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A strong and healthy back will not only help protect your spine from injury, it will allow you to move more freely and naturally. A stronger back will also improve your posture so that you stand taller and straighter, thus making you appear more youthful than the average person your age.

Your back muscles collectively form the largest muscle group in your body and the key muscles of the mid and upper back are as follows:

  • Latissmus Dorsi or "Lats" - This muscle starts underneath the arm and runs to about the waist on each side of the back. It's primary function is to pull the shoulders and arms downwards and towards the back. This is the muscle that gives bodybuilders that all important "V" shape - wide shoulders that taper down into a tight waistline.
  • Rhomboids - This muscle is located in the mid to upper back and functions chiefly to hold the scapula (or shoulder blade) against the vertebrae (spinal bones) and retract the shoulder blades back and towards each other. Rowing exercises are key for developing this muscle.
  • Trapezius or "Traps" - This muscle starts at the back of the upper neck, runs across the shoulder blade and also attaches to the spinal column, tapering off about halfway down the back. A large muscle, it has 3 distinct regions that need to be equally developed so that postural imbalances do not result. The upper part is strenthened by elevating or shrugging the shoulders, the middle part is worked by pulling the shoulder blades together via rowing type exercises, and the lower part is developed by drawing the shoulders downwards while the arms are straight and stiff with exercises such as the straight arm pulldown.
  • Erector Spinae - The Erector Spinae is really a bundle of muscles and tendons that run the length of both sides of your spine that both extend and bend the spine. Deadlifts and hyperextensions help develop this muscle. However, these exercises can be high risk and so must be done using extreme caution, particularly at first.
  • Your lower back muscles are of course just as important as the upper ones, but I like to classify lower back muscles as part of the core muscle group and so I will deal with them in the Core Exercises section of this site.

    Following are the key exercises you can do at home to work your back muscles. All of these exercises can be progressed to make them more challenging as your back muscles become stronger. If you’re new to working out, start at the basic level and progress from there at a realistic pace to avoid injury. It takes time to build a strong and healthy body, so don’t start with unreasonable expectations that within a few weeks you’ll be smoking hot. Understanding and accepting this will prevent you from becoming discouraged and allow you to actually enjoy your transformation process.


    Back Exercises You Can Do At Home
    Rows
    Upright Rows
    Straight Arm Pulldowns
    Pullovers
    Shrugs
    Dumbbell Deadlifts
    Hyperextensions


    IMPORTANT NOTE:

    Always exercise in a safe and responsible manner. Please be aware that as with most physical activities, there is always a risk of injury associated with weight training and other exercise programs. While I have made every effort to describe how to perform the exercises outlined on this site in a safe manner, note that every body is different and so not all exercises can or should be peformed by all people. Therefore, if you feel pain or discomfort when attempting any of the exercises described on this site, please stop immediately.

    It is always important to consult your physician before starting any exercise program, especially if you have been sedentary for an extended period of time. This is particularly true if any of the following apply to your current medical condition:
    • chest pain or pain in the neck and/or arm
    • shortness of breath
    • a diagnosed heart condition
    • joint and/or bone problems
    • currently taking cardiac and/or blood pressure medications
    • have not previously been physically active
    • dizziness
    In addition, if you have any chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes or arthritis) or risk factors (such as smoking or being more than 20 pounds overweight), and have not discussed exercising with your doctor, you should do so before beginning. Exercise is often an important part of the treatment for such conditions, but you may have some limitations or special needs that your doctor can tell you about.

    If none of these apply to you, start gradually and sensibly. However, if you feel any of the physical symptoms listed above when you start your exercise program, contact your physician right away.


    Rows

    Rows are any movement that draws the upper arms to the back of the body and pulls the shoulder blades together. Rows are a great exercise because they work the lats, rhomboids and traps, and are what builds depth to the "V" shape that all serious bodybuilders aspire to achieve.

    Rows can be done standing, seated, or bent over, thus giving you lots of variety. Each position hits the muscles a little differently, so a good exercise program will incorporate all three options.

    Here is the basic move for the classic one arm dumbbell row, which traditionally uses a weight bench or other similar surface (such as the length of a couch) for support so that maximum weight can be used.

    1. Kneel on the bench with one knee and use the same side hand to brace yourself. Your back should be flat (as opposed to rounded) and parallel to the floor.
    2. With your free hand, grasp a dumbbell and position your hand so that one end of the dumbbell is pointing forward. Your arm should hang straight (but elbow should be bent just slightly), with your hand slightly in front of your shoulder.

      Start Position - Back flat, arm hanging straight down,
      hand slightly in front of the shoulder, dumbbell pointing forward

    3. Keeping your elbow close to your body, lift the dumbbell up and back towards your hip bone. Think about contracting your shoulder blade at the top of the lift, but don't twist your body in order to do so.

      Correct Finish Position - Dumbbell at your hip, elbow close to your body, shoulder blade contracted
      Incorrect Finish Position - Body twisted so that back is no longer flat and parallel to the floor

    4. Lower the dumbbell back to start position, to where your hand is slightly in front of your shoulder. Positioning the hand in front of the shoulder maximizes the pre-stretch on the muscle.
    5. Breathe out as you lift the dumbbell and breathe in as you lower it back to the starting position.
    6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but don't get careless and use your body to help throw the weight up, as you could twist your spine and seriously hurt yourself.

    Helpful Tips

    • To more effectively pre-stretch your back muscles with resistance (refer to Basic Workout Guideline #6) in the start position, position the dumbbell forward slightly rather than allow it to hang loosely at 90°.

      Dumbbell is positioned slightly forward in order to
      pre-stretch the back muscles with resistance.

    • I've seen many people do this exercise by lifting the dumbbell straight up as opposed to up and back on an angle. Reaching forward at the start position and drawing up on an angle will maximize range of motion for the muscle, thus giving the muscle a better overall workout. However, make sure that you lift the dumbbell at an approximate 45° angle from start to finish. As you tire near the end of the set you may catch yourself swinging the dumbbell back first in order to generate momentum to help lift it up.
    • Keep your neck relaxed at all times during this exercise to avoid neck strain. Keep your eyes facing the ground with your neck in line with your spine so that your neck stays in proper alignment throughout the exercise.
    • Make sure you use enough weight for the exercise to be effective. Your back muscles are large and need to be properly worked for muscle strengthening to occur. If you find there is too much stress on your shoulder when you use a heavier weight, then make sure you do enough repetitions with a lower weight to cause your back muscles to fatigue, otherwise you'll be wasting your time.

    Classic One Arm Dumbbell Row

    Start Position
    Finish Position

    Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

    This exercise is somewhat similar to the classic dumbbell row, but it is done using two dumbbells instead of one and the hand positioning is different. For this exercise your palms face you and the ends of the dumbbells point sideways rather than forward and back.

    1. Lean forward, knees slightly bent and back parallel to the floor. (You will often see people doing this exercise with their back at a 45° angle rather than parallel to the floor. While this does allow a person to lift heavier weights, it can also place excessive stress on the lower back.)
    2. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, extend your arms towards the floor. Keep a very slight bend in your elbows to protect the elbow joint.
    3. Lift the dumbbells to hip level and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together while keeping your back flat. Also keep your neck loose and in line with your spine to avoid neck strain. The dumbbells should be positioned relatively close to your legs as you raise and lower them (but not so close you graze your knees during the lift).
    4. Lower the dumbbells back to start position.
    5. Breathe out as you lift the dumbbells and breathe in as you lower them back to the starting position.
    6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but not to the point where you get sloppy as you could then injure your lower back.
    Start Position
    Back parallel to floor,  
    dumbbells pointing sideways
    Finish Position
    Dumbbells at your hips,
    elbows pointing upwards and
    shoulder blades drawn together

    Standing Rows

    Standing rows are done with tubing, where the tubing is anchored to something solid at about waist height in front of you. Position yourself so there is resistance on the tubing when you stretch your arms forward and enough additional resistance to make the exercise challenging when you pull your arms back to your waist.

    1. Stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Grasping the tubing, extend your arms in front of you, keeping your elbows bent very slightly to protect the elbow joints. Position yourself so that there is resistance on the tubing with your arms extended forward.
    2. Draw the tubing towards your waist, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your elbows close to your body. Make sure that you are positioned far enough back from the tubing anchor point so that there is enough resistance on the tubing to challenge your back muscles.
    3. Slowly extend your arms back to the start position in a controlled manner. Do not relax your arms and let the tubing pull them forward; keep the resistance on the tubing by fighting its pull so that you don't allow your back muscles to recover before you start your next rep.
    4. Breathe out as you pull the tubing towards you and breathe in as you extend it back to the starting position.
    5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but not to the point where you get sloppy - that's when injury is most likely to occur.

Helpful Tips

  • Tubing rows can be done in different ways in order to hit your muscles at slightly different angles, as per the three examples below. The first (single tubing - two arms) most closely resembles the seated cable row station you would find in a typical gym, where you grasp the hand attachment with both hands and pull it towards the center of your lower abdomen. However, I prefer the one arm version of tubing rows (or both arms holding separate tubing) because it allows for better range of motion in that you can pull the tubing to the side of your body as opposed to being forced to stop in front of it.
  • With tubing, as your back muscles tire, you can continue stepping forward slightly to ease up on the resistance and keep on going until you honestly can’t go any further. It’s a great way to really push yourself with less risk of injury as you approach failure. This is similar to what is known as a “strip set” in body building terms, where you do the same thing on a machine by setting the weight pin at your maximum weight and doing as many reps as you can before progressively lowering it one weight bar at a time. A properly executed strip set will take several minutes to complete, and believe me, it’s truly exhausting.
Single Tubing - Two Arms
Start Position
Finish Position
Single Tubing - One Arm
Start Position
Finish Position
Dual Tubing
Start Position
Finish Position

Seated Rows

You can also do seated rows with tubing. The principle is similar to a standing row, except that you're sitting down. Therefore, the tubing needs to be anchored in front of you at a slightly lower level than if you were standing.

Single Tubing - Two Arms
Start Position
Finish Position

Single Tubing - One Arm
Start Position
Finish Position

Dual Tubing - One for Each Arm
Start Position
Finish Position

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Upright Rows

Upright rows target the trapezius muscles of the upper back, as well as the deltoids, or shoulder muscles. The narrower your grip (i.e. the closer you place your hands together during the exercise), the more your trapezius muscles are utilized. Conversely, the wider your grip, the more your shoulders are called into play.

Wikipedia notes this is a somewhat controversial exercise that is contraindicated by a number of trainers and organizations due to risk of shoulder impingement. Therefore, if you feel any pain or discomfort with this exercise, discontinue it and substitute shoulder shrugs instead.

Upright rows are done from a standing position, using either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. You can do them at home with dumbbells in the following manner:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Hold a pair of dumbbells straight down in front of your body, palms facing you.

    Start Position

  2. Keeping your body tight and straight, lift the dumbbells to neck level, contracting your shoulder blades together at the top of the lift. In the finish position, your elbows and wrists should be level with each other. If your focus is to work the traps, bring your hands up so they meet in the center of your chest. If you want to work your shoulders, your hands should come up more to the sides of your body.

    Finish Position
    Traps Focus
    Finish Position
    Shoulders Focus

  3. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position with control, slowly enough that your muscles are forced to work against gravity. This minimizes their ability to rest between repetitions.
  4. Breathe out as you lift the dumbbells and breathe in as you lower them back to the starting position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner.

Helpful Tips

  • Do not position your elbows higher than your wrists in the finish position, as this will increase the degree of stress on your shoulder joints and create greater corresponding risk of impingement.

    Finish Position
    Right Way
    Elbows and wrists level
    Wrong Way
    Elbows higher than wrists
  • To avoid excess strain on your shoulder joints, keep the dumbbells close to your body as you lift and lower them.
  • Keep your neck relaxed at all times during this exercise to avoid neck strain.
  • Keep your neck in line with your spine so that it stays in proper alignment throughout the exercise. Resist the urge to push your head forward and into the exercise as you start to tire.
  • Keep your movements smooth and controlled, even as you start to tire. Do not allow your body to sway back and forth during the exercise and avoid jerky movements as both will increase risk of injury.
  • Although in theory this exercise could be done one arm at a time, because this is a controversial exercise I don't recommend it. Exercising both sides simultaneously helps keep your body in balance, whereas working one side at a time may cause you to twist inappropriately and pull something in your neck, particularly near the end of your set when your muscles are starting to tire.

Upright Row (With Dumbbells)

Start Position
Finish Position

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Straight Arm Pulldowns

The straight arm pulldown is an excellent lat strengthening exercise which helps build the “V” shape every bodybuilder aspires to achieve. However, you won’t see a lot of guys doing straight arm pulldowns at the gym because typically the amount of weight one can use for this exercise is limited. Normally this exercise is done using a lat pulldown machine, but in my opinion tubing provides a superior workout because it allows your lats to be worked through a greater range of motion.

Straight arm pulldowns with tubing are done from a standing position, with the tubing anchored above head height. Following is the basic movement:

  1. Grasp tubing and lift your arms up while stepping back until you have the correct amount of tension on the tubing. Your arms should be almost straight, with just a slight bend in your elbows to prevent the joint from locking out during the exercise. Palms face downwards.
    Start Position

  2. Keeping your arms straight and your wrists straight and tight, pull the tubing down and back behind your body. Try to push your hands past your body so that the full length of the lat muscle is worked.

    Finish Position
    Hands behind your body to work your lats
    through their full range of motion

  3. As you complete the movement, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together to maximize the muscle contraction.
  4. Slowly raise your hands back to the starting position in a controlled manner, keeping tension on the tubing so your lat muscles have limited opportunity to rest before the next repetition.
  5. Breathe out as you pull the tubing down and towards your body and breathe in as you lift your arms back up to the starting position.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but NEVER go to failure on this exercise as you could accidentally pull a lat muscle or possibly injure your spine if you were to lose your balance and fall forward or twist to one side. Both types of injuries are painful and take time to properly heal.

Helpful Tips:

  • You will likely need to use fairly lightweight tubing to begin with because it will need to stretch a fair distance as you move from start to finish position.

  • Ensure your stance is strong for this exercise by standing with your feet firmly anchored about shoulder width apart. (You can bring them closer together if you feel more anchored doing so.) Keep your knees slightly bent to avoid stressing them.

  • Your upper body should be straight or leaning forward slightly. Try not to lean too far forward, and do not lean backward, as either position can transfer a lot of stress to your lower back.

  • If you are unable to anchor the tubing high enough to do this exercise effectively, you could try it sitting on an exercise ball.

    Start Position
    Finish Position

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Pullovers

Pullovers primarily work the lat muscles, but they also recruit the chest and triceps muscles to a lesser degree.

Pullovers are done lying down with a dumbbell, either on a bench or a stability ball. Here is the basic movement for a pullover on a weight bench:

  1. Lying down on the weight bench, grasp one end of a dumbbell with both hands and extend it straight out behind you. Your elbows should be bent slightly with your wrists tight to prevent stress on these joints. Palms face upwards. Your feet should be either up on the bench or flat on the floor and remain that way throughout the entire exercise.

    Start Position

  2. Keep your wrists straight and rigid at all times. If you relax them at any time during the exercise and the weight of the dumbbells causes your wrists to bend you could strain the tendons or perhaps even break your wrist!
  3. Flex (tighten) your lat muscles and lift the dumbbell up and over your head in a smooth, flowing motion. DO NOT LOCK YOUR ELBOWS STRAIGHT OUT during this lift process as serious joint injury could occur. Your arms should remain slightly bent at the top of the lift to avoid stressing the elbow joint.

    Finish Position

  4. As you complete the movement, focus on working your lat muscles and also think about using your chest muscles to stabilize your arms as they lift the dumbbell above your head.
  5. Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the starting position in a controlled manner. Don’t let gravity do the work, for two reasons. The first is safety – letting the dumbbells simply drop can damage your shoulder joints, which will take the brunt of the stress when the dumbbells abruptly come to a halt. Second, you want to keep as much stress as possible on your lat muscles during the downward motion so they don't get a chance to recover between reps.
  6. Breathe out as you lift the dumbbell above your head and breathe in as you lower it back to the starting position.
  7. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but NEVER go to failure on this exercise as you could drop the dumbbell on your head and seriously hurt yourself.

Helpful Tips:

  • Starting position will vary for each individual, depending on their natural flexibility. You should feel a slight stretch on your shoulders, but not so much of a stretch that the shoulder joints are in danger of being damaged. Your objective is to pre-stretch the chest muscle without impinging your shoulder joints. (Refer to Basic Workout Guideline #6.)
  • Make sure you have a firm grip on the dumbbell so it doesn't slip from your grasp and fall on you during the exercise. Your thumbs and forefingers should form a circle around the handle and your other fingers will rest against the edge of the dumbbell. As you raise the dumbbell, tilt it slightly so your fingers support more of its weight than your thumbs. (You've got more fingers than than thumbs, so use them to support the weight of the dumbbell.)
  • As you perform each rep, keep your body still so that only your arms move. This will isolate your lat muscles. Keeping your feet flat on the floor will help keep your body still. You can also place your feet on the end of the weight bench - this will force your upper body to do most of the stabilizing work.

Pullovers on Workout Bench

Start Position
Finish Position

Pullovers on Exercise Ball

Pullovers can also be done using an exercise ball. Lie down on the ball so that your shoulders and upper back are resting on it. Walk your feet out until your body is in a straight line parallel to the floor. Then perform the exercise just as you would on a weight bench.

The main advantage of using an exercise ball is that your core muscles must work harder to support your body throughout the exercise.

Start Position
Finish Position

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Shrugs

Shrugs (also called shoulder shrugs) work the upper part of the trapezius muscle, or "traps" as they are known in bodybuilding circles. You do not want to overdevelop this part of the muscle because you'll start to look like you have no neck. (Think heavily muscled body builder and you'll know what I mean.)

However, you would have to work pretty hard to overdevelop your traps, which is a good thing because you do not want to avoid working them. The traps help protect the brachial plexus nerve fibres, which feed into the arms and control their function. The traps also support the weight of the arm against the body.

Shoulder shrugs can be done at home with dumbbells, in either standing or seated position. Here is the basic movement from a standing position:

  1. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand and hold them at the sides of your body, palms facing you. Feet should be approximately shoulder width apart so that you have a firm base.

    Start Position

  2. Keeping your core tight and your body straight, raise your shoulders towards your ears. Your neck should be relaxed and your arms straight.

    Finish Position

  3. Pause slightly, and then lower your shoulders back to the starting position.
  4. Breathe out as you raise your shoulders and breathe in as you lower them back to the starting position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner.

Helpful Tips:

  • Do not let your head protrude forward during this exercise as this will place excessive stress on the neck which could lead to a herniated disc (particularly when using heavier weights). Focusing on a spot on the wall at about forehead level during the exercise will help prevent your neck from flexing forward.
  • Do not roll your shoulders at the top of the raise as this has been shown to increase risk of injury.
  • Keep your body straight and still, so that only your shoulders move. Remember to keep your neck relaxed throughout the exercise.

Shrugs in Standing Position

Start Position
Finish Position

Shrugs in Seated Position

Shoulder shrugs can also be done from a seated position using either an exercise bench (or eqivalent, such as a chair) or exercise ball. The main advantage of using an exercise ball over a solid surface is that your core muscles must work to support your body throughout the exercise.

Seated Shoulder Shrugs on Workout Bench
Start Position
Finish Position

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Romanian Deadlifts

Romanian or straight leg deadlifts work a number of muscle groups, including the erector spinae (a bundle of muscles and tendons that run the length of both sides of your spine), lower back (part of the core) and hamstrings (upper back of the legs). Rather than repeat the exercise in the back, core and leg workout sections, I have chosen to list it on one page only and you will find this exercise in the leg workout section. Please note this can be a somewhat risky exercise for your lower back, so if you have lower back issues please do not attempt this exercise.


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Hyperextensions

As noted at the top of this page, hyperextensions are a great exercise to strengthen your erector spinae, that bundle of muscles and tendons which run the length of your spine. Hyperextensions also work your lower back and so I have chosen to include this exercise in the core section. Like Romanian Deadlifts, this exercise is somewhat risky, so if you have lower back issues then do not attempt this exercise.


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