"Back" to School

Pop quiz: Which body part stabilizes the entire body, is the key to strong abs and, when flexible and strong, can prevent aches, stiffness and chronic pain? Here’s a hint: Turn around. That’s right, we’re talking about the back — and this fall, our trainers will show you how to get yours on the honor roll.

The benefits of a strong back are twofold, according to Corry Matthews, a member of the Gold’s Gym Fitness Institute. “It keeps your spine aligned and pain-free,” she says. “And — the added bonus — it shapes the waist, making it look tinier and more defined.”

A healthy back should be front of mind: More than 5.7 million people in the U.S. suffer from back or spinal problems, and 80% of Americans will encounter some type of back pain during their lifetime. Unless specifically exercised, core muscles tend to weaken with age, putting the spine at risk. And although 80% to 90% of individuals recover from back pain within a week of injury, each year $31 million is spent on office visits to treat back pain. To prevent back troubles, the American Council on Exercise suggests performing muscle endurance exercises like those listed below.

The key to strengthening the back is using good gym equipment, Matthews says, since the back is the hardest body part to work without the right tools. She also emphasizes that when exercising the back, proper form is more important than weight. Adjust the weight and reps depending on your goal — strength or definition.

Lat Pull-Down Machine
GOAL Strength: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Definition: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
You may sit or stand for this one. Grip the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, arms straight up and palms facing forward. Pull the bar down to your chest, elbows out. Return slowly to the starting position, arms straight.

Rowing Machine
GOAL Strength: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Definition: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
Grab the handles of the machine and sit with your back straight, shoulder blades back. Keep legs slightly bent and abdominals pulled in. Pull the weight toward your body until the handles touch your abdomen. Return to the starting position.

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
GOAL Strength: 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Definition: 4 sets of 10-12 reps
Grab a dumbbell in one hand, and put the opposite knee and hand on a bench. The torso should be parallel to the ground. Start with your arm straight by your side, and pull the dumbbell up to side of your chest (near the armpit), keeping your arm close to your body. Lower the weight back to the starting position.

Lower-Back Extensions
GOAL Strength: 3 sets of 10-12
Using a machine
Adjust the seat so the axis is in line with your hips. Start the exercise by slowly pushing back until your spine is naturally erect. Maintain tension as you return to start.

GOAL Definition: 3 sets of 20
“Superman,” using a stability ball
Grab a stability ball and balance on it with your stomach on top and your toes on the ground. Let your torso fall over the ball, and relax your arms by your sides. Starting with the head and upper back, slowly lift your spine until it’s straight. Slowly return to start.