It can feel like hard graft for little personal reward training a body part that you rarely see unless you’re straining in the mirror. But giving your back a good workout is not only sensible from a health perspective (think good posture and core strength) but also from an aesthetic perspective.
But before we power on with some great exercises for this major area, let’s start by looking at the main muscles of your back; your ‘lats’ and ‘traps’. While there are many muscles in your back, these are the ones you are most likely to hear gym goers refer to. Your lats, or latissimus dorsi, is a large flat muscle that runs down either side of your back and under each arm. It can mainly be worked with horizontal or vertical pulling movements such as chin-ups or the bent over row.
Another key muscle of the back is the trapezius or ‘traps’. This muscle covers most of the upper back and back of the neck, and is responsible for moving and stabilising the shoulder blade and extending the head. It sits over the rhomboid muscles, which again are associated with stabilising and moving the shoulder blade.
Exercising the muscles in your back is not only a great way to build strength and definition, it can also help with posture and lower back pain
Exercising the muscles of your back is not only a great way to build strength and definition, it can also help with posture and lower back pain. Obviously, if you do suffer from lower back pain, do speak to a health professional before undertaking any fitness programme, and always start lighter than you think you can cope with. Build up that initial strength before moving on to anything heavy.
Your back, like any part of your body, should be treated with respect; don’t attempt any weight that you don’t feel confident with and make sure to warm-up thoroughly before lifting. But disclaimers and technicalities aside, what exercises are effective at working the muscles of your back?
1. Lat pulldown
As with most exercise sessions, it’s better to complete your big compound exercises at the beginning of the routine, before your muscles start to tire. Compound exercises are those that work multiple muscle groups, where isolation exercises focus on a single muscle group. As the name would suggest, the lat pulldown machine focuses primarily on your lats, but there are multiple variations of the exercise that allow you to concentrate on different areas. For example, taking a wide grip on the bar will help you develop width in your back, using the V-bar attachment will work the centre of your back as well as your lats, and taking a reverse close-grip on the bar will focus more on your lower lats.
Having selected your attachment, start by taking a seat at the machine and adjust the height of the thigh brace. Then stand up and grip the bar with both hands, before lowering yourself back onto the seat. Slowly pull the bar down towards your chest (no lower), retracting your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades together in a smooth motion. Try not to lean too far back, as the momentum will make the pull easier and less controlled, decreasing the tension on your muscles. If you’re aiming to improve your chin-ups, this is the ideal exercise to get you there.
Watch: How to do a lat pulldown
2. Bent-over row (single arm, dumbbell)
Many of the exercises involved in working your back muscles are rowing movements; there’s the seated row, the bent over barbell row and the upright row. All of these are great for working different areas of your back, but my favourite has to be the dumbbell bent-over row. It was one of the first back exercises I ever did and it’s a great movement to go to if all the machines are taken. You’ll need one dumbbell and a bench to lean on. To get started, kneel with one leg on the bench and one foot on the floor. Lean forward and place one hand on the bench; your other hand will be used to lift the dumbbell off the floor. Gripping the dumbbell with one hand, pull it up towards your ribcage, pause for a second at the top, then lower back down. Try and keep your back straight at all times throughout the movement and try to avoid twisting your body. It’s all about control!
3. Lateral pushdown
Another one of my go-to exercises for back training is the lateral pushdown. You’ll often hear the terms ‘pull day’ or ‘push day’ used in reference to training programmes, this refers to the form the exercise takes. Some muscle groups are exercised using pulling motions – back and biceps, for example – while others are trained using push movements – for example, chest and triceps. Technically, the lateral pushdown really is more of a pulling movement, but because we can’t call it the lat pulldown (see above) – it becomes the lat pushdown. You’ll need the cable machine for this exercise, with the cable set in the high position and the short straight bar attachment. You might see some people use the rope attachment for this, but I prefer the straight bar. Stand facing the machine, grasp the bar in both hands and take a couple of big steps back. Lean forward so your arms extend straight out over your hand, while keeping a straight back and a tight core. Now, keeping your arms straight to avoid exercising your triceps, bring your arms straight down until the bar is just in front of your thighs. And repeat, and repeat.
Watch: How to do a lat pushdown
4. Face pull
This exercise works different muscles than the lat variations I have already mentioned. It is a great one for strengthening and conditioning your rear deltoids (the backs of your shoulders), your rhomboids and your external rotators (which stabilise your shoulder joint). This isn’t an exercise you should think to ‘go big’ on. The weight should be lighter and you should concentrate on using your back to generate the power behind the movement, rather than your arms. Stay at the cable machine for this exercise: you’ll need a rope attachment and the cable set to just above chest height. Hold each end of the rope with an overhand grip and take a step back from the machine, so your arms are outstretched. Place one foot in front of the other, and bend your knees slightly, to help maintain balance. Slowly start pulling the rope back towards your face, widening the rope as you do so. Concentrate on really bringing your shoulder blades together during the movement and keep the tempo nice and slow in order to maintain tension. Try not to bend forward to meet the rope and keep your elbows up throughout the exercise. As with all exercises, you will get greater benefit from the movement if you concentrate on good technique rather than going big and losing it.
Watch: How to do a face pull
5. Bent over lateral raises (dumbbell)
The final exercise I regularly go to on back day wouldn’t feel out of place on shoulder day either, the bent over lateral raise is a great exercise for working your rear delts, but is also a great exercise for your traps. You can perform this exercise seated, standing or using the cable machine, however, I prefer to do this standing. So, grasp a dumbbell in each hand (these will have to be quite light), bend your knees slightly and lean over so your torso is parallel to the floor and your arms are hanging down. Now, slowly raise your arms out to the side, bringing your elbows up so they are level with your shoulders. Really concentrate on squeezing your shoulder blades together. Because this is a fairly light weight exercise, you should be aiming for 15-20 reps per set. Use this as a finisher, to round off your back workout.
Do you have a favourite back exercise? Leave your ideas or questions in the comments below, and check out my free 12- and 13-week programmes for full body workouts.