By Jessica Morris
Whether it’s a wedding, party for the holidays or red carpet event, strapless dresses seem to be de rigueur for formal gatherings. Couture designers from Dior to Versace and beyond have shown backless dresses on their runways, which celebs have then paraded with pride at premieres.
Whilst strapless gowns are eternally elegant, they do look best when worn by someone with a toned upper body. Legs aren’t much on display, so those aren’t an issue – but your back and arms are on show for the world to see, and unless you want your dress to fall dead straight to the floor like a pillar, then a firm booty is a must, too.
Since many of us work long hours hunched over a laptop, talking on cellphones or sitting at a desk all day, our posture has taken a hit. Our backs have become weaker, our arms flabbier, and our butts wider, thanks to modern working routines. But never fear: I’ve created this Better Back Workout to help you look great on top and from behind. You’ll build lean muscle and strength, especially in your posterior chain: the glutes, core and back, as well as in your arms.
Tip: To make a real difference in your muscle tone, perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps of each exercise with a 30-45 second rest between sets. Select an appropriate weight for your strength level – or in some cases, don’t use weights at all.
Tip: Don’t go much higher than you can handle – these should burn a bit after the second set, but if you’re gritting your teeth and shaking just to get a set done, you’re lifting too much!
1. Rowing Machine (Cable Row)
This is a great piece of equipment because it works so many muscle groups, including those in the thighs, back and arms. For cardio bunnies, this one is a calorie burner too – and it’s a great way to warm up before your start lifting heavier weights. Oh, and did I mention it will help improve your posture?
How to do: Slightly bending your knees, grab onto the cable row machine with a proud chest, and shoulders back, pull the handle toward your mid-stomach as you squeeze your belly in towards your back.
Avoid: Rounding your back and fully straightening your legs.
2. Barbell Row
Toned arms are the best accessory for a strapless dress! I know this move looks pretty ‘macho’, but don’t be afraid of bulking up – women don’t get all muscly the way men do by simply lifting weights – you can use whichever weight feels best for you here. Want a better bootie? This moves helps a bit with that, too.
How to do: Bend your knees and maintain a flat back. Grab the bar (underhand or overhead) with your hands approximately shoulder width apart, pull the bar towards your belly button and squeeze your upper back as you pull your elbows towards the ceiling.
Avoid: Curving the back and splaying the elbow outwards.
3. Lat Pull Down
This is a great exercise for your posture. You’ll especially benefit from this one if you have a desk job that sees you hunched over a desk all day!
How to do: With wide arms, place your hands on the bar with a firm grip. Pull the bar towards your sternum as you squeeze your upper back and lats with a proud chest, maintaining your shoulders in a strong, pulled-back position.
Avoid: Shoulders rounding forward or bringing the bar below your chest.
This one may look intimidating to those of you not used to the weights section of the gym, but never fear – you can start out doing this with the bar alone, and if it feels too easy, then add some light weights. It really works your glutes, making this the perfect exercise for anyone hoping to get a more shapely butt.
How to do it: Your starting position should have the barbell 1cm from your shins. Hinge your hips back until your hands touch the barbell. You should feel tension in your glutes and hamstrings. Maintaining a tight grip on the bar, ensure your shoulders are down and back as you pull the bar up with your legs, to a standing position, squeezing your legs and glutes.
Avoid: Rounding your back, shoulders rolling forward.
5. Weighted Donkey Kicks
This is a classic exercise for toning the glutes. You can use strap on ankle weights if you have them or free weights (as I did) if not. If you’ve never done this exercise before, I’d recommend going without weights at first – otherwise, you’re going to really, really feel this the next day!
How to do it: Place a light weight (I used 5lb) at the back of your knee, position your body into a tabletop position, on all fours, with a strong core-try tilting your pelvis forward to tighten your core muscles. Lift your knee to the sky with the weight, and squeeze at the top of the position. Place your knee back down towards the floor at the bottom of the position.
Avoid: arching or flexing your back.
6. Alternating Backward Lunges
A great one for re-teaching your body about maintaining a strong core. It also really works your quadriceps and glutes.
How to do it: Holding 2 dumbbells, or a barbell, maintain a proud chest, as one leg steps back into a 90 degree angle with the knee hovering over the floor. Keep your core stable and balanced. Step back into a standing position, and alternate to the opposite leg.
Avoid: Rounding the back and stepping to far back (beyond 90 degrees).
Jessica Morris is a nutritional practitioner and personal trainer with a specialty in body composition, natural nutrition and longevity. See more about her here.
Main image: Rachel McAdams in Atelier Versace