If you’ve ever had a backache, you know just how miserable it can be. Every movement your body makes will engage your back in some way, so a hurt one means you’re down and out — which is no fun at all!
Strengthening your back muscles can help prevent these types of injuries and ensure that your entire body works smoothly, both during daily movements and during exercise.
But with the plethora of back exercises out there on the internet, you may be a little overwhelmed — especially if you’re a newbie. We’ve taken out the guesswork for you and put together a list of the 15 best back moves you can do for overall strength and performance.
First things first:
When we talk about your back, which muscles are we targeting? Primary muscles in the back include the:
- lats, which are in the area below your armpits down the sides of your back
- rhomboids, which are in the mid-upper back
- traps, which run from your neck to your mid back
- erector spinae, a group of muscles that run along your spine
All of the exercises below target a combination of these muscles.
Start with 5 to 10 minutes of moderate cardio to get your blood pumping and start to awaken your muscles. Then do a five-minute stretching sequence to prep your back for targeted exercises. This routine is a great starting point. Also, if at any point these moves cause you pain, stop what you’re doing and rest.
Choose three to five of these exercises to create your own back workout, which you can do twice weekly (or more) to reach your goals. Aim to hit all 15 of these exercises within a two-week span to ensure your routine is well rounded.
1. Resistance band pull apart
A great exercise to kick off your back workout, the resistance band pull apart is simple but effective. Choose a resistance band that allows you to complete 2 sets of 15 to 20 reps with good form.
- Stand with your arms extended. Hold a resistance band taut in front of you with both hands so the band is parallel to the ground.
- Keeping your arms straight, pull the band to your chest by moving your arms out to your sides. Initiate this movement from your mid back, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your spine straight, then slowly return to start.
2. Quadruped dumbbell row
This exercise takes you back to the basics of the row, fixing many form issues, such as over-rowing at the top of the movement, overstretching the arm at the bottom of the movement, and lower-back compensation. Do this exercise before completing any other rowing movements.
- Get on all fours with a dumbbell positioned in each hand. Ensure your back is straight, hands are directly below shoulders, and knees are directly below hips.
- Row up with your right arm, pulling your elbow up and bringing the dumbbell to your armpit. Keep your elbow tucked throughout the movement. You’ll notice here that if you row too far, you’ll lose your balance.
- Extend your arm, returning the dumbbell to the ground, and repeat on the left side.
- Complete 3 sets of 12 reps on each side.
3. Lat pulldown
You can complete a lat pulldown on a machine at the gym or with a resistance band. Pulling the weight from above your head down to your chest requires the lats, biceps, and even forearms to work, strengthening them all.
- If you’re using a machine, position the pad so it’s touching your thighs. Stand up and grab the bar wider than shoulder-width apart, sitting back down.
- Begin to pull the bar down toward your chest, bending your elbows and directing them down to the ground. Engage your upper and mid back throughout this whole movement. Keep your torso straight, not allowing yourself to fall backward.
- Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.
4. Wide dumbbell row
Mimicking a barbell row, a wide dumbbell row allows you an increased range of motion and can help you address any muscular imbalances on one side versus the other. Choose light- to moderate-weight dumbbells to start — 10 pounds should work — and work your way up from there. If you have a bad low back, use caution with this exercise.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and hinge at the waist, stopping when your upper body forms a 20-degree angle with the ground. Your palms should be facing your thighs, and your neck should remain neutral. Allow the dumbbells to hang down in front of you.
- Begin to row with your elbows at a 90-degree angle, pulling them up toward the sky. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Return to start and repeat, completing 3 sets of 12 reps.
5. Barbell deadlift
Working the lower back, erector spinae muscles, and hamstrings, a barbell deadlift requires back strength to effectively complete.
- Stand behind the barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your chest lifted, begin to hinge at the hips and slowly bend your knees, reaching down to pick up the barbell. Keep your back straight and grasp the bar with both palms facing you in an overhand grip.
- Push back up, keeping your feet flat on the floor, back into the starting position. Your back should remain straight throughout the movement. Your shoulders should be down and back.
- Return to the starting position, pushing your hips back and bending your knees until you bring the barbell back to the ground.
- Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.
Hyperextensions target your core plus your whole posterior chain, or the back side of your body. This makes them great for strengthening the erector spinae muscles and the entire lower back in general.
- Lie down on an exercise ball with your abdomen on the center of the ball. Press the balls of your feet into the ground to stay balanced.
- Extend your arms forward. Bending at your waist, slowly raise your upper body toward the sky. Be sure to engage your core and glutes. Keep your feet on the floor.
- Pause for a moment when at the top, then slowly lower down.
- Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.
7. ‘Good morning’
Another lower back-targeting exercise, good mornings get their name because the movement mirrors bowing as a way to say hello. This exercise is more advanced, so start without weight to ensure that you have the movement pattern correct before loading on a barbell.
- If using weight, safely mount a barbell on your shoulders behind your head. Position your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hinging at your hips, soften your knees and drop your torso toward the ground, stopping when it’s parallel. Your back should remain straight throughout this movement.
- Once you reach parallel, push through your feet and return to start. Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.
8. Single-arm dumbbell row
Stabilizing yourself on a bench to perform a single-arm row allows you to really target and engage those back muscles. Challenge yourself by adding some weight here, of course while remaining aware of your form.
- Position yourself on a bench so your left knee and shin are resting on it, as well as your left hand — this will be your support. Your right leg should be straight with your foot on the ground. Pick up the dumbbell with your right hand. Maintain a straight torso.
- Row the dumbbell up, pulling your elbow toward the sky while keeping it close to your body. Squeeze your upper back as you pull your elbow up.
- Slowly lower back down to the start position. Complete 3 sets of 12 reps on each side.
9. Renegade dumbbell row
This move will challenge you by requiring you to hold a plank while you row, thus adding an extra core workout to your back moves.
- Assume a high plank position with each of your hands on a dumbbell. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your toes. Your core should be engaged throughout the movement.
- Row with your right arm, pulling your elbow toward the sky while keeping it close to your body, then returning the dumbbell to the ground. Ensure that your hips stay square to the ground.
- Repeat with your left arm. Alternate, completing 20 total reps for 3 sets.
10. Wood chop
A triple whammy for your core, arms, and back, the wood chop is a full-body movement. Use a dumbbell or medicine ball here — 10 pounds is a good place to start.
- Grab the dumbbell or medicine ball with both hands. Hold it above your head with your arms extended. Pivot on your right foot slightly so your hips are rotated.
- As you begin to squat down, rotate your hips to the left and bring the dumbbell or ball down to the outside of your left knee in a sweeping movement.
- On the ascent, twist your trunk back toward the right and, keeping your arms straight, bring the dumbbell or ball back up above the right side of your head in an explosive but controlled movement. This movement should mimic a chopping motion, hence the name.
- Complete 12 reps on each side for 3 sets total.
11. TRX row
Using your body weight and requiring loads of balance and stability, the TRX row is super effective. The great thing about it is that it’s suitable for people of all ability levels.
- Grab hold of the TRX handles and walk under them, forming a tabletop position with your arms extended. The more parallel your back is to the ground, the harder this exercise will be.
- Keeping your back straight, row upward by pulling yourself toward the ceiling. Keep your elbows close to your sides.
- Extend your arms and return to start, ensuring that your hips don’t sag.
- Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.
Hitting your core, especially your lower back, Supermans are deceivingly hard, even though you’re technically lying on the ground.
- Lie on your stomach with your arms extended over your head.
- Engage your core and glutes. Lift your upper and lower body off the ground as high as they’ll go. Pause for 1 second at the top. Return to the start position in a controlled motion.
- Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.
13. Reverse fly
Targeting the rhomboids and traps as well as the shoulders, the reverse fly move strengthens those posture muscles that are oh so important to everyday health.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, hinge forward at the waist until your torso forms a 45-degree angle with the ground, allowing the dumbbells to hang in front of you, palms facing each other. Have a slight bend in your elbows.
- Engaging your core, lift your arms up and out, squeezing your shoulder blades at the top.
- Slowly return to the starting position, staying in control of the weights. Complete 3 sets of 12 reps.
A classic back exercise, the unassisted pullup requires a lot of strength. Bring in reinforcements if you’re not there yet by using a pullup band to work on the exercise.
- Stand underneath a pullup bar and grab it with an overhand grip, placing your hands wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift your feet off the ground — or place them in the assist band — and hang from your arms, then pull your body up to the bar by bending your arms and pulling your elbows toward the ground.
- Once your chin crosses over the bar, extend your arms to lower your body back down.
- Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
Commonly thought of as a core movement, planks are really a full-body exercise. They recruit those deep back muscles — the erector spinae — to allow you to hold the position effectively.
- Get into a plank position with your elbows and forearms on the ground and legs extended, supporting your weight on your toes and forearms.
- Your body should form a straight line from head to toe. Engage your core to ensure your hips don’t sag.
Strengthening your back has so many benefits, the most important being to help you live everyday life in an easier way. These exercises will provide everything you’ll need to function better and get stronger.
Remember, as you progress in these exercises, continue to challenge yourself by adding weight or resistance, but do so cautiously. If you have a history of back problems, consult your doctor or a physical therapist before proceeding.
Nicole Davis is a Boston-based writer, ACE-certified personal trainer, and health enthusiast who works to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. Her philosophy is to embrace your curves and create your fit — whatever that may be! She was featured in Oxygen magazine’s “Future of Fitness” in the June 2016 issue. Follow her on Instagram.