Baby Got Back

The muscles of the back are important for many activities as well as maintaining good posture and balance. Whether your sport involves swinging a bat, throwing a basketball, smacking a puck or just lifting groceries out of the trunk of your car... strong back muscles can improve performance and reduce your risk of injury. Even if you don't want "big wings" like Arnold... strengthening your back can make everyday activities easier and help you feel great.

Incorporating these exercises into your regular workouts can help you develop your back muscles. Periodically change the exercises and/or amount of weight that you lift (depending on your goals) to avoid plateaus and keep your muscles stimulated. Don't neglect other parts of your body. It's important to do a full-body workout to develop a well-rounded look and prevent muscular imbalance.

As with any resistance training program, how you lift depends on your specific goals. If you don't know how to lift to reach your goals, talk to one of our fitness professionals for more information. If you've had any type of back pain or previous back injuries you should check with your doctor for specific limitations prior to starting a new workout program.

The muscles involved, how they attach to the body and the movements they perform are important for any resistance training exercise. Performing an exercise incorrectly or forcing the body into an unnatural position will reduce the effectiveness of the movement and greatly increase your risk of injury. If you have any questions ask for a demo from one of our fitness professionals. Keeping the the "action" and "attachment" in mind while performing an exercise can help you maintain the proper technique.

Lower Back

Muscles: the spinal erectors
Attachment: these muscles originate on the pelvis, vertebrae and ribs and attach to the ribs, vertebrae and back of the skull.
Action: extension and lateral flexion of the spine.

Lower Back Exercises:

  • Superman: lie flat on the floor on your stomach with your arms extended over your head. Lift your arms, shoulders and chest off the floor and hold for 3-4 seconds. Relax and return to the starting position. Repeat 2 more times. If this becomes too easy, increase the time you maintain the elevated position. This exercise can also be done on an exercise ball.
  • Back Extension: this exercise can be performed in a back extension chair or on an exercise ball, in a prone position (face down) and your body weight supported by your hips and pelvis. Clasp your hands behind your head (or in front of your chest) and lift your upper body until your back is straight. Be careful not to go too far and hyperextend your back. Return to the starting position and repeat 8-12 repetitions. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities. When this becomes easy, you can hold a light weight plate up to your chest to increase the resistance.
  • Good Morning: this can be done seated or standing. For many people, your body weight may be enough resistance. For others, rest a light barbell on your shoulders and hold it in place with your hands. From the seated position, slowly bend forward at the waist as far as you comfortably can. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat 8-12 repetitions. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities. For the standing position your feet should be shoulder width apart and your knees should be slightly bent. Slowly lower yourself as comfortable as possible without going below a 90 degree bend at the waist. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities.

Upper Back

Muscles: latissimus dorsi, teres major and rear deltoid.
Attachments: the lats originate on the vertebrae and pelvis and attache to the upper front part of the humerus (bone of the arm); the teres major and the rear deltoid originate on the shoulder blade and attach to the upper bone of the arm (humerus).
Action: all three muscles bring the arm closer to the body (as in a pull up) and also extend the shoulder.

Upper Back Exercises:

Pull Downs

  • Lat Pull-down: this should be done using an overhead pulley station and can be done with an overhand grip, an underhand grip, a narrow grip or a natural grip (handle where knuckles are facing each other). Use a slightly wider than shoulder width grip for overhand pull-downs and a shoulder width grip for underhand pull-downs. Pull the bar towards your chest and stop when your elbows have formed a 90-degree bend for a wide grip or all the way to your chest for an underhand grip. Return to the starting position and repeat 8-12 repetitions. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities. It's not necessary to bring the bar to your chest when using an overhand grip. Bringing the bar closer than is comfortable for your body places unneeded stress on the shoulder joint and doesn't offer any benefits. *See note below.
  • Stiff-arm Lat Pull-down: this is done using a high cable pulley station and a wide grip bar. Stand in front of a high pulley station and grasp the bar at shoulder width, keeping your arms straight and without locking your elbows, pull the bar down towards your upper legs. Keep your legs slightly bent and not lock your elbows. Repeat for 8-12 repetitions. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities.
  • Pull-Up:these can either be done on an overhead bar or a machine assisted pull-up machine. Grasp an overhead bar at shoulder width using a traditional (underhand) grip, an overhand grip or a narrow grip. Lift your body, bringing your chest towards the bar. Return to the starting position and repeat as many times as you can. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities. *See note below.

* Skip the behind the neck pull-ups and behind the neck lat pull-downs. These exercises are less effective based on the physiology of the muscles (how they attach and the movement they perform). Behind the neck movements also increase the risk of injury because the shoulder joint is placed in an unnatural position increasing stress to the joint during movement. Leaning your head forward to complete a behind the neck exercise also places the head/neck in an unnatural position and even more risk of injury.


  • Seated Row: Sit at a low pulley station. Using an overhand, underhand or natural (knuckles facing) grip, grasp a handle that allows your forearms to stay perpendicular to your body. Pull the handle back towards your abdomen, focusing on moving your elbows back. Slowly return to the starting position without leaning forward and keeping your shoulder blades together in their natural position. Keep your upper body and your waist in the same position and focus on pulling back with your arms. Repeat 8-12 reps. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities. Remember the action of the muscle and limit upper body movement for a more effective workout. **See note below.
  • One-Arm Cable Row: standing in front of a low cable pulley station with your knees slightly bent, grasp a handle in one hand. Pull the handle back towards your abdomen focusing on pulling with your elbow. Pretend like you're starting a lawn mower. Return to the starting position without locking your elbow and keeping your shoulder blade in its natural position. Complete 8-12 reps and repeat for the opposite side. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities. **See note below.
  • Bent Over Rows:
    Wide-Grip Bent Over Barbell Row: using a straight barbell, stand with your feet close together and your knees slightly bent. Bend over slightly at the waist and keep your back straight. Limiting movement in your body, pull the barbell up towards your abdomen. Repeat 8-12 reps. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities.
  • Bent-Over Dumbbell Row: support your body on a flat bench with your left knee and your left hand and keep your back straight throughout the movement. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand with your arm extended. While keeping your shoulder blade in its natural position, lift the weight towards your abdomen. Imagine there is a string attached to your elbow lifting the weight. Return to the starting position, but remember not to extend your shoulder blade out of a natural position. Complete 8-12 reps and repeat for the opposite side. Rest and repeat according to your specific goals/abilities.

** Keeping your shoulder blades in their natural position throughout a row exercise creates a more effective exercise. When your shoulder blades extend forward the muscles must pull the shoulder blades back into their natural position before the exercise movement can be performed. Returning to a natural shoulder position reduces the amount of time resistance is applied to the muscle and reduces the efficiency of the exercise.

Straps or No Straps?

Because your back muscles can lift more weight than your grip can usually handle, many people like to use straps to increase the amount they lift. Some people don't like straps because they don't allow you to develop grip strength. So who's right? Depends on your individual goals and why you're lifting. If grip strength is important to you or for a specific sport (i.e. rock climbing) then you shouldn't use straps. If your goal is overall health and fitness and grip strength isn't an issue, straps can improve your workout for the larger muscle groups. It all depends on your goals.

This information and other information on this site is intended for general reference purposes only and is not intended to address specific medical conditions. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice or a medical exam. Prior to participating in any exercise program or activity, you should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional. No information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.