Back to basics: these six proven exercises will give you long, lean lines and a balanced, toned, posture-perfect torso – Shape’s Best-Tested Moves

Alexa Joy Sherman

We know that when it comes to seeking better body parts, few women say, “If only I could get a more attractive back!” But to achieve your ideal physique — including flatter abs and shapelier shoulders — working your back is crucial. That’s because looking great and doing all of the things you love — inside and outside the gym — begin with a healthy back and a supple spine.

But looking good isn’t the only payoff; a strong back also will keep you healthier and free of pain, help you maintain proper alignment and good posture and build a terrifically toned torso, confirms Los Angeles-based rehabilitation specialist Craig Liebenson, D.C., editor of Rehabilitation of the Spine: A Practitioner’s Manual (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 1996). So which exercises will best strengthen your back while achieving your most beautiful lines to boot? To find out, we headed to the gym with Stuart Rugg, Ph.D., chair of the kinesiology department at Occidental College in Los Angeles. There, using an electromyograph (EMG), a machine that records muscle activity (the higher the EMO reading, the more active the muscles), we tested more than 40 upper-torso exercises for their effectiveness on the upper- and midback and spinal muscles. Six of the highest-ranking moves make up this exclusive workout, which also builds muscle in your shoulders to help make your waist and hips look smaller. The surprisin g bonus: Your abdominal muscles work to stabilize you, so the result is a completely whittled middle.


How it works These are 6 of the best moves you can do for a stronger back and a healthy spine. The first 4 recruit the most muscles and force you to stabilize your position progressively with your abs; the final 2 are basic back exercises that require your abs to stabilize and increase muscle endurance.

Warm-up Begin with 5-10 minutes of low-intensity cardio. Try walking on a treadmill while swinging your arms or using any dual-action machine that requires the arms and legs to move at the same time.

Workout schedule Do these 6 moves in the order shown 2-3 times a week as part of a regular, total-body strength program, with 1 day off between strength sessions. (If you don’t have time to do all 6 along with your regular strength program, do 3 moves, in any combination, selecting from the following: Do move 1 or 4; plus move 2 or 3; plus move 5 or 6.)

Sets/reps/weight guidelines If you’ve been exercising for less than 6 months, perform 2 sets of 8-12 reps for each exercise listed, resting 45-60 seconds between sets. Use as much weight as you can to complete all reps and sets with good form.

To progress For weighted moves, when 12 reps are no longer challenging, increase your weight by 2 1/2-5 pounds – or add a third set of 12 reps. For nonweighted exercises, increase reps by 2 at a time until you can do 15-20 per set. Note: You should not increase resistance or reps if doing so impedes proper form.

Cool-down Flexibility is vital to maintaining a healthy back and keeping a natural curve in the spine. (See “Finding Your ‘Neutral Spine'” on page 160.) End each workout with 5-10 minutes of low-intensity cardio, followed by a total-back stretch: Stand with legs hip-width apart and grasp a support at arm’s length with both hands. Bend knees into a quartersquat and round your spine, tucking pelvis under as you exhale. Straighten back to a neutral position and repeat 3-4 times.

the moves

1. Seated row Adjust the seat of a stack-row machine so you can sit with arms extended at shoulder height, knees bent and feet against foot plates and directly under knees. Holding the vertical handles, place chest gently against support pad without leaning and contract abdominals so spine is in a neutral position IA]. Squeeze shoulder blades together, then bend elbows, driving them back toward waist without changing torso position [B], Slowly straighten arms, being careful not to lock your elbows, and repeat. Weight: 30-80 pounds. Strengthens middle and upper back, rear deltoids and biceps

2. High seated row Sit at a low-cable-pulley machine with a long bar attached. Place feet against foot plates, knees slightly bent. Reach forward and grasp bar with an overhand grip, wider than shoulder-width apart, arms straight at chest height. Squeeze shoulder blades together and contract abdominals to maintain upright position without tucking tailbone under [A]. Without moving torso, bend elbows to bring bar toward chest, so forearms are parallel to floor, wrists straight and elbows out, even with shoulders [B] Slowly straighten arms, being careful not to lock elbows, without leaning forward, and repeat. Weight: 20-50 pounds. Strengthens upper back, front, middle and rear shoulders, and biceps

3. Smith reverse incline row Adjust the bar of a Smith machine so it’s at the same height as the bottom of your rib cage. Extend arms to grasp bar with an underhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Contract abdominals so spine is in a neutral position, then walk feet forward under bar until the bar is over your chest and you are balancing on heels, arms extended, body in one straight line from head to heels [A]. Maintaining body position, bend elbows to pull yourself up toward bar; lead with chest, being careful not to strain your neck [B]. Slowly lower to starting. position and repeat. Weight: none. Strengthens upper and middle back, middle and rear shoulders, and biceps


How to achieve it Stand with your feet hip-width apart, body weight balanced over the middle of your arches, legs straight. Without tightening your butt, contract your abs, drawing them inward to drop the tailbone down toward the floor. Gently squeeze your shoulder blades together to lift and open your chest; lengthen your neck so ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles are in one line, abs still tight.

What it is The neutral spine position occurs when your back and abdominal muscles contract synergistically, creating a balanced tension between the muscles in the front and back of your body, allowing you to maintain the natural curves of your spine – especially in the lower-back area. Thus, your body is completely aligned.

Additional tips Use your abdominals to bring ribs toward hips and hips toward ribs – gently, without collapsing your torso. Think of stacking your vertebrae, one on top of another, as if someone were pulling a string out of the top of your head. Imagine drawing the sides of your torso in toward the center, like a corset. Hold this position and continue to breathe normally.

Errors to avoid Don’t squeeze your buttocks because this tends to pull your pelvis under, and don’t shift your body weight too far forward, which can cause the back to arch excessively and the hips to roll forward.

4. Bent-over barbell row Standing with legs hip-width apart, hold a barbell with an overhand grip, hands separated slightly wider than shoulder-width. Contract abdominals to bring spine to a neutral position, squeeze shoulder blades together, then bend knees, bending forward at the hips until your back is parallel to the floor and bar hangs with arms straight in line with shoulders [A]. Maintaining this position, keep wrists straight and bend elbows up and in toward waist to bring bar toward lower rib cage [B]. Slowly straighten arms and repeat. Weight: 20- to 45-pound barbell. Strengthens upper and middle back, middle and rear shoulders, and biceps

5. Kneeling alternate arm and leg Kneel on all fours with knees hip-width apart, wrists under shoulders and arms straight but not locked. Contract abdominals to bring spine to a neutral position, so your body forms one straight line from head to hips [A]. Using abs to stabilize you, lift right arm up to shoulder height, fingers pointing straight ahead, and lift left leg up behind you to hip-height without losing balance [B]. Pause for 2 seconds, then lower and repeat with opposite arm and leg. Continue to alternate for all reps (1 lift on each side equals 1 rep). For the last rep on each side, hold position at least 30 seconds without moving. Weight: none. Strengthens and builds endurance of upper, middle and lower back, and front, middle and rear shoulders

6. Superwoman Lie facedown on floor, arms extended flat above head, palms down, legs together. Contract abdominais to lift navel off floor, shifting tailbone down so spine is in a neutral position. Look down at the floor so neck and shoulders are relaxed [A]. Maintaining this position, inhale and lift both arms (from the shoulders) and both legs (from the hips) off the floor about 2-6 inches without creating tension in your lower back or neck (think of extending arms and legs rather than lifting) [B]. Pause for 2 seconds, then lower and repeat. Hold the final rep for about 20 seconds before lowering. Beginners can lift arms only, then legs only before attempting both together. Weight: none. Strengthens entire back, primarily front and middle shoulders

COPYRIGHT 2002 Weider Publications

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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