A strong healthy back not only looks good, but it also feels good. When the muscles in any part of your back are weak, pain is often the result. Although lower back weakness gets all the attention, underdeveloped muscles of the mid back — the rhomboids and lats — can also cause considerable problems in activities of daily living and your ability to engage in your favorite sports. Include lat pulldowns or pull-ups and some row variations in your workouts to strengthen the middle back muscles.
Pulldowns specifically target the latissimus dorsi muscles that extend from the middle back around the sides of the body. The lats help you pull yourself up, or pull things down toward you. The rhomboids also work as synergists for this exercise. To do lat pulldowns you'll need a high cable pulley with a lat pulldown bar, which is a long bar that slants down at the ends.
- Sit on the seat facing the cable machine. Secure your knees under the pads. Reach up and grasp the pulldown bar a little wider than shoulder width.
- Arch your back slightly and puff out your chest. Exhale as you bend your elbows out to the sides and pull the bar down to the top of your chest. Use a slow and controlled motion.
- Exhale as you extend your arms back to the starting position with control.
Pull-ups are similar to lat pulldowns. Rather than pulling the weight down, you're pulling your body weight up. Pull-ups also target the lats and the rhomboids. If you're not able to do regular pull-ups yet, use a pull-up assist machine or an exercise band or do negatives until you develop your mid-back strength.
Standard Pull-Up: Grasp a pull-up bar a little wider than your shoulders. From a dead hang, engage your lats and pull yourself up, bending your elbows out to the side. Pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar, then lower back down with control.
Assisted Machine Pull-Up: The form is the same when using an assist machine. The weight you select on the weight stack is the amount of assistance you will receive. You can subtract it from your body weight to figure out how much you're lifting.
Resistance Band-Assisted Pull-Up: Use a resistance band to provide assistance if you don't have a machine. Drape the band over the bar and pull one end through the other to create a stirrup. Put one foot in the stirrup and wrap the other foot around the ankle of the foot in the stirrup. Choose a heavier weight band to start and go lighter as you get stronger.
Negative Pull-Ups: Negatives work on the eccentric part of the exercise — when your muscles are lengthening. This helps build strength if you are not yet able to pull yourself up. Use a box or bench to get you closer to the bar. Grasp the bar and jump up to the top of the pull-up. Then, very slowly lower your body down as far as you can with control. Repeat.
Rows are one of the best exercises for the middle back. This variation, the inverted row, uses just your body weight and can be done with an empty barbell in a squat rack or even the edge of a sturdy table.
- Position a barbell a little more than arm's length from the ground. Lie on your back with your chest under the bar. Grasp the bar a little wider than your shoulders.
- Contract your core, glute and leg muscles. Pull your chest up to the bar, and keep your body in one straight line. Draw your shoulder blades together as you pull up to engage the middle back muscles.
- Make the exercise easier by raising the bar and bring your body more vertical. The more horizontal you are, the harder it is.
You can do the exercise with a sturdy table edge at home. Position your body underneath the table with the edge of the table over your chest, and then do the exercise as directed above.
Performing cable rows and pulling in toward your upper stomach provides an effective workout for your middle back.
- Sit on the seat facing the cable rowing machine. Place your feet on the footrests with your knees bent.
- Lean forward with a flat back and grasp the handles. Slightly arch your back and puff out your chest. Roll your shoulders back and pull the handle in toward your stomach as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- With control, extend your arms to return to the starting position. Repeat.