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How To Build Lean Functional Back Muscle

Having lean functional muscle, especially back muscle was one of my original inspirations for training. Whether I was watching Bruce Lee’s famous lat spread in “Way of the Dragon”, Lu Xiaojun doing weight training, or playing Street Fighter and seeing the memorable “heaven” kanji on Akuma’s back, I have always been fascinated with back training.

Soon, you can develop the back strength of a raging demon!

Thus, I felt pretty bad knowing the amount of people in this world who suffer from chronic back pain. With the exception of injuries and disease, much of this pain is a result of muscular imbalances.

I mean, look at the Western fitness model. Huge chest and arms with broad shoulders and tight abs, especially a pencil thin waist. Aesthetically, it’s pleasing, but it gives people the notion that the back can be ignored for the chest, arms, and anything you can show nicely in the mirror.

The back gets little focus, yet has truly the most pivotal muscle groups to train. In most workspaces in the country, people are sitting at their desks for hours at a time with often poor postural alignment.

Add on driving time, or sitting in a train car for long periods of time, through in a lack of hip mobility because the hours of sitting shortens your hip flexor, a little salt, bake at 350 degrees, and you have a recipe for spinal disaster.

But fear not! There’s a solution to this issue. Yeah, you know what’s coming. Isometric Exercise.

You know, so you can develop muscle like this. But, on your back.

“But I don’t have enough time to go to the gym!” you say? Well that’s exactly why I promote a system of exercises that each take a minimum of 7 and a MAXIMUM of 12 seconds to complete. Just so we’re clear, each exercise you do will require no more than 12 seconds to finish. You can do an entire back workout in less time than the average toothbrusher. How?

Let’s break down the anatomy of the back first, and then we can build it up the right way.

I look at the back in terms of four main groupings of muscle: the traps, the rhomboids, the lats, and the erector spinae. 

A Note on The Scapula

Before even addressing those muscles, I’ve got to address the huge wing-like bones in your back: the scapulae. Did you know that 17 different muscles attach to your scapulae? That includes some chest muscles, your serratus, back muscles, etc.

That means that limited mobility and unnecessary tension in the scapula can affect your neck, your arms, your spine, your shoulders, and your general way of being. I would never want you to live like that simply because you “don’t have enough time”, so I’m going to show you a few 12 second isometric exercises you can do involving each muscle group I cover.

READ THIS BEFORE PERFORMING ANY ISOMETRIC EXERCISE: the most important aspect of these exercises is muscle control. Your primary goal with weightlifting is to move the weight; your primary goal with this training is to maximally develop the mind-muscle connection.

Don’t simply perform the movements; flex the pertaining muscles with all you’ve got, and eventually you’ll have truly developed lean, functional muscle. Basically, don't simply do the movements, but flex those muscles are hard as you can while doing the exercise. If you find you cannot flex certain muscles as well, just continue to perform the isometric exercises and your ability to flex will improve.

The Trapezius

Some of the major muscles involved are the traps and the lats. These are likely the most noticeable when I say “back muscles”. The traps are unavoidable; when they’re really built up, you can see them from the front.

They’re huge, diamond shaped muscles (let your partner see those diamonds on Valentine’s Day), and helps to abduct, retract, and repress the scapulae. They’re the shrug, farmer’s carry, make-you-look-like-you-fight-bears muscles, and they deserve proper attention in any training regimen.

The Latissimus Dorsi

Then, of course, the lats. Those beautiful wings that stretch all the way from your armpit almost down to your glutes. Even more than adding to Bruce Lee’s fame, those muscles function to extend, adduct, and internally rotate the shoulder joint.

Furthermore, they help with the extension and lateral flexion of the lumbar spine. Your pull-upers, or lat pulldowners, and even your rowers all train their lats to different degrees.

The Rhomboids

The rhomboids are muscles that help with scapular retraction, and are shaped like a...take a wild guess (if you guessed circle, you’re probably voting for Donald Trump). It attaches your scapulae to your spinal column, so it’s kind of, slightly, very important to train. Having weak rhomboids contributes to shoulder injuries, and reduces thoracic spine mobility.

The Erector Spinae

Alas, the deadlift muscle: the erector spinae. The erector spinae is a long bundle of muscles that run along the spine and aid stability. That was an understatement: training this muscle is vital to your basic function of standing up straight or leaning backwards. When people address core training, abs are often the only muscle group brought up, but the erector spinae is a vital part of your core. This is the muscle that seems to be the biggest victim of neglect as thousands of people suffer from mild to chronic lower back pain that could be alleviated simply by training this muscle (except special circumstances, of course).

You have the muscles, why they’re important to train, and hopefully the motivation to approach these next few exercises I present. Although simple in nature, they can be deceptively difficult, even if you have a decent base of muscle. As I often say, strength is more than muscle.

The Exercises

Wrestler's Bridge

This first exercise will be the most advanced of the exercises I share, and one of the kings of bodyweight back training: the wrestler’s bridge. To perform this isometric exercise:

  1. Lie on your back with your feet on the ground
  2. Push yourself onto your neck using your hands for support
  3. Once your support is on your head and feet, remove your hands
  4. Build the tension in your back muscles as you build tension for 3-4 seconds
  5. While in this position, flex your neck, back, and glutes as hard as you can for 7-12 seconds
  6. Rest


Photo from Bodybuilding.com

An incredible back exercise that will make you feel like flying around with a cape and an allergy to green rocks. Here's the recipe for building a superhero back.

  1. Lie on the ground face down with your arms extended above your head. Simple enough.
  2. Raise your legs, arms, and chest off the floor
  3. Build the tension in your back muscles as you breath for 3-4 seconds
  4. Hold this position for 7-12 seconds while flexing your lower back, glutes, upper back and shoulders as hard as you can
  5. Rest

Lat Press Down

Photo from Isometric-Training.com

This is an exercise that I love to perform that's quite simple. As long as you have a hardcover book, you can have some wings worthy of taking flight. Likewise, you can perform this exercise by putting your fists on a counter and pressing downwards. This is one of my favorite exercises from 7 Seconds to A Perfect Body to perform, and it yields powerful results as well as the rest of the exercises in the program.

  1. Find a sturdy hardback book 
  2. Stand in a semi-squat with your back straight and bent at the waist
  3. Grasp the book in with both hands with the spine against one of your thighs, and your elbows out and slightly flexed
  4. Push against the book as though trying to push it through your legs
  5. Build the tension in your lats for 3-4 seconds
  6. Push the book hard as you can while flexing your lats as hard as you can for 7-12 seconds
  7. Rest

Shoulder Door Press

This is not for the faint of heart or the vertically challenged (sorry, folks). This builds powerful trap strength, incredible shoulder strength, and can be done anywhere there's a doorway. This is also good for developing stability in your handstands.

  1. Stand underneath a doorway and place your hands underneath
  2. Build tension in your shoulders and traps for 3-4 seconds as you prepare to press upwards (Tip: if you press upwards with your arms, it works your shoulders more, and can work your traps more by doing more of a shrug than a push)
  3. Press or shrug upwards as hard as you can while flexing your shoulders and traps as hard as you can for 7-12 seconds.
  4. Rest

These isometric exercises will develop incredible lean functional back muscle in mere seconds a day, and give you the strength of tendons, ligaments, and fascia that could otherwise be impaired through momentum based exercises. Godspeed and happy training!

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