• Photo for Build a better back
    Photo Credit: Kevin Caudill

Build a better back

By Joseph Carman

The muscles of the back comprise some of the largest and strongest muscle tissue of the body. Centered by the spine, the back provides a foundation for the vertebrae to move with power and fluidity. The Asian martial arts regard the back as the yang part of the body—the fortress of protection. And for those of us who love the male body, it provides that sexy flare that travels downward from the shoulders to the waist and butt. It would be hard to name a sport that doesn't utilize the back muscles, but swimming, rowing, golfing, and anything that involves the tossing, passing, or smacking of a ball come to mind.

The primary muscles of the back include the spinal erectors, the middle trapezius, the latissimus dorsi, and the rhomboids. The spinal erectors travel the full length of the spine on both sides, connecting the vertebrae in a serpentine fashion. The triangular shaped middle trapezius branches out from the upper thoracic vertebrae and retracts the shoulder girdle. The rhomboids form an upright pyramid shape in the upper back, emanating from the upper thoracic vertebrae and attaching to the shoulder blades. And those wonderful lats originate in the lumbar and lower thoracic vertebrae, cover the ribs, and attach to upper arm.

But enough with the anatomy lesson. Let's talk about function. The spinal erectors come into play whenever you bend sideway or extend and arch the spine. The middle trapezius and the rhomboids retract the shoulder blades inward and upward respectively. And the lats pull the arms downward and backward.

In any exercise routine involving the back, it's necessary to hit all of the target areas to ensure a consistently strong and muscle-balanced back. Here's a routine you can do once or twice per week that's fundamental and comprehensive:

  1. Front pull-downs: The front pull-down is one of the most basic of back exercises, given that nearly every gym has a cable pull-down station. After choosing a weight that you can lift for at least five reps (but no more than 10), grip the bar wider than shoulder width, with your palms facing away from you. Arching your back while seated, pull the bar down to the mid-chest and squeeze the shoulder blades together, then slowly return to a full stretch at the starting position. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps. This is a great warm-up and strengthening exercise for your lats.
  2. Seated cable rows: Seated at a cable row station (see Photo 2), grip the v-bar with your elbows tucked in. Pull the bar back, squeezing the shoulder blades together, to the abdominal area. (Arch the back, but don't lean too far backward.) Then return to the start, stretching all the way forward. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps. Seated rows are great for developing the rhomboids, the middle trapezius, and the lower lats.
  3. Chin-ups: We know. They're really nasty. But nothing builds strength and develops thick, durable back muscles like this advanced form of the classic pull-up. With palms facing forward, grab the lateral bar with a slightly wider-than-shoulder grip. Start the movement from a dead hang and pull yourself up so that your chin passes over the bar. Think about pushing the elbows down instead of pulling yourself up. And don't swing—this isn't a Cirque du Soleil act. Lower slowly, stretching your arms fully. Do four sets of as many reps as possible with exact form. If you don't have the strength to do these on your own, start with the assisted pull-up machines found in most gyms.
  4. Dumbbell rows: With the left knee on a bench and the left hand braced on the end of the bench, pick up the dumbbell with your right arm (see Photo 3). With that arm fully extended toward the floor, slowly pull the weight up to your side, keeping the elbow pressed against the body. Hold the weight at the top of the movement for one second, then slowly lower it. If done properly, this exercise isolates the upper lats. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps.
  5. Hyperextensions: For this exercise, you need a Roman chair—no, not that thing Caligula sat in to orchestrate orgies, that piece of equipment at the gym. A Roman chair slants at a 45-degree angle and has a foot platform at the bottom. Bracing yourself on the padding, face downward with your arms crossed at the chest. Then lower your torso from the hips, bending to a 90-degree angle, and extend slowly back to the starting point. With this exercise, you concentrate on the spinal erectors. Do three sets of eight extensions.
Note that back muscles, unlike the arms or thighs, are sometimes hard to feel at the beginning when training. But if you use the correct form on these exercises, your back will get a complete workout. You'll also get some head swivels as guys check out your back on a second cruise.

Joseph Carman is a contributing editor for >Dance Magazine who writes for the New York Times and the Advocate, as well as other publications. A former professional dancer, he is now a bodybuilder and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions, 2004).