Exercises for strengthening your back
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
For Further Reading