You've probably heard the saying, "Out of sight, out of mind." Unfortunately, this aphorism is particularly true in a gym. People often focus exclusively on the muscles they can see in the mirror. But just because you can't see your back doesn't mean other people can't. More importantly, a toned, attractive back is also a strong back, one that will protect your spine as you go about your day. To have tone in any muscle group requires low-enough body fat to see the muscles and enough muscle size to provide shape, so toning is best done in the muscle-building range of 8 to 15 reps.
At the very top of your back is a kite-shaped muscle called the trapezius (traps). The most visible portion sits atop your shoulders, going up into your neck, but the bottom part of the kite continues down to your mid-back. When built up and toned, the trapezius provides a visual center, tying your back together. To shrug, grab a barbell or a pair of dumbbells and shrug your shoulders. You won't be able to do it, but think about trying to touch your shoulders to your ears. To work the lower trapezius, lean slightly forward and shrug slightly back, pinching your shoulder blades together.
The cable row is a very efficient exercise. It works your posterior deltoid head on the back of your shoulders, your lower traps and rhomboids, which sit between your shoulder blades and retract them, and your latissimus dorsi (lats), which pull your arms down and back and visually create the wings that give you a V-shaped torso. To do this exercise, grab the cable machine handles and pull them in toward your stomach. It is important to keep an upright posture--do not lean forward and then sway back. This cheats the muscles you want to target by involving your glutes. A number of handle types with different widths and hand positions are available to attach to the cable stack. Each emphasizes a different muscle group, developing a nice shape to your back muscles. To focus on your posterior delt head and lower traps, use light weight and a wide bar, and pull toward your neck instead of your stomach.
Nothing will shape your lats and teres major and minor like chin-ups. Your teres muscles sit atop your lats and perform a similar function. Once they're built up, they'll provide fantastic definition to your upper back. So even if you can only do a few pull-ups, keep at it and build your way up to full sets.
Depending on how you grip the bar--wide or narrow, palms toward or away from you, or even hammer grip--you'll work your back muscles differently. Many people cheat at this exercise, only performing the top portion. Don't cheat. Lower yourself until you feel a stretch in your lats, but try to keep a slight bend in your elbows. If you need to work your way up to doing a single chin-up, try an assisted chin-up machine or do lat pull-downs. As you get stronger, add weights with a weight belt or hold a dumbbell between your crossed ankles.
It sounds simple to set a barbell on the floor, grab it and stand up. But according to female powerlifter Nia Shanks in an article for Muscle & Fitness, the dead lift allows you to work every muscle in your upper and lower back, glutes and hamstrings. This exercise is the single-best exercise for building a strong lower back. The visual effect of strong columns of erector spinae lining your lower spine can be striking.
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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.