Even though it's difficult to see your back muscles, you can feel them working. And when they're not working properly, you'll definitely feel it in the form of back pain. One way to prevent aches and discomfort is to strengthen those muscles.
Some of the most difficult exercises in the gym, such as the chin-up, are designed to work your back. Don't be surprised if it's your hardest workout of the week. But don't worry! There are also a few dumbbell and barbell back exercises that are more beginner-friendly.
A Brief Intro to Your Back Muscles
There are plenty of important back muscles, and they range from large and powerful to minute and precise. Even though they come in all different shapes and sizes, the muscles of your back work in tandem to lift and pull weights while supporting your spine.
- The latissimus dorsi are big muscles that span from your lower back to your shoulders. They look like big wings.
- Your erector spinae cover your entire back along your spine to help support your posture and movement.
- The rhomboids are small muscles between your shoulder blades that help you pinch your shoulders back.
- Your trapezius covers your upper back and neck and helps with upper body movements.
- The longissimus and iliocostalis are lower back muscles that help support your lumbar spine.
Benefits of a Strong Back
To maintain balance in your body, it's important to strengthen your back muscles. Chest and shoulder exercises like the bench press and push-ups are popular, but they only work the front half of your upper body.
Upper crossed syndrome is the common postural problem that leads to rounded shoulders and the head leaning forward, according to an April 2019 study published in the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. It results from tight chest muscles and weak upper back muscles.
To correct this common imbalance, it's important to do back-strengthening exercises. Strengthening your upper back specifically can help the muscles fight against the tighter and stronger chest muscles to improve your posture.
Additionally, strengthening your back muscles helps prevent injury. According to a June 2016 article published in Healthcare, strengthening your core muscles gives your lumbar spine more support.
That's especially important because lower back pain is the leading cause of job-related disability worldwide, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. If you have a physical job, a back injury can put you out of work. It can also derail your workout plan and force you to change exercises.
It's easy to get caught up in exercises like chin-ups and rows because they work the big muscles of your back, but taking time to work the smaller muscles that protect your spine might save you from injury down the road.
Setting Up Your Back Workouts
If you have the time and energy, you can do up to two back workouts per week, with between 5 and 9 sets a week if you want to build muscle, according to a July 2017 study published in Sports Medicine.
That might seem like a lot, but if you break the sets up over two workouts in a week, it's more manageable. Make sure you rest at least one day between back workouts. And if you're just starting to work out, focus on splitting up those sets over the course a week that focuses more on full-body workouts than body-part-specific ones.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends performing 3 to 5 sets per exercise in a workout. During those sets, you should pick a weight that makes it difficult to do between 8 and 12 repetitions. This range gives you a good mix between strength and endurance. Using weights that are too light can make it harder to gain strength, while using weights that are too heavy increases your risk for injury.
During your back workouts, you can either do exercises one at a time or superset them, pairing two exercises together and alternating between them every set. For example, if you're doing rows and lat pulldowns, you would do one set of rows followed by one set of lat pulldowns. Even though you'll get your workout done faster, it's harder to go up in weight, as you'll be more fatigued.
Start With Barbell Back Exercises
When it comes to back exercises, it's best to start with a barbell. After a warm-up that includes roughly 5 minutes of aerobic exercises and a combination of dynamic stretching and foam rolling, head over to the weight room.
Move 1: Deadlift
This movement is a full-body exercise that specifically challenges your lower back muscles, says certified personal trainer Grisselle Romero. It's incredibly taxing but can help you build up multiple muscles at the same time.
- Start with a barbell on the ground (optional: weight plates loaded on each side).
- Stand in the middle of the barbell with your feet hip-width apart.
- Your shins should be touching the bar.
- Grab the bar with your arms outside your legs.
- Stand up tall by driving through your heels. Come up slowly, and make sure you don't round your shoulders as you stand.
- At the top of the movement, exhale and squeeze your butt and stomach.
Move 2: Bent-Over Row
Similar to the barbell deadlift, this exercise works your lower back muscles as well as your lats, rhomboids, trapezius and other back muscles. Alejandro Terrazas, a New York-based personal trainer and kettlebell instructor, likes to use different grips to work different muscles with this exercise.
- Grip the bar with either and overhand or underhand grip. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Pick up the barbell and stand up tall.
- Slide the bar down your legs and push your hips back.
- With your back flat and torso at a 45-degree angle to the ground, pull the bar in toward your stomach.
- Lower it down past your knees until your arms are straight.
- Try to keep your torso in the same spot throughout the movement so that you don't use momentum to lift the weight.
Add Dumbbell Back Exercises to the Mix
Sometimes the simplest equipment is the most effective. And most gyms have dumbbells, since they don't take up much space and aren't very costly.
Move 1: Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row
Certified personal trainer and director of training at SESSION in NYC, Darren Tomasso, likes this exercise because it forces you to isolate your back and improve your pulling technique because the bench prevents you from using momentum to lift the weight. You'll feel this exercise in your middle back, he says.
- Set a bench at a 45-degree incline.
- Lie down on the bench with your chest at the top, head off the bench and legs out straight.
- Grab your dumbbells and set your shoulders back with a proud chest. Tuck your chin down.
- Pull the dumbbells up at an angle toward the bench.
- Pull your elbows past your torso and squeeze your shoulder blades back at the top.
Move 2: Rear Delt Flys
The small muscles in the back of your shoulder are called the rear deltoids. They're not as strong as some of your other back muscles, so use light weight when you work them.
- Set a bench at an incline and place light dumbbells on the ground toward the head rest.
- Lie on your stomach on the bench and plant your feet behind you. Your head should be off the bench.
- Grab one dumbbell in each hand. With your arms slightly bent, reach them straight out to the sides.
- Imagine that you're a bird trying to flap its wings. Lift up until the dumbbells are should height, then lower them back down.
Experiment With Cable Back Exercises
Cable machines are useful but not always available. They cost more than free weights and take up more room in the gym. If you have access to cables, there are a couple back exercises you should add to your workout.
Move 1: Single-Arm Cable Rotational Row
Noam Tamir, personal trainer, fitness model and owner of TS Fitness, likes to use this variation of the row to add some rotation to the movement. Most people are lacking rotational movements from their programs, Tamir says, which can lead to a weak and stiff core.
- Use the handle attachment on a cable machine. Set it slightly lower than shoulder-height.
- Grab the handle with your left hand and step back with your left leg so that you're in a staggered stance.
- With your feet in place, pull the handle back toward your chest. At the same time, rotate to your left and punch your right arm out.
- Reach the handle back out and turn to the right, pulling your right arm back in.
- When you switch hands, switch legs as well.
Move 2: Lat Pulldown
The full chin-up or pull-up can be quite difficult or impossible if you're a beginner. You can use the lat pulldown to simulate the same movement, but with lighter weight. If you're advanced, you can use the machine to do even heavier weight than your body can provide.
- Select a comfortable yet challenging weight on the machine. Adjust the seat so that you can sit comfortably and securely. Stand up to grab the bar.
- Place your hands roughly shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing in either direction.
- Sit down on the seat. Pull the bar down toward your chest and lean back slightly.
- Reach back up and return to the start position under control.
Challenge Yourself With Pull-Up Bar Exercises
It takes serious strength to complete a pull-up or chin-up. You're lifting up your entire body weight during the movement, which makes the exercise more difficult than something like a push-up. For either exercise, you can modify by tying a resistance band around the bar and looping it under your foot for assistance or use an assisted pull-up machine in the gym.
Move 1: Pull-Up
Slightly different from the chin-up, this exercise works muscles like your triceps, trapezius and rhomboids more than your lats.
- Grab a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Start from a dead hang, with your elbows straight.
- Pull yourself up, leaning backward slightly, until your chin is over the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back down to a dead hang.
Move 2: Chin-Up
Some would consider this the easier variation of a pull-up because you get to engage your powerful lat muscles more. It also works the biceps.
- Grip a pull-up bar with your palms facing you. Your hands should be roughly shoulder-width apart. Start from a dead hang with your elbows straight.
- Pull yourself up while leaning back slightly.
- Try to touch your chest to the bar.
- Go back down, under control, until your elbows are straight.
Try This 4-Move Back-Strengthening Workout
While there are many back exercises to choose from, pick only a few to focus on. Start with the most complex in terms of technique, then work your way down to the simplest. In this case, the barbell exercises require the most precise technique.
Move 1: Barbell Row
- Start with the bar and warm-up with a set of 10 reps.
- Then, take 2 more warm-up sets before reaching your target weight for the day.
- If your goal is to use 100 pounds, do a set with 65 and then 85.
- Once you reach your target weight, do 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions. Rest between 90 and 120 seconds between sets.
Move 2: Pull-Up or Chin-Up.
- Since you have to lift your entire body, it's one of the most challenging exercises in the gym. You may only be able to get three to 6 reps per set.
- Do 4 sets of as many repetitions as possible.
- Rest 90 to 120 seconds between sets.
If you can't do a full chin-up or pull-up with proper technique, use a resistance band or machine for assistance. You should use enough assistance that you can perform 3 to 6 reps per set.
Move 3: Chest-Supported Row
- Perform one warm-up set to gauge what weight you'd like to use.
- Perform 10 to 12 repetitions for 3 working sets. Rest 90 seconds between sets.
Move 4: Lat Pulldown
- Use the opposite grip you had during the pull-ups or chin-ups, since the movement is nearly identical.
- Perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions as a warm-up, then perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions with 90 seconds of rest between each set.
- Sports Medicine: "The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults"
- American Council on Exercise: "Core Anatomy: Muscles of the Core"
- Healthcare: "A Systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain"
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Low Back Pain Fact Sheet"
- Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: "Prevalence of Upper Cross Syndrome in Laundry Workers"
- University of Washington Department of Radiation: "Latissimus Dorsi"