Everybody wants the biggest beach body muscles: chest, shoulders, biceps, abs...all muscles you can see when you look in the mirror. While getting these muscles bigger and stronger is great, the muscles you cannot see when you look in the mirror are often neglected, and are far more important for your longevity!
The muscles I am talking about are the back muscles, the glutes, and the hamstrings! While they cannot be easily seen in the mirror, they play vital roles in stabilizing your body and allowing you to move more weight! Without strengthening the muscles on your back side, you are limiting your strength and muscular potential for your entire body. Let’s dive into each of these muscle groups a bit...
There are tons of different muscles in the back! For simplicity, we are going to break it up into the upper and lower back muscles.
The upper back (which includes the back of the shoulders) is a key stabilizer in almost any movement you are doing! You will often hear people say to “stay tight” while performing an exercise; this tightness comes from engaging your core and your back muscles.
A great example of this is during a bench press: it is optimal to retract and depress your scapula...aka move your shoulder blades back, down, and squeeze them together before and during the press! The better your back musculature, the better your pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) will be able to function and move weight! The upper back plays a similar role in other compound movements such as the squat and deadlift: stabilizing the rest of your body to maintain a safe and strong position!
So the upper back does a lot for stabilization, how do we strengthen it? The upper back can take a lot of volume. There are several different ways to approach this, but no matter what you do, you should attack the back muscles in both the horizontal and vertical plane. Horizontal movements include any sort of bent over rows, seated rows...pretty much any row! People tend to do these well, but often neglect vertical movements such as lat pulldowns and pull ups. It is often said that horizontal movements contribute to back thickness whereas vertical movements contribute to back width, however I believe a combination of both will assess all of your back development needs!
I personally recommend and practice doing double the “pulling” or back volume than “pushing” volume. I believe this is optimal for maintaining good shoulder strength and can allow you to adequately work your upper back considering it has a high volume threshold.
Now onto the lower back muscles! I think everyone can agree that this is one of the most common places for injuries to occur...so let’s try to prevent that. First things first: a strong core can help protect your lower back. Learning to properly engage your core is essential to move your body and additional weight through space. Your abdominal muscles are complimented well by a strong lower back!
My favorite ways to promote lower back strength and health are through hinging movements and direct isolation work. Deadlifts are the king of all hinge movements, and will do a great job to strengthen your lower back... but I wouldn’t suggest stopping there! I like to add an additional hinge movement following my deadlift work: good mornings and romanian deadlifts are great. All of these movements target the glutes and hamstrings as well, but they certainly contribute greatly towards bulletproofing your lower back. Good Mornings are especially effective because they do not require much weight at all to get an effective stimulus. In addition to these exercises in my main workouts, I like to do banded good mornings and core work throughout the week. This can be done on off days, at the end of your sessions...basically whenever. High volume banded good mornings and any core exercises that allow the lower back to bend (or go into flexion) do wonders for lower back pain and protection!
Glutes & Hamstrings
Everyone wants those big quads from all of the thousands of pounds they can throw onto the leg press machine...but those quads alone will not take you very far (at least not safely).
Getting strong glutes and hamstrings will elevate all of your lower body lifts and allow you to progress safely! So how do we do it?
Compound movements like squats and deadlifts do a great job of developing these areas, but we can take things a step further! Romanian deadlifts (mentioned above in the lower back section) do a great job in working the hamstrings (and the glutes but mainly hamstrings). Romanian deadlifts provide a weighted stretch on these areas since the weight is lowered, but does not touch the floor. Good Mornings provide the same benefits, and can be done with much less load!
Isolation movements are key to really hone in on the glutes and hamstrings. I enjoy doing bulgarian split squats and unilateral (one leg) hip thrusts. Both of these movements allow for great mind muscle connection to the glutes and allow you to work on imbalances as your work each side on its own. For the hamstrings, I enjoy doing lying hamstring curls and seated band hamstring curls. Both of these movements are great for allowing the hamstring to stretch and lengthen under load. The band hamstring curls are specifically great for hamstring health! The band provides a need to overcome the speed curve of the band, and they can be done at a higher volume and frequency due to the lighter loading.
All in all: don’t neglect the backside of your body. The muscles on the backside of your body do a great job at stabilizing the body throughout compound movements and can go a long way in keeping you healthy. If you are interested in learning more ways to target these muscles and train for longevity, check out www.balancewithshaheen.com for online coaching and guidance!