The Best Back Exercises

best back exercises
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Looking for the best back workout? Want to get rid of saggy, back fat and get your sexy back, back? Tired of cleaning up after the kids with an aching back? When it comes to our daily lives, we spend a lot of time on the computer, hunched over on our phones or lifting incorrectly. Maybe you lift your little ones or “not-so-little-anymore” ones up all the time. You might also carry a ton of groceries or other items that put a strain on your spine. Hence, it’s not simply a toned back you want but one that is healthy and can support your activities.

Targeted back exercises can give you definition and help get rid of unsightly sags around your bra area. Because the back is divided into several muscle groups, there are several exercises that can tone and shape your physique. Some workouts are best done in the gym on equipment but others you can do at home.

In this guide, let’s first look at the different back muscles. Then, we’ll cover poor posture and rounded backs. We’ll then look at beginner, intermediate and advanced exercises for the back. Say bye back fat. Hello to mama’s come-back! (pun intended).

Back Up!

What is back anatomy, anyway?

The back is made up of several muscle groups that extend from your skull to your sacrum. But why consider your muscle anatomy before back workouts?

Getting you oriented on back anatomy can help you understand which exercises strengthen which muscles. Let’s take a look.

A few major (and minor) muscles include:

Latissimus dorsi or (lats)

These give the back that “V” shape as they include the outer/side muscles.

Upper and lower trapezius (traps)

Located in the upper back, these form a diamond shape that extends from the shoulders to the middle of your spine.

Rhomboids

These are in the middle of your upper back and are connected to your deltoids.

Erector spinae

These are your lower back muscles that run down both sides of the spine. Keeping this strong helps prevent injuries and improve your coordination and balance.

Rotator cuffs

These shoulder muscles can help support your spine and posture. With them strengthened, you’re also mitigating the risk of injury.

Teres major

Above the lats, the teres major or ‘minor lats’ are supportive muscles. These give your shoulders support.

Why Exercise the Back Muscles?

Including your back muscles in your work accomplishes several goals. It tones and strengthens your back in every area, gives you a tight and more developed shape and lifts your upper body.

Exercising your back:

  • Can improve your posture
  • Remove pesky bat fat and bra lines
  • Give you a more supportive and stronger spine
  • Reduce calories and burn fat
  • Prevent injury and pain

How to Get a Sexy Back

When you think sexy back, you might visualize Malaika Arora, Gigi Hadid or Gal Gadot. These are all beautiful actresses who exercise their back muscles. Why? To help stabilize the spine and increase your curb appeal. However, not everyone exercises their back at the gym.

People sometimes assume the back is only one big muscle and they do a few exercises like rows or pull-ups that target the lats and stop there. The problem is, these are only vertical pulling exercises.

Because there are other muscle groups, you want to adequately strengthen and train all the muscle groups by using a full range of motion. Check out this crazy back fat workout.

The Best Back Exercises

People often ask, what is the best back workout? Well, it should target every muscle group to create a more stable spine, one less prone to injury.

Examples of the best back workouts include exercises like barbell deadlifts, dead rows, compound lifts, pull-ups and high cable rows.

Compound Lifts

Use lifts like pull-ups, deadlifts and rows to build up your back muscles.

  • Barbell Deadlifts: These boost your back muscles by targeting the lats, traps and low back.
  • Barbell Dead Rows: Do this right after deadlifts to build strength. It incorporates a deadlift style but finishes with barbell rowing.
  • Wide Grip Pull-Ups: To target the teres major and other muscles, change to a wide grip pullup. It helps you avoid getting stuck in a standard pullup stage.

Lats and Smaller Muscles

The lats require work in targeted areas to help these muscles develop. Exercises like Alternating High Cable Rows and Hyper Y Ws are recommendations.

  • Alternating High Cable Rows: Using a full range of motion to exercise your lats, your arm extends in front of your body for a fuller stretch.
  • Back Extensions: A back exercise can reach the lower traps and rotator cuff to reduce back pain.

Upper Trapezius Muscles (Traps)

A neglected muscle, the traps can be strengthened with shrugs.

  • Barbell Shrugs: Using a widened grip on your barbell can target the upper traps as the shrug moves the shoulders up near your head.

The Best Exercises for the Lower Back

Your lower back muscles are crucial to your spine stability. Because your daily activities, posture, sleeping and sitting affect your low back muscles, strengthening and maintaining a healthy low back is crucial.

To help build strength in your low back, incorporate glute exercises to reduce strain on your lower back to avoid chronic low back pain as you age.

Two exercises that can reduce back pain include:

  • Frog Glute Bridges: Turning your feet out helps stretch the gluteus medius, an external rotator that runs into your pelvis.
  • Snow Angel: Working the low back and glutes, you lie on the floor and lift your toes, thighs and upper torso up. As it extends the glutes and hips, keep a little bend in your knees and squeeze with your shoulder blades to help pull your chest up.

How to Heal Low Back Pain

If you sit all day on the computer, your phone or tablet, you’re likely slouching, which can cause low back pain and stiff joints. Sitting or standing for long periods also weakens your butt muscle, (gluteus medius).

Try this test:

Gluteus Medius Low Back Pain Test

Stand up with your feet about hip width apart. Lift your left leg and pay attention to what you feel. Now change legs and see if you feel anything with the right side. If it feels like you shifted all of your weight to one side more so than the other, you might have a weak gluteus medius.

The following two exercises can help:

Wall Lean or Wall Drivers: Doing this exercise daily can reduce low back pain. The standing exercise will cause your hip to drop. However, with one leg up, it can prevent your hip from dropping. Another gluteus medius fix is pilates.

Threading Needles: It is done lying down with your leg back and toes pointed up. Other exercises include reverse clamshells, hip abduction and side planks (see the video link).

Fix a Hunched Back

A round back (kyphosis) is where the shoulders or back is rounded from slouching or weak muscles. And, why is this common?

We read, drive, sit, stare down and sleep incorrectly which causes tight neck, shoulder and chest muscles affecting the levator scapulae and pectoralis minor and major.

If you catch yourself with this poor posture or what’s called upper crossed syndrome, you might try to squeeze your shoulders back as a temporary correction. However, it can become permanent especially if you slouch often, which can cause back and neck strain and pain, headaches and poor circulation.

A few simple exercises can help you un-round in no time and correct that poor posture!

Lateral Neck Flexion Stretches

These target your scalene and trapezius muscles.

  • Stand in front of a mirror and gently let your shoulders relax.
  • With your right hand, lightly pull the right side of your head and ear down to your right shoulder. Hold this pose for 10-20 seconds to stretch the left side of your neck.
  • Go back into the original position and do the left side.
  • Do 12-15 each and complete 2 sets.

Doorway Chest Stretches

To open up your chest, these are also good shoulder and back stretches.

  • Stand about 1-2 feet away from a doorway opening where you can put your hands on both sides of the frame
  • Bring your arms up and bend your elbows at a 90 degree angle. Place your hands on both sides of the doorway.
  • Step inside the doorway with your left foot and gradually shift your weight to that side. Hold it for 10-20 seconds to open and stretch your chest muscles. Return to the original position.
  • Do 15-20 of these for 3 sets. See other stretches for tight muscles!

Reverse Shoulder Stretches

This move requires flexibility as you lock your hands behind your back and lift your arms. If you feel resistance or pain pull back and limit your range of motion.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and shoulders at your sides. Reach your hands behind you and clasp them together. Have your thumbs facing down.
  • With a firm and tall spine, lift your arms/hands up while clasped.
  • When you feel the stretching in your chest, stop. Hold that pose for 15-30 seconds and then return to the starting position. That counts as one rep.
  • Complete 15-20 reps and do 3 sets.

I, T and Y Letters Lying Prone Stretch

To stabilize the muscles in the top part of your back and shoulders, this pose uses the arms to create the letters I, T and Y.

  • Get on the floor and lie down on your stomach. Use a towel or small pillow for comfort.
  • Let your forehead and stomach touch the floor while your arms are stretched over your head and your thumbs are facing up. Lift and stretch your arms up as much as you can for a stretch and bring them back down. That is the letter “I”. Bring your arms into a wide open stance that resembles the letter “Y” and then bring them back down slowly.
  • Bring your arms out to your sides to form a letter “T” and then bring them back into the original position for 1 rep.
  • Complete 15-20 reps for 3 sets.

Band (Pull Apart) Stretches

A resistance or therapy band helps strengthen your rear shoulders and upper back. Don’t have a band? A similar move is clothes shopping (as you go through the for sale racks for retail therapy!).

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your legs slightly bent.
  • Hold a therapy or resistance band in both arms with your arms stretched out at shoulder level in front of you.
  • Pull the band to either side and you will feel your shoulder blade muscles squeezing together. Hold that pose for 10-15 seconds. Then, return to the starting pose.
  • Do 15-30 reps for 3 sets.

Scapular Muscle Wall Slides

This exercise strengthens your back muscles and shoulders.

  • Stand against a wall with your arms down. Let the back of your head, back and butt touch the wall and keep your feet a few inches away from it.
  • Lift your arms over your head and press them into the wall with your palms out and knuckles pressed into the wall. Bend your arms to a 90-degree angle while they are still touching the wall. This counts as your starting position.
  • Gradually slide your arms up the sides of the wall as far as you can go without losing contact with the wall. When you get to the top or the point you feel yourself losing contact, come down about 1-2 inches and hold that pose. Then, lower your arms and let them gradually slide down the wall in a controlled manner. That counts as 1 repetition.
  • Go back to the original position and do 10-12 reps for 3 sets.

Note: Because hunchbacks and hunched shoulders come from muscle imbalances, strengthen and stretch your upper back muscles and chest. Ensure your posture and spine are tall and straight (so no more slouching!).

In these next few sections, we’ll explore exercises for the back (beginner, intermediate and advanced). While back exercises at home don’t require equipment, others require a gym for special equipment like a lat pulldown machine.

Beginner Exercises

Back lifts, rows and working with dumbbells can all help you effectively exercise your back muscles. Use the links for video examples to guide you and help you keep the right form.

Back Arm Walk

A great way to exercise the deltoids and rhomboids, keep your core engaged and don’t let your back sag.

  • Kneel on a mat on your hands and knees and keep your hands beneath your shoulders.
  • With your spine neutral, draw in your ab muscles and keep your hips open but stable.
  • Stretch your left arm out in front of you at shoulder level while your right hand is firm on the mat. Do the reverse and extend the right arm. You will feel your back muscles engage with this stretch.
  • Do 10-15 reps for 3 sets.

Back Lifts

Whether you stand to do these or kneel, they help strengthen the rhomboids and erector spinae.

  • Stand with your feet turned like you’re ready to do a split and put your left foot forward. Space it about 10-12 inches from your right foot.
  • Hold your hands up at 90-degree angles with your fingertips near your ears and keep your elbows down.
  • Bend forward at the hip and keep your core tight and your spine stiff. Bring your upper body back upright but only use your abdominal and back muscles.
  • As you come up, tighten your stomach muscles in your mid back. Return to the original position. This counts as 1 rep. Do 12-15 and 3 sets.

Bow and Arrow

Using an exercise ball or mat, this exercises the traps and rhomboids.

  • Kneel on a mat or sit on top of an exercise ball and hold small dumbbells in both of your hands or a resistance/therapy band.
  • Stretch out your left arm with your palm down, Keep your right arm near your right armpit and keep both arms/hands with the weight or band at shoulder height.
  • Change your position and switch to the other arm. However, never let your arms drop to your sides. Keep your core engaged.
  • Do 12-15 reps for 3 sets.

One Arm Rows with Dumbbells

These exercise the rhomboids and latissimus dorsi.

  • Lean over a bench with your right knee on it. With a dumbbell in your left hand, let your hand rest at your side, palm facing in.
  • Keep your other hand on the bench for stability. Then, bend your upper body forward slightly to a 30-degree angle.
  • Using your upper back muscles, pull the weight up to your armpit in a curl. Keep your elbow close to your torso.
  • Once you reach your armpit, hold that pose for 2-3 seconds and then return to the starting position. Repeat this 12-15 times for 3 sets and then do the other side.

Spreading Eagle Wings Lift

Resembling an eagle taking flight, these exercise the rhomboids and trapezius muscles. Use dumbbells or small hand weights.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms at your sides. You can hold dumbbells or small free weights.
  • Keep a slight bend in your elbows and let your back/spine remain neutral. Extend your arms up straight at your sides while keeping your elbows slightly bent.
  • Extend your arms until your hands and the weights are shoulder level.
  • Hold this for 2-3 seconds and return to the original position. Do 12-15 reps for 3 sets.

Intermediate Exercises for the Back

Dumbbell rows, back sculptors and swimmers stretches are ideal intermediate exercises. Add extra reps or sets to extend your back workouts at home or decrease them if you are short on time.

Back Sculptor

This exercise helps to stretch and strengthen the deltoids and trapezius.

  • Lie in a face down position on a mat with your feet hip-width apart. Let your arms hang at your sides with your palms out and thumbs facing up.
  • Press your hips and feet into the mat as you lift your arms up and then out to the side. As you do this, tighten your shoulders as if there was a ball between them. Let your shoulders and head come up from the mat about 5-6 inches and don’t bend your arms.
  • Hold this pose for 2-3 seconds and then lower back into the starting position.
  • Do 10-12 reps for 2 sets.

Forward Leaning Dumbbell Rows / Curls

Dumbbell rows exercise the biceps and latissimus dorsi muscles.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold dumbbells in your hands.
  • Keep your knees slightly bent and lean your body forward by 30-degrees. This can also be done leaning over a weight bench on one knee. With your spine neutral and core engaged, pull the left weight up to your abdomen and then slowly extend it back down.
  • When you’re near your rib cage, hold that pose for 2-3 seconds before extending as you stretch your lat muscle.
  • Return to the starting position as this counts as 1 rep. Do 10-12 reps for 3 sets.

Prone Upper Body Lift

A pain reliever, this exercises your rhomboids and erector spinae.

  • Lie on your stomach on a mat and stretch your arms out.
  • Keep your feet hip-width apart and let your head hang straight ahead (don’t turn it to avoid neck injury).
  • Lift up your feet and arms as you stretch your body up to the ceiling. Hold for 3-5 seconds and release. Return to the original position.
  • Do 10-12 for 2 sets.

Superwoman Stretch

Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, this exercise strengthens the deltoids and erector spinae.

  • Kneel on your hands and knees on an exercise mat. Keep your hands in alignment under your shoulders and maintain a neutral spine.
  • Tighten your stomach muscles, stretch out your left arm and your right leg but don’t let them drop or sway sideways.
  • Hold this pose for 2-3 seconds and then return to the original pose.
  • Repeat on the other side for 1 rep. Complete 10-15 reps for 3 sets total.

Swimmer Breaststroke Lift

Submerse yourself in this lift that stretches and strengthens your erector spinae and deltoids.

  • Lie on your stomach on a mat with your feet hip-width apart.
  • With your arms at shoulder level, bend your elbows. Your hands should be palm down as you look ahead. Bring your head and upper body up as you extend your arms forward until your fingers meet at your head.
  • Pull your arms back into the original position as this counts as 1 rep.
  • Do 10-12 for 3 sets.

Advanced Exercises

Lat pulldowns, overhead pullovers and standing straight arm pulldowns are excellent exercises for the back. However, maintain the correct form to avoid injury.

Lat Pulldowns

A pull-up in reverse, these are done on a lat pulldown machine. Work on keeping the correct form to strengthen the trapezius and latissimus dorsi.

  • Stand over the lat pulldown machine and take the bar in your hands. Use a wider overhand grip that’s a little wider than your shoulders.
  • Sit down and bring the bar to your chest while your arms stay extended. Let your knees rest under the knee pads to keep your body in place.
  • With your back slightly arched, bring your shoulders down and let your elbows drop to your sides toward the floor. Hold the position for 2-3 seconds when you feel your lats being squeezed and the machine is in its bottom position.
  • Gradually return to the original position for 1 rep. Complete 12-15 reps for 3 sets.

Overhead Pullovers or Overhead Lat Pulls with Dumbbells

This back exercise will strengthen and tone your deltoids and lats.

  • Lie on your back with your knees at 45-degrees and a dumbbell in your hands. Bring your arms up with the dumbbell over your head and engage your core.
  • Bring the dumbbell all the way back over your head and don’t bend your arms. Go slow and don’t stop until the dumbbell touches the mat.
  • Tighten your lats at this point and bring the weight back down into the original position.
  • Maintain a tight core and tighten your upper back muscles until you’re at the starting position. That counts as 1 rep. Do 10-12 for 3 sets.

Straight Arm Pulldowns (Standing)

Using a lat pulldown machine, you will exercise the trapezius and latissimus dorsi.

  • With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand near the lat machine.
  • Reach for the bar shoulder level and keep your palms turned down. Let your arms extend straight but don’t be too rigid and keep your spine a little lax/neutral.
  • Bring your shoulders down and tighten your core muscles as you pull the bar down. Your arms should be straight and you want the bar to drop down to thigh level. Avoid letting your back and shoulders droop or sag.
  • Hold for 2-3 seconds to engage your lat muscles. Slowly raise the bar back up and return to the original position.

Lats all, folks!

There’s more to caring for your back than just working it out, why not check out Your Trusty Guide to Yoga for Back Pain?