Considerations for Training the Back

There are three main considerations for maintaining a healthy back: strength, flexibility and posture. These elements working in concert provide the necessary adaptability to avoid injuries while progressing toward any fitness goals.

Back Strength & Related Musculature

While increases in absolute back strength are advantageous when it comes to lifting heavy loads, it is the balance all the musculature in the trunk that fundamentally important to strength and to injury prevention. In the posterior, it is the spinal erectors that support the spinal column directly, are extremely active during movements that involve back extension, and function isometrically while lifting heavy loads in unsupported postures.

The set of muscles antagonistic to the spinal erectors are the rectus abdominus muscles. When well developed, these the result in the “washboard” abdominals so often desired by training clients. The rectus abdominus muscles are most active during moves that involve trunk flexion.

A third set of muscles, the external obliques, internal oblique, and transversus abdominus allow for rotation and stability as they wrap around the entire torso in three separate muscular layers, functioning as a kind of built-in brace. It is the contractions of these muscles that compress the contents of the abdomen, thereby increasing intra-abdominal and intrathoracic pressure. This acts to stabilize the spine against postural stresses and during heavy lifting.

Moves for Back Strength

The muscles mentioned above are best strengthened by the use of a variety of extension, isometric, flexion, and trunk twisting core exercises. Some examples include:

  • Straight-leg dead lifts
  • Twisting hyperextensions
  • Twisting crunches
  • Hanging leg raises with twisting
  • Using a medicine ball

When executing any of these moves, remember that the goal is to achieve a balance.

Back Flexibility

The spine is able to move in the follwing general motions: 

  • Bending forward (flexion)
  • Bending backward (extension)
  • Bending to either side (lateral flexion)
  • Twisting to either side (rotation)

Spinal flexibility is desirable because it allows the trunk to adapt posturally to any positions and activities that are imposed on it. The goal for improving or maintaining spinal flexibility should be to achieve a balance between sides with an equal amount of lateral flexion or rotation from each side. Good trunk flexion and extension can be recognized by a smooth, round, curvature of the spine rather than a flat appearance when moving throughout extreme ranges of motion.


Perhaps the single most important step for maintaining a healthy back, outside of exercise, is to exhibit good posture. Appropriate posture distributes forces throughout the spine rather overloading specific areas, which often leads to injury. Good posture also can prevent injuries associated with prolonged use of so-called “relaxed” positions such as slouching that left unchecked, can lead to debilitating conditions over time.

To achieve the appropriate seated or standing posture, it possible to simply sit or stand “tall” with the stomach pulled up and in. This position aligns the spine and enlists the support of the abdominal muscles.

It should be noted that it is not uncommon for someone who is not accustomed to this position to become fatigued. However, practice and awareness are the keys and most people can adapt quickly to this “new” posture.

Dealing with Back Injuries

In the event of a back injury to a client, it is necessary to discontinue exercise and apply ice immediately to the affected area for 20 minutes, with repeated applications of ice every two hours or as needed. The client should assume a comfortable position to help alleviate any initial muscle spasm. If the pain persists after two days, it is recommended to refer the client to a physician.

Upon the client’s return to his or her exercise program, it is important to start with lighter exercise and move on only as tolerated. In effect, this means continuing to increase the intensity of exercise so long as the client’s pain does not reappear. Consult the appropriate local health professional for any further questions.


Proper care of the back involves a balance of strength, flexibility, and posture. Leaving out any of these elements or overemphasizing any one of them could place your clients at increased risk for injury.


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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