fitness

How to Get a Strong, Sexy Back

Woman's backYou know the experience: Standing in front of a full-length mirror, you appraise your body and decide what area you need to work on. Maybe it's those side bulges where your thighs meet your torso or a post-baby tummy that has lasted too long or gravity-challenged upper arms.

Many of us are overly critical of what we see in the mirror and ignore what we can't see easily—our backs. Yet exercising the back may be far more important to our overall good health, now and for years to come.

"People think about things first from an aesthetic standpoint," says Rebecca Seguin, PhD, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and strength-training expert based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "In the gym, you see them doing squats and lunges, paying so much attention to the lower body. Many people don't pay attention to the back until they're injured."

Such injury often comes not from accidents, but everyday activities. If you sit for hours in front of an electronic screen at work or home, lift heavy objects (such as patients or goods) or stand in one place for a long time, you may end up with an injured back and the resulting pain. Indeed, when it comes to injuries that cause lost time at work, the back leads all other body areas as the source of problems.

"We spend so much time sitting, with our backs supported," Dr. Seguin says. "Our daily lives have not only contributed to obesity, but to a lack of strength in functioning."

Build muscles and bone

Despite modern life, back pain isn't inevitable. Most injuries can be avoided, or pain relieved, by doing exercises to strengthen both the muscles and bones in your back.

Key muscles contributing to a healthy back include those that pull your back forward, extend it downward and lift it upright. When you help those muscles become stronger and more flexible, you support the spine and protect your back from harm. By doing simple back exercises (see examples below) a few times a week, muscles will readily grow stronger.

Bone strength in the spine may be built by lifting light weights at safe levels. Healthy women with good muscle strength can lift five-pound weights or more, depending upon their experience, says Mehrsheed Sinaki, MD, MS, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and a back exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Women who are osteopenic (having early signs of bone loss), should use lower weights, from 2 to 5 lbs., Dr. Sinaki says. Those with osteoporosis can build bone strength by starting with 1-lb. weights or by doing exercises that use no weight and then gradually increasing over time.