Fitness Tip of the Month: Exercises to build a better back (part 1)

Heather Sansom describes an exercise to help strengthen back muscles, helping riders develop a sense of relaxed strength.

The previous article on building a better back for riding described some of the areas in a rider’s torso which need to be strengthened to support the spine in correct posture.? (View article here:

The majority of riders in North America started riding later in life, which means that they start riding having bypassed the opportunity to train their own straightness and posture when it might have come more easily. Additionally, the majority of riders are also in an age group (30-60yrs) when the rider’s postural muscles and ability to respond to sport requirements are impacted by age. As discussed at length in the previous article, riding in an upright posture on a horizontal moving horse introduces a significant load to the rider’s spine.

The best physical circumstance for the rider is to have strong and supple postural muscles (also shown in the previous article). Just as for a horse, suppleness in the rider pre-supposes both flexibility and strength. It is sometimes helpful to think of muscle as an impact buffer. Tendons and ligaments do not have much relative elasticity, nor are? they meant to. Bones have even less. When movement or impact introduced to the body travels quickly to the bones and ligaments due to lack of muscle tone, the opportunity for long-term and even acute strain and injury are increased because tissues that are not designed to manage a load, are asked to do so many thousands of repetitions throughout a ride, a week of riding or a season of riding.

Protecting the joints (including the many spinal joints) and bones (disks in your spine included) requires sufficient muscle to manage the loading to the rider’s body from the horse’s motion, as well as the rider’s chosen responses (aids) and unconscious responses (constant posture re-balancing and re-organization of readiness for aids throughout the ride).

To have suppleness, a rider needs sufficient muscle mass because insufficient mass will result in tightening responses in the muscles, and harder tissues like ligaments, fascia. Sufficient muscle mass is like having margin in your budget. You can relax, and the same works physically. When the rider has sufficient muscle to absorb demand and respond easily, the body does not introduce tension (provided other mental factors do not cause the tension). This is easy to understand when thinking of your horse’s conditioning. It is the same with the horse who is typically conditioned to a capacity much greater than the actual movements and length of time required in competition. Trotting up hills uses a horse’s hind end more than may be needed, and over more time than needed for a dressage test. By training him this way, he will be more capable for powering from behind on the flat and asking him to push himself on the flat will not be so difficult or stressful for him physically or mentally.

Suppleness is not only a function of strength, but relaxed strength. Muscles tend to knot when strength is trained in short range of motion. This is why a horse that is working in high level collection does not spend his entire training session in high collection. He is kept lengthening to ensure that he does not develop tense bunchiness. The same principle applies to human training. An observation of dryland training sessions for any sport will show the athletes moving in all kinds of patterns beyond those used in the actual motions of the sport. Since riders – especially in dressage- have fairly short range of motion while mounted, it is especially important to use exercises that work the required muscles along their complete length. I have seen many shoulder and hip issues which were the result of a rider being too many hours in a small range with those joints (too much saddle time in ratio to other activities), resulting in locked down or frozen shoulders, and hip tension patterns which worked against the rider’s performance.

So, when choosing exercises to work the rider’s back stabilizing muscle groups, I usually recommend exercises that will stimulate activation of the relevant muscles along more length, and in different planes than are used in the seated riding posture. Once the rider is sure that the muscles are working along their length, and that the right muscle groups are activating for torso stabilization, then it is effective to bring the new physical capability back to the seated posture. Each individual is different, but often if a rider does an unmounted exercise from a replicated riding posture to start with, they reproduce the same inefficiencies and problems they show in the saddle, on the ground. Then the exercise loses it’s benefit because the rider ends up reinforcing the muscle patterns and weaknesses we are trying to untrain.

The following exercises help a rider first activate the backline torso muscles from the seat (gluteals) up to the shoulders, then maintain the same activation while shifting to the upright position used in riding. The third step is to then move to a seated posture, without losing the correctness in torso stabilization and use of back muscles. This month we look at the first exercise. Watch next month’s issue for the remaining two in the sequence. In each of these exercises, the rider lifts their arm overhead, without compromising spine neutrality: the spine is always held in a neutral position and is not allowed to hollow. When the exercise can be peformed correctly with no resistance, the difficulty of the exercise can be enhanced by increasing the loading at the furthest end of the physical lever- using resistance tubing of different weights held in the hand. The more the rider uses resistance, the more there will be temptation to hollow the back, or to power through the shoulders. Male riders should be particularly careful of allowing the shoulder and arm muscles to take over. All riders need to remember to push the shoulder blades down their back during each step of the exercises in order to avoid compensation by the upper trapezius (big shoulder muscle area connecting shoulders and neck which is often an area of tension for riders).

Exercise of the Month: Bent over Forward Reach

This exercise demands that the rider straighten their back, using body weight as the first resistance while the rider engages their entire backline to achieve a straight back posture parallel to the floor. Riders with locked forward shoulders or locked upper backs will find this exercise quite difficult. If achieving straightness as the first step is quite difficult, it is sometimes helpful to place your hands on your thighs just above your knee and push your upper body upwards. Lift the chin and look up. The rider’s back is a long lever with its base at the rider’s hip. Bend your knees slightly and sit back into your seat a little to engage the gluteals. They are the anchor for the lower back. Lengthen the back as long as you can make it, and then lift up your head and chest. When you can hold the posture without a problem, and you can feel or see the length of your long back muscles engaged from the tailbone to the bottom or your head, you are ready to introduce more resistance to help build strength and stamina.

Reach one arm forward and parallel with the floor in a straight line with your torso. I recommend working with mirrors or a partner until you are very confident that your subjective awareness of straightness is accurate. The exercise is performed best with a slow raising of the arm, slight pause and slow lowering. A slow and rhythmic speed gives you the opportunity to engage your core to support your back, and build some endurance because you cannot just cheat with momentum and gravity. When 10-15 repetitions with good form are fairly easy, you are ready to introduce more loading by holding a light object. The amount of weight you use is limited by your ability to hold correct form, and to keep your torso and long back correctly engaged. As soon as you find that these are being compromised so that you can achieve lifting the weight, then the point of the exercise has been lost.






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