If you’ve ever had back pain, you know just how frustrating it can be — and you’re not alone. It’s estimated that 60–80% of adults in Western countries deal with lower back pain (1).

And because almost every movement your body makes engages your back in some way, this kind of pain can really put a damper on your activities.

Strengthening your back muscles is one way to help manage or even prevent nonspecific back pain and improve range of motion.

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 strength and performance.

When we talk about your back, which muscles are we targeting? Primary muscles in the back include the:

  • latissimus dorsi (lats), which are in the area below your armpits down the sides of your back
  • rhomboids, which are in the mid-upper back
  • trapezius (traps), which run from your neck to your mid-back
  • erector spinae, which run along your spine

All the exercises below target a combination of these muscles and may also target other upper body muscles in your shoulders, chest, and arms.

Start with 5–10 minutes of moderate cardio to get your blood pumping and awaken your muscles.

Next, do a 5-minute dynamic stretching sequence to prep your back for targeted exercises. These exercises are a great starting point.

If you’re a beginner, choose 3–5 of the exercises below and do 1 set of each, twice a week. Slowly, over the course of a few weeks, work your way up to 3 sets of each.

If you have experience with strength training, choose 3–5 of these exercises and do 3 sets of each, twice a week (or more).

Aim to hit all 15 of these exercises within a 2-week span to ensure your routine is well-rounded.

1. Resistance band pull-apart

Why it’s on the list: 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 1–2 sets of 15–20 reps with good form.

Muscles worked: The main movement of this exercise is scapular retraction, which means you’re pulling your shoulder blades together. This helps target upper back muscles such as the rhomboids, rear deltoids, and trapezius.

Retraction exercises also help improve shoulder health by strengthening stabilizer muscles around your shoulders, such as those that make up your rotator cuff.

Directions:

  1. Stand with arms extended. Hold a resistance band taut in front of you with both hands so the band is parallel to the floor.
  2. Keeping arms straight, pull band to chest by moving your arms out to the sides. Initiate the
    movement from your mid-back, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and keep your spine neutral. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.
  3. Perform 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

2. Lat pulldown

Why it’s on the list: The lat pulldown is a great staple exercise for building a strong back. You can complete a lat pulldown on a machine at the gym or with a resistance band.

Muscles worked: As you can probably guess, lat pulldowns mainly target the latissimus dorsi, a large muscle located in the middle and lower back. This exercise also targets the trapezius, rotator cuff, posterior deltoids, rhomboids, biceps, and forearms.

Directions:

  1. If you’re using a machine, position the pad so it’s touching your thighs. Stand up and grab the bar with hands wider than shoulder-width apart, then sit back down.
  2. Begin to pull the bar down toward your chest, bending your elbows and pointing them toward the floor. Engage your upper back and mid-back throughout the move. Keep your torso straight, and don’t allow yourself to lean back.
  3. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

3. Back extension

Why it’s on the list: Back extensions target your whole posterior chain — in other words, the back side of your body. They’re a great beginner exercise.

Muscles worked: Back extensions are great for targeting your back extensor muscles, known as the erector spinae muscles. They also target your hamstrings and glutes to some extent, depending on the variation you’re doing.

Directions:

  1. Lie facedown on an exercise ball with your abdomen on the center of the ball. Press the balls of your feet into the floor behind you to stay balanced. You can position your feel against a wall for added support.
  2. Extend your arms overhead, in line with your ears. Bend first at your waist, bringing your body down toward the floor. This is your starting position.
  3. Slowly raise your upper body and arms toward the sky until your shoulders are above hip height. Engage your core and glutes and keep your feet on the floor.
  4. Pause for a moment at the top, then slowly lower down.
  5. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

4. Suspended row

Why it’s on the list: Using your body weight and requiring balance and stability, the suspended row is super-effective. The great thing about it is that it’s suitable for people of all ability levels. You’ll need a TRX trainer or another suspension trainer for this exercise.

Muscles worked: Suspended rows target the three largest muscles of your back — the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rhomboids. You’ll also strengthen your core, shoulders, and biceps with this move.

Directions:

  1. Grab TRX handles and walk under them, forming a tabletop position with arms extended. The more parallel your back is to the floor, the harder this exercise will be. You can also do this move with straight legs, keeping your body in one straight line.
  2. Keeping your back straight and your elbows close to your sides, pull yourself up toward the ceiling.
  3. Extend your arms and return to the starting position.
  4. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

5. Wood chop

Why it’s on the list: 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.

Muscles worked: Wood chops are an excellent workout to strengthen your core muscles, such as your obliques and transversus abdominis. They also target your shoulders, upper back, and arms.

Directions:

  1. Grab a dumbbell or medicine ball with both hands. Hold it overhead with arms straight.
  2. Rotate your hips to the left and bring the dumbbell or ball down to the outside of your left knee in a sweeping movement.
  3. 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.
  4. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps on each side.

6. Good morning

Why it’s on the list: Another exercise that targets your lower back, the good morning gets its name because the movement mirrors bowing as a way to say hello. This exercise is more advanced, so start without weight to ensure you have the right form before loading on a barbell.

Muscles worked: Good mornings target many muscles along the back of your body, including your glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, and upper back muscles.

Directions:

  1. If using weight, safely mount a barbell on your shoulders behind your head. Position your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hinging at your hips, soften your knees and lower your torso toward the floor, stopping when it’s parallel to the floor. Your back should remain straight throughout this movement.
  3. Once you reach parallel, push through your feet and return to the starting position. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

7. Quadruped single-arm dumbbell row

Why it’s on the list: 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 your arm at the bottom of the movement, and compensating with your lower back. Do this exercise before completing any other rowing movements.

Muscles worked: This move emphasizes your upper back muscles, including your latissimus dorsi, teres minor, teres major, posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and trapezius. It’ll also help build strength in your arms. What’s more, it can help you fix muscular imbalances by targeting each side individually.

Directions:

  1. Start on hands and knees with a dumbbell positioned in each hand. Ensure your back is straight, your hands are directly below your shoulders, and your knees are directly below your hips.
  2. Row up and back with your right arm, bending your elbow and bringing the dumbbell to your armpit. Keep your elbow tucked at your side throughout the movement. You’ll notice that if you row too far, you’ll lose your balance.
  3. Slowly return the dumbbell to the starting position and repeat on the left side.
  4. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps on each side.

8. Wide dumbbell bent-over row

Why it’s on the list: Mimicking a barbell row, a wide dumbbell row allows you an increased range of motion and can help you address muscular imbalances between sides. Choose light- to moderate-weight dumbbells to start — 10 pounds should work — and work your way up from there. If you have lower back issues, use caution with this exercise.

Muscles worked: This move targets most of the muscles in your back, such as your latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, and erector spinae.

Directions:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your thighs, and stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, keeping core engaged and neck neutral, and hinge at the hips until your torso forms a 45-degree angle with the floor. Allow the dumbbells to hang down in front of you.
  2. Begin to row with your elbows at a 90-degree angle, pulling them up toward the ceiling. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat, completing 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

9. Barbell deadlift

Why it’s on the list: The barbell deadlift is an excellent compound movement, meaning it targets many muscle groups at the same time. It hits the entire posterior chain — from your upper back all the way down to your calves — making it a great full-body move.

Muscles worked: Working the erector spinae muscles, hamstrings, glutes, and shoulder stabilizers, a barbell deadlift requires back strength to effectively complete.

Directions:

  1. Stand behind a barbell with feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping chest lifted, begin to hinge at your hips and slowly bend knees, reaching down to pick up the barbell. Keep back straight and grasp the bar with both palms facing you.
  3. Keeping feet flat on the floor, push back up to a standing position. Your back should remain straight throughout the movement, and your shoulders should be down and back.
  4. Return to the starting position, pushing your hips back and bending your knees until you bring the barbell back toward the floor.
  5. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

10. Superman

Why it’s on the list: Though you’re lying on the floor, the superman exercise is deceptively challenging. This move is excellent for strengthening your lower back and requires no equipment.

Muscles worked: erector spinae, glutes, hamstrings, upper back, shoulders, and arms

Directions:

  1. Lie facedown on the floor with arms extended overhead.
  2. Engage your core and glutes and lift your upper and lower body off the floor, as high as you can without straining. Pause for 1 second at the top. Return to the starting position in a controlled motion.
  3. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

11. Single-arm dumbbell row

Why it’s on the list: Stabilizing yourself on a bench to perform a single-arm row allows you to target those back muscles. Challenge yourself by adding some weight here — while remaining aware of your form, of course.

Muscles worked: This move emphasizes your latissimus dorsi, teres minor, teres major, posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and trapezius. It can also help you improve muscular imbalances by targeting each side individually.

Directions:

  1. 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 floor. Pick up a dumbbell with your right hand. Maintain a straight torso.
  2. Pull the dumbbell up, aiming your elbow toward the sky while keeping it close to your body. Squeeze your upper back as you bend your elbow.
  3. Slowly lower back down to the starting position. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps on each side.

12. Renegade dumbbell row

Why it’s on the list: This advanced move will challenge you by requiring you to hold a plank while you row, thus adding a core workout while strengthening your upper back.

Muscles worked: This full-body exercise targets your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, abdominals, shoulders, arms, and legs.

Directions:

  1. 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, and your core should be engaged throughout the movement.
  2. Row with your right arm, pulling your elbow toward the sky while keeping it close to your body, then return the dumbbell to the floor. Keep your hips square to the floor.
  3. Repeat with your left arm. Alternate, completing 20 total reps for 1–3 sets.

13. Reverse fly

Why it’s on the list: The reverse fly strengthens those postural muscles that are oh-so-important to everyday health. Choose light- to moderate-weight dumbbells to start — 5 pounds should work — and work your way up from there. If you have lower back pain or weakness, use caution with this exercise.

Muscles worked: This move targets the rhomboids, trapezius, and posterior deltoids.

Directions:

  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, hinge forward at your hips until your torso forms a 45-degree angle with the floor, allowing the dumbbells to hang in front of you, palms facing each other. Have a slight bend in your elbows.
  2. Engaging your core, lift your arms up and out, squeezing your shoulder blades at the top.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

14. Pullup

Why it’s on the list: A classic back exercise, the unassisted pullup requires a lot of strength and can be a challenge. If you’re not quite there yet, bring in reinforcements by using a pullup band to work on the exercise.

Muscles worked: latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis major, shoulders, forearms, erector spinae, and obliques

Directions:

  1. Grab a pullup bar with an overhand grip, placing your hands wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lift your feet off the floor — or place them in the assist band — and hang from your arms.
  3. Pull your body up to the bar by bending your arms and pulling your shoulder blades toward the floor.
  4. Once your chin crosses the bar, lower your body back down.
  5. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

15. Forearm plank

Why it’s on the list: 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.

Muscles worked: This full-body workout targets your core (rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, erector spinae), upper body (trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, chest, serratus anterior), shoulders, arms, and legs.

Directions:

  1. Get into a plank position with your elbows and forearms on the floor and your legs extended, supporting your weight on your toes and forearms.
  2. Your body should form a straight line from head to toe. Engage your core to ensure your hips don’t dip.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds and work your way up to 1 minute or even longer.

16. Smith machine row

Why it’s on the list: Similar to a barbell row, this exercise is great for targeting your upper back. Many people prefer using a Smith machine because it balances the weight for you, allowing you to focus on lifting with your upper back muscles.

Muscles worked: This move mostly targets the latissimus dorsi but also strengthens the trapezius and posterior deltoids.

Directions:

  1. Stand behind the Smith machine bar with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hinge at your hips, slightly bend your knees, and maintain a neutral spine.
  3. Place your hands over the bar with an overhand grip, a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Pull the bar up toward your chest by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Avoid using your arms to do most of the work.
  5. Slowly return the bar to the starting position.
  6. Perform 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

17. Seated row

Why it’s on the list: Seated rows keep your muscles under tension throughout the entire exercise, helping to build a strong back.

Muscles worked: This exercise is great for targeting your latissimus dorsi and rhomboids. It will also target other muscles, such as the trapezius and biceps.

Directions:

  1. Adjust the cable row seat so that the handles are at chest height.
  2. Sit up straight and place your feet flat on the floor or on the foot supports.
  3. Grab the handles and hold them in front of you with your arms extended.
  4. Pull the handles toward your chest by squeezing your shoulder blades and drawing your elbows back. Keep your elbows close to your body.
  5. Return to the starting position with slow, controlled movement.
  6. Perform 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

18. Chest-supported row

Why it’s on the list: Another great variation of the row is the chest-supported row. By leaning against a bench, you can focus on using your lats to pull the weight back. This may also help you lift more weight.

Muscles worked: This move mainly targets the latissimus dorsi.

Directions:

  1. Position an adjustable exercise bench so that the backrest is at a 45-degree angle.
  2. Grab a pair of dumbbells and sit on the bench with your chest is facing the backrest.
  3. Plant your feet on the floor, engage your core, and slowly lean forward until your chest is against the backrest.
  4. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, extend your elbows and let your arms hang straight down. This is the starting position.
  5. At the same time, squeeze your shoulder blades and bend your elbows to bring the dumbbells toward your rib cage.
  6. Slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
  7. Perform 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

19. Dumbbell pullover

Why it’s on the list: This advanced move is great for those looking for an extra challenge to strengthen their back and chest. It’s also a great way to improve shoulder mobility.

Because of the move’s difficulty, it’s best to use lighter dumbbells and perfect your form. Using weights that are too heavy can increase your risk of injury and prevent you from performing the exercise correctly.

Muscles worked: The dumbbell pullover targets both the chest muscles and the latissimus dorsi.

Directions:

  1. Select two lightweight dumbbells (it’s best to start with lighter weights to ensure correct form and maximize range of motion).
  2. Lie faceup on an exercise bench with your feet flat on the floor and a dumbbell in each hand resting against your chest.
  3. Engage your core and extend your arms up toward the ceiling in front of your chest. Keep the dumbbells close to one another, elbows slightly bent, and palms facing inward. This is the starting position.
  4. Slowly extend your arms back to bring the dumbbells back and over your head. Avoid going farther than your ears, keeping your arms visible out of the corner of your eye. Ensure your ribs remain in contact with the bench.
  5. Pause, and then slowly bring the dumbbells back to the starting position.
  6. Perform 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps.

Strengthening your back has many benefits, the most important being that it can help protect you from many forms of back pain. These exercises will provide everything you’ll need to function better and feel stronger.

Remember, as you progress in these exercises, continue to challenge yourself by adding weight or resistance, but do so cautiously and stop if you ever experience any pain during a movement. If you have a history of back problems, consult your doctor or a physical therapist before proceeding.