By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
You’ve slipped on that awesome clingy knit top and as you sashay in front of the mirror, you suddenly stop dead in your tracks, staring at your back. Oh no. Instead of a smooth, sexy back, you’ve got lumps galore popping up around your bra line, creeping down your sides and spilling over your waistband. You’re buried in back fat. Where does this stuff come and what can you do about it?
Fat distribution generally follows a genetic pattern. Some people just lay down more excess fat on their back. And the only way to reduce the fat load is to do enough cardio and strength training to burn the fat fuel, deflate the fat cells, and reduce the lumps. Clearly, this has to be coupled with an effective and consistent nutritional intake of whole foods, grains, lean protein, and lots of fiber. Then, add High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to your cardio. This means you need to start with a baseline of cardio that works for you (your age, gender, level of training, any disabilities) and then, with the approval of your medical team as needed, increase the level of difficulty you’re doing for your walking, running, biking, indoor cycling, swimming, or elliptical. Using simple intervals (increasing intensity for a period from 1-3 minutes) alternate hitting it hard then returning to a moderate (not resting, as you need to keep the heart working) pace. You not only increase the calorie burn but you get the same results you would spending twice the time doing cardio at a lesser intensity. Don’t forget to do your cardio at least 5x a week, and try doing the HIIT sessions 2-3x a week.
OK, let’s get down to back fat burning basics. We’ll be doing three moves that are easy to perform and can be done in the comfort of your own home or anywhere you want. This is gym-free so you’re in charge of finding the right place and time to build those back muscles. All you need is some room to move around, a floor mat, and an ab ball. Remember that if you have any medical conditions and/or disability, please clear any new exercise regimen with your medical team. Keep in mind that if you’re a beginner, just do what you can while maintaining excellent form. Work your way up over time to hit the 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Be patient as your body becomes stronger with consistent practice. Do your back exercises once or twice a week.
1) Lower Back Extension off the floor: If done correctly, this exercise feels really good. This is especially true for all of us stuck slouching over a computer, constantly putting a strain on the lower back. As well as strengthening your back, you’re toning muscle and helping to prevent back problems from happening in the future. With the back extension, you’re targeting the lats, which are the largest muscle in the back. This is important to know because as you work your lower ab muscles, you need to balance by working your back muscles as well. There’s a great saying you should remember: The stronger the ab the stronger the back, and vice versa.
Lie down on the floor face down and place your hands on the floor or behind your head (if you can handle that as it’s more advanced). Now, engage your ab muscles by contracting them and keeping them engaged throughout the exercise. Squeeze your back to lift your chest just a few inches off the floor. Count to 5 if you can, then slowly lower to start position. Aim for 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions. If you want to try a more advanced move, as you lift your chest lift your legs off the floor at the same time.
2) Back Extension off the ab ball: Here we’re going to add a little twist to the traditional back extension off the floor. When you add the ab ball, you’ll have more range of motion than you get by working off the floor. Also, since the ball is unstable, you’ll be testing your balance. Some people prop their feet against the wall to gain more stability.
Grab the ab ball and place it under your tummy and hips, with knees bent or straight out behind you. Place your hands under your chin, behind your head or keep them resting on the ball. You have choices! Lower your upper torso over the ball and then squeeze your lower back and lift your chest off the ball. As you lift off the ball, don’t hyperextend, and rise up to a level where you feel the back stretch but no pain. Count to 5 and slowly lower down to start position. Repeat for 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.
3) Bridge: This is an all-time favorite exercise of mine. You’re toning and strengthening your glutes and abs, as well as your lower back muscles. Get back down on your floor mat and lie on your back. Bend your knees and place your feet under each knee. Keep your arms to the side, look up to the ceiling and engage your ab muscles. Next, push up through your heels and lift your hips and lower back off the ground. Stop when your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line. Hold for a count of 5. Slowly lower toward the ground and end just above the ground, maintaining tension, and then repeat. For this exercise aim for 10-15 repetitions. If you want to add more complexity, then as you push through your heels and lift your hips and lower back, straighten one leg, either point or flex your heel, hold for a count of 5 and then bring back down. Repeat to the other side.
One great benefit of doing these exercises is they make you more mindful of your back muscles. With practice you’ll feel more flexible, toned, and whoa, where’d that back fat go?