The Best Back Exercises

The Best Back Exercises

Do you know how important it is to have a strong back? It's super important!

That's because your back has major muscle groups that are involved in almost any kind of movement. This is especially true for physical activities, like sports and exercise.

Your back muscles provide support for your spine and upper body. At the same time, your back works hand in hand with your lower body in many ways.

Don't believe me? Try squatting down to pick something up off the ground using only your legs and no back muscles. I promise you can’t do it.

Strengthening your back muscles doesn't only help your lower body either. A strong back can help alleviate back pain and protect you from injury.

Building up the muscles in your back makes everyday life a little easier too. Whether you need to carry groceries, lift something heavy, or just do some basic chores ... having a strong back can make these tasks much easier.

Today, we're going to dive into some of the best exercises you can do to strengthen the muscles in your back. First though, let's take a look at the main muscles we'll be targeting...

Muscles of the Back

Some of the main muscles in your back include the trapezius (traps), latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids, and erector spinae. Those are all some pretty big words, so let me break them down for you...

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Trapezius: a large, trapezoid-shaped muscle (hence the name) that spans the neck, upper back, and goes down to the mid-back as well. These are commonly referred to as the "traps."

Latissimus Dorsi: a large, flat muscle located on both sides of the lower to mid-back. These are commonly referred to as your "lats."

Rhomboids: These muscles are located underneath the lower trapezius between the spine and shoulder blades.

Erector Spinae: This is a group of 3 muscles that run up and down the length of your spine.

Every one of these muscles work together to help support your spine. This provides stability and movement for your upper and lower body in many ways too.

Now that you have a better idea of which muscles we're working here, let's get into the exercises!

Back Exercises

It’s about that time. Pay attention to the instructions, and make sure you never round your back with weight in your hands.

That’s just asking to throw your back out!

Bent-Over Rows

This exercise requires the use of either dumbbells or a barbell. Only go as heavy as what feels comfortable. You want to make sure to maintain a straight back throughout each set.

How To:

Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Grab a pair of dumbbells or a barbell.

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Then, bend forward at the waist with a straight back until your torso is close to parallel with the floor. Keep your core tight and allow your arms to hang naturally with the weight in each hand.

Begin the first rep by pulling the weight up toward your ribcage. Focus on pulling your elbows back rather than focusing on pulling the weight.

Once the weight reaches your ribcage, squeeze your lats and hold at the top. Next, slowly lower the weight back down and repeat this for reps.

Muscles Worked:

Bent-over rows target the lats, traps, and rhomboids mostly. They also strengthen the core muscles, and the muscles that support your spine, like the erector spinae.

Strengthening your bent-over row will likely lead to a wider back too. So, if you want a big and strong back, these will help.

Lat Pull-Downs

As the name suggests, this exercise targets your lats (latissimus dorsi). It requires the use of a cable machine, but it is very similar to a pull-up.

In fact, it pretty much is a pull-up. Instead of pulling your body up though, you're pulling the bar down. With that being said, you'll need a cable machine and a wide-grip bar for this exercise.

Most cable machines will even have a designated spot for lat pull-downs. You'll find it if you look for the leg pads on the seat that anchor you in.

How To:

Start by grabbing the bar with an overhand grip. Next, sit down and secure your legs beneath the pad to lock yourself in. Sit upright with a slight arch in your back by puffing out your chest and pulling your shoulders back.

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Keep your core engaged as you begin to pull the bar down toward your chest. You should pull the bar down to the lower part of your chest.

Then, squeeze your lats for a second, and slowly return the bar back to its starting position.

Muscles Worked:

Aside from being a great exercise for your lats, it also works your rhomboids, arms, and rear shoulders too.

Pull-Ups

If you don't know what a pull-up is ... chances are you never had a gym class! For the rest of us, we know exactly what they are all about.

Pull-ups are basically the bodyweight version of a lat pull-down. All you need is your body and a secure bar that's higher than you can reach with your feet flat on the ground.

How To:

Start by standing under the bar and reaching up to grab it with an overhand grip. With your body suspended from the bar, pull your shoulders down and back. This alone may pull your body up a few inches.

From there, squeeze your lats and use your arms to pull your chest up to the level of the bar. Squeeze your lats for a second at the top, then slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position.

Repeat for reps, if you can. If you can't ... don't get discouraged. Pull-ups can be very challenging, and if you can't do more than 5 ... you may want to try an assisted pull-up.

This would involve either looping a band to the bar and your feet or using an assisted pull-up machine, if you have access to one, to offset some weight.

Make sure to avoid swinging your legs for momentum to maintain proper form. This will help you avoid injury and maximize the effectiveness of this exercise.

Muscles Worked:

Pull-ups engage your lats, rhomboids, traps, and other back muscles, as well as your arms. Strengthening these muscles can help improve athletic performance and prevent injuries.

Pull-ups can also help develop your lats better than any other exercise in my opinion.

Seated Cable Rows

Seated cable rows require the use of a cable machine, as the name suggests. You can use any attachment, but I prefer the double d-grip attachment with two close parallel bars.

How To:

Start by sitting on a low-row cable machine. Place your feet on the platform on both sides of the cable, and grab the attachment with your preferred grip.

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Keep your back mostly straight with your chest puffed out and shoulders pulled back. Begin the movement by pulling the cable toward your abdomen.

Again, focus on pulling your elbows back rather than pulling the weight to you. That will help you emphasize your lats more as opposed to your arms.

When the bar reaches your abs, squeeze your lats for a second, then slowly return the cable back to the starting position. Repeat this movement for reps.

Muscles Worked:

Seated cable rows are an effective exercise for strengthening most of the muscles in your back. They are especially good for your rhomboids and lats. This movement is particularly good for building thickness in the mid-back too, which is why it's one of my favorites.

Landmine Rows

This is a great exercise which is very similar to the bent-over barbell row, but with a twist. To do this exercise, you'll need a landmine attachment and barbell, or a landmine machine.

To keep it easy ... I'll give you instructions as if you're using a barbell and landmine attachment.

Only one end of the bar will be lifted, while the other end of the bar stays grounded. That way, you only need to load weight on the end of the bar you plan on lifting.

You’ll also need a double d-grip, just like the one I referred to for seated cable rows.

How To:

Place the end of the bar that isn’t secured with the landmine attachment above/inside the “v” of the double d-grip. Both parallel handles should be outside the bar enough to get a good grip.

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To begin, stand up with the bar just enough to get your torso parallel with the ground. Keep your back straight with your shoulders pulled back throughout each set.

Engage your lats and pull with your elbows until the bar is as close to your body as you can get it. Squeeze your lats for a second at the top, and slowly return back to the starting position.

Repeat this for reps.

Muscles Worked:

Similar to the low-row and bent-over row, this exercise targets mostly the lats and rhomboids. It does work the erector spinae quite a bit as well because of the core bracing required.

Y-Raises

Y-raises are a great exercise that is often neglected, or at least not known about. For shoulder health, I highly recommend incorporating y-raises into your workout regimen.

To perform this exercise, you need an incline bench and a set of dumbbells.

How To:

For this exercise, you'll be placing your chest at the top of an incline bench. Start by finding a good angle for the bench, such as a 45-degree angle. You can adjust it lower as long as your arms can hang freely off either side of the bench when on your stomach.

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To start, lie your stomach on the bench with dumbbells in hand, feet on the ground, and pull your shoulders back. Your hands should be in a neutral grip with your palms facing each other.

Begin by raising your arms in front of you at about a 45-degree angle as if trying to make the letter “Y” with your arms. You should feel tension in the muscles in your mid-back and in your shoulders.

When your arms are in line with your upper body, squeeze your shoulder blades together for a second. From here, slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.

Repeat this for reps.

Muscles Worked:

This exercise targets the mid and lower traps, as well as the rhomboids. It also recruits the shoulders a good bit, but the main emphasis should be on the traps.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

This is yet another row variation, but also another great one. As the name suggests, you'll be using one arm at a time. For set-up, make sure to grab a dumbbell and a bench to hold on to for stability and balance.

How To:

Start by placing your left knee on the bottom of the bench and your left hand on the top of the bench. Your right side will be off the bench. Your right arm will hold the dumbbell and your right leg will be planted on the ground.

Stagger your right foot slightly behind your left knee.

From here, engage your right lat and pull your elbow back as far as you can with the weight in hand. When you reach the end range of motion, squeeze your lats for a second, then slowly return back to the starting position.

Repeat for reps, and do the same number of reps on the left side.

Muscles Worked:

Single-arm dumbbell rows mostly work your lats, but they also work your arms and core. Your arms help to pull the weight, and your core helps keep you balanced so you don’t fall over with the weight.

Shrugs

This exercise is simple, but it's still a great way to build your upper traps. If you want to bulk up and look bigger, having large traps is certainly one way to do it.

This can be done with a barbell or dumbbells. Whichever you prefer is fine. I'll walk you through what this looks like with a barbell...

How To:

Start by grabbing the barbell around shoulder-width apart and stand up, bending forward slightly at your waist.

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Be sure to keep your shoulders pulled back to stop them from rounding forward from the weight.

From here, all you need to do is lift the bar by pulling your shoulders up. Your arms should stay straight, and you should feel tension in the muscles just below your neck on either side.

Squeeze your traps at the top for a second, then slowly lower your shoulders back to the starting position. Repeat this for reps.

Muscles Worked:

The upper traps dominate this exercise, but it's also great for your forearms too.

Straight-Arm Press Down

This exercise requires the use of a cable machine, and it’s a great way to somewhat isolate your lats. Any straight-bar attachment should work, but I prefer a longer bar to get a bit of a wider grip.

How To:

Start with whatever attachment you choose, and set it at the highest height you can.

Grab the attachment with an overhand grip, and take a small step back to lift the weight. From here, pull your shoulders back and hold them there while you pull the bar down toward your waist.

As the name suggests, try to keep your arms as straight as you can throughout the movement.

You should feel the tension in your lats on either side of your back. When the bar reaches your waist, squeeze your lats for a second, then slowly return them back to the starting position.

Note that when returning to the starting position, you should release your shoulders from being pulled back at the top. Allow them to get a little stretch at the top before going back into another rep.

Muscles Worked:

I already mentioned this is a good way to mostly isolate the lats, but the rear shoulder and triceps help out a bit too.

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are praised as an exercise for serious bodybuilders and powerlifters, but you don’t have to be either to benefit from them.

They definitely aren't easy though!

For this exercise, you can do it with dumbbells, but it's best with a barbell in my opinion.

How To:

Load a barbell with a comfortable weight for yourself and place it on the floor in front of you. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and walk up to the bar. Grip the barbell with an overhand grip so your arms are just outside your knees.

Tug up on the bar just enough to pull your body down into a squat while the bar still isn’t lifted off the ground. Your back should be straight and your shins should be very close or touching the bar.

Engage your lats to hold the bar close to your body as you drive your heels into the ground and stand up. Your hips and knees should extend at the same time.

Extending your knees before your hips could result in a lot more stress on your lower back and an increased risk of injury.

When you are fully upright with the bar, squeeze your glutes, then return to the starting position. Remember to keep the bar close to your body at all times and your back straight!

When the bar reaches the ground, reset, and repeat for reps.

Muscles Worked:

This exercise works the entire posterior chain. A lot of people even consider deadlifts to be one of the best resistance exercises you can do. They target your lower back, core, glutes, hamstrings, and even work your lats and traps quite a bit.

In Closing

No matter what your fitness goals are, working out all parts of your back is essential. A strong back is a healthy back, and you have to train these muscles regularly to get the most out of it.

Whether your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, or lose body fat, the training must be there.

However, that’s not the only factor that must be in good standing. I would argue that your nutrition is just as important, if not more-so.

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Unfortunately, dialing in the nutrition side of things is difficult for most people. I get it, it's hard for me too. I haven’t always known how to eat properly, and it took me a long time to learn everything.

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