Saddle and Strength
Favorite Back Lifts
Back is one of my personal favorite muscle groups to work, and seeing muscular development and progress in that area has been exciting over the years I have been lifting. It has also been encouraging to see just how much that aspect of training has helped me on horseback.
Strengthening my back and by extension, core muscles, has made one of the most significant changes to my lifting and riding abilities. I have come to believe that having a strong back is crucial to comfort and posture in the saddle. Personally, I keep up with working my back once per week at the very least in order to maintain the strength I've gained. Through much trial and error in the two powerlifting meet preps I have gone through, along with training prior, I have identified my favorite and most worthwhile back exercises. Try incorporating them into your weekly routine and see if they benefit you too!
Being a powerlifter, I typically get most of my weekly back training from deadlifts. I am currently unable to deadlift due to a minor injury, so I have increased my "accessory" back work to compensate. Although deadlifts are a great form of back strengthening (even utilizing a "sumo" stance as I do), they are truly a compound movement and engage multiple muscle groups. To ensure all of my back muscles get enough work, I really value isolation movements as well. Here are some of my favorite back exercises and common "cues" that I remember when performing them:
Performing unassisted pull-ups
- Pull-ups: these have been perhaps the most challenging but most beneficial exercise I have worked on improving. When I began, I was not able to perform one unassisted pull-up or chin-up, but now I am able to do multiple sets of each. If you would like to begin working on them, first use an assisted pull-up machine if it is available to you, or use a large exercise band for assistance. You can use the band for help by wrapping it around the pull-up bar you are using, and either putting the other end under your bent knees or your feet if you decide to keep you legs straight. I always remember to pull my shoulder blades down and back before each rep to ensure I am using my back properly and keeping my biceps from taking over the movement. I also make sure to get a full range of motion and hold and squeeze at the top of each pull-up. Make sure to take your time and feel your back engage with each rep so avoid swinging or using momentum.
- Lat pull-downs: I remember many of the same cues from pull-up for this exercise. Scapular engagement before each pull down, full range of motion, and a nice squeeze at the bottom of the pull. You will need a lat pull-down machine or cable machine with attachments for this exercise.
- Bent-over barbell rows: control of the weight and quality muscle contraction are very important in this exercise to gain strength and avoid injury. You may only need to bend over a little; make sure you are in a comfortable stance. Remember to engage your core muscles, bend your knees slightly, and keep the bar close to your body with a neutral spine. Don't be afraid to start with a light weight on this exercise. Take your time to feel each rep, engage your scapula, and thing about rowing "through your elbows." I have found that cue to be effective in reminding me to pull with good form, whether I am holding the bar with an under hand or over hand grip.
Bent-over barbell rows
Seated rows: you will need a seated row or cable machine for this exercise. You may even use an exercise band if you want less resistance or that is all you have available. One of the most important cues of this exercise is to keep your core tight and engaged throughout the movement while still breathing. Keep your knees slightly bent, spine in a neutral position, and be careful to not use much momentum. Just like the other exercises I have listed, retract your scapula before the movement and pull "through your elbows." If you are using a machine or cables, there are a variety of attachments you can utilize to switch up your grip. If available to you, the chest supported row machine is one of my preferred variations as well.
- Face pulls: although this is an exercise for rear delt muscles, I usually like to include these in my back day as well as shoulder day. You will need a cable attachment for these. I set the rope to slightly above eye level, and pull directly towards my face, being careful to keep my elbows up and feel the squeeze in the backside of my shoulders. Control and contraction are of the utmost importance with this lift. I keep the weight relatively low and my reps high to feel a good burn.
If you are interested in strengthening your back for riding or everyday purposes, these exercises may benefit you. As always, consult your physician before beginning any exercise or strength training regime. I am no trainer, but I love sharing what has worked for me in the gym and carried over to the saddle. Back health is of the utmost importance, and prioritizing my strength has made a night and day difference.
Until next time!