Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Back exercises to strengthen your core

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Almost everyone I work with says “I need to strengthen my core”. When questioned further, they say they want to flatten their abdominal muscles, but often ignore an important aspect of our core musculature- their back. If I asked you what makes up your core, what would you answer? It’s not just your abs and back; it includes your pelvic girdle and your shoulder girdle. Essentially, it’s everything except your neck and head, arms and legs. Some physiologists would argue that your arms and legs should be included in your core definition, because everything is connected through fascia and “slings”.  These are the various forces that cause flexion, extension and rotation throughout your body by way of your tendons, muscles, fascia and joints, that cross from your upper body to your lower body. For example, when we walk, the vast majority of us swing the reciprocal arm when the opposite leg strides forward – your right arm swings forward, while your left leg steps forward. When this physiological dance occurs, your myofascial slings are in use. The same goes for almost all movements, especially during sports.  Anyone who has ever thrown a ball knows that the opposite leg has a lot to do with the force you generate with your arm. For more information, see  Although this is a technical article, you can get the idea through seeing the pictures and skimming through it.

One of the most important ways you can strengthen your “core” is to work your back in gentle, but effective ways. You must cue in to what your back is telling you as do these exercises. If it’s protesting, you need to listen. You also need to be an expert at the difference between “work” and pain. Sometimes, when we feel work, we get worried that we’ll pay for it the next day, and sometimes we do. The vast majority of the time we don’t, and we learn how to strengthen without straining which is the ultimate goal. You can’t train your abdominal muscles without strengthening the antagonist, or muscles on the opposite side, which are your back muscles.

We spend so much time in flexion in our everyday lives, we need to balance that out with extension, which are the muscles on the back of our body. Driving, computer work, using mobile devices, reading, sitting, eating- all these activities are done with our bodies in flexion. It makes sense that our backs get weaker and we feel back soreness or pain at the end of the day, if we neglect back strengthening exercises.

The two exercises pictured at the top are good places to start to strengthen your core. The first one, called bird-dog, requires extension of the opposite arm and leg while you’re on all fours, maintaining your balance and straight back. The second one, plank position can also be done on hands and feet, but on elbows is more challenging. Notice the difference between the upper and lower two pictures. It’s important to maintain your shoulders and hips in straight alignment without hips and abdominals drooping while in the posture. If you can manage these two, go on to the next three.

Here are some dynamic exercises that need no equipment to counteract the many hours we spend in muscle flexion.

Reverse Snow Angel

1. Reverse Snow Angels

How to: Position yourself facedown on the ground with arms at your sides and palms facing down. Peel your shoulders and hands a few inches off the ground by pinching your scapula together and engaging your lats and rhomboids in your mid-back (a). Keeping your head facing down, in a slow, controlled motion, bring your arms up past your shoulders and up to your ears until your thumbs meet directly above your head (b). Then, bring your arms back to the starting position. The key here is keeping the arms straight and elbows locked through the entire movement to engage your lats and shoulders (c). Repeat for 3 sets of 5 reps, with 30-60 seconds of rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Move the arms only halfway so that they are even with your shoulders and then return to the original starting position.

Superman Back Exercise

3. Superman

How to: Lie facedown with your chin on the ground and eyes at a neutral gaze. Your ankles should be touching with toes pointed under you (a). Reach your arms straight out above your shoulders so your palms are resting flat on the floor. Engage your back, glutes and shoulders to pull yourself a few inches off the ground (b). Your arms and legs should remain fully contracted so that your hands and feet are elevated to the same relative height at the top of the static hold position. Hold this position while fully engaging your body to “fly” like the man of steel (c). Repeat for 3 reps with a 15-30 second static hold, and 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Perform an “Aquaman” by raising and lowering the opposite arm and leg simultaneously in the same fashion as the “Superman.” Hold for 5 seconds, and shoot for 3 sets of 10 reps with a 1-minute rest between sets.

Hip Hinge Back Exercise

4. Hip Hinge (aka Good Mornings)

How to: Stand up straight with your hands on your hips. Your feet should be slightly wider than your hips and firmly planted on the ground. Start the movement by engaging your core, pushing your ribs down and pulling your shoulders slightly back with a neutral neck position (a). Bend forward at the waist in a slow and controlled manner while keeping your shoulders in line with your hips (b). Keep your back, glutes and hamstrings engaged throughout the exercise. Bend forward until you are parallel, or just above parallel to the floor, before bringing yourself back up to the starting position and repeating (c). Note: A common error to this exercise is rounding the back, resulting in a loss of the neutral spine position. Form is crucial to this exercise and should be replicated perfectly on each rep to avoid injury and get the most out of the exercise. Repeat for 3 sets of 10-15 reps, with a 30-60 second rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Perform seated good mornings instead. Sit in a chair with your shoulders over your hips, legs bent at a 45-degree angle. Plant your feet firmly underneath your knees, hands on your hips. Engage your core and slightly pull your shoulders back, then proceed to bend forward to a 45-degree angle before coming back to the starting

There are some more advanced exercises at this site, but I don’t recommend them unless someone spots you, and you’ve been exercising for a long time with no back problems.

Go to for the complete set, but please be aware of your own abilities and start with the beginner exercises to make sure you can do them first.

So, there you have it. You MUST exercise your back in order to strengthen your core, avoid back pain, and improve your posture. When you stand up straighter,  (because your core is stronger) you look 5 pounds lighter and 10 years younger!



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