"The back should be just as important a muscle group as the
chest and biceps, but it is often neglected," says exercise physiologist Kelli
"The muscles of the back help to keep you upright, and if the
muscles are strong, they don't fatigue as
quickly," she says, "(so) you're less likely to get injured when lifting or
"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
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.
"It is important to stretch every day," says Calabrese.
As we age, without a balance of strength and
stretching, we tend to develop poor posture, she says, which encourages
injury as well as making us look and feel weaker, older, and heavier.
Stretching should include a flexion and extension of the spine.
For flexion, sit with your knees bent, butt on your heels and arms out in front
of you (child's pose in yoga). For extension, place your hands on your lower
back for support and gently arch, tightening your abdominals for support.