12 Exercises to Build Strong Back and Shoulder Muscles

man lifting weights at gym

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It's easy to take the strength of our back and shoulders for granted. Many of the motions we perform in our daily lives such as carrying, reaching, twisting, turning, lifting, and bending, are dependent on our back and shoulder muscles.

A back and shoulder workout is so much more than a great form of exercise. It's important to maintain strength and flexibility in these muscle groups to keep them functioning at an optimal level and also prevent injury.

If you suffer from chronic back pain, this can stem from having weak spinal muscles. To understand where chronic back pain comes from, it's important to know how the quadratus lumborum (QL) functions. Your QL is located in your lower back and is the deepest muscle inside the abdominal wall.

Low back pain often results from poor posture while sitting or from sitting too much, which weakens the muscle over time. Research has shown that strengthening the QL is key to alleviating low back pain.

Studies have found that exercise programs with an emphasis on strength training are highly effective forms of treatment for chronic back pain, with results indicating less pain and discomfort and improved quality of life.

Strengthening the QL muscle in the core is key to building a stronger back, but it doesn't stop there. The primary muscles groups in the back that connect to the shoulders need to be exercised and strengthened as well. Those include:

  • Latissimus dorsi: These are the muscles just below the armpits that run down both sides of the back.
  • Rhomboids: Located in the mid-upper back region, these muscles are responsible for the stability of the scapula (shoulder blades) and shoulder girdle.
  • Trapezius: These run from the mid-back to the neck.
  • Erector spinae: This muscle group runs along the spine to support the shoulders and limbs, and is responsible for rotating the scapula in order to lift the arms above shoulder height.

Shoulder instability often results in chronic shoulder pain. But shoulder pain can also be caused by rotator cuff injury, adhesive capsulitis (often referred to as "frozen shoulder"), and shoulder arthritis. While it's important to regularly strengthen your back and shoulders, it doesn't mean you should do a shoulder workout every day.

Studies have shown that overtraining the shoulder muscles can lead to overuse injuries. It's recommended you exercise your back and shoulder muscles three days a week with a rest day in between to give your muscles ample time to recover.

It's also important to work the back and shoulder muscle groups together. In fact, a 2017 study that combined upper body strength training including shoulder, upper back, and neck exercises with lower back strengthening resulted in significantly less pain and disability compared to subjects who only performed lower back strengthening exercises.

Try these strengthening workouts with weights to build muscle in your back and shoulders to increase mobility and range of motion, alleviate chronic pain, and avoid injury. If you don't have access to a gym, this upper body workout for your shoulders and back can be done right at home.

Chin-ups and Pullups

A pull-up.
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Executing a proper chin-up or pullup with good form requires the strength of your entire upper body, including your arms as well as your core. The main muscle beneficiaries in both variations are the teres, which attach to the scapula and humerus (arm bone), as well as the rhomboids and lats of your back muscles.

The difference between the two exercises is the grip. For chin-ups, you'll use an underhand grip, which targets your biceps and brachialis (elbow flexors) and give your lats and teres more of a workout as well. The overhand grip in a pullup is just as effective, only the biceps are not as involved in the effort.

Lat Pulldowns

Pulldowns mostly work your teres and lats, but when you pull down behind your head, you can give your rhomboid muscles on your back a workout, too. Be cautious when pulling the bar behind your head so that you don't hit your cervical spine.

Bent Over Rows

You get a lot of value for the time and effort you'll put in with this back and shoulder exercise, because your back, shoulder, and arm muscles are all getting a workout in tandem.

Also known as a barbell high row, a barbell bent over row with an overhand grip mostly targets your back, while an underhand grip gets your biceps and trapezius involved. Remember to maintain a neutral spine or allow your back to naturally arch to avoid tucking your tailbone.

T-Bar Rows

If your gym has a T-bar machine, be sure to take advantage of it. Similar in effect to bent over rows, T-bar rows give your back, shoulders, and arms a great workout. 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 for seated cable rows. Draw your shoulder blades together and try using a wider grip for variety to work different muscle groups in your back and shoulders. This is a useful exercise for your back muscles as well as the posterior deltoid of your shoulder.

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows

Woman doing a dumbbell row
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This exercise can be performed bent over with your opposite hand resting on a bench or piece of gym equipment, or kneeling or leaning on a bench with one knee. As you lift a dumbbell in a rowing motion with your arm, you'll also get a solid workout for your back with some activity on your arms and rear shoulder muscle.

Back Extensions

The back extension machine at the gym is a great tool for targeting your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Back extensions are sometimes overlooked, but they can be very useful in strengthening the all-important posterior chain, which are the main muscle groups of the back-body.

Barbell and Dumbbell Shrugs

Shrugs are similar to upright rows and work the trapezius muscles at the top of your spine around the neck. You can perform this exercise with dumbbells hanging at your side—just shrug the muscles up and down—or use a shrug machine if one is available.

Seated Front Dumbbell Press

All three of your shoulder deltoid muscles get a workout with the front overhead press. Sit on a bench and push alternating dumbbells over your head.

Bent Over Lateral Raises

Keeping your back straight, bend over and raise the dumbbells (or pulley weights) to your sides, like a bird opening its wings. This exercise targets your deltoids and your back muscles.

You can also perform lateral raises standing upright, which work the trapezius muscles in the shoulders even more. Don't overdo it with weight on this exercise to avoid straining or injuring your shoulders.

Dumbbell Front Raises

Dumbbell front raises are isolation exercises to stabilize your shoulders. In the front raise, the dumbbells are lifted straight out in front of you, alternating left to right. This targets your front and middle deltoids and your chest muscles as well. Keep the weight on the lighter side for this one to avoid straining your shoulders and back.

Deadlifts

A deadlift.
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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 an incredible workout, and, as you might expect, this exercise also strengthens the important lower back muscle, the QL.

Remember that a weakened QL muscle is a common cause of chronic back pain, though it's located deep in your abdominal wall. Use caution with all of these back and shoulder exercises, and only lift the amount of weight that's best suited for your level of fitness.

If you have shoulder or back pain or injury and you're interested in beginning a strength training program but not sure where to start, consult with your doctor first to get cleared for exercise.

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