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Back Pain Health Center

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Back Exercises to Wow Them Coming and Going

In part 6 of the WebMD Fitness Series, learn how to sculpt a healthy, beautiful back.

WebMD Feature

Whether you're looking to strengthen your back to help with pain or just to look and feel better, experts say back exercises are a big part of the game.

According to the CDC, back pain is the leading cause of disability and missed work in the U.S. and results in $50 billion annually in costs.

With exercise and proper strengthening of the back muscles and the abdominals, the muscles that support the back, experts agree the frequency of back pain could decrease.

The back is an area vulnerable to injury. Why? One reason is a weak back and supporting muscle groups. Another is poor form in exercise or lifting or whatever daily activities you perform.

Show Off Your Back

"The back should be just as important a muscle group as the chest and biceps, but it is often neglected," says exercise physiologist Kelli Calabrese.

"The muscles of the back help to keep you upright, and if the muscles are strong, they don't fatigueas quickly," she says, "(so) you're less likely to get injured when lifting or bending."

"We tend to overemphasize pectoral (chest) strength and under emphasize back strength," says exercise physiologist Richard Cotton.

The "show" muscles, as Cotton calls them -- chest, biceps, and shoulders -- tend to get our attention because they are the ones we see and show to the world.

Life Is Hard on the Back

But just the nature of daily living tends to tighten the front of the body, leaving the upper back weak and overstretched, he says.

"We spend a fair amount of our day at computer keyboards," he says.

There's no back work in that. Besides that, without the strength of the core -- the abdominals and the lower back -- posture suffers and lower back pain ensues. Abdominal strength is essential to back strength. You cannot have one without the other.

"If you're only working the abs or only working the back," says Cotton, "you're only doing half the job."

Weakness or tightness in other muscles can pull the back out of alignment as well, says Calabrese, including the hamstrings (back of the thighs) or hip flexors.

Since the back tends to be prone to injury, Cotton says to work back muscles no more than three times a week, being sure to include a rest day in between. He advises beginners to proceed very slowly when strengthening the back, particularly the lower back. Start by trying to complete only five repetitions, he says, wait a day, and be sure you don't experience any discomfort or pain.

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