Hunching over laptops and smartphones for hours on end does your back no favors. In fact, it’s one of the biggest — and most important — muscle groups we’re guilty of ignoring. And the issue isn’t just aesthetics (though a toned back can help you look better in that suit or strapless dress). “Back strengthening exercises are crucial to maintaining functional movement and preventing back injuries for all populations,” says Matthew Wert, M.D., an Orthopedic Surgeon and Director of Sports Medicine at New York Methodist Hospital.
Your back is used in nearly every movement you perform throughout the day, from bending over to tie your shoes, to carrying your backpack or purse to putting your luggage in the overhead bin on flights. However, the back is one of the most commonly injured parts of the body for all age groups, according to Wert. “Workplace exercises and back health maintenance are crucial, because although a desk job may seem relatively easy on the body, maintaining a sitting position for long periods of time strains the back and places pressure on our discs,” says Wert.
Your job: To make your posterior a priority, Wert says. In addition to getting up and moving around at least once every 60 minutes, it’s time to get back to basics with a few key bodyweight moves. The five exercises below will target the lats, lumbar and rhomboids, not to mention the spinal erector muscles that surround, stabilize and support the spine. The best part? No heavy weights are needed!
The 5 Best Bodyweight Back Exercises
1. Reverse Snow Angels
How to: Position yourself facedown on the ground with arms at your sides and palms facing down. Peel your shoulders and hands a few inches off the ground by pinching your scapula together and engaging your lats and rhomboids in your mid-back (a). Keeping your head facing down, in a slow, controlled motion, bring your arms up past your shoulders and up to your ears until your thumbs meet directly above your head (b). Then, bring your arms back to the starting position. The key here is keeping the arms straight and elbows locked through the entire movement to engage your lats and shoulders (c). Repeat for 3 sets of 5 reps, with 30-60 seconds of rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Move the arms only halfway so that they are even with your shoulders and then return to the original starting position.
2. Dolphin Kick
How to: Position yourself face down on a bench so that the crease of your hip is at the end of the bench. Your feet should be resting on the ground with your hands firmly engaged on the underside of the bench for support (a). Straighten out your legs while raising them up while engaging your abdominals, glutes, hips and spinal erectors in your low back. Your toes should be pointed away from your body and above your head at the top of the movement (b). Hold this static position for 5 seconds by firmly engaging nearly every muscle in your body, before dropping the feet slightly below the bench and contracting again for 4 additional reps (c). Repeat for 3 sets of 5 reps, with 30-60 seconds of rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Move the hips slightly further up the bench so the trunk is better supported.
How to: Lie facedown with your chin on the ground and eyes at a neutral gaze. Your ankles should be touching with toes pointed under you (a). Reach your arms straight out above your shoulders so your palms are resting flat on the floor. Engage your back, glutes and shoulders to pull yourself a few inches off the ground (b). Your arms and legs should remain fully contracted so that your hands and feet are elevated to the same relative height at the top of the static hold position. Hold this position while fully engaging your body to “fly” like the man of steel (c). Repeat for 3 reps with a 15-30 second static hold, and 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Perform an “Aquaman” by raising and lowering the opposite arm and leg simultaneously in the same fashion as the “Superman.” Hold for 5 seconds, and shoot for 3 sets of 10 reps with a 1-minute rest.
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4. Hip Hinge (aka Good Mornings)
How to: Stand up straight with your hands on your hips. Your feet should be slightly wider than your hips and firmly planted on the ground. Start the movement by engaging your core, pushing your ribs down and pulling your shoulders slightly back with a neutral neck position (a). Bend forward at the waist in a slow and controlled manner while keeping your shoulders in line with your hips (b). Keep your back, glutes and hamstrings engaged throughout the exercise. Bend forward until you are parallel, or just above parallel to the floor, before bringing yourself back up to the starting position and repeating (c). Note: A common error to this exercise is rounding the back, resulting in a loss of the neutral spine position. Form is crucial to this exercise and should be replicated perfectly on each rep to avoid injury and get the most out of the exercise. Repeat for 3 sets of 10-15 reps, with a 30-60 second rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Perform seated good mornings instead. Sit in a chair with your shoulders over your hips, legs bent at a 45-degree angle. Plant your feet firmly underneath your knees, hands on your hips. Engage your core and slightly pull your shoulders back, then proceed to bend forward to a 45-degree angle before coming back to the starting position.
5. Nose and Toes Against the Wall
How to: Up for a real challenge? Even experienced gym rats should process with caution. For this advanced move, you’ll start in a push-up position with your feet against the wall (a). Next, walk your feet up the wall while keeping your core tight, hips flexed and spine neutral (b). Place your palms firmly on the ground just outside shoulder width as you begin to inch your hands towards the wall. The top of the position will be reached when just your nose and toes touch the wall with firm hand placement on the floor and rigid core for a “hollow body” position (c). Upon completion, safely come down by walking your hands away from the wall and bringing your feet down in a controlled manner (d). Repeat for 3 reps with a 15-30 second static hold, and 30-60 seconds rest between sets.
Beginner modification: Stand with your back against a wall with feet spread apart wide. Bend your knees and place your hands firmly on the floor, slightly wider than your shoulders. Straighten out your legs to just a “soft knee” and begin to walk your hands in towards your feet, head in neutral alignment with your spine. Actively push your glutes to the ceiling as your core and back remain rigid and your shoulders open up. You may notice a good stretch, too — but who says you can’t get strong and mobile at the same time?
Originally posted May 2015. Updated June 2016.