The forgotten muscles

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Strengthen your upper back and shoulders for a significant improvement in how you look and feel.

Abs, thighs and hips are at the forefront of most people's training goals. Meanwhile, some of our most important muscles are overlooked — namely, the upper back and shoulder rotators, which are responsible for holding us upright, maintaining our posture, and stabilizing the scapula (shoulder blades) and the freely mobile shoulder joint for every activity we do. If they're underdeveloped, you may end up suffering from a rounded, slouched appearance. Add hours spent at a desk job, hunched over a keyboard, and you'll take home an aching back as well.

Try this workout to become more aware of these "forgotten" muscles, and you'll see a notable difference in your posture and performance. There's also a more esoteric, if no less valuable, benefit handed down from yoga traditions: When your shoulder blades draw down, your chest lifts and opens your heart center, allowing more clarity and harmony into your life.
clue into your muscles

Try these back-saving tips to increase your muscle memory and keep your posture in check.

* Instead of pulling your shoulders back, draw the bottom of your shoulder blades down and in toward your spine and lift your breastbone; maintain this position whether standing or seated. This is a subtle movement that creates balance for your entire upper torso. (It may be uncomfortable at first, particularly if you're not accustomed to it.) Hold the position for about 15 seconds, then relax as needed. Add on 15 to 30 seconds at a time until you're doing it without having to think about it.
* If you can't feel the rhomboid muscles located between your shoulder blades, have a friend place two fingers there and visualize the tips of your shoulder blades touching them; ask your friend if he or she can feel your muscles contracting.
* Be aware of when you're slouching, then self-correct immediately. You'll eventually break the habit.

EXTERNAL ROTATION

1. a. Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, lie on your left side, head supported on your upper arm, knees bent, shoulders and hips stacked. Tuck your right elbow close to your side, bent to a 90-degree angle, palm pointing down. Contract your abs, keeping the spine in a neutral alignment.
2. b. Maintain elbow position and rotate your arm until your knuckles point to the ceiling. Slowly lower and repeat, then switch arms.

HIGH ROW WITH ROTATION

Sit with your feet flat, knees aligned with ankles. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. With back straight and abs contracted, hinge from your hips until your chest is over your thighs, arms hanging in line with the shoulders, palms facing rear. Bend your elbows and pull them up, keeping forearms parallel and knuckles pointing down.

Your head and neck should be aligned with your spine, with the shoulder blades squeezed down and together. Maintaining this position, rotate your arms from the shoulders to raise the dumbbells up until your knuckles point forward. Keep the wrists straight. Rotate your arms back down, then straighten the arms and repeat.
BENT-OVER FLY

Begin in the same bent-over position as the High Row but with elbows in a slight arc and palms facing in.

Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back, then lift your arms up and out to shoulder height, keeping your wrists straight. Slowly lower your arms and repeat.
SIDE PLANK ONE-ARM LIFT

Kneel on your left knee and place your left hand on the floor just under the shoulder, fingers parallel to your body, arms straight. Extend your right leg to the side so the side of your big toe is on the floor. (You can also balance in a full side plank position with both legs extended.) Keep your right arm alongside your body, with your palm facing down toward your thigh, holding a dumbbell in your right hand.

Inhale and lift your right arm up toward the ceiling to align with your shoulder, palm facing forward. Keeping your right arm straight, lower it out over your chest and toward the floor, knuckles pointing down. Circle your arm back to return to (A). Do reps, then change position to repeat with the other arm.
the basic 5

These elements are crucial to your baseline body needs in order to maintain health. The activities highlighted in dark blue are components of the integrated workout on these pages.

Strength: Increases muscular and functional strength, may improve bone density, pumps your metabolism, reshapes and tones your muscles.

Cardio: Strengthens your heart and lungs, increases aerobic endurance and power, burns calories, improves mood.

Flexibility: Increases joint range of motion and muscle suppleness, improves ease of movement.

Restorative: Induces physical and mental relaxation to reduce stress.

Core: Engages the strong deep muscles of your torso to improve stabilization, coordination and balance.

PHOTO (COLOR): Strengthens external shoulder rotators.

PHOTO (COLOR): Strengthens upper back, rear shoulders, and external shoulder rotators.

PHOTO (COLOR): Strengthens upper back and rear shoulders.

PHOTO (COLOR): Strengthens upper back, shoulders, and external and internal shoulder rotators.

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By Linda Shelton

Photographs by David Martinez

The strategy

What to do: Perform 2 sets of 8 to 12 reps of each of these exercises in the order listed. Do this 2 to 4 times a week as a stand-alone mini-workout or integrated into your regular program. Use light dumbbells (3 to 5 pounds) to focus on the targeted muscles, which tend to be weak at first. To progress, add another set or increase the weight slightly.

Warm-up: If you do this program as a stand-alone, begin with 2 to 3 minutes of easy standing torso rotations, arm and shoulder circles, and arm swings forward and back.

Cool-down: Complete your session by stretching your back and shoulder muscles. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds without bouncing.

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