Ask any personal trainer and they’ll tell you that guys will often neglect their back when it comes to training. It makes sense, of course. When you grab weights, it’s tempting to only focus on the muscle groups whose progress we can easily track - the “mirror muscles” that provide a quick pump as a reward for all that effort. Especially this time of year when we’re wearing tank tops and going shirtless at the pool. So your chest gets a blowout session or you have a heavy arm day, a grueling core/abs workout and maybe some heavy squats before pulling on some shorts.
I, myself, was certainly guilty of this. I cycle regularly for cardio. I lift some weights at the gym (yes, mainly those familiar vanity muscles), but I wanted a wider/stronger frame. And despite all my effort, my frame was not what you’d describe as wide or strong. It certainly wasn’t the V-shape I’d like it to be. So I started researching back exercises and found that you can’t think of your back as one big slab of muscle that doesn't do much. While often overlooked, your back is actually a complex system of muscles, each with their own functions.
I realized I needed to play catch-up and I began adding back exercises into my regular routine. Quickly, there was a noticeable difference. First, my posture improved. Then there was a slight broadening out. I could see definition in my back, and my shoulders started looking a bit wider which, in turn, made my waist appear a bit slimmer. Those are all big wins in my book. And according to the American College of Sports Medicine, training your posterior muscles (the muscles on the back side of your body) is arguably even more important for performance than training your front. Not only does it balance out your bulk, it helps improve your balance and boosts your performance.
That’s because when you work your back muscles, you’ll strengthen your posterior chain, which includes everything from your traps, lats and delts to your erector spinae, glutes and hamstrings. These all work together to stabilize your spine and hips, keeping the body upright and helping you get explosive movement when you’re active. Physical therapists say the posterior chain plays a critical role in supporting you during daily activities. Unfortunately, sitting “turns off” the posterior chain muscles. This often leads to muscle imbalances, weakness, and tight hip flexors, which can wreak havoc on your lower back. Thankfully, regular exercise will kickstart those important muscles. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that 16 weeks of back workouts was enough to alleviate discomfort felt by 30 men who had suffered from chronic back pain for around two years.
So, are you ready to work your back? Here are four essential exercises to not only strengthen your back, and improve your posture but also widen your frame for that coveted V-shape. Just in time for summer.
For: Middle back (outer and upper latissimus dorsi)
Bodybuilders swear by it (and it’s easier to start with than pull ups). Sit down at a lat pulldown station and grab the bar with an overhand grip that's just beyond shoulder width. Keeping your back straight and your torso still, pull your shoulders back and down, and bring the bar down to your chest. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position.
For: Lower back (erector spinae)
By using dumbbells instead of a larger barbell, you're able to achieve a greater range of motion and isolate your core. Using an overhand grip, hold the dumbbells in front of your thighs. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Hinge forward at your hips, slightly bending the knees, lowering the dumbbells to the ground without allowing your back to round. Brace core and lift back to the starting position and repeat.
Cable Diagonal Raise
For: Upper back (trapezius and rotator cuff muscles)
A great overall exercise that builds and tones the back while strengthening your shoulders. Attach handle to the low pulley of a cable machine. Stand with feet shoulder width apart and your left side closest to the weight stack. Grab the handle with your right hand and allow your right arm to run diagonally across your body with your palm facing inward. Brace core and pull the handle across your body until your right hand comes completely overhead. Pause at top position and contract glutes for greater stability. Return to the starting position and switch arms when you’ve completed your reps. No cable machine? You can use a dumbbell.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
For: Middle back (latissimus dorsi and rhomboids)
These rows are especially handy when training the back because it is a unilateral exercise - meaning it only targets one side of the body at a time. This allows you to work through weak spots by focusing on building up strength imbalances. There are a few different setups, but the most reliable is to stand close to a bench/box, square your feet, and plant your palm on the top of it. Bend at the hips, and keep your back straight, picking up the dumbbell and allowing it to hang straight down from your shoulder. Pull the weight up to the side of your torso slowly (this isn’t like starting a lawnmower). Pause for a count at the top before lowering the dumbbell to the starting position and repeating.
* FYI: Want more muscle-building exercises? Check out BodyBuilding.com’s list of the 10 best back builders.