A strong back is ideal for many reasons. Having strong back muscles can improve your posture, reduce back pain, and it can even help make your waist appear smaller - not so much a health benefit, but it's one that women love! Whatever your reasons are for wanting to build back muscles, be it to get rid of back fat, or just to get overall stronger, we're here to help! If you want to drive serious results, incorporate at least two back workouts a week. You need commitment, a good diet, an understanding of how to train your back, and knowing the best back exercises to prioritize.
Remember, your back is a huuuuge muscle group, and although deadlifts and barbell rows are key exercises for building muscle and strength on your back, you need to do more than that. You need a workout routine that will help you target every single muscle on your back! So, to help you build a stronger back, we're going to give you our favorite tips and back exercises that will help you build an effective back workout routine!
5 tips for your back day
When you're putting together your back workout, keep these five things in mind...
Use lifting straps on heavy sets
Heavy barbell deadlifts and rows are the compound movements that are the key to building back strength, but as you make progress, the heavier the barbell will get. Lifting straps are designed to help you maintain a better grip on heavy sets of pulling exercises. Aside from reducing grip fatigue, they help you lift heavier for longer and reduce your risk of injury. Only use lifting straps on your heavy sets! You still want to maintain your grip strength, and using them for every set will lead to a loss of it.
We have an entire Lifting Strap Guide which goes into more details on what they are and how to use them - plus, it includes a closer look at our UPPPER Lifting Strap Collection!
Don't neglect pull-ups
Pull-downs, like lat pulldowns, are great exercises and should be a part of your workout, but don't neglect pull-ups! It's a simple, yet challenging body weight exercise that is one of the best at building full upper body strength. It primarily targets the latissimus dorsi (lats), biceps, and also recruits your deltoids, rhomboids, and core. Unlike pull downs, pull-ups force you to stabilize your body and maintain control because there is no fixed path of travel.
This exercise is challenging, but not impossible. In fact, learning how to do a pull-up with proper form isn't all that difficult! You just have to train your way up to it. Start by building strength in your back by doing several weighted back exercises, especially rows. Once you build some strength, move to exercises like inverted rows, assisted pull-ups, and negative pull-ups! Doing all of this will help you to build muscle on your back, but remember, it requires time and patience.
Include multiple movement planes and grips
You have an upper, middle, and lower back. You want to make sure that you're hitting all the muscles within those groups - no only your lats! Many people tend to focus too much on the lats, and neglect other important muscles like the trapezius, rhomboids, rear delts (technically a shoulder muscle), the teres major and minor, and the erector spinae.
To avoid missing any important muscles, make sure you're doing exercises that move at a horizontal and vertical plane. So, include a variety of rowing and pull-down exercises. Rowing movements help build the mid-back, while pull-downs emphasize the lat width.
You also want to change up your grip to change up the way an exercise targets your back. Avoid falling back on the grip you're used to, changing up the grip width and type will add some new variety to your routine while emphasizing weaker muscles you're trying to target. An overhand grip will emphasize the upper lat fibers, while an underhand grip keeps your elbows tight to your sides to better recruit the lower lats. With rowing exercises, use a wide grip to bring the bar up to your chest to help hit the upper lats, middle traps, and rhomboids. Use a narrow grip to bring the bar towards your belly button to zone in on the lower lats. Using a reverse-grip for bent-over rows and pull-downs will engage your biceps more. Knowing these little tweaks will help you train smarter and help strengthen weaker muscles!
Work one side at a time
When it comes to building muscle, bilateral training is usually the main focus. But there are benefits to isolating one side of your body, opposed to having it work as a unit! Unilateral training will help fix muscle imbalances, improve overall strength, and help reduce your risk of injury. So, if you have one side that is weaker and needs to catch up, prioritize unilateral exercises!
Start by doing two unilateral back exercises per workout, one single row exercise, and one single pull exercise. For example, start your back day with single-arm bent-over dumbbell rows followed by single-arm cable pulldowns.
Aim to go through the full range of motion
This one applies to all exercises, always try to go through the full range of motion. Partial reps have their time and place, but your main priority should always be to go through the entire movement. With back training, you want to pull the weight all the way to the top of the movement to contract the muscles, and move it back all the way down to feel the stretch in the area. Make each rep as effective as possible, and move through the exercise slowly so you can concentrate on using your back to pull the weight.
7 best back exercises
You should know already barbell rows, deadlifts, and pull-ups should be a part of your back training routine, but you can't only rely on those three! Hit all the major muscles in your back, start implementing these back exercises into your routine...
This is a variation of the widely loved bent-over row, but with one advantage... You can add even more weight! It targets the lats, teres major, trapezius, erector spinae, shoulders, and biceps.
How to do it:
- Use a T-Bar row platform at the gym (or attach a barbell to a squat rack) and stand with one foot on either side of the bar.
- Bend your knees slightly as you hinge forward from your hips, just like you're about to do a bent-over row.
- Grab the handles with both hands and with your arms straight, lift the weight up until your torso is between 45 degrees and parallel to the floor.
- Inhale as you begin to pull the handle into your chest leading with your elbows. Don't let your lower back round. Contract your back at the top of the movement.
- Exhale as you fully extend your arms back to the starting position.
Seated Cable Row
Free-weight rowing exercises should be your bread and butter, but don't neglect cable machines, they have one advantage over weights... They help provide tension throughout the entire movement. This pulling exercise targets the lats, but also the biceps and triceps! The best thing about it is that there is a wide range of handles at the gym that will allow you to try different grips and hand positions!
How to do it:
- To get into the starting position, first, sit down on the machine and place your feet on the front platform or crossbar provided. Make sure that your knees are slightly bent and not locked.
- Lean over as you keep the natural alignment of your back and grab the V-bar handles. With your arms extended, pull back until your torso is at a 90-degree angle from your legs. Your back should be slightly arched, and your chest should be sticking out. You should be feeling a nice stretch on your lats as you hold the bar in front of you.
- Keeping the torso stationary, pull the handles back towards your torso while keeping the arms close to it until you touch the abdominals. Breathe out as you perform that movement. Hold for a moment and squeeze your back muscles hard.
- Hold that contraction for a second, and slowly go back to the original position while breathing in.
If you can't do a pull-up yet, try mastering lat pulldowns first! This exercise requires a bar or handle to be attached to a cable pulley which will help provide a constant tension for your lats to work against. This is a great exercise known to build up the lats, but it also engages the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and trapezius located in the upper back. We'll be going through the directions using a wide grip bar, but feel free to use handles for a more narrow grip.
How to do it:
- Place your knees under the provided pads. Position the pads so that your thighs are not able to raise up off the bench.
- Grasp the lat bar wider than shoulder-width grip. This is the starting position.
- Begin the exercise by pulling the bar down to your upper chest. Focus on using your lats to pull the bar down and not your arms. Squeeze your upper back muscles hard.
- Slowly reverse the movement back to starting position.
Chest Supported Rows
We love this exercise because its lower-back friendly! Bent-over rows and t-bar rows can be too hard on the lower back, so if you're having trouble with those, start by doing chest-supported rows! You'll be able to go really heavy without worrying about straining something! It targets your lats, traps, rhomboids, and biceps.
How to do it:
- Place your dumbbells on each side of a bench. Lie chest down on an incline bench, and grasp the dumbbells below.
- Pull dumbbells to sides until the upper arm is just beyond the horizontal or height of the back. Squeeze your back muscles for a moment.
- Return until arms are extended, and shoulders are stretched downward.
This exercise is a double whammy! It zones in on your lats, but it also engages your pecs, aka your chest muscles. We suggest using an incline bench, opposed to a flat bench, to keep your lats under tension for a longer range of motion.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back on an incline bench, your head should be towards the floor. Flex hips slightly.
- Grasp one dumbbell from behind or from the side with both hands under the inner plate of the dumbbell. Position dumbbell over the chest with elbows slightly bent.
- Keeping elbows bent slightly throughout the movement, lower the dumbbell over and past your head until upper arms are in line with the torso. Move slow and controlled to feel the lats do the work.
- Exhale and pull the dumbbell up and over the chest.
Single-Arm Cable Pulldowns
Feeling like one side of your upper back is doing more work than the other? Try single-arm cable pulldowns! It will help target the lat muscles, your upper back, and shoulders. Start your set with your weaker arm so you do the same amount of reps on each side without gaining any more strength or muscle on the stronger side.
How to do it:
- Place the pulley on a high position above your head and grab the handle with your right hand. Kneel on the floor with your arm stretched out in the alignment of the cable.
- Begin with your palm facing forward, engage your lat as you pull your elbow into the right side of your body.
- Once you have reached full contraction of your back, return your arm back into the starting position.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
This is a classic unilateral exercise that allows you to move a lot of weight - especially if you're using UPPPER Lifting Straps! Rows are great exercises, but training each side independently allows for a greater range of motion and support since you place one hand on a bench. This compound movement targets your upper back, lower back, biceps, shoulders, hips, and helps improve core stability.
How to do it:
- Kneel over side of bench by placing knee and hand of supporting arm on bench. Position foot of opposite leg slightly back to the side. Grasp the dumbbell from the floor.
- Pull the dumbbell up to the side until it makes contact with ribs or until the upper arm is just beyond horizontal. Hold for a moment.
- Return until the arm is extended, and the shoulder is stretched downward. Repeat and continue with the opposite arm.
Now you have the tips and best back exercises to try on your next back day! And don't be afraid to switch things up, use the machines at the gym, try different weights like kettlebells instead of dumbbells, making small changes to these exercises will help you continue driving progress. Doing all of this will get you on the right path to stronger back muscles!
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