There’s a lot riding on your back. Literally. Like your head with that brain of yours in it. Like your shoulders and arms, not to mention every load you carry, ax you swing, or weight you heft with said arms. And your back plays a major role in just about every single activity you’ll complete, from running to swimming to boulder climbing to sitting in a chair at work.
Yet back exercises are far too often overlooked. Even committed workout enthusiasts make the mistake of focusing on biceps and quads, pecs and shoulders, and worry about their backs only inasmuch as they want that V-shape, not doing those exercises that will truly strengthen a back and help it support the rest of the body.
Overlooking back workouts is not a mistake fitness pro Kupah James makes, though. And neither will any of the hundreds of clients he has worked with over his 15 years of professional experience as a trainer.
James, co-founder of Bodyweight BootKAMP, part-time DJ, napping enthusiast, and fitness fanatic, told us: “It is critical to develop a strong healthy back simply because your back is essentially the most important part of your skeleton – next to your skull, perhaps. It bears the weight of your upper body while stabilizing your balance and kindly houses your Central Nervous System, which allows signals from the brain to travel throughout your body. If that isn’t reason enough it’s also a major component to posture, and [affects] everyday activities like walking, running, sitting, and lifting. [Also], a well developed back will aid in your quest for that Super Hero Body.”
Why You Should Strengthen Your Back
“Some of the primary benefits of a back workout are the strengthening of the shoulder and increasing stability,” said James. “Many shoulder injuries can be prevented simply by strengthening your back. Another benefit to back workouts is the positive effect on your posture and balance.”
A strong back offers more support and stability to your shoulders, arms, neck, and head, and it works in tandem with your lower body as well. The more toned and fit your back muscles, the better your whole body will work as a unit. That means better gains in the weight room, faster sprints, longer trail runs, better agility on the court, and the shape you always wanted for yourself, too.
Increasing back strength can also help keep you healthier in the short and long term, staving off both acute and chronic injuries.
Avoid These Common Mistakes with Back Workouts
“A common mistake is poor form,” cautions James. “I could never express how important form is to the overall development of any muscle group and the back is no exception, especially in the Back Squat, Deadlift and Pull Up. Those are three I see performed incorrectly all the time, [and] I often can’t help myself and speak up and try to help the best way I can.”
An injured back can bring your overall exercise routine, not to mention much of your life, to a grinding halt, so when performing back exercises, James urges people to “respect the rep and choose form over everything.”
Avoid excessive weight, don’t do too many sets of exercises targeting the same back muscles, and give your body time to rest. You can run, ride, and swim every day of your life, but don’t do back-specific exercises daily, e.g. And ease back exercises into your workout rather than adding 10 all of the sudden.
10 Great Exercises for Your Back
Back Loaded Squat
This exercise works just about every muscle in the legs and up into your lower back, helping build foundational muscles used in myriad exercises and other activities.
- Use about 150% of your body weight on a bar held across your shoulders, palms up under the bar.
- Stand with knees slightly bent and feet just wider than shoulder-width.
- Squat until your knees bend just past 90 degrees, then rise up to almost erect.
This variation on the deadlift hits many muscles in the upper back and shoulders, not to mention your quads and glutes. It works the legs less than a traditional deadlift.
- Stand with each foot at least a half-foot wider than shoulder-width.
- Grip bar palms down with comfortable weight load (start light and add as needed) with your hands at shoulder width.
- Lift until sanding upright, legs still wide then lower and repeat.
To hit many muscles in the center and upper areas of your back, a back row is a great exercise.
- Stand bent about 45 degrees at your hips, head up, and gripping a bar loaded with challenging weight.
- Lower the bar down and out, roughly below your chin, then lift it up into the top of your abdomen.
- Aim to repeat 10 reps, adding or dropping weight as needed.
Targeted primarily at the shoulders but also hitting the center back muscles, this is a great exercise to make a regular part of the routine.
- Stand bent 45 degrees at your hips, head up, gripping a low weight dumbbell in each hand.
- Lift your arms out to the sides until they are parallel to the ground.
- Lower back down to perpendicular, then repeat.
Single Arm Row
This excellent exercise works your back, arms, and even your chest. It can safely be performed with higher weight and hits some of those glamour muscles — just keep it steady and in good form.
- Put one knee on a bench (or low wall or step) and rest the same side hand a foot in front of it, palm down.
- With your back roughly parallel to the floor, hold a decently heavy weight in the other hand and let it hang down.
- Complete reps pulling the weight straight up until it reaches your chest.
Pull-ups are hard at first and can feel thankless, but they hit almost every muscle in the back and shoulder. Plus, your count will go up fast and you can perform them anywhere: throw a towel over a tree branch or grab a deck or banister if you can’t hit the gym.
- With palms facing away, grip a bar with hands set just outside shoulder width.
- Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar.
- Repeat as many times as you can.
Chin-ups are easier than pull-ups, and while they hit fewer back muscles, they add in more chest work and work your biceps more as well.
- With palms facing you, grip a bar with hands set just outside shoulder width.
- Pull your body up until your chin clears the bar.
- Lower until just before your elbows lock, then repeat.
Lat Pull Down
This exercise hits the same muscles as a pull-up, which is to say almost all of the muscles in your back save the lowest. It’s a great way to ease into pull-ups as you can opt for lower weights initially.
- On a machine loaded with weight such that you can complete at least ten reps, grip the bar with hands facing out.
- Pull down until the bar is just below your chin.
- Slowly let the bar rise again, then repeat.
Classic pushups primarily benefit muscles on your arms and chest, but they strengthen some shoulder and upper back muscles as well and can be performed anywhere with no equipment.
- Lie facedown on the ground and place hands beneath shoulders or just outside torso width.
- With back straight and head up, push yourself up until just before elbow lock.
- Lower until you are an inch off the ground, then repeat.
This exercise primarily hits the posterior chain, which are the muscles running from your legs up through your gluts and into your lower back, and is also good and your core, shoulders, and arms.
- Bend at your hips and bend knees slightly as you grasp a kettlebell with both hands, palms down.
- Push the kettlebell back between your knees (like snapping a football) and then raise it quickly, swinging the kettlebell up forward to just below shoulder height.
- Repeat without break for a comfortable rep count.
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