the rest of the body. Hold this position for as long as you feel comfortable before switching to the other arm/leg combination. You should feel load in the abdominals as they struggle to maintain balance and position. You should also feel work in the low back and the glute of the leg that is off the ground. Take care not to rotate the body as you hold, but instead the torso and hips should stay parallel to the ground. Do 2-3 sets of each combination for 20-30 seconds each. This exercise can be done everyday, and should be a staple for anyone with back issues or looking to get a stronger base of support for their activities. Which pretty much means everybody, set get after it!
Primary Muscle Groups: Gluteus Medius (Hip Abductors), Gluteus Maximus
Secondary Muscle Groups: Hamstrings, Quads
How about something that will get your heart rate up? The Speedskater exercise is a great combination exercise. Not only does it strengthen the muscles of the glutes, but it provides anaerobic cardiovascular conditioning. It also works the body in the frontal plane, getting the body moving side to side. We spend so much time with the limbs close to the body (especially the hips), that is great to improve flexibility by working the muscles out away from the body. Always keep the movement under control and adjust the exercise for your level of conditioning. Start with 30 seconds of continual movement and work your way up from there. Have fun!