Your back muscles don't just look pretty when you're baring it all in a pool or wearing a tank top — they're essential to just about every movement you do. The benefits of a strong back go far beyond aesthetics.
Back exercises may improve your posture, enhance your physique and help protect from back pain and injury.
General Benefits of Back Exercises
Your back consists of several muscles, all of which support the spine, posture and activity important to daily life and sport. The major ones include the following, explains the learning site, Teach Me Anatomy:
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- Latissimus dorsi, the large muscles that originate below the armpits and run down the back of the ribcage and are responsible for shoulder movement
- Rhomboids, muscles located in the mid-upper back that are responsible for retraction of your scapula, or shoulder blades
- Trapezius, which runs from the neck to the middle of your back and is responsible for the movement of your shoulder blades
- Erector spinae, muscles that run along your spine and control extension and lateral movement
Training these muscles, especially the lats, give you the enviable V-shaped torso, which helps make your waist look smaller. Plus, the benefits of back exercises extend to your performance in many sports, such as rock climbing, swimming and boxing.
Strengthening your back also helps you if you just enjoy heavy weight training. When your back muscles are strong, they're better able to assist you in conducting other lower body lifts, such as the squat.
Working out your back stretches and strengthens the muscles that support its structure. The back muscles bolster the vertebrae disks, ligaments and facet joints. If they are weak, your spine is unsupported and may become vulnerable to pain and dysfunction. Back training may help prevent strains and sprains that can occur during sports and daily chores — such as when moving furniture or boxes — or accidents.
Sedentary Lifestyle and Back Training
If you have a job or lifestyle that involves a lot of sitting, like being behind a computer for a long time, your back muscles need extra attention.
A sedentary lifestyle may lead to fat accumulation and atrophy of the back muscles. They may grow stiff and fatigue more easily, which can result in worsening pain. With time, the pain may limit your movement even more, so you become further deconditioned and your back muscles provide even less stability for the structures in your spine.
A study published in Applied Ergonomics in November 2019 looked at 64 call center employees who spent most of their time sitting. At least 75 percent of these workers reported back pain. Researchers note that there was a clear association between sitting behavior and chronic low back pain.
Getting up and moving, in general, is important for strengthening your spine, but weight training may further improve the health of your back. With strength exercises, such as rows, pull-ups and lat pull-downs, you can increase the function of the muscles in your back.
Read more: Everything You Need to Know to Build a Strong Back
Because some of your back muscles are among the largest in your body, the benefits of back exercises using weights may also include increased lean mass and strength. Over time, you may also experience improvements in mobility and balance.
When you have more lean muscle mass, you may also find it easier to lose body fat, leading to healthier body composition. Muscle requires more energy from your body to maintain as compared to fat.
Try These Back Exercises
According to a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise and published in April 2018, the best weight-training exercises for the back include the bent-over row and I-Y-T raises.
Move 1: Bent-Over Row
- Hold a barbell in front of your thighs with an overhand grip, elbows relaxed.
- Hinge forward from the hips as you bend the knees slightly and maintain a long spine. Allow the bar to hang toward the floor.
- Bend your elbows to pull the bar toward your belly button. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Straighten the arms so the barbell is hanging toward the floor to complete one repetition.
Move 2: I-Y-T Raises
- Lie on your stomach on a workout bench. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand.
- Extend the arms down toward the floor, palms facing inward.
- Form the letter "I" by drawing the arms straight overhead. Lower back toward the ground.
- Form the letter "Y" by opening the arms up and out at a 45-degree angle, thumbs pointed up. Lower the arms back toward the ground.
- Form the letter "T" by lifting your arms parallel to the ground at your sides, palms facing down. Lower the arms back toward the ground.
If you have back pain, these exercises may not be appropriate for you. Check with your doctor before starting a workout program if you live with chronic back pain or nerve root compression or had recent spinal surgery.
Back Exercises and Dysfunction
Improving back dysfunction is another one of the benefits of back exercises. As shown in the publication Osteoporosis International in October 2017, spine-strengthening exercise and posture training for six months reduced kyphosis in adults older than 60. This small study evaluated a kyphosis-specific exercise program. Kyphosis is an excessive outward curvature of the spine.
Back exercises may also alleviate pain in the lower back and neck. The Ochsner Journal published research in the spring of 2014 showing that strengthening the lumbar and cervical extensor muscles may significantly reduce chronic back and neck pain.
Read more: The Best Lower Back Exercises at Home
Performing lumbar exercises may not eliminate low back pain, but it may improve function and ease your pain. Princeton University Athletic Medicine explains that through back exercises, such as prone cobras and spine balance, you become more aware of proper posture and learn how to maintain a neutral spine.
Regular back exercises also make you aware of how your abdomen and glutes are connected to your back health, so it's important to work these muscle groups too.
Move 1: Prone Cobras
- Lie stomach-down on a mat, with your arms extended at your sides.
- Lift your head and chest to hover above the mat as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Pause for two to three counts and return to the starting position.
Move 2: Spine Balance
- Position yourself in an all-fours stance with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Extend your right arm forward past your ear with the fingers and your left leg back straight behind you.
- Reach to lengthen the limbs and keep them parallel to the floor; hold for three counts.
- Return to the all-fours position and repeat with the left arm and right leg.
- The Ochsner Journal: "Exercise in the Management of Chronic Back Pain"
- Osteoporosis International: "Targeted Spine Strengthening Exercise and Posture Training Program to Reduce Hyperkyphosis in Older Adults: Results from the Study of Hyperkyphosis, Exercise, and Function (SHEAF) Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Teach Me Anatomy: "The Intrinsic Muscles of the Back"
- Applied Ergonomics: "Low Back Pain and Its Relationship with Sitting Behaviour Among Sedentary Office Workers"
- American Council on Exercise: "What Is the Best Back Exercise"
- Princeton University Athletic Medicine: "Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises"