Back to basics

People who work out often focus their efforts on arms, abs, legs and cardio vascular strength. While any exercise is beneficial, they may be forgetting the importance of having a strong back. The back muscles have a significant impact on everything we do: sitting, standing, lifting and bending. With a few strengthening exercises, everyday activities will be much easier to manage. Posture and balance also are greatly improved, which can reduce the risk of pain, strain and injury.

Hyperextensions for the lower back

This works the lower back and also involves the glutes and those hard-to-work hamstrings. If you have any back injuries or soreness, you may want to skip this exercise or check with your doctor first. The key to keeping this exercise safe is to avoid swinging the legs and taking them too far above the hips. Also, keep the abs tight as you lift the legs to avoid straining the lower back.

1. Lie with the ball under your torso and hips, resting your forearms on the floor.

2. Legs should be straight out behind you, toes resting on the floor in an upside down "V"

3. Keeping legs together and knees straight, lift legs up until they're level with the hips.

4. Lower back down, lightly touching the floor, and repeat for one to three sets of 10 to 16 repetitions.

Back extensions on the ball

Using a ball for back extensions allows for more range of motion than you can get on the floor, and you'll also have to use more balance because the ball is unstable. You may want to prop your feet against the wall to get more leverage.

1. Lie with the ball under your belly and hips, legs straight out behind you (or knees bent for a modification).

2. Place hands behind your head or under your chin.

3. Round down over the ball and then raise your upper body, squeezing your lower back to lift your chest off the ball until body is straight. Do not hyperextend.

4. Lower down and repeat for one to three sets of 10 to 16 repetitions.

Reverse fly

The reverse fly is an effective way to target the "posture" muscles of the upper back, including the rhomboids, trapezius muscles and even the rear shoulders. Because you're bent over, you'll need lighter weights than for other back exercises. Keep in mind that the range of motion on this is small — you want to lift only to shoulder level rather than straining to pull the elbows up behind the torso. A bench or chair may be used for this exercise. Use light to medium-weight dumbbells.

1. Begin in a seated position, bent over with arms hanging down and weights under your knees.

2. Do not collapse on your legs but, instead, keep your back straight and abs engaged.

3. Lift arms out to the sides, up to shoulder level, squeezing your shoulder blades together.

4. Keep elbows slightly bent and lift only to shoulder height.

5. Lower and repeat for one to three sets of 12 to 16 repetitions, with a 20- to 30-second rest between sets.

Horizontal rows

The horizontal row is a variation on the traditional dumbbell row, taking the arm perpendicular to the body, which targets upper-back muscles. This move is perfect for focusing attention on the posture muscles and using the back muscles in a different way. Note: This is different from a regular dumbbell row, so at the top of the movement, your elbow should be perpendicular to the body.

1. Prop your left foot on a step or platform, placing your left hand on your left thigh to support the back.

2. Hold a medium-heavy dumbbell in your right hand, arm hanging down and palm facing backward.

3. Engage shoulder blades to pull arm up to shoulder level, perpendicular to the body.

4. Imagine bringing weight toward your armpit as you squeeze the shoulder blades.

5. Lower weight and repeat for one to three sets of eight to 16 repetitions.

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