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September 06, 2020 10 min read

So you’ve been working hard and hitting the iron temple regularly. You’ve earned a bangin’ booty and a tight core—but you’re starting to feel like there’s something missing from your training regime.

Compared to the prior two muscle groups, the back is an oft-forgotten part of the physique that has a massive impact on overall aesthetic; not to mention health as well. Containing some of the largest muscles in the upper body, the back is not only important for looking sexy in that new backless dress, but it’ll also help your other lifts and functional, everyday lifting.

We’ll be looking at the best back exercises you can do to both build muscle in this area, and tone down the back fat.

The Benefits of a Strong Back

While “broadening the back” is more often reserved for the goals that men have in the gym, getting a wider upper back has the aesthetic benefit of making the waist seem slimmer than it really is. Furthermore, a strong and toned lower back will help you when it comes to pulling off a crop top.

But the aesthetics are only a small part of the full picture.

Since they’re so important and so large, the back muscles are an important metabolic muscle in the human body. That means you’ll burn more calories not just when you’re training them, but also when you use them in everyday life.

Your back muscles are also the key to supporting a healthy posture—no surprise there. But a healthy posture means fewer back issues, especially when you age or are doing jobs that require a lot of physical work. While the weak upper back muscles can lead to rounded shoulders (especially if you’re training the front too much) and a frozen thoracic spine. In the long run, this puts more pressure on the lower back.

And on the other hand, a weak lower back can cause issues when trying to lift heavy things or if you’re forced to sit for long hours at a desk.

Strengthening this aspect of the body is a sure-fire way to reduce the chances of developing issues in this area, and reducing any back pain you might already have.

A girl working out in a gym.

What Exactly is the Back?

The term “back” not only refers to the largest muscle in your upper body (the lats), but also a collection of other muscles that span your backside from the very top to the very bottom. These muscles include: 

  •         Latissimus dorsi (the lats)
  •         Rear deltoids
  •         Rhomboids
  •         Erector spinae
  •         Trapezius (traps)

Starting from the top of your body, the traps are the muscles that form a diamond shape between your spine and your shoulders. They’re located in the very upper back. Along with the traps, the rhomboids are also positioned in the mid-upper back area. 

Below these lie the lats—the largest muscle in the upper body. If developed, they’re a key contributor to getting the v-taper that slims the waist, but they also help to move your core and your arms.

Finally, the muscles of the lower back—the erector spinae—are essential when it comes to stabilizing your spine, preventing lower back problems, and will also help when it comes to improving your coordination and balance.

Doing the Right Exercises, the Right Way

While it’s one thing to know the proper exercises to do to get the results you want, it’s a completely different thing to know how to do them—and we’re not just talking about form.

Depending on your goals, you’ll want to make some movements your “main” lifts during a workout session while also paying attention to the volume you lift over the number of reps.

If you primarily want to tone and lose back fat to show off your muscles underneath, high reps with isolation exercises will be the way to go (along with a good diet, but we’ll touch on that later). Isolation movements being those that focus on a single muscle or muscle group. For example, bicep curls or seated rows.

On the other hand, if you want to build strength and muscles, compound movements are what should make up the basis of your training routine. These are lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and bent over rows. By using several muscle groups and joints, your body is trained to work in unison and different muscles are forced to coordinate with one another.

Think, isolation for sculpting, and compound for strength and muscle mass.

Other than that, make sure to warm-up before your workouts. Doing some low to mid-intensity cardio with some stretches will go a long way in helping your body warm-up and get ready for the gains ahead.

The Best Back Workout

  • Resistance Band Pull Apart: A simple exercise that’ll get your back into shape, the pull apart strengthens the muscles in the upper back area while also developing the stabilizer muscles in the shoulder joints. Not only will your posture be improved, but so will your other lifts.
  • Begin the movement by holding a resistance band in front of you with arms straight out and parallel to the ground. Bracing your core, you want to bring the band towards your chest by spreading your arms outwards. You should feel your upper-mid back squeezing as you try to press your shoulder blades together.
  • Deadlift: A bread-and-butter movement, the deadlift is a juggernaut when it comes to full-body exercises and the benefits that come along with them. It increases your core stability, strength, improves your posture and activates basically all the muscles in your lower body. If you’re looking to stand taller than ever before, this is the lift to do. As a compound movement, you won’t be leaving any gains on the table if you incorporate this bad boy into your training routine.
  • Begin by standing behind the barbell with feet shoulder-width apart, toes either pointing straight ahead or slightly turned out. Initiate the movement by hinging your hips while keeping your back straight, chest pushed out. Reaching down to grab the barbell, grasp it with an overhand grip.
  • Explosively push back up, driving through your feet and reversing the hip-hinge movement. Keep your back straight and your shoulders down and back. Lock out at the top of the movement, pause, and then reverse the movement to set the barbell back down. Keep your core engaged throughout the lift.
  • Bent-Over Row: While you can do the bent-over row with either a barbell or a couple of dumbbells, the barbell will be a better idea if you’re shooting for building muscle. Furthermore, grasping a bar with a wider grip will engage more of your back since less of your biceps will be activated. Not only will your lats benefit, but so will your traps, delts, and rhomboids. Furthermore, since you don’t have much stability, your core will have to work overtime to keep you from falling forwards.
  • Begin by standing in front of a loaded barbell with a hip-width foot spacing; grab the bar with an overhand grip, hands just over shoulder-width apart. Hinge at your hips and keep a slight bend with your knees. You should be bent over 45-degrees.
  • The barbell should be in your hands, hanging straight down. Keep your back straight and core engaged as you pull the weight upward to your ribs, pausing at the top of the movement for a couple of seconds. Reverse the movement slowly.
  • Reverse Flyes: Much like the bent-over row, reverse flyes require you to be able to activate your core enough to maintain stability throughout the movement. Along with engaging your core, reverse flyes also target the upper back and the rear delts—a terrific way to get a toned upper back. Furthermore, your shoulder mobility will also benefit.
  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand and bend over with the hips so your chest is almost parallel to the floor. Your arms should be pointing straight down with the dumbbells in hand, and palms should be facing each other. Bend the elbows slowly and lift your arms outwards—imagine trying to bring your shoulder blades together. Hold the movement at the top before reversing it, slowly.
  • The way down is just as important, so take at least 3 seconds to bring the weights down to the starting position.
  • Supermans: The superman is a terrific bodyweight workout because not only is it simple, but it also strengthens the entire back, with a focus on the lower back.
  • As well as strengthening your back, this exercise also works your hamstrings, glutes, and even your core. If you’re doing a lot of ab workouts, this is a perfect way to complement those movements. 
  • Begin by lying face down with your arms extended out in front of you. Activate your core, glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles in order to simultaneously lift your arms, head, legs, and chest off of the ground. Lift everything as high as you’re able to and then hold for a couple of seconds before slowly returning to the starting position.
  • Renegade Rows: Renegades are a more advanced movement, but if you can do them, they’re 100% worth it. This is basically a full-body workout since it requires a lot of stability in your core and overall strength since you’re going to have to lift with one of your sides and stabilize with the other.
  • Furthermore, since this movement trains so many different aspects (i.e. chest, triceps, shoulders, lats, back, anti-extension, anti-rotation), they’re an absolutely amazing calorie burner if you’re trying to tone down. However, proper form is necessary to prevent injury.
  • With a dumbbell in each of your hands, palms facing forward, go into the push-up position with your core engaged and back in a straight line. Bring one dumbbell up to your chest without rotating your hips. Reverse the movement slowly and in a controlled manner. Alternate arms each time you return back to the start position.
  • Pull-ups: While this is a difficult exercise to perform, finally achieving it and being able to lift your body weight is a very sweet feeling. Pull-ups are not only one of the best exercises for your back, but also for your general fitness. They strengthen the arms, shoulders, upper back, core, and even your glutes if you brace correctly. Not to mention your grip strength, which can help you out with the other lifts.
  • While the movement is difficult, it’s a good goal to work towards. There are many options for working up to proper pull-ups, such as bodyweight rows, assisted pull-ups, or even pull-up machines.
  • Standing underneath a pull-up bar, reach up to grab it with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Bracing your core and glutes, pull through your back and lift your body up until your chin reaches above the bar. Pause for a count at the top, and then slowly lower yourself back down. If you can’t do a full pull-up, training the eccentric movement (lowering back down) is a good option as well.
  • Lat Pulldown: As the name suggests, lat pulldowns mostly target your lats—but other muscles in your back and arms are also included. This is a good movement to include in your routine if your biceps and triceps are already gassed out since you should most be relying on the lats as the biggest movers. This is also another great way to develop the strength needed for pull-ups.
  • For this exercise, you’ll need the machine, and have it properly adjusted so your thighs fit under the support. Hold the bar at least shoulder-width apart, with an overhand grip. Engage your core and breathe out as you pull the bar down until it comes to your upper chest. You should imagine trying to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold at the bottom of the movement for a couple of seconds, and slowly reverse the movement until you come back to the starting position.
  • Single-Arm Dumbbell Row: The rows rule the back, and for good reason. The single-arm variant of the dumbbell row engages the traps, rhomboids, lats, and also the biceps. The single-arm aspect of it also allows you to train unilaterally—meaning that each side of your body has to work alone. While you might not be able to lift as much weight as with a barbell, your weaker side will be effectively forced to catch up with your stronger. 
  • What’s also great about this movement is that you have much more balance than a regular bent-over row, so you do have more support if you want to go for heavier weights. What this means is that you can use this exercise for almost any type of fitness goal; whether that be toning or building muscle.
  • Begin by kneeling on a bench with one of your legs and supporting your body with the arm on the same side. Keep your back in a straight, aligned position. The arm that’s not supporting you should be grasping a dumbbell and hanging straight down.
  • Drawing your shoulder blade back, bring the dumbbell up to your ribs. You should feel your back and rear delt engage throughout the movement, rather than your arm. At the top of the exercise, hold the position for a second. Reverse the movement slowly and in a controlled fashion.

A girl working out in a gym.

A Solid Diet for a Solid Back

They say that 30% of a fitness routine is working out; the rest is diet. If you’re trying to tone and get a sculpted back, then diet becomes even more important.

No one can out-train a bad diet, so it’s absolutely essential that you put diet at the forefront of your routine. And while diets are a dime a dozen, in the end, it comes down to calories in, calories out. Simplifying things and finding out what works for you is the best to come out on top with your fitness goals, whatever they may be.

The easiest way? Stick to clean, whole foods. No garbage fast food—except on cheat days. Pay attention to eating high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbs, and you’ll be well on your way to turning heads with a sexy back.

If you’re trying to build muscle or go for strength training in the backend, then eat more calories than you spend throughout the day. But that’s not an excuse for eating poor-quality calories, so stick to eating enough high-quality protein, complementing your diet with a protein shake if need be.

Planning for Success

A strong back means a strong, aesthetic body, so incorporate the principles, workouts, and diet advice into your fitness journey and you’ll be reaping the benefits in no-time.

What’s key is that you have a plan and stick to it; you need a goal in mind and a way to build your routine around that goal. If you’re doing all the wrong movements in the wrong ways, you’ll definitely get somewhere but it might not be where you wanted to go. 

Not only will you be turning heads next time you hit the beach or don a backless dress, but you’ll also feel better and more powerful than ever before.