Back and Shoulder Exercises for Strength Conditioning

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We often take the strength of our back and shoulders for granted. However, many of the motions we perform in our daily lives, such as carrying, reaching, twisting, turning, lifting, and bending, are greatly improved when we have strong and powerful back and shoulder muscles. We're also less likely to injure these muscles when they're strong and flexible.

If you suffer from chronic back pain, this can stem from having weak spinal muscles. Research has consistently shown that exercising, including doing strengthening exercises, is a highly effective treatment for chronic back pain, both to relieve pain and to help you function better in your daily life. In fact, a 2017 study on the effectiveness of upper body strengthening exercises in men with chronic back pain found that the men who did strengthening exercises for their lower backs along with shoulder, upper back, and neck exercises had significantly less pain and disability than the men who only worked on strengthening their lower backs.

Here are some great workouts that can help you strengthen your back and shoulder muscles.

Chinups, Pullups, and Reverse

Naturally, you get some arm muscle work with pullups, but the main muscle beneficiaries are the teres, rhomboids, and lats of your back. Try using an underhand grip, which hits your biceps and brachialis arm muscles more. An underhand grip makes the lats and teres of your back more involved as well.

Lat Pulldowns, Reverse, and Variations

Pulldowns target your teres and latissimus muscles for the most part, but the pulldown behind your head targets your rhomboids better. Be careful when you're pulling behind your head that you don't contact your cervical spine.

Bent Over Rows

You get a lot of value for the time and effort you put in with this exercise because your back, shoulder, and arm muscles are all worked over. With a barbell, an overhand grip mostly targets your back, while an underhand grip gets your biceps and trapezius more involved. This is a very useful exercise. Don't leave it out, and remember to keep your back straight or a little arched (not curved).

T-Bar Rows

If your gym has a T-bar machine, don't overlook it. Similar in effect to bent over rows, T-bar rows give your back, shoulders, and arms a great going over. You may notice a standing machine or one with a bench for abdominal support.

Seated Cable Rows

The rowing machine allows you to pull against an adjustable weight as you slide along a frame. Keep your shoulder blades pressed together and try using a wide grip for variety and to work different muscles. This is a useful exercise for your back muscles and the posterior deltoid of your shoulder.

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows

Do this exercise kneeling or leaning on a bench with one knee and lifting a dumbbell in a rowing motion with your other arm. You get a nice workout on your back and some activity on your arms and rear shoulder muscle too.


As the best compound exercise you can do, the deadlift hits more muscles than any other single exercise, with the exception of the Olympic lifts. Your back gets a good working over, and, as you might expect, this exercise also strengthens the important lower back muscle called the quadratus lumborum. Though this muscle is actually deep in your abdominal wall, it's a common cause of back pain.

Back Extensions

Find the back extension machine in the gym and use it regularly to strengthen your lower back, butt, and hamstrings. Back extensions are often overlooked but they can be very useful, especially in strengthening that all-important posterior chain.

Barbell and Dumbbell Shrugs

Shrugs get the trapezius muscles at the top of your spine around the neck activated. You can do this with dumbbells hanging at your side—just shrug the muscles up and down—or use a shrug machine instead if one is available.

Seated Front Dumbbell Press

Put some work into all three of your shoulder deltoid muscles with the front overhead press. Sit on a bench and push dumbbells alternatively over your head.

Bent Over Lateral Raises, Dumbbell, or Pulley

Keeping your back straight, bend over and raise the dumbbells (or pulley weights) to your sides, like a bird opening its wings. This exercise hits your deltoids and your back. You can also do lateral raises standing upright, which involve the trapezius more. Either way, don't overdo the weight on this exercise or your shoulders might complain.

Dumbbell Front Raises

These involve more isolation exercises for your shoulders. In the front raise, you lift dumbbells straight out in front of you, alternating left to right. This targets your front and middle deltoids and some chest muscles as well. Keep the weight light to moderate.

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  1. Kato S, Murakami H, Demura S, et al. Abdominal trunk muscle weakness and its association with chronic low back pain and risk of falling in older women. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2019;20(1):273. doi:10.1186/s12891-019-2655-4

  2. Atalay E, Akova B, Gür H, Sekir U. Effect of upper-extremity strengthening exercises on the lumbar strength, disability and pain of patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled studyJ Sports Sci Med. 2017;16(4):595–603.

  3. Barge AS, Barge SM. Quadratus lumborum: one of the many significant causes of low back pain. Indian J Pain. 2018;32:184-186. doi:10.4103/ijpn.ijpn_53_18