Exercises for Strengthening Your Back


By Dr Seamus Phan

I developed scoliosis as a kid, among other physical limitations, including a near-death experience as a baby. However, where there is a will, there is always a way. I conquered many limitations, got my doctorate, and is now a successful serial author, motivational speaker, and serial entrepreneur of knowledge businesses. You can find out more from the bestselling "This Body This Life" I co-wrote with my champion bodybuilder brother CJ Phan.

1) Hyper-extensions (for lower back)

You can do this at home, or practically anywhere (even in the absence of a proper gym). Lie face down with your hands behind your head, and legs closed together. If you prefer, you can place a very soft pillow where your face is for better comfort. Now slowly, lift your face and feet off the ground, so that your body forms an upward-curling arc. You should be able to feel the tension at your lower back (joining your waist/hips). Then slowly bring your face and feet down again. Do not jerk or create sudden movements, which can sprain your muscles instead. You can do three sets with sufficient repetitions (reps) to provide some resistance, or more. I found hyper-extensions to be exceptionally useful for me, since I do suffer from scoliosis and any means to strengthen my lower back is critical for my overall well-being, and progressively more important as I grow older.

2) Stomach crunches (for abdominal muscular balance)

Surprise! Stomach crunches has a part to play with lower back health as well. This is because the back and abdominal muscles should form an equal leverage to keep your posture right. For example, if your abdominal muscles are overly-developed, your lower back will suffer. For this classic exercise, lie on your back and bend your knees and rest your feet firmly on the ground. You do not have to place your hands behind your head, since that may cause neck strain. Instead, use only your abdominal muscles to curl your body up slowly. Then descend slowly again. If you do it right, you should be able to feel the tension in your abdominal muscles. Another variation is to bend your knees, and then let your legs spread apart (like a rhombus) and rest them on the floor. Do your crunches as long as possible, until you feel a positive "burn". Do not go through any exercise without feeling some degree of suffering. Otherwise, you are not putting in enough hard work to make the exercise work for you. I found crunches therapeutic, since they are at once challenging, and also creates a near fetal position, which somehow has a calming effect. I do my crunches slowly, so that not only I reap maximum results, but keep my pulse rate low as well, almost meditative (like yoga).

3) Rows (for lats and traps)

 Rows can be done either at a proper gym with rowing equipment, or use exercise bands (can be found in some gyms or purchased online) at home. If you are exercising at home, simply use the maximum resistance exercise band and use your feet as the pivot. Then slowly pull the handles of the bands with each hand as close to your torso as possible, and squeeze tightly until your fists are aligned at the side of your torso. You should be able to feel the tension in your lats (the largest muscle on your body other than thighs) and your traps. You must squeeze tightly at the end of the movement, and then slowly release your arms forward to finish one repetition. I find rows, whether with exercise bands or using professional rowing equipment, useful because they not only add width and taper for a man or woman, which has obvious aesthetic purposes, but also lend itself to better posture, since the lats will drawn the shoulder blades backwards.

4) Chin-ups (for lats, shoulders and minor work on other parts)

Most men went through national service doing this, and the benefits are obvious. It has the same net effect of strengthening the lats, and it also works the shoulders (delts) as well. Depending on your condition, you can use wider than shoulder width, shoulder width or narrow width positions when you hold the bar. The wider apart your hands, the more it works the taper of your body. However, if you suffer from rotator cuff syndrome, you can consider narrow width, until you increase strength in your shoulders first. I find chin-ups great not only for strengthening the back, but it also stretches your torso muscles and gives me a nice strength to my spine as well. I find that after a heavy-duty gym workout involving vertical compression exercises such as shoulder press, hack squats, or squats, a nice stretch on a chin-up bar finishes the day nicely.

5) Vertical rack squat or hack squat (for overall improvement)

Not many people like the squat, because it is a hard core movement usually carried out by bodybuilders. However, the vertical rack squat (done in a smith machine or freely) or the 45 degree hack squat, can not only vastly improve your cardiovascular performance because it is so demanding, and give your thighs a thorough workout, but the movement also strengthens your back and shoulders as well. Because the movements can be extremely demanding, especially if you handle tremendous amounts of weights, your body has to be extremely balanced, thereby invoking almost every piece of muscle to properly carry out the movements. Again, if you are afraid, start with the hack squat since you are inclined and there is less vertical compression on your spine. However, even for me, with scoliosis, I can still handle vertical rack squats, since it is mental focus and mindfulness at play. And the rewards are great, since you lend tension to many body parts in one single exercise. Do it slowly and steadily, and aim to increase resistance at every new session. I like power movements such as the squat because I can build strength on top of muscle, rather than build muscle alone. My personal aim is to be as strong as I can be, despite my disability and slim bone structure and joints. It is far more useful to be strong than to be purely aesthetic, as I'm sure you appreciate why.

Adapted from the bestselling book �This Body This Life�, co-authored by brothers Dr Seamus Phan and Ching Jung Phan.  Dr Seamus Phan is Asia's thought leader on high-tech marketing, branding, business leadership, Internet, and holistic health. He is a bestselling book author, accredited journalist, professional speaker, business consultant, and workshop facilitator. He is the bestselling co-author of "This Body This Life" (ThisBodyThisLife.com) and "Dot ZEN" (dotzen.com), among hundreds of s, ebooks, and previous bestsellers.