Our back muscles play a central role in the entire functioning of our body—from promoting optimal posture and core stability to protecting the spine. But for many of us, back exercises are missing from the fitness agenda. We spoke to the experts to find out what constitutes our back muscles, what types of workouts strengthen back muscles, and their favorite back workouts. Read on for what they had to say.
Meet the Expert
Which Muscles Are Your Back Muscles?
Before we go any further, let’s break down what exactly are back muscles. “Your back muscles help support your whole body and really allow you the ability to move,” says partner and lead trainer at Barry's Bootcamp, Miami, Derek Degrazio.
“Our main back muscles include the latissimus dorsi (lats), the widest muscle in the body spanning from your shoulder to your hips; rhomboids, located in the upper back; trapezius, a muscle connecting your head to your shoulders; and erector spinae, a long grouping of muscles that runs the length of the spine.” The latter are responsible for lateral flexion, extension, and side rotation.
CSCS and Point exercise scientist Kyle Kurata expands by offering a function for each back muscle, which collectively are most often involved with pulling motions and stabilizing the body.
“The lats are involved in vertical pulling, such as pull-ups, while the rhomboids are responsible for retracting your shoulder blades, such as with horizontal pulling like rowing,” he outlines. “Then you have the trapezius, often associated with shrugging the shoulders and responsible for both vertical and horizontal pulling of the arms, while the erector spinae prevent your back from rounding when holding a heavy weight and help stabilize the body.”
Why Is It Important to Strengthen Back Muscles?
To achieve balance in our body, ideally we should draw more of our attention toward the muscles of the back, especially for our alignment. After all, “correct posture is one of the most important elements in preventing back pain,” according to Degrazio, and given our modern lifestyles, we often find ourselves sitting for extended periods of time, resulting in a less than perfect posture. Or, on the contrary, we are constantly "on the go," which requires a healthy back to keep us safe from injury.
“I would say that for most people today, the entire back side of the body is weak and underdeveloped, which often leads to problems in the spine, such as kyphosis or ‘rounding’ of the upper back,” explains Kurata. “On top of this, so much sitting, driving, and even downward glances at our cellphones can contribute further to back problems, with the most beneficial exercise to counter this being the exact opposite movement.” For example, opting for a pulling motion that encourages the shoulder blades to squeeze and the shoulders to pull back into sound alignment.
What Types of Workouts Build Back Muscles?
Most workouts will target the muscles of the back in one way or another—endurance training such as running and swimming, alongside low- and high-intensity cardio, all of which encourage movement across the body. But to specifically build muscle, specific forms of exercise work better than others. “Movement that involves pulling and retracting the shoulder blades will help develop the upper/middle back,” says Kurata, with resistance and weight training as examples. Or core-centric workouts, Pilates being a prime workout, can target the lower and upper regions of the back for enhanced strength, improved posture, and to lower the risk of injury.
“Also, exercises which brace and keep the back straight and extended will also strengthen the erector spinae,” muscles that can easily become weakened if underworked.
8 Specific Back Muscle-Building Moves From the Pros
To protect our back and avoid strain in the wrong places, form is key! If something feels "off," it's important to stop what you're doing and ask someone to check your positioning before continuing.
This exercise focuses on shoulder blade retraction and your own body weight for resistance. With extended arms, activate and squeeze the shoulder blades together as you bend the arms, keeping the elbows tucked close to the body. Pause at the top before lowering fully back to extended arms.
Pull-ups are an effective exercise to work your upper body, including the lats, trapezius, and even biceps and triceps. You can use an assisted pull-up machine or place your feet in a resistance band until you build the strength required to try these on your own. Place your hands on a bar with palms facing away from you, pull yourself up until your chin reaches over the bar, and then slowly lower yourself down for one rep.
This movement is popular among those looking to build strength and also stabilize muscles along your spine. It can be performed with a bar, dumbbell, or even bands. Essential parts of the movement are bending the knees slightly and bringing the torso forward, while maintaining a straight line down the back. The upper body remains still as you pull up toward the body, before lowering back to the start with control.
Bent-Over Reverse Fly
This targets the rhomboids in the upper back and the rear of the shoulders. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, lean forward at the hips with a straight back and bring the arms, with bent elbow, in front of the body. Spread the arms apart and squeeze the shoulder blades at the top, lowering back down with full control.
Deadlifts, a popular exercise to work the lower body, are a first-rate movement to build back muscles (when performed correctly) and help with posture to prevent back pain. Most commonly performed with a barbell, start with feet shoulder-width apart and bend at your knees until your shins brush the bar. Lift the chest and keep a straight flat back, with shoulders rolled back. Brace yourself as you pull the bar up and off the ground until you are standing straight, and lower back down with the same forward hinge at the hips.
Good Mornings work to strengthen your lower back. Standing shoulder-width apart, rest either two dumbbells or a barbell for this exercise on or across the shoulder blades. Start by standing up tall, and with your neck and spine aligned, lower your body to a flat back until your chest is parallel to the floor. Then raise your back up through your hips.
Lat Pull Down
As the name suggests, this exercise targets your lats. Standing or sitting at the lat pulldown machine, reach for the bar and, with a wide grip, contract your back muscles and focus on pulling the bar down, pausing, then slowly releasing back to the top.
The back extension works on the erector spinae to strengthen the lower back. Lying on your stomach on a mat, hold your arms out, bent at the side, and smoothly lift your upper body off the mat, holding anywhere from 10–30 seconds before releasing.