In the pursuit of strengthening our bodies and better health, we often let our workouts stagnate....
Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Back Exercises for Strength, Size, and Posture
A strong back is the key to a confident physique, stability, improved posture, and overall strength.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the best exercises you can learn and integrate into your workout routine for:
- Building a strong back
- Adding width to your back
- Improving your posture
- Preventing the risk of chronic aches, stiffness, and injury.
The Muscles of the Back
The back is made up of several distinct muscle groups. The four primary moving muscles, known as Superficial Muscles, are:
- Latissimus dorsi (lats), which enable you to extend and rotate your shoulder and arm. The lats are the largest muscle in the upper body. They start below your shoulder blades and extend to your spine in the lower back. When you see someone with the inverted triangle torso shape, it’s because they have well-developed lats.
- Levator scapulae, which raises your shoulder blade. It’s a smaller muscle that runs along the side of your neck and extends to the shoulder blade (scapula).
- Rhomboids are two muscles (the rhomboid major and minor) that work together to pull the scapula inward toward the spine. They connect the shoulder blades to the spine.
- Trapezius muscles (traps) help you move your shoulders, raise your arms, and have good posture. The traps start in your neck and run along the tops of your shoulders, and then extend down to the spine in a triangle shape.
There are also intermediate muscles and intrinsic muscles which are deep under the skin and work to support the spine and connect the spinal column to its dependent systems. These muscles provide your body with stability, and rigidity, and enable you to turn, twist, and bend at the spine safely.
When it comes to working out, we’re primarily going to focus on the four superficial muscles as the main movers of the exercises we’ll cover.
Compound Back Exercises for Strength and Size
Compound exercises refer to exercises that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously. With these lifts, there are primary muscles you engage, agonist muscles which aren’t the main lifting mechanism but still assist with the motion, and stabilizing muscles that help you maintain your posture and balance through the lift.
Muscles Worked: Lats, traps, rear delts, rhomboids
Rows represent a broad category of back exercises that you should learn early on in your lifting lifecycle. One of the best things about rows is that once you learn the basic mechanics of them, you can modify them and perform dozens of variations of an incredibly effective exercise. For the purpose of establishing a starting point, we’ll describe a Bent Over Barbell Row. Once you learn the Bent Over Barbell Row, other common variations become pretty easy. There are some variants that are a little easier to complete, such as a Supported Dumbbell Row, but the Bent Over Barbell Row is a bit better starting point because it (a) engages more of your back and posterior chain and (b) helps your train more stabilizing muscles than easier variations.
To complete a barbell row,
- Place a barbell in a lifting rack so that the bar is about the height of your knees or slightly lower. Fit the bar with the appropriate amount of weight.
- Slightly bend your knees and bend over, keeping your back rigid and your core engaged. You do not need to be parallel to the floor. About 45 degrees is plenty.
- Grip the barbell with an overhand grip barely wider than the shoulder’s width apart.
- Keeping your shoulder blades drawn back and down, lift the bar up toward your chest. Your elbows should be coming back fairly close to your torso– don’t flare your elbows out to the sides or you risk injuring your shoulder.
- Lift until the bar touches your lower chest or stomach.
- Carefully return the bar to the starting position.
Row Adaptations and Variations
There are dozens of ways that you can vary your row. How you adapt it will depend upon what you specifically want to target. Because there are so many options available to you, I won’t go into detail on all of them. But, some of the more common variations include:
- Single-arm dumbbell rows,are often completed while kneeling on a flat bench. These are a great choice for practicing slow, isolated lifts and can be a great way to help improve strength symmetry if you feel that your dominant side is stronger than your non-dominant side.
- T-bar rows, which can be completed with a supported chest (usually equipment for this will be available at your gym) or in a similar stance as a bent-over row, place the bar between your legs with the fulcrum of the lift behind you. While barbell rows are compound exercises that target a broad spectrum of back muscles while engaging your legs, t-bar rows are a more isolated exercise that targets the same back muscles without engaging the legs quite as much since the bar functions as a fulcrum rather than solely relying on your body to function as a lever.
Muscles Worked: Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps Brachii, Infraspinatus (part of the shoulder cuff), Lower Trapezius, Erector Spinae
Pull-ups don’t require barbells or dumbbells and present a fairly low risk of injury. In spite of this, they shouldn’t be underestimated for how effective (and challenging) they are as an exercise.
To perform a pull-up,
- Grip a pull-up bar with a pronated grip, meaning your palms face away from your body, at or slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Raise yourself by drawing your shoulder blades back and down, pulling through your lat muscles and arms until your chin is even with the bar
- Lower yourself back down in a controlled motion until your arms are approximately 85% extended
Pull-ups, when done correctly, will engage each of the major back muscles, making them great for training. Avoid swinging your body or “kipping.” Kipping is meant to help you build up inertia, allowing you to raise yourself above the bar by guiding your body’s motion with your shoulders rather than by engaging your back muscles. Kipping will prevent you from seeing the benefits of a true pull-up and significantly increases your risk of shoulder injury.
Pull-Up Adaptations and Variations
With pull-ups, there are a few main ways that you can adapt the exercise for your needs.
For more challenging pull-ups, you can:
- Increase the weight of each rep by wearing a weight vest, using a chain to hang a weight plate from your waist, or gripping a dumbbell between your feet.
- You can also experiment with increasing the width of your grip, but if you do so, be mindful that you can still draw your shoulder blades back and down while completing the rep to prevent the risk of injuries.
Pull-ups can be very challenging and may be too challenging when you’re just starting out. They were for me– one of my first big workout goals was to be able to do five pull-ups. If you’re starting in a similar position:
- Use a weight-assisted pull-up machine. With these machines, your knees will rest on a carriage and you can specify how much of an assist you would like by adjusting the weight settings of the machine. The higher the weight amount you select, the easier your pull-ups will be. Try to find the sweet spot where you can complete 6-8 pull-ups but it’s still difficult to do so.
- Use a resistance band to assist. This is not my preferred way to assist a pull-up, but it is an option. You can loop a resistance band over your pull-up bar and then rest your knee or foot in the loop that hangs down. As the band stretches, it will apply pressure to help you return to the top of the motion. The risk with this adaptation is that it can make it easier for you to trip or get stuck on the dismount. Additionally, if you have your foot in the band and your legs extended, the band will build up a lot of tension. If it then slides off your foot and between your legs, it can cause significant pain or injury to your inner thigh or groin.
Muscles Worked: Glutes, Hamstring, Quads, Lats, Traps, Lower Back, plenty of synergist muscles
Deadlifts are often considered the king of workouts. They work your lower body and nearly your entire posterior chain. While deadlifts are a great exercise to start practicing, if you’re brand new to lifting, it’s probably best to ease into full deadlifts by doing one of the variations below. Doing deadlifts incorrectly can result in injury.
To perform a deadlift:
- Set up your barbell with the appropriate amount of weight in an area or on a platform designed for deadlifts.
- Step up to the bar so that your toes are under the bar but your shin doesn’t touch it. Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart and slightly angled away from the body (about 15 degrees).
- Bend at the knees, dropping down so that you can grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift your chest and engage your core. You want your torso to be fairly straight and rigid. If your lower back is rounded or drooping, you increase your risk of injury.
- Keeping your core engaged and your back straight, drive through your heels, lifting with your legs as you simultaneously raise your back to an upright standing position.
- Pause briefly at the top of your lift with your back and legs fully extended and then safely lower the weight back to the ground or release it back to the floor.
Deadlift Adaptations and Variations
Deadlifts are a difficult exercise to master, but once you get them down, they’re one of the best exercises to keep in your arsenal. The standard deadlift, however, doesn’t have to be the only version that you do.
- Perform deadlifts with dumbbells instead of a barbell to better learn the way that you need to engage your muscles and ensure that you’re getting the full depth needed for the lift. With dumbbells, you’re going to generally be lifting less weight but doing more reps, and will also be able to squat lower when getting set up. This is a great variation for learning to do the lift safely, or if you’re just in a crowded gym with limited lifting platforms.
- If you have tight hips or a history of lower back injuries, you may be safer to perform rack pulls instead of deadlifts. Rack pulls follow a similar motion to deadlifts, but the barbell starts on a rack at a height just below your knees. While rack pulls do not engage the posterior chain as completely as deadlifts, they’re still a fantastic way to engage and strengthen many of the same muscles.
- Start with your barbell elevated on platforms or small plate stacks if you are particularly tall. For folks over six feet tall, the deep crouch to start a deadlift can put excessive strain on their knees and requires more energy at the start of the lift which can make it a challenge to complete multiple reps. By elevating the barbell slightly, you decrease the extent to which you have to bend your knees and activate your hip flexors, which can make the lift more comfortable.
Isolated Back Exercises for Stability and Posture
As the name suggests, isolated exercises refer to exercises that target relatively few muscles per movement. Generally, an isolated lift is not going to activate stabilizing muscles in the same way that a compound lift is going to. In spite of this, these are still fantastic exercises in your routine since they can be incorporated in a way that lets you train for specific outcomes. By incorporating isolated exercises that target specific muscles, you can compensate for any known weaknesses or mobility limitations that you want to overcome.
Back Extension/ Hyperextension
Muscles Targeted: Glutes, Erector Spinae
Hyperextensions are a fairly straightforward exercise with little risk of injury if done correctly. This is not an exercise that’s going to contribute to significant size gains, but it does help strengthen your Erector Spinae– a thick muscle that runs from the top of your hips along the spine– which contributes to giving you more strength and stability in compound lifts like squats and deadlifts, and it can also help improve your posture.
Personally, I incorporate hyperextensions into my routine frequently because they help me with lower back pain from sitting in a desk chair for long periods of time.
Completing a hyperextension will generally require your gym to have the appropriate bench support available.
- Brace your feet and thighs in place within the extension bench. The top of the supporting pad should be below the top of your hip so that you can bend fully at the waist.
- Lower your torso toward the ground without rounding your spine. Maintain rigidity as much as possible.
- Once you’ve lowered as much as you are able to, lift yourself slowly, continuing to keep your back erect.
- Only raise up until your back is straight and pause for two to three seconds at the top of the raise. You do not want to arch your back extensively at the top of your lift, particularly if you are hypermobile, as this can put unnecessary strain on your vertebrae.
Back Extension Adaptations and Variations
You can make your back extension more challenging by holding a dumbbell or weight plate your chest while completing the motion.
Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
Muscles Worked: Lats, traps, delts, stabilizing muscles through the shoulder
Lat pulldowns are a classic and for good reason. The lats are one of the most impressive muscle groups in the body. When someone has well-shaped lats, you’re going to be impressed, and the pulldown is a great way to target those muscles.
This is a fantastic exercise to master if you are practicing to be able to do pull-ups or if you just want a stronger, broader back.
To complete a Lat Pulldown:
- Grip the bar on the lat pulldown machine wider than shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from your body. Most bars will have grips indicating the correct location to hold them.
- Seat yourself on the machine, usually with your knees braced to help you stay in place.
- Engage your core to keep your torso straight and draw your shoulder blades back and down.
- Pull down on the bar, lowering it until the bar is even with your chin.
- In a slow, controlled motion, let the bar return until your arms are nearly fully extended.
When completing Lat Pulldowns, keep your legs planted firmly and press your hips back into the seat. Avoid rocking or jerking, as doing so will put unnecessary strain on your shoulders and lower back.
Single-Arm T-bar Rows
Muscles Worked: Lats, Rhomboids, Core
We’ve already covered standard rows, so the mechanics of this exercise should be fairly familiar. There are a few key differences to the single-arm t-bar row, though, that will differentiate the experience from standard rows.
- Secure your barbell appropriately so that one end is anchored at floor height while the other end is freely movable.
- Add weight to your barbell– 33% to 50% of what you would normally lift during standard rows.
- Stand to one side of the weighted end of the barbell facing away from the fulcrum.
- With your legs at or slightly beyond shoulder width, allow a slight bend in your knees and grip the barbell with the hand closest to it.
- In a slow, controlled motion, pull the barbell up. As you are doing so, engage your core. Try to keep your hips level and avoid twisting or jerking as you raise the weight. Like with most pull-focused exercises for your back, you’ll want to think about drawing your shoulder blades back and down as you lift, isolating the engagement to your lats and rhomboids.
Once you’ve completed your desired number of reps, step over the bar and repeat with the other arm.
These Aren’t the Only Back Exercises Worth Knowing, But…
There are so many ways to engage and strengthen your back muscles. Depending upon what equipment or training is available to you at your gym, you may have access to dozens of variations, machines, or functional training programs that go beyond the scope of what we’ve covered in this article.
But, our intention isn’t to cover every possible back workout– it’s to give you the information needed to understand the mechanics behind the most foundational back workouts. If you learn and master these exercises, you can modify them and sequence them in numerous ways to achieve your desired results.
Additional Resources and Explainer Videos
For visual references and advice on how to complete these exercises, there are a few key resources I recommend checking out.
Before I list them, though, I should mention that the best resource is going to be an in-person trainer. An experienced trainer will be able to help you ensure that you’re performing exercises correctly and minimizing your risk of injury, and they’ll be able to provide guidance on sequencing and training progression to make sure you’re staying on track and meeting your goals.
In lieu of working with a trainer, these are some of the lifting resources I’ve found to be helpful and not gimmicky or prone to pseudoscience, fad diets, or dangerous training methodologies:
- Jeff Nippard on YouTube (he has great instructional videos and some deep dives into exercise science that I really appreciate)
- Scott Herman Fitness on YouTube (I particularly love his older videos where he seems like an excited exercise nerd who just wants to show you his favorite workouts)
- Barbend.com on YouTube (BarBend is a pretty cool website, and their YouTube channel contains great exercise tutorials that are pretty easy to follow)