Wouldn’t it be great if there was a magic exercise that could target back fat? This sounds too good to be true, and indeed it is! But targeting back fat with exercise is not possible if you factor in some things and prepared to work the whole body.
This article will detail why this is the case, and how it’s possible to improve the overall appearance of your back through exercise. But first, let’s understand fat.
What is back fat and how does it come about?
The body stores fat as a source of energy – the result of an evolutionary mechanism to prevent starvation. In the 21st century, the abundance of food has resulted in our tendency to overeat and store this extra energy as fat. In many people, this leads to unhealthy weight gain when coupled with a sedentary lifestyle.
Three kinds of fat exist in the body: essential, subcutaneous, and visceral fat. Essential fat is fat that is essential for life and includes fat that makes up cell membranes, myelin sheaths, bone marrow, and that is involved in other essential bodily processes.
Subcutaneous fat is stored under the skin and makes up most of the body’s fat storage. Visceral fat is the fat that surrounds internal organs and is associated most strongly with malignancies related to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndromes. Fat is stored largely in fat cells called adipocytes which make up adipose tissue.
Subcutaneous fat is the fat that contributes to a less than appealing physique, and so this will be the focus of discussion moving forward. Back fat is essentially just subcutaneous fat that sits under the skin of the back.
How to target back fat?
As was stated before, it’s impossible to target back fat directly. However, it is possible to target overall fat, and by reducing this, back fat will also be reduced. When your body uses energy, for instance during exercise, your muscles are supplied with energy derived primarily from carbohydrates and fats. Calories are typically used to measure the amount of energy supplied to working muscles, which is proportionate to the intensity and duration of the exercise.
By engaging in high-intensity exercise such as HIIT, it’s possible to burn the most calories in the shortest amount of time – and hence lose the most back fat as a proportion of overall fat. This is despite the fact that lower intensity exercise burns a greater proportion of fat as compared to carbohydrates than does high-intensity exercise. This is because high-intensity exercise burns more energy overall, and often fat is used to replenish carbohydrate stores in the body, via the process of gluconeogenesis, post-exercise. This creates a longer-lasting fat-burning period than that resulting from low-intensity exercise.
Strength training for a better looking back
In addition to HIIT, strength training can be used to build a leaner and more appealing back. By increasing the lean muscle mass in the back, you will create a leaner and more elegant back. This is often referred to as ‘toning’ and is actually the result of firmer and better-shaped legs, arms, and back by increasing lean muscle mass in these areas.
Exercises that target the back come in many flavors. Unlike just about every other body part, to train the back you will need some equipment. All of the equipment can be found at your local gym or can be purchased at the local sports store. We have broken down these strength exercises into those that can be done at the gym and those that can be done from home.
Back exercises at the gym for a leaner back:
1. Seated row
The seated row is a fantastic exercise that requires the seated row machine. This machine works the back better than perhaps any other. To create firmer muscles around the upper back where back fat tends to accumulate, it’s necessary to work the rhomboids and lower trapezius specifically. It’s also important to isolate these muscles without activating the upper trapezius muscles, which for many people, are already overstimulated through sedentary behavior and the resulting postural problems.
To complete this exercise correctly you will need to sit up straight and pull only through the arms and back without changing the position of the rest of your body. If you need to lurch back to bring the weight in, the weight is too heavy!
There are 2 secrets to this exercise: scapula retraction and scapula depression. The scapula is a triangular bone structure that sits on your back and is involved in the movement of the rotator cuff. Scapula retraction can be thought of as the ‘pinching of the shoulder blades’ together. Extend your arms in front of you and imagine a coin between your shoulder blades – now squeeze the coin using your shoulder blades. This is scapula retraction.
Scapula depression is a related movement where the idea is to minimize the engagement of the upper trapezius. To better understand this movement, you will need to lift your shoulders up as high as possible without lifting your arms. You should look like a turtle hiding its head in its shell! Now lower your shoulders as much as possible – typically you should be able to lower them below their typical resting position. This is scapula depression.
While performing the seated row, as with every back exercise to follow, it’s imperative that the scapula is both retracted and depressed during muscle engagement in both the concentric and eccentric phases of every exercise. If you’re struggling with these movements, you should consider professional coaching as the incorrect engagement of the back can lead to injury.
2. Dumbbell bent-over row
This is a dumbbell exercise that can really get the rhomboids going! This exercise can be done either standing or leaning over a bench and requires the back to be parallel to the ground. The back is engaged as the dumbbell is pulled vertically up against gravity. For newcomers to this exercise or for those wanting to lift heavier, it is recommended that a bench is used for increased stability.
The bench variation requires that one knee be placed on top of the bench while the second foot remains on the ground. One hand is also placed on the bench while the other holds the dumbbell. As such, in this variation, only 1 side of the back can be exercised at a time.
3. TRX rows
The TRX is a suspended training tool that is great for working out the back with your own bodyweight. TRX rows can be done by leaning back while holding the TRX handles and pulling up at a 45-degree angle. By adjusting the angle through the position of the feet, it is possible to change the exercise difficulty. By placing the feet further forward, the exercise can be made significantly harder.
Exercises at home for a better back
1. Resistance band seated row
The seated row exercise can be performed at home using a resistance band. Select a resistance band with the appropriate thickness – the thicker the band, the harder the exercise will be. Take a seat and loop the band around your feet. Pull the band while maintaining good posture. Some resistance bands also have handles which can make the exercise more comfortable to complete.
2. Australian pull-ups
Australian pull-ups are great because they can be done at the local park without buying equipment or investing in a gym membership. All you need is a low bar or set of parallel bars to complete this exercise. This exercise replicates the TRX rows and is done underneath the bar while keeping an angle of 45 degrees. Pull yourself up at this angle while maintaining a straight body. Your objective is to touch your chest to the bar.
Back fat cannot be targeted directly through exercise, but overall fat definitely can be! High-intensity exercise is best for reducing overall fat, which will contribute to the loss of back fat as well. Strength exercises for the back can also strengthen the back muscles creating a firmer and leaner looking back.
Guest Author: Vic is a Melbourne-based Personal Trainer, Calisthenics Athlete, and the Founder of Street Workout St Kilda & Liquid Chalk Shop. He has a passion for bodyweight training and the art of movement.
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