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5 Best Back Workouts (Based on Science and Research)

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5 Best Back Workouts (Based on Science and Research)

Whether you want to eliminate lower back pain or you’re looking to achieve a killer physique, you need a solid back workout to help you get there. That elusive V-shaped torso and a strong, never tiring back can be yours if your back workout is effective and thorough.

So, what exercises should you be doing? What’s the key to achieving a killer back? The best back workout doesn’t have to involve lots of fancy equipment. There are even great at home back workout routines you can do with a few dumbbells or using your own bodyweight.

This article will outline some of the best, research-proven back exercises you should include in your routine. In addition, you’ll learn all about the anatomy of the back muscles. Armed with knowledge and the best back workout exercises, you’ll be ready to transform this area of your body.

Back Muscles 101: Getting to Know Your Back

Man Showing His Back MusclesYour back is a large area of your body filled with many different kinds of muscles. However, most gym goers only target a few of their back muscles by using a few different machines like the lat pulldown machine. While these exercises are ok, you won’t get the back you want by only targeting a few muscles.

With the right back workout routine, you can target all of your back muscles. Strengthening all of your back muscles ensures a proper balance. The muscles in your body work together. When you isolate muscles too much, you can create imbalances that put you at a greater risk for injury. It can also mess up your posture.

So, get to know your back muscles so that you can make sure you give them a comprehensive workout:

Trapezius

Starting in your upper back, you have the trapezius muscles, one of your major back muscles. These and all other back muscles come in two pieces, one on the left side of your spine and one on the right. The trapezius muscles start in your neck and reach down to your mid back, stretching out in a triangular shape to your shoulders.

Deltoids

Right in around your shoulders, you have your deltoids. These smaller muscles are found on the backside of your upper arm and are also triangular in shape.

Rhomboids

These deeper muscles are found under the trapezius and lats. They run along your spine and are diamond shaped.

Infraspinatus

In between the deltoids, trapezius and rhomboids are the infraspinatus muscles. It’s another one of your shoulder muscles that form your rotator cuff. 

Teres major

This small muscle is nestled just above your lats and also plays a role in your shoulder joint.

Latissimus Dorsi

Another one of the major back muscles, the latissimus dorsi, or lats, are triangular shaped muscles that cover most of your mid-back.

Erector Spinae

All along your spine, you have the erector spinae. It covers all areas of the back, including the lower back.

Your external obliques, usually associated with your abdominal area, also wrap around to the back.

All of these muscles work together to help you perform a range of movements. Your shoulder muscles help support movement in your arm, while the rest of the back muscles help you stand up straight. Your back muscles work closely with your abdominals in the front to keep your body upright.

Now that you know what muscles are in your back, you can work them. The most noticeable muscles that you should work are your trapezius muscles, lats, rhomboids, and erector spinae. Working these main muscles is what will give you that definition, strength, and thickness in your back.

How?

Read on to learn how to create the best back workout routine to achieve your goals:

Your Back Workout Routine: 5 Exercises

A pulling motion, either vertical or horizontal, is one of the principal movements that engage the back muscles. In reality, your back is at work all the time in just about everything you do – but pulling is what really concentrates the effort in your back muscles.

As you’ll see in the following exercises, pulling is the main movement you’ll do. The key to hitting the main back muscles is variety in the way you pull and the motions you make. Spice up your routine by adding some of these to your regular workouts:

1. Dumbbell Rows: A Dumbbell Back Workout

Man Working Out Dumbbell Row For FitnessDumbbells are great. They’re easy to store under the bed so that you can do a home back workout with dumbbells. Or, you can find them at the gym. Using dumbbells as part of your back workout is a no-brainer.

Adding weight to your workout will help you build muscle, and dumbbells offer an easy way to do this.  In fact, even if you only do a strength training workout once a week, you can gain muscle mass.

Check out this easy row that will work nearly all of your back muscles like the lats, the lower trapezius, the rhomboids, the erector spinae and even your shoulder muscles such as the deltoids too.

How to do it:

  • Grab two dumbbells of equal weight.
  • Stand with your feet a bit more than shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and bend at the waist so that your back is almost parallel to the ground. Make sure you engage your core and keep your back nice and straight (not hunched over). Your arms should be hanging down naturally, palms facing in.
  • Pull your arms up in a rowing motion, bending at the elbows until your elbows just pass your back. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you reach the end of the row.

Variations: There are a whole variety of dumbbell rows that you can use for a complete back workout with dumbbells. You’ll need a workout bench to perform these variations:

  • Use one arm: Use a workout bench to support the side of the body not performing the exercise. Place one knee and shin on the bench. Bend over and support your body with your arm on the same side. Your other leg should be in standing up position, your foot placed slightly to the back. Your rowing arm should hold the weight, hanging down. Then, keeping your back straight, pull the weight up until your elbow just surpasses the line of your back. Repeat for the opposite side.
  • Chest supported: If you struggle to keep your core engaged and in the correct, straight position while doing your rows, try this version. Use an inclined workout bench that allows you to lie on your chest, legs out straight. About a 45 degree angle is right for this exercise. Then, using the same motion as above, pull the weights up to your hips, bending your elbows and squeeze those shoulder blades.

2. Pull Ups and Chin Ups: A Bodyweight Back Workout

Woman Doing Pull Ups For Back Muscle FitnessPull ups and chin ups are some of the best bodyweight back workout exercises you can do. In fact, they’re some of the best back exercises period. According to research, pull ups and chin ups are excellent for building muscle in the back.

If you’re set on doing your back workout at home, you may consider purchasing a pull up bar so you can practice whenever you’d like.

Pull ups and chin ups are challenging. Even the marines knows that! Now, to meet physical fitness requirements, marines can even choose to opt out of pull ups and do push ups instead. However, performing pull ups achieves marines a higher score. The minimum number required to pass the fitness test? It depends on your age. For individuals aged 21-45, 5 pull ups is the minimum.

How to do it:

  • Grab the bar with your hands about shoulder width apart, hands facing out for pull ups and hands facing in for chin ups.
  • Let your legs hang down completely so that your full body weight is hanging from your extended arms.
  • Using the strength of your arms and back, pull yourself up so that your chin clears the bar.

Variations:

You can vary your grip to change how your muscles work when performing pull ups. For example, a wider grip will work your lower lats more while a narrow grip will work your lower trapezius and inner lats. The narrow grip should be inside of shoulder width and your wide grip outside shoulder width.

Then, if you become comfortable with your chin ups or pull ups, consider adding a weight belt to make the exercise more challenging.

Pro Tip: Can’t do a chin up yet? Chin ups are a bit easier than pull ups, so start there. But if you still can’t do one, don’t worry! You can build up to it. Start by trying the flex arm hang. You’ll jump up using the same position as a chin up and hang as long as you can with your chin just above the bar. Time yourself and work your way up to 20 seconds. Then, try doing sets of chin ups in which you jump up to the position and lower yourself very slowly until your arms are completely extended. With practice, you’ll get to the full chin up and then pull up.

3. Back Extensions For Your Lower Back Workout

Woman Doing Back Extensions For Her Lower Back Workout FitnessWorking your lower back is a great way to help with lower back pain. In addition, building your lower back gives you the support and strength you need to lift while completing your upper back workout.

But, you may be wary of some lower back exercises given the reputation they have. Understandably, you don’t want to injure your lower back. However, research shows that performing back extensions with the Roman chair is perfectly safe if proper form is used. In addition, strengthening your lumbar has been clinically proven to effectively combat back pain.

This exercise targets your erector spinae muscles that run all along your back. By strengthening these muscles, you increase the strength of your spine, helping you maintain proper form for all of your other lifting.

How to do it:

  • Using the Roman chair or hyperextension apparatus, position yourself so that the bench or pad is located just at your pelvis, allowing you to move freely at the waist. Your heels should fit just below the pads to hold you in place.
  • Bend at the waist, lowering your head toward the floor. Cross your arms over your chest.
  • Keeping your back straight, pull yourself, up so that your torso is in line with your legs. Move slowly so that you control your movement completely.

Variations:

In addition to performing reps, you can also just hold yourself in the extended position. Start by trying to hold the position for 15 seconds and work yourself up to 30 seconds.

Ready for a greater challenge? You can hold a free weight across your chest while doing this exercise to increase the difficulty.

4. Deadlifts: Back Workout For Mass

Woman Working Out Deadlifts For Lower Back FitnessOften overlooked, deadlifts are a great way to work your back muscles. If you’ve been shying away from deadlifts because you’re worried about hurting yourself, your fears are unfounded. Research shows that as long as you use good form, deadlifts won’t harm your back.

On the contrary, deadlifts are great for building thickness in your back. With deadlifts, you’ll target both your traps and lats.

All you need is a bar and a set of free weights to do this exercise.

How to do it:

  • Load up the bar with a significant amount of weight on each side. You should be able to do a few reps with the weight, but lifting should be a challenge.
  • Bending at the knees and waist, grab the bar using an overhand grip with your arms fully extended. Make sure your back isn’t curved or arched, rather try to keep it perfectly straight.
  • Stand up while pulling the weight with your arms until you’re fully erect, shoulders back and arms fully extended.
  • Slowly lower the weight back down to the ground using the same movement, bending your knees and back slightly.

Variations:

The above section explains the conventional form of a deadlift. However, you can also try the Sumo style or use a hex bar for the deadlift. You can try these variations to see which feels best to you.

Pro Tip: A back workout for mass requires more than doing the right exercises. In addition, you must watch your diet. Building muscle, or mass, requires lots of protein. So, make sure you eat a protein-rich diet or use a protein powder to maximize your gains. If you’re particularly thin, you’ll have to make sure you’re getting enough calories in general. Try boosting your calories with healthy fats and plenty of whole grain carbs. 

5. Seated Cable Row: A Great Upper Back Workout Exercise

Woman Working Out Seated Cable Row For Upper BackWant to focus on your upper back? Getting that classic v-shape means you’ll need to thicken and strengthen your upper back. The seated cable row is the perfect exercise for doing this.

Feel the squeeze between your shoulder blades while performing this exercise for best results. Over time, you’ll notice this exercise also helps improve your posture, opening up your chest.

How to do it:

  • For this exercise, use the cable machine, sometimes connected to the lat pulldown machine. Sit on the padded seat, feet on the foot rests, back nice and straight. Your knees should be slightly bent.
  • Lean forward and grab the bar, which is either a T-bar or a close grip bar with your arms extended.
  • Pull the bar straight forward to your abdomen. You should contract the muscles in between your shoulder blades and your elbows will bend back, reaching just behind your back. You may have a slight arch in your back.
  • Slowly extend your arms again, returning to your starting position.
  • Repeat the movement for the desired number of reps.

Variations:

You can vary this exercise by changing your grip to use a wide or close grip. Both offer advantages for building muscle and are adequate for your upper back workout.

A Full Back Workout Routine

So, what would a full back muscles workout look like?

To get started, you might try something like this:

  • Warmup
  • Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Pull ups or Chin ups: 3 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 4-6 reps
  • Back Extensions: 3 sets of 4-6 reps

Then, on another workout day, substitute the seated cable row for the dumbbell rows. Every time you complete the above workout, use variation to make sure that you target all areas of your back.

The above routine is a great back workout for women or men looking to build their back muscle strength. Many of the above exercises can also be completed at home with minimal equipment. To do a back workout at home, make sure you have some free weights, dumbbells and a pull up bar. Then, skip the back extensions and instead perform both standard dumbbell rows and one arm dumbbell rows using a stool or weight bench.

Tips for the Best Back Workout Routine

Woman Starting To Work Out Back For FitnessUsing the exercises in this article, you’ll achieve a comprehensive workout that touches on all of your back muscles. To reach your goals of strength and definition in your back use these tips.

Activate Muscles

Research shows that if you think about and consciously activate muscles, you can voluntarily increase muscle activity. This has been proven to be true with your lats when performing exercises like the lat pulldown. So, know what muscles you use for each exercise and where they are. Then, consciously engage these muscles for best results.

Use Proper Form

Using proper form will not only help you build muscle efficiently, but it will also reduce your chance of injury. Performing exercises incorrectly puts you at risk for painful and debilitating injuries. In the case of back exercises, you’ll most likely injure your back or shoulders. So, if you’re not sure about your form, get some help! You don’t need to hire a personal trainer, although it might be worthwhile for a session or two. If you go to a gym, ask one of the staff members for assistance. In addition, make use of mirrors to check your form.

When performing back exercises, the most common problems are lifting your shoulders up towards your ears and excessively arching or hunching in your back. Try to keep your back straight and engage your core while performing back exercises. Also, square your shoulders and roll them back. For other more exercise-specific pointers, consider getting some professional input.

Get Doctor Approval

If you’ve had a back injury in the past, make sure you talk to your doctor about what exercises you can do. When it comes to back injuries, you don’t want to put yourself at risk for a repeat. A physical therapist is also a good source for knowledge about the best exercises to do following an injury.

Use the Right Amount of Weight

How much weight should you use when performing these exercises? Choose intensity over volume for the best muscle hypertrophy. Research shows that lifting heavier weight for fewer reps is more effective at building muscle. A good rule of thumb is about 85-90% of your 1 rep maximum. That means you’ll have to test how much weight you can manage for just 1 rep using proper form. Once you know, then you can calculate the weight you should be using.

What does this mean from a practical standpoint? As an exercise becomes more comfortable and you feel like you could easily do more reps of any given exercise during the last set, add 5-10 pounds more. This will keep you in the muscle-building zone.

The Bottom Line for Your Back Workout

A great back is possible! With regular workouts and a healthy, protein intensive diet you’ll build the back you’ve always dreamed of. Also, remember to spice up your workouts with a variety of grips and varied positions for performing exercises. The other key is to constantly challenge yourself by adding weight as soon as you feel comfortable with the exercises.

It will take some time, but within about 8 weeks, you should start to notice some differences in the mirror and in your strength.

Do you have a favorite back workout? What are your favorite exercises that work your back? Tell us about your back workout routines in the comments below.

One Comment

  • Jason Torres says:

    Back extensions are by far my favorite exercise. It’s not too hard, and it feels just right as I’m doing them. Helps to stretch out my spine which is great for the kind of work I do sitting at a computer all day. I’m also pretty good at the chin-ups! I can do about 50 reps each which is a pretty big deal for someone like me, hehe. Thanks so much for writing an outline for a nice full back workout routine. I’m not in the best shape, and my back suffers quite a bit. Just curious, does it help to drink water between each exercise or does that even matter?

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