The Best Exercises for a Strong Back
Build up your back muscles to gain power and prevent annoying aches
Your core is the powerhouse of your body—the place from which most of your movement starts. But many forget that your back is an integral part of the core and often neglect those muscles during training. “The back is the unsung hero of our physique. Because you can’t see it in the mirror, it tends to get less attention than the abs, shoulders, or arms, but it quite literally ties all the other muscle groups together,” says Rob Sulaver, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, founding trainer at Rumble, and founder of Bandana Training.
It’s especially important to focus on the back if you’re into endurance sports. “It transfers power through the torso, making it a pivotal player in our foundation movements like running, swimming, lifting heavy things off the ground, and climbing,” Sulaver says.
Failing to strengthen your back won’t just keep you from reaching your full performance potential—it may cause injury that can keep you from training entirely. Back pain is a common complaint among endurance athletes, who are often asking these muscles to endure heavy pounding over long distances. But simple targeted strength exercises can prevent such pain and injury.
1. Barbell Deadlift
What It Does: This move strengthens the entire posterior chain and is one of the best exercises for working your back top to bottom, says Sulaver. Try to maintain a neutral spine throughout your deadlift—excessive rounding under a heavy load can cause pain or herniation.
How to Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and with a loaded barbell in front of you. The bar should be close to your shins. Bend at your hips and knees, grabbing the bar with an overhand grip, just wider than shoulder width. Straighten your legs as you drive through your heels and raise the bar up along your shins and past your knees. Stand tall, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement. Reverse to start. That’s one rep. Complete five sets of five reps.
2. Neutral Grip Pull-Ups
What It Does: With every lift, you’ll hit some of the most prominent muscles in your back, like your lats and traps, as well as your biceps. If you need extra support, loop a heavy circular resistance band around the top of the bar and place one foot inside. Perform pull-ups from there.
How to Do It: On a parallel pull-up bar (one with two bars parallel to each other), grab one bar with each hand so your palms are facing each other. Hang with arms fully extended. Pull yourself up by engaging through your lat muscles (the sides of your back). Pause at the top and slowly lower. That’s one rep. Complete five sets of five reps.
3. Seated Machine Row
What It Does: No muscle goes untouched during this exercise—it calls on all parts of your back as you move through the row. Aim for a neutral spine and an upright torso. If you find yourself swaying forward and back, lighten the load a bit, Sulaver recommends.
How to Do It: On a seated row machine, sit and grab the handles with your palms facing in. Pull back on the handles, keeping your elbows close to your body and bringing them back past your torso, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Return to start. That’s one rep. Complete three sets of 15 reps.
4. Machine Back Extensions
What It Does: A great way to isolate your lower back, this move develops the muscles that run along and support the spine, formally known as the paraspinal erectors and the quadrates lumborum.
How to Do It: Think of this like a reverse crunch. On a back extension machine, sit, grab the handles, and place your feet on the footrest. Maintaining a neutral spine, slowly extend your hips to straighten the torso. Return to start with control. That’s one rep. Complete four sets of ten reps.
5. Single-Arm Bench-Supported Dumbbell Row
What It Does: Unilateral exercises—moves that work a single side of the body—are key for balancing out any asymmetries that may exist. Start with your nondominant side, which will probably be a little weaker, Sulaver says. Then perform the same rep scheme on your dominant side to avoid perpetuating any imbalance.
How to Do It: Hold a dumbbell in your dominant hand, palm facing in. Using a bench, place your nondominant knee on the center of the bench with the opposite foot on the floor, slightly behind the nondominant knee. Place your dominant hand on the bench. Maintain a flat back and keep your elbow close to your side as you row the dumbbell up past your torso. Return to start. That’s one rep. Complete ten reps on one side, then switch to the other side. Repeat for four sets.
6. Straight-Arm Pull-Downs
What It Does: This move isolates the shoulders and sides of the back while also hitting your triceps. Perform this single-joint exercise at the end of your back workout, when you’re spent from multi-joint exercises, Sulaver says.
How to Do It: Using an adjustable cable machine or a set of resistance bands with handles attached to a fixed point, grab onto the handles with an overhand grip, arms shoulder-width apart. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. With straight arms, pull the bar down to your thighs. Return to start. That’s one rep. Complete three sets of 15 reps.