There are numerous major muscle groups in the back, and the best total back workouts will include exercises that target each of these muscles, both in a rather isolated way as well as in synergistic, functional back exercises that work most or all of the major muscles in your back.
But what are the best back exercises? How do you put together good back workouts for strength and mass?
In this article, we will explain how to program the best back workouts and provide step-by-step instructions for the best back exercises out there:
Let’s get going!
How to Structure the Best Back Workouts for Strength and Hypertrophy
Back workouts often focus primarily on the lats, or latissimus dorsi muscles, which are the large, triangular-shaped muscles that extend from your shoulders and taper down to your spine.
However, it is also important to do exercises for the rhomboids, trapezius muscles (traps), erector spinae, rotator cuff muscles, posterior deltoids, and the deep core muscles that help stabilize the spine, such as the multifidus.1Ourieff, J., & Amit Agarwal. (2018, December 6). Anatomy, Back, Trapezius. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518994/
Effective strength training, especially for the upper body, often begins with a warm-up. Try to activate the abdominals and prepare the mid-back for more intense workouts.
If you struggle with any exercises but are determined to build muscle, a personal trainer or a physical therapist can guide you through compound movements.
For an effective workout, try to balance exercises between the upper and lower body, and for those new to heavy weight lifting, starting with lighter weights under the guidance of healthcare professionals is advisable to reduce the risk of injury.
Note that when you are doing total back workouts for strength, aim to complete 2-6 sets of 3-5 reps using at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. With back workouts for hypertrophy (muscle growth), try to perform three sets of each back exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.
Some of these exercises can be done at home, although the others require specific machines.
The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should strive for.
The 12 Best Back Exercises To Build A Strong Back
Here are some of the best back exercises to add to your back strengthening workouts:
#1: Barbell Bent-Over Rows
Almost all good back workouts include at least one variation of the row exercise.
This basic barbell bent-over row is an excellent way to strengthen your lats, traps, and rhomboids.2Fenwick, C. M. J., Brown, S. H. M., & McGill, S. M. (2009). Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(2), 350–358. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181942019
Here are the steps:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the barbell at your feet.
- Hinge at your hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the ground.
- Reach down and grab the barbell with an overhand grip.
- Pull the bar up to your sternum in a straight line by bending your elbows and retracting and dropping your shoulder blades, maintaining the hinge at your hips throughout the exercise.
- Pause at the top position for a full breath.
- Slowly lower the barbell back down until your elbows are fully extended.
#2: Dumbbell Single-Arm Bent-Over Rows
You can also perform the bent-over row as a unilateral exercise with a dumbbell.
This variation requires more anti-rotation core control and can help correct strength imbalances since it is a unilateral exercise. Either your right arm and right leg will be on the bench, or your left hand and left leg.
Make sure to keep your core tight and your shoulders and hips square.
To do this back exercise,
- Stagger your stance and brace your body by placing the non-working arm on the edge of a weight bench.
- Hold the top position, squeezing your lats before lowering the dumbbell back down.
#3: Trap Bar Shrugs
Shrugs are one of the best back exercises for your traps. You can perform this move with dumbbells or cables, but the trap bar lends itself well because the weight is centered in line with your body.
Here is how to perform this upper back exercise:
- Stand upright with your chest up, shoulders down, and chin tucked in the middle of a trap bar, holding the bar with your arms extended down by your sides.
- Squeeze your traps to lift your shoulders up towards your ears as high as possible.
- Hold the top position for 2-3 seconds, then slowly lower your shoulders.
#4: Kettlebell Swings
While not necessarily an isolated back exercise, kettlebell swings are a great move to add to your complete back workouts because they still require plenty of activation of your erector spinae in your lower back.
In fact, studies have found that the kettlebell swing is an effective exercise for improving functional strength and decreasing the risk of low back pain.
Here are the steps to perform this back exercise:
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Hold a single kettlebell with both with your arms extended down in front of your body.
- Press through your heels and explode through your hips to drive the kettlebell upward until it’s around chest height and your arms are straight out in front of your body.
- Control the kettlebell as it descends and allow it to swing backward through the space between your legs.
- At the end of the arc of the swing, snap your hips forward again to drive the kettlebell back up to chest height.
#5: Dumbbell Renegade Rows With a Push-Up
This compound back exercise combines a push exercise (for the chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids) with a pull exercise (for the rest of your back muscles).
Here are the steps for how to perform this full back exercise:
- Place your hands on the handles of hex dumbbells slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing one another and the dumbbell going the long way.
- Perform a full push-up by bending your elbows and lowering your chest to just above the ground so that you’re sinking lower than you would if your hands were flat on the ground.
- Press through your palms to raise back up until your elbows are extended.
- Then, shift your weight into one hand while you lift the other arm off the ground, bending your elbow to row the dumbbell up alongside your torso. Make sure to engage your glutes and abs to keep your hips and shoulders square to the floor.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell back down and then perform another push-up.
- Alternate arms for the row after each push-up.
- Perform 8-10 reps per side.
#6: Resistance Band Reverse Fly
One of the best back exercises for total-back workouts is the reverse fly. This move targets posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and middle traps.
Here are the steps for how to perform this back workout exercise:
- Anchor a resistance band at chest height and stand far enough away that there is tension on the band when your arms are extended straight in front of your body.
- Stand upright with good posture and your feet hip-width apart, holding a handle of a resistance band in each hand with your palms facing one another straight out in front of your body.
- Keeping just a soft bend in your elbows, pull the band out to the side (like a letter T) and backward behind your body, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Hold the end position before slowly returning to the starting position.
#7: Stability Ball Back Extensions
The stability ball back extension exercise is a great way to strengthen your lower back if your gym doesn’t have a hyperextension machine.
Keep your legs straight.
Here are the steps:
- Place a stability ball to the side of a weight bench or squat rack so that you can hold on to the legs of the bench or uprights of the rack.
- Lie on the ball facedown so that the ball is on your stomach and your hips are slightly off the ball.
- Keeping your legs straight, use your lower back muscles to lift your legs and glutes off of the ball and floor until they are as high as you can go with your glutes fully contracted.
- Slowly lower your legs back down.
#8: Barbell Good Mornings
The barbell good morning exercise is often included in posterior chain workouts because it also strengthens the glutes and hamstrings, but it is a great move for back workouts because it primarily targets the erector spinae.
Because this back exercise can put a strain on the lower back if you don’t use proper technique, make sure you start with a lighter weight until you have properly mastered the execution.
If you have lower back pain, you can start by just using your bodyweight. Keep the back straight, ensuring the spine is in a neutral position.
Here are the steps for performing this exercise in your back workouts:
- Unrack the barbell and lift it on your upper traps. Step out of the squat rack a few feet so that you have enough room to move.
- Allow a slight bend in your knee as you hinge at your hips until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.
- Use your posterior chain muscles to raise your torso back up to the erect standing position.
- Carefully reset the hinge of your torso and hips to begin the next rep.
#9: Face Pulls
Here are the steps for how to perform this upper back exercise:
- Set the cable pulley to a height that is just above your face with the rope attachment clipped in.
- Step back, holding one handle of the rope attachment in each hand until there is enough tension in the cable to lift the weight stack.
- Retract your shoulder blades and bend your elbows as you pull the cable towards your face, passing just by the side of your temples.
- Hold the contraction, squeezing your shoulder blades together for at least 2 to 3 seconds.
- As slowly as possible, return the cable to the starting position, maintaining tension on the cable at all times.
#10: Lat Pulldowns
Lat pulldowns are a staple exercise in any good back workout.
You can also use different hand spacing to target different sections of your lats.
For example, a wide-grip lat pulldown will target the lateral portions of your lats, whereas a narrow-grip lat pulldown will involve more of your biceps and shoulders alongside your lats.
Here are the steps to perform this back exercise with cables:
- Sit upright at the lat pulldown machine with your thighs secured under the pads and your feet on the floor.
- Reach up and grip the bar with your desired hand spacing and your palms facing away from your body.
- Keep your core tight as you pull the bar down towards your collarbones, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the end range of motion.
- Slowly return the bar up as you straighten your arms, resisting the momentum of the weight stack so that you maintain tension in your muscles throughout the duration of the movement.
#11: Three-Stage Pull-Up Holds
Holding the top position of a pull-up is a great isometric exercise to build lats, biceps, and forearm mass and strength.
This variation changes up your isometric position into three different positions, training different muscle fibers for bigger improvements in strength.
Plus, incorporating this exercise into your back workouts can translate to improved performance and strength for regular pull-ups.
The longer you hold the position, the more time under tension your muscles will get.
Here are the steps:
- Jump up and grab the pull-up bar with your palms facing away from your body.
- Lift your body up to the end position so that your chin is above the bar.
- Hold this position for at least 15 seconds or as long as possible.
- Slowly lower your body to about an 80-degree angle in your elbows and then hold the position for another 15 seconds.
- Then, lower your body until your elbows are almost all the way extended, but there is still about a 15° angle, and hold the position for another 15 seconds.
- Relax into a dead hang position before trying another set (if your fitness level allows it).
Besides isometric pull-up holds, try to add regular pull-ups to your back workouts. Often referred to as chin-ups, these are a great exercise for both the upper back muscles and mid back muscles.
If you are not yet strong enough to do full pull-ups, you can use the assisted pull-up machine if your gym has one, or you can use a resistance band under your feet to help provide assistance.
For more back exercises for your lats, check out our guide here.
Can back exercises help reduce back pain?
Studies3Gordon, R., & Bloxham, S. (2016). A Systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain. Healthcare, 4(2), 22. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare4020022indicate that programmes focusing on muscular strength, flexibility, or aerobic fitness can be beneficial for back pain, but they are not typically recommended for acute low back pain.
No single exercise programme is universally effective for all patients. This diversity in response highlights the necessity for tailored approaches in treating non-specific lower back pain.
Given this variability, a generalized exercise program that integrates muscular strength, flexibility, and aerobic fitness may offer a more comprehensive approach to the rehabilitation of back pain.
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