Your back is one of the most important parts of your body. It is also one of the most abused. Just look around you at any given moment. Sure, go ahead and do it right now. Everyone is slouched, hunched, and looking at their feet. These people need back exercises. All these desk jobs, car drives, and hours of sitting are killing our backs and cores.
But they aren’t the only ones who need a little back love. You may need it too. In fact, a lot of gym-goers and bodybuilders do so much core and pecs training that they neglect their back. Not any more!
The more you know about the back, the better your back exercises will be. Now, sit up straight and get moving with these back exercises.
Muscles of the Back
First, let’s take a look at the musculature of the back. Every muscle in your body can be connected to or influenced by the back. Imbalances in your feet or knees can cause serious back pain, and issues in the back can cause hip pain and headaches . The back is the center of your mobile life.
The back has several muscles. For the purpose of this post, I am going to focus on the superficial and (outer) muscles of the back. You will certainly recognize these players. The 5 most important muscles in the back for your workout are:
1. Erector Spinae
The erector spinae is the longest muscle in the body. The muscle runs long both sides of the spine. The muscle starts at T9-T12 and attaches at T1-T2.
What does it do?
The erector spinae is responsible for stability in your back. It stabilizes the spine so you can bend and arch your back.
2. Latissimus Dorsi (lats)
The latissimus dorsi, or the lat, is a muscle that begins at the lower vertebrae in your back. It attaches to the humerus (arm bone). When you lift your arm, the muscle where your back and pit meet is the latissimus dorsi.
What does it do?
As the largest muscle in your body, the lats are responsible for assisting in arm movements. The arms movements are abduction (movement toward and away from the body), arm rotation, and arm extension.
The obliques muscles attach to the side of the spine.
What does it do?
The obliques are responsible for helping you maintain proper posture and trunk rotation.
There are two rhomboid muscles: rhomboid major and rhomboid minor. The rhomboids connect the scapula to the spine. Rhomboid major connects at T2 to T5 and inserts at the medial border of the scapula.
What does it do?
The rhomboids elevate perform adduction and elevation of the scapula.
5. Trapezius (traps)
The trapezius is another major muscle in the back. The traps cover most of the upper back. The trapezius is important because it connects to so many areas in the back. The trapezius originates at the occipital bone, ligament nuchae, and the T01-T12. It inserts at the clavicle and the scapula.
What does it do?
Because of it various insertion points, the trapezius performs several functions. The trapezius is responsible for head and neck extension, moving your arms back and forth, and shrugging your shoulders.
Function of the Back
The back is complex, which is why it is good to take care of it and to understand it. The muscles in the back help you stand, walk, run, lift, bend, reach, move your arms, and more. The back muscles stabilize your spine and affect your posture. You are crazy not to pay attention to the muscles in the back.
Why Exercise the Back?
America has a chronic sitting problem. An average, Americans sit nearly 8 hours every day. If you work a desk job, that is just the hours you are at work. Factor in driving, watching television, and eating, and for some, the time jumps to 15 hours of sitting per day.
Sitting, among other daily activities, is killing your back . In addition to sitting, other things such as poor sleep, a bad mattress, your favorite chair, watching television, and stressing all affect your back. Your time at the gym may be causing back problems, too. If you are training the back muscles improperly or not enough, it is time for new back exercises to improve the look, strength, and stability of your back.
Things to Consider When Training the Back
When you are doing back exercises, recall all the large muscles in the back and their functions. A good back workout will include those movements. When you are exercising your back remember these tips:
- Consider using a triset
- Work the shoulders and the core, too
- Back work isn’t always forward and back,;it involves twisting too
- Don’t always go forward. Go back.
- If you feel pain in the hips and knees, stop the movement
- FOCUS ON FORM!
- Focus on resistance and mobility
- Give your back a break
Common Back Injuries at the Gym
Do you hobble away from the gym or experience serious pain when lifting and exercising? If so, you need to see a physical therapist to find out what it is you are doing that is causing so much pain. For many lifters, too much weight too soon, poor form, and incorrect movements cause a lot of back pain and injuries at the gym.
One of the most problematic habits at the gym is going too often and working out too long. Your back needs a break. Yes, taking time off actually strengthens your muscles. Powering throw only injures them.
These are some of the most pervasive injuries at the gym:
- Back injury and pain
- Impingement syndrome
Back Exercise Mistakes
Not all the back exercises you are doing at the gym are what is actually causing your back pain. Mistakes people make when exercising the back abound at the gym.
- Always leaning or stretching forward to work the back. Flexion is not always the answer. A lot of low back pain at the gym is intolerant of flexion because excessive flexion is what caused the pain in the first place. Sure, it feels good to go forward, but that is because of the injury. You must go backwards too.
- BAD, BAD FORM. I can’t say this enough. Your terrible form is killing your back, its strength, and its definition. Always, always use proper form, and stop throwing the weight around! If you can’t do these back exercises with control and discipline, it’s your form you need to work on; you don’t need to add more weight and throw it all over the place.
- Working through the pain. Just stop! It’s okay to admit your back hurts. If you feel sharp, stabbing pains when doing back workouts, stop the activity and move on to something else. Don’t power through it.
- You love crunches. Yeah, I said it: your crunches are garbage. When crunches are done incorrectly, they cause neck and back pain. They can also be extremely ineffective when done wrong.
Best Back Exercises
With all that in mind, it’s time to tackle the best back exercises. What you will notice in my recommendations is that the program utilizes and complements all back motions. These exercise use antagonist muscles and body weight for maximum results. If you want a sexy back, try these back exercises.
Barbell for the Back
Maximize back strength with barbell exercises for the back. These are the best exercises you can do with a barbell.
- Deadlift with Barbell
Choose any position you want to do the barbell deadlift. All will strengthen not only your back but your shoulders, legs, and glutes as well. Heavier barbell deadlifts with fewer reps are usually done in the beginning of the workout. If you are going for stamina and speed with more reps and less weight, push the barbell deadlift to the back end of your workout. Best barbell deadlift exercises for the back are:
- Sumo deadlift
This exercise requires a significant amount of mobility and hip flexibility. If you are just starting out with the sumo deadlift, try three sets of 10-12 reps first. As you progress, you won’t add reps, you will add weight. Mix up the sumo deadlift with a traditional deadlift. Alternate sumo and traditional deadlifts each day.
- Romanian deadlift
The romanian deadlift is a one of the very best exercises to build back strength and to improve your physique. The Romanian deadlift (RDL) works nearly every muscle in the back, and it is good for mobility and hip health. When you do the RDL, go through the full range of motion, don’t be too light on yourself, and stay true to your deadlift form. Keep it straight!
- Bent-over barbell row
You want to make sure to target the upper and outer lats to get a complete back workout. One exercise that helps you do that is the bent-over barbell row. For this exercise, use the wide grip for the best results. Using the wide grip outside of the traditional shoulder-width grip develops that nice V-shape that we all want.
- Landmine one-arm row
For this exercise, you will have weight only at one end of the barbell. You are going to turn to that you are looking at the end of the barbell. Hold the weight-loaded end of the barbell with your inside hand and place the opposite leg forward. Bend your knees slightly and row the bar up until it meets your ribs. Return back down to the starting position.
Pull-ups for the Back
There are a few variations of the pull-up I want you to consider. For a better looking back, do these pull-ups.
The rationale for the wide-grip pull-up is the same: it works the lats. Use the overhand grip when you reach up to the bar. Make sure your hands are a little more than shoulder-width apart. Don’t hang on the bar unless you want to kill your shoulders. Make sure you bend your elbows slightly. As you pull yourself up, envision squeezing your scapulas together and pull all the way up until you fully engage the lats.
2. Alternate grip pull-up
Wanna feel a little burn? Try the alternate grip pull-up. Sure, it takes quite a bit of coordination, but it has results. Instead of either putting your hands toward or away from you, alternate them so one is facing away from you and the other faces you.
3. Commando pull-up
Not a lot of people at the commando pull-up, but come on, I think we are all made for it. If you have ever played, or even watched, baseball, you already know the basics of the commando pull-up. Grab the pull-up bar like a bat and pull yourself up until your right ear touches. Lower yourself back down, and when you lift up again, touch your left ear to the bar.
The best way to get the most out of your pull-ups is to add weight. Adding weight gives you good resistance for more muscle and strength.
Bench for the Back
If you like the bench, here are a few of my favorites.
- Chest-supported dumbbell row
The chest supported dumbbell row is good for beginners and advanced lifters alike. Use the bench to support your chest, but the key here is that you lift the bench off the ground to give yourself an incline.
Lie prone (on your stomach) on the bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand. To row, squeeze your scapulae together as you raise your elbows. When you feel full back activation, gently lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position. This exercise is good for strength, stamina, and definition.
- Bench-plank dumbbell row
This move is a little more advanced. This exercise is great for the mid-back. The bench plank dumbbell row works on your balance and your stamina. It is also an exercise the works the core. For this move, start in a 3-point plank on the bench. Your stabilizing hand should be at the end of the bench. The outside hand holds the dumbbell. To do the row, bring the elbow up and then lower the arm back down into starting position.
- Lying lateral raise
Raise your bench so that it is at an incline. Lie prone on the bench and hold a barbell in each hand. Lift your arms straight out to the side to a 90-degree angle. Squeeze your shoulders blades together. Your palms should be facing the floor. Return to the starting position.
- Back extension
You will need a back extension bench for this one because you want to get a forward bend in the hips. Lock your feet into the bench and cross your arms over your chest. Bend over in the hips until you are at a 90-degree angle, and then raise your body back into a straight position.
If you don’t have a back extension bench, use the back extension machine. Or, lie face-down on the floor and extend your back up. The flying super-man is good for a similar motion, even though you don’t get the benefit of full flexion and extension.
Recovery After Back Exercises
Now you have had a good back day at the gym. It is time to give your back a rest. If you don’t allow you back to rest, you will be exhausted and your body will be in pain. Plus, you put yourself at an increased risk for injury. Here are a few post-back-exercise recovery tips .
- Cool down and stretch for at least 20 minutes after your back workout.
- Replenish your fuel with electrolytes and a post-workout protein blend. Wheyxx protein is a good way to replenish your body and to enjoy it while doing so.
- Get potassium into your body.
- Do a little active recovery
- Find SMR (self-myofascial release) exercises to work out the kinks and boost recovery. SMR techniques for the back feel good and are good for you. For SMR, you will need either a baseball or a foam roller.
A lot of the best exercises are exercises that work and activate other parts of the body. We call these compound exercises. Other exercises you do at the gym, such as leg exercises and core workouts naturally also work the back, too, but you also need a strong back to do them. Give your back a whole lot of love for a better and more powerful workout.
Share your best back exercises.
- Low Back Pain and Other Musculoskeletal Pain Comorbidities in Individuals with Symptomatic Osteoarthritis of the Knee: Data from the Osteoarthritis Initiative
Pradeep Suri, MD,1,2,3,4 David C. Morgenroth, MD,5,6 C. Kent Kwoh, MD,7 Jonathan F. Bean, MD, MS, MPH,1,3 Leonid Kalichman, PT, PhD,8 and David J. Hunter, MBBS, PhD2,9 Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 Dec 1.
Published in final edited form as: Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2010 Dec; 62(12): 1715–1723. doi: [10.1002/acr.20324]
- Is Objectively Measured Sitting Time Associated with Low Back Pain? A Cross-Sectional Investigation in the NOMAD study
Nidhi Gupta, 1 ,* Caroline Stordal Christiansen, 1 David M. Hallman, 2 Mette Korshøj, 1 Isabella Gomes Carneiro, 1 and Andreas Holtermann 1 PLoS One. 2015; 10(3): e0121159. Published online 2015 Mar 25. doi: [10.1371/journal.pone.0121159]
- Editorial: Post-Exercise Recovery: Fundamental and Interventional Physiology
Sergej M. Ostojic1,2,* Front Physiol. 2016; 7: 3. Published online 2016 Jan 21. doi: [10.3389/fphys.2016.00003]