“It is difficult for women to see results when trying to tone up their upper backs because many women naturally store body fat there,” says Josh Kernen, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., co-owner of Bridgetown Physical Therapy and Training Studio.
But if you feel like your attempts to chisel your backside are going nowhere fast, it’s likely that Mother Nature’s nasty tricks aren’t the only thing at play. Here are five different hurdles that might be busting your back workout, plus some pro tips to help you blow right past them.
If you don’t understand the muscles that come together to form your backside, then how can you possibly know which exercises will give you the results you want? Learning where the major back muscles are and how to effectively target them is the very first step toward making them stand out. Familiarize yourself with your trapezius (traps), rear deltoids (delts), latissimus dorsi (lats), and erector spinae (erectors) for an entire-back workout.
“One reason muscle development can be difficult is that many people only work a particular area of the back and leave out another, perhaps smaller, area that aids in form and function,” says Cris Dobrosielski, C.S.C.S., spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and owner of Monumental Results in San Diego. “Being sure to include at least one exercise for each of the regions on a regular basis will assure balanced symmetry and a lovely shape.”
Tight on time? This quickie workout will help you squeeze in some exercise:
For your traps, try upright rows or shoulder shrugs; for delts, you can do reverse flies; for lats, plain old pullups get the job done; and erectors can be tackles with back extensions. (Torch fat, get fit, and look and feel great with Women’s Health’s All in 18 DVD!)
Checking yourself out in the mirror is a great way to keep your form in check or to visually track your fitness progress. However, it also puts you in the habit of only honing in on the muscles you can see. Since it’s impossible to keep an eye on what’s going on behind you when you exercise your back, it’s easy to neglect that area altogether.
“While bench presses, shoulder presses, and curls are all good exercises, they’re still the focus of many routines while posterior upper and lower body exercises are done minimally or incompletely,” says Dobrosielski. “This can be corrected by deliberately dedicating time in your routine to hit to specific muscles of that region.” So the next time you find yourself in the gym, don’t get so wrapped up in flexing your abs and arms that you forget to carve out some time for your back.
According to Kernen, jumping into back exercises after you’ve cranked out your biceps, triceps, and shoulder exercises is also a big no-no, since the smaller muscles in your arms can’t support the heavy lifts needed to work out the larger muscles in your back if they’re already out of steam. “It’s difficult to fatigue the large muscle groups of the back once the smaller supporting muscles are already tired,” he says. To maximize the amount of time you spend on your backside, Kernen suggests focusing on multi-joint exercises (e.g., bent-over rows or deadlifts) before moving into single-joint exercises (e.g., bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, or lateral raises).
When you spend every day hunched over a desk at work, the muscles in your back gradually stretch out and adapt to sitting in a curved, unnatural position. Eventually your bad posture becomes second nature, to the point where sitting up straight and keeping proper form can seem like hard work. When this carries over into your fitness routine, it doesn’t only hinder you from properly executing your workout routine and getting results—it can also hurt you.
“When your body begins to fatigue during an exercise, it’s important to keep proper form and target the muscles you want to fatigue,” says Kernen. “If your form changes in the middle of an exercise, you won’t be able to fully exhaust your muscle, and you may alter your form enough to put yourself at the risk of injury.”
To help release some of the tension in your back and neck caused by bad posture and make it easier to keep your form, try stretching your back before diving into an exercise. “Lying on a foam roller with cactus arms to open up your chest muscles is a great idea,” says celeb personal trainer Monica Nelson.
Lie with the foam roller positioned directly along the line of your spine and keep your knees bent and your feet on the ground. With your arms in a cactus position, spread wide with palms facing up, move your arms up and down like a snow angel and stop when you find a spot where your arms feel like they want to drop. Relax and breathe into the tight muscle.
“Putting a tennis ball against the wall and rubbing out any knots in your trap muscles is also a great way to break up shoulder tension. Massages are also great if you can get one at least once a month.” If you’re still having trouble maintaining your posture during a workout, enlist the help of a personal trainer who can work with you one-on-one to get the moves down pat.
“Light weights don’t build muscle in a normal, healthy individual,” says Abby Bales, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., of Spear Physical Therapy in New York City. “Women are so afraid of bulking up that they avoid lifting more than three-pound weights. Science tells us that in order to build muscle and tone up, we must challenge our muscles to a specific number of sets and reps, depending on what our goals are.”
The fix: “Lift a heavy enough weight that you fatigue after eight to 12 repetitions,” says Kernen. “Repeat this for two to three sets per exercise. If you are reaching a true level of fatigue with little rest between sets, you will not be able to achieve the same number of reps on set two or three that you did in set one. You will progressively achieve less reps each set if you are truly reaching muscular fatigue.”
“Doing the same exercises over and over again, at the same weight, will yield the same results,” says Bales. “Changing exercises up offers different musculature to be primary and secondary, offering the best chance at a well-rounded approach to both appearance and strength.”
To bring some heat to as many muscles in your back as possible, switch up your routine on a regular basis. “The back works in multiple angles during your normal daily activities, so your exercise routine should work the back in different angles as well,” says Kernen. “There are hundreds of back exercises. Keep your routine interesting and functional by changing it more often.”
If you make these adjustments to your workout regimen and those defining lines have yet to appear on your back, don’t beat yourself up.
“Research tells us that to build up muscle size and increase tonicity, you must exercise three to five days a week for six to eight weeks just to build muscle memory and feel stronger,” says Bales. “To build true strength, it takes more like three months. To maintain strength, the same or increased intensity of exercise must be maintained two to four days a week.” Patience, grasshopper.