Most people admit that part of their weight-training program is about looking good. In addition to the fitness benefits, a regular routine tones your body and enhances confidence. But smart weight-training is not just about pecs and abs. Though most people know this, their exercise regimens don’t always show it. Fitness routines can easily become more comfortable and image-oriented than conscientious.
“Most people start strength training for cosmetic reasons, so they are more interested in the muscles they can see. Functionally, however, muscles we can’t see are often more important than those we can,” says Rob Hughes, M.S., exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson.
Hughes emphasizes that training muscles asymmetrically – working the front of the shoulders but not the upper back, for example – often creates posture and joint problems.
“As a general rule, the muscles behind you – the upper back, the erector spina, and the anti-gravity muscles – are the most important functionally. And actually, they’re important even if you’re mostly interested in looking good. We need to remember that, while we don’t see our backs and bottoms when we look in the mirror, other people notice them every day.”
Hughes identifies three commonly overlooked muscle groups to target for a pain-free, fully functional body – the lumbar spine, the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder and the forearms – and recommends a simple exercise for each one. With all three exercises, the goal is not to look great in a bathing suit, but to avoid pain and debility further down the line – which will, of course, eventually affect your appearance. Keeping the body working properly is the foundation not only of health, but of beauty.
The lumbar spine
Hughes says he often sees guests who assiduously train their upper backs while neglecting the area of the back most prone to injury: the inward curve of the lower back.
“Research shows that people with good tone, strength and endurance in the lumbar region are less likely to experience back pain than others. Nonetheless, I see a lot of weak lower backs, even in clients with well-developed shoulders, chests and abs. People train these muscles because they see them, but training the front while neglecting the back tends to lead to incorrect posture and problems with balance.”
Hughes recommends using a seated lumbar extension machine to safely strengthen the lumbar area. Using the machine is straightforward: Simply sit down with the pad between your shoulder blades and push back against the pad, moving smoothly from the waist. Since the lower back muscles are often weak at the beginning, he suggests starting with just 10 pounds on the stack and progressing gradually. Avoid any part of the exercise that is painful.
“Interestingly, the muscles of the lower back get quite strong if you work them just one or two days a week with 10 to 20 repetitions. For a small investment, you get a huge return,” Hughes says.
Rotator cuff muscles in the shoulder joint
These four small muscles act as stabilizers in everyday movements such as raising your arms and reaching to the side.
“A sure sign that you have neglected these muscles too long is shoulder discomfort when doing a bench press, pectoral deck or lateral raises. If you have pain in the shoulder doing these moves, there is a good chance the rotator cuff is already damaged or not working properly. In that case, you should consult a doctor or physical therapist,” Hughes says.
If you don’t have shoulder pain, take the initiative and train your rotator cuff muscles before they cause trouble: Lie on your left side, holding a one- to five-pound hand weight in your right hand. Bend your right elbow 90 degrees, holding your upper arm against your side and your forearm across the front of your body. Keeping your elbow against your ribs, lift the weight toward the ceiling. (Don’t lift any higher than is comfortable.) Lower slowly, contracting the external rotators. Perform two sets of 15 to 20 repetitions for each arm.
A Dynaband (exercise band) offers an effective standing alternative: Loop one end of the band over a doorknob and hold the other end in your right hand. Stand with your left side or back against the door. Hold your right upper arm against your side and pull outward with your hand away from the door, keeping the elbow against the ribs. Perform two sets of 15 to 20 repetitions for each arm.
Front and back forearms
Hughes suggests wrist curls to strengthen the forearms, an area especially prone to weakness with advancing age.
“This exercise is particularly useful for people who are prone to arthritis, those with problems with gripping or opening lids, and those who do lots of computer work.”
Sit comfortably and lean forward, resting your forearms on your thighs with your hands and wrists hanging over your knees. Hold a three- to ten-pound weight in each hand, palms upward. Slowly flex the weights up and down, 10 to 15 times. Repeat with palms facing downward. Perform one or two sets several days weekly.
“These exercises are commonly used in rehabilitation, but an even better use for them is ‘prehab’ – in other words, prevention,” Hughes explains. “It doesn’t take very much effort to avoid a host of common problems.”