People have a tendency to take their back for granted right up until the moment something goes wrong. We slump for hours at our desks before heading to the gym to work solely on the muscles we can see, like the biceps, chest and abs, not worrying too much about those we can’t. All of this is – you can see where this is going, can’t you? – a huge mistake.
A strong back is the foundation of many of the big lifts you’ll tackle in the gym and key to maintaining good posture in your everyday life. And if you’re motivated by aesthetics as much as practical reasons rest assured that a bigger, broader back is going to make you look dynamite on the beach.
Below you’ll find videos and explanations for the best beginner, intermediate and advanced back exercises as selected by strength and conditioning coach Richard Tidmarsh, founder of Reach Fitness. All the exercises can be scaled to your level by adding or removing weight, so even if you fancy yourself an expert in the gym don’t skip the beginner moves – they’re just as important as the other exercises and well worth mastering first.
Tidmarsh has also given his suggestions for sets and reps for each exercise so you can build them all into the ultimate back workout, should you so desire.
Beginner Back Exercises
Sets 3 Reps 3-3-3
Holding light dumbbells in each hand, bend forwards by hinging at the hips bend at the hips until your torso is at a roughly 45° angle to the floor, keep your back flat and your shoulder blades squeezed. You should feel tension down your hamstrings. Extend your arms up so you form a letter I, then lower again. Do three reps of I, then extend your arms up and out to form a Y. Do three reps of Y, then three for T. Despite the light weight you’ll feel the burn. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong.
Sets 3 Reps 8
Grab the TRX handles with an overhand grip and walk under them to your desired depth – the further you go, the harder the row. Your body should be straight with your shoulder blades should be pulled down your back, and you shouldn’t use any momentum from your hips. Rotate your wrists as you row so they face the ceiling at the top of the move.
Sets 3 Reps 8 each arm
Bend at your hips until your torso is at a roughly 45° angle to the floor, keep your back flat and your shoulder blades squeezed, engaging your legs to form a strong foundation. Row a kettlebell up past your ribs, keeping your elbow close to your body.
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Intermediate Back Exercises
Sets 3 Reps 6 each arm
Get into an elevated press-up position with your hands holding dumbbells. Tilt your pelvis forwards and switch on your glutes to hold a rock-solid plank as you row one dumbbell up past your hips. Repeat on each side with no movement in your body.
Sets 3 Reps 8
Deadlift a barbell for one rep, then hinge forwards until your torso is at a roughly 45° angle to the floor. With your back ramrod-straight, pull the bar in to your bellybutton with no kick from your legs or hips. Squeeze your back muscles, then lower the bar slowly.
Advanced Back Exercises
Single-arm cable row
Sets 3 Reps 6 each arm
Set a cable to bellybutton height. Step away from the machine holding the cable in one hand. Drop into a squat before pulling the cable back at the same time as you drive back up. Add a body twist (as in the video) when you feel like you have mastered the movement pattern.
Sets 3 Reps 6
With an underhand grip, grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. Slowly drop to full extension, then pull your chest up to the bar, keeping your elbows in. Lower slowly back to full extension – take three seconds. This exercise can be made easier by using a resistance band for assistance.
More Back Exercises
The pull-up works the lats, traps and rhomboids, and if you want to improve your back strength it’s as good a bodyweight move as you’ll find. That’s on top of the arm and core muscles you’ll be working as well. Grasp the bar in an overhand grip and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Lower slowly back to the start. If you find you can’t do a full pull-up straight away, you can start by just doing the downward section of the move, or use a loop resistance band to provide assistance. This four-week pull-up workout plan uses those techniques plus more assistance moves to help you build up the strength to crank out a set with flawless form.
Anyone can do this simple bodyweight move that improves your lower back and core strength. Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Extend your right arm and left leg in front of and behind you, respectively, then slowly bring them back to the floor and repeat with the opposite limbs. Keep your movements controlled, your hips level and your back straight.
Another beginner-friendly bodyweight move, the Superman strengthens your glutes and hamstrings along with your upper and lower back. It’s the lower back in particular that benefits, though, making this a useful move for anyone worried about pain in that spot because of their desk-bound lifestyle.
Lie face down on the floor with your arms and legs extended. Then raise both arms and legs at the same time so you’re in a similar pose as Superman himself when he soars through the air. Hold for a beat or two, then lower your limbs back to the start. If the exercise proves too tough at first you can make it easier by lifting fewer limbs – try one arm and one leg at the same time, or just your legs, or just your arms.
This simple but effective move targets the traps muscles in your back as well as your shoulders. Stand holding dumbbells by your sides with your palms facing. Shrug your shoulders up to your ears, keeping your arms straight. Pause for a beat, then lower the weights slowly and under control. You can also perform the move with a barbell or kettlebells, depending on what you have to hand.
While the deadlift taxes your hamstrings and glutes hard, it also works all the muscles in your posterior chain which runs down the back of your body. It’s a move that should be in every gym-goer’s workout regime, but it’s important to perform it with good form to avoid risking lower-back problems. Stand over a barbell and hinge at your hips to reach down and grasp the bar with your hands just outside your legs. Keeping your core braced, chest up and back flat, lift the bar by driving your hips forwards, then lower it slowly back to the ground.
Exercises To Help Relieve Back Pain
If you are one of the millions of people in the UK who experience back pain, it might not be wise to go to the gym and immediately start lifting heavy weights with the aim of strengthening your back. Instead, go back to basics and begin with stretches and simple bodyweight exercises. Here are a couple of great options anyone can do.
Lie on your side with your knees and hips bent at 90°, and your arms extended in front of you. Take your top arm up and over, rotating your torso so the arm comes over to point in the other direction and both your shoulders are touching the ground. Hold for a beat, then rotate back over.
Yoga aficionados will know this as the cobra pose. Lie face down on the floor with your palms face down in front of you and in line with your elbows, which should be bent at 90°. Push through your palms to raise your chest while keeping your hips in contact with the ground. Raise your torso until you feel the stretch in your lower back.
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