6 Body Weight Exercises for Your Back

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These bodyweight exercises for the back strengthen the muscles that support the length of the spine – the spinal extensors – to create stability, improve posture, and enhance body mechanics. While some muscles are stabilizers that keep the spine aligned and are responsible for posture; others are mobilizers that keep the spine flexible and allow you to move freely. These exercises engage both types of muscles.

  • Exercises to align the spine

  • Forearm plank variations

  • Prone back extensions

  • Bird dog or Kneeling arm/leg lift

  • Bridge

  • Hip Hinge

All these exercises can be done at home without any equipment, training your spinal muscles with a focus on form, alignment, stabilization, and mobility.

1) Exercises to align the spine

The spinal curves – two inward curves of the neck and low back and two outward curves of the mid-back and sacrum – create a functional balance that counteracts the constant force of gravity.

However, when any of these curves becomes exaggerated it can cause strain in the joints, ultimately leading to headaches, neck and shoulder problems, sciatica, and hip and knee pain.

 Get in the habit of doing these three simple exercises to improve your spinal alignment. You can even do them sitting at your desk.  Repeat each move 5-10 times daily.

  •  Lengthen the spine. To restore and maintain the normal curves of the spine, try this “growing exercise.”

    • Take a deep breath, filling the belly with air, and gradually lengthen the spine as you lift the top of your head to the ceiling.

    • Think of elongating the torso, stretching the space between the ribs and the hips, decompressing the spine.

    • Fluff up the chest by drawing the air up into the chest cavity.

    • As you exhale, hold the height and stay tall.

  • Realign the head. It is common to develop a forward head position from our daily activities. The “neck press” strengthens the muscles of the neck and upper back and realigns the head over the shoulders.

    • Put two fingers on your chin. Inhale, then exhale using your fingers as a cue to retract your chin, i.e. move it straight back, flattening the curve in the back of the neck.

    • Keep your chin level being careful not to push it down.

    • Release and repeat.

  • Anchor the shoulder blades. When you are in the habit of slouching, your shoulder blades slide forward and apart exaggerating the curve of the mid-back. “W’s” activate the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades.

    • Hold your arms out to the sides, palms forward, with the elbows bent and in line with the shoulders.

    • To form a “W” inhale, than squeeze your shoulder blades down and together as you lower your elbows, letting your breath out slowly.

    • Hold for 2-3 seconds and repeat.

    Exercises to align the spine: Bodyweight Back Exercises – Visual 1

 

The neck press and “W’s” help realign the spine.

See related: Exercises to Improve Posture

2) Forearm plank variations

The plank is a core stabilization exercise that works all the major muscles of your torso in an integrated fashion, engaging the abdominals and spinal muscles as well as those of the pelvis and shoulder girdle. It is a full-body isometric as you hover above the floor (or against a wall), holding the position in proper spinal alignment.

There are different variations, according to the position of your arms – straight or bent at the elbow – and how much bodyweight you are supporting. These examples all pertain to the forearm plank.

For each modification, begin by holding the position for 15 seconds, then progress to 30 seconds, and then for a full minute or longer.

  • Wall plank – If holding your body weight above the floor is too challenging, begin with this modification.

    • Bend your elbows to 90 degrees and plant them on the wall, directly beneath your shoulders.

    • While supporting your weight on your forearms, step back with your feet shoulder width apart.

    • Holding your body at a 45 degree angle from the wall, engage your core to keep a straight line from your head to your heels.

  • Half plank – If you’re ready to be on the floor but aren’t quite ready to put your entire body against gravity, try this modification from the knees.

    • Lie face down on a mat with your arms bent, elbows close to your sides, palms down.

    • Tighten your abdomen, creating an arch under your stomach.

    • Keeping the core engaged, slide the elbows forward directly under the shoulders and lift your trunk off the floor, creating a straight line from shoulder to knee.

    • Keep the shoulder blades wide and apart, the spine straight in neutral alignment.

  • Full plank – The full forearm plank is a challenging exercise in which you support your whole body against gravity. Remember, if you are unable to keep your body in alignment for at lease 15 seconds, begin with half planks to build up your strength.

    • Starting as above in the half plank position, step both legs back so your forearms and toes ae the only parts of the body touching the ground. Your feet should be hip width apart.

    • Engage your core to keep your body in alignment from head to heels. Keep your nose down, head and neck aligned with the rest of your spine.

    • Concentrate on tightening the muscles of your abdomen, back, buttocks, and lets – and remember to breathe!

    Forearm plank variations: Bodyweight Back Exercises – Visual 2

Demonstration of half and full forearm planks.

See related: Exercises for Osteopenia of the Spine and Dead Bug Exercise

3) Prone back extension

Back extensions trigger the erector spinae group, strengthening the muscles that run the length of your spine so you stand taller and straighter. They also improve mobility in the upper and middle back as you lift your chest and arch your upper back.

Begin with 10 reps and build up to one set of 15-20 reps.

  •  To begin, lie face down on a mat with a folded towel under your forehead to ensure proper alignment of the head and neck with the spine.

  • Bend your arms, resting your forearms on the floor, palms down. Engage your core, drawing your navel in towards your spine.

  • Exhale as you lengthen your spine by reaching forward with the top of your head. Using your back muscles, lift your head and shoulders, still resting your arms on the floor (not pictured).

  • Pause, then return to start without resting. Repeat for all reps.

  • When you are ready to progress, lift your arms with your head and shoulders (as pictured), increasing the resistance to your spine.

3) Prone back extension: Bodyweight Back Exercises – Visual 3

The back extension strengthens the spinal muscles while improving mobility in the upper and middle back.

See related: Exercises for Osteopenia of the Spine

4) Bird dog or Kneeling arm/leg lift

The kneeling arm/leg lift engages the spinal erectors, posterior shoulder, and glutes while challenging your balance and core stability.

  • Kneel on all fours with your hands under your shoulders, knees under your hips, head and neck aligned with your spine.

  • Contract your abdominals and lift one leg behind you to kip height, knee straight.

  • When you have your balance, reach the opposite arm forward to shoulder height.

  • Hold for a second, then slowly lower both your arm and leg to the start position.

  • Switch sides and repeat, alternating sides for all reps (one rep = both sides).

Bird dog or Kneeling arm/leg lift: Bodyweight Back Exercises – Visual 4

The Bird dog or Kneeling arm/leg lift challenges your balance and core stability while working the muscles of the entire back side – the spine, glutes, hamstrings and posterior shoulder.

See related: Exercises for Osteopenia of the Spine



5) Bridge

The bridge exercise for glutes is a simple bodyweight exercise that strengthens the back side – the “posterior chain” – glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors. It activates the glutes to prevent “dormant butt” syndrome and builds core stability.

As you activate the glutes by pushing through the heels and lifting your hips, the goal is to roll sequentially through the entire spine, mobilizing the vertebral joints from top to bottom. Do 10 reps.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, legs hip distance apart, feet pointing forward. Rest your arms by your sides.

  • Do a pelvic tilt, connecting your low back to the floor.

  • Starting at the base of your spine, push through your heels, peeling your back off the floor, one vertebra ata time, until your body is in a straight line from knees to shoulders.

  • As you release down, pay special attention to rolling through the curve in the low back, touching down one vertebra at a time.

Bridge: Bodyweight Back Exercises – Visual 5

The bridge is a simple and effective exercise to strengthen the backside – the glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors – while mobilizing the entire spine.

See related: Exercises for Osteopenia of the Spine

6) Hip hinge

The hip hinge strengthens the erector spinae, the large muscles on either side of the spinal column that straighten the spine and keep it flexible. The hinging movement trains you how to bend safely and protect your spine as you move through your day.

In activities where you are standing leaning forward, as in doing dishes, making the bed, folding laundry, or brushing your teeth, the common tendency is to bend forward from the waist, rounding the upper spine, which places high stress on the vertebrae. Instead, retrain yourself to bend the knees slightly and flex forward from the hip, using your abs to keep the torso straight.

To perform the movement, keep your back upright and straight, shoulder blades pulled in toward each other and bend only at the hips and knees.  Do 10-15 reps.

  • Stand with your legs parallel, slightly wider than hip width apart, knees softly bent.

  • Stack your ribs over hips, spine in neutral, and draw your abdominals tight.

  • Rest your ands on your waist.

  • Keep your back upright and straight, shoulder blades pulled in toward each other, and bend at the hip.

  • Push back with your hips as you lengthen your trunk forward, head and neck aligned with the spine.

  • Hinge to 45 degrees or more, then squeeze the glutes to return to standing.

    Hip hinge: Bodyweight Back Exercises – Visual 6

To perform the movement, keep your back upright, shoulder blades pulled in, and bend from the hip keeping the spine straight.

See related: Bridge Exercise for Glutes

For step-by-step strength training exercises, plus expert tips on how to perform them, see Strength Training Exercises for Women by Joan Pagano (DK Publishing, 2014).

Disclaimer: The information presented in this article should not be construed as medical advice. It is not intended to replace consultation with your physician or healthcare provider.

Author

  • Joan Pagano has specialized in strength training for women since 1988 – training, teaching, and writing books on the subject, including Strength Training Exercises for Women (DK, 2014). When the health benefits of strength training started making headlines in the 1990s, and in particular how weight training could protect the bones and prevent osteoporosis, it was a natural segue for her. At that time, Joan was developing and delivering fitness training guidelines for osteoporosis to national audiences of exercise professionals. Currently Joan is recognized by the industry as a leading authority on exercise program design for osteoporosis. She is certified as an Exercise Physiologist by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and is on the Ambassadors Leadership Council for the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Visit Joan at: www.joanpaganofitness.com/

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