How to Tone Your Back

woman performing a lat pulldown

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Your back muscles support your spine, providing stability and flexibility to allow movement. If they become weak, you may end up with pain, strain, and injuries that interfere with your daily life. When people have a goal of toning their back, it usually means they wish to improve the composition of their back by firming and perhaps reducing body fat in that area.

It's important to understand that toning is not a physical ability your muscles or fat have. Muscle either grows (hypertrophy) or shrinks (atrophy). Likewise, adipose tissue can accumulate, or you can lose it. You also cannot spot train adipose tissue to decrease in a particular area, but you can train specific muscles to grow.

To lose back fat (adipose tissue), you will need to create a calorie deficit, burning more calories than you eat over the course of time. You can also build the muscles in your back so they become more visible and prominent.

Changing your body composition by increasing muscle mass and decreasing fat mass may contribute to your overall health. Keep reading for more on how to tone your back by changing your body composition.

Nutrition That Supports Your Goals

Supporting any health or fitness goal with nutrition will give you the best chance of success. Nutrition plays a significant role in how your body functions, repairs, recovers, and adapts to the stimulus of training.

As well, to lose fat, correct nutrition is vital. You must consume fewer calories than you burn (calorie deficit) for weight loss to occur, but beyond that, nutrient quality supports your overall health. To build muscle, you must consume more calories than you burn (calorie surplus).

In either case, getting the right amount of calories in the form of protein, carbs, and fats will help you reach your goal. Protein is particularly essential since it is required to build muscle, but it also helps you preserve muscle when you are in a calorie deficit.

Exercises to Tone Your Back

Remember that toning is not a physiological action your body or muscles can attain but is typically used to describe building muscle. To build muscle, along with enough calories and protein, you also should focus on weight training, increasing the volume of work you do gradually.

Dumbbell Rows

Dumbbell rows can be done single or double arm. The double arm row requires you to stand at more of an upright angle to protect your lower back from a lack of bracing. You typically need to use much lower weight, and for that reason, double arm rows tend to activate mainly your lower back.

Single arm can be done using heavier weights while supporting your torso. They will work your lower back, upper back, and lower traps with help from your abs, biceps, and shoulders. Instructions for a single arm row are as follows.

  1. Place a dumbbell on either side of a bench. You can set it flat or at an angle, depending on what's comfortable for you.
  2. Position your left knee on the bench.
  3. Hinge your hips and place your left hand on the bench to support you.
  4. Pick up the dumbbell using your right hand in an overhand grip, palm facing you.
  5. Brace your core and maintain a neutral spine, not arching or rounding your lower back.
  6. Engage your back muscles and use them to pull the dumbbell to your side, leading with your elbow in a smooth arch while you exhale. Keep your arm close to your body.
  7. Squeeze for one count before reversing the movement slowly under control with an inhale.
  8. Complete 10 to 12 repetitions on one arm before switching sides to repeat.

Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are an excellent compound bodyweight movement that helps build muscle in your back while activating your entire body. To correctly perform a pull-up, you need to brace and tighten your entire body in an isometric hold while using your back muscles to lift you.

Using both eccentric and concentric contractions of the motion, plus the isometric hold, will increase your chances of muscle gain to create a toned back. If necessary, use a strength band to assist you.

  1. Stand beneath a pull-up bar, and grab the bar with an overhand grip with your hands about twice as wide as your shoulders. A wider grip ensures you use your back muscles rather than your biceps.
  2. Hang from the bar with straight arms and keep your body straight. Tighten and brace your entire body, squeezing your glutes. You can keep your legs straight or tuck them behind you.
  3. Pull your body up without swinging, pulling your elbows down to your sides.
  4. Lift until your chest is near the bar and your chin is over it. Squeeze your mid-back (lats).
  5.  Slowly reverse the motion with control. This is where the eccentric contraction occurs and is important for muscle growth.
  6. Repeat for 2 to 5 reps.

Deadlifts

Deadlifts may appear as a lower body exercise, but they are actually a powerfully functional back movement and one of the main compound lifts that build muscle and strength using the entire body. You will get a lot of benefits out of this single exercise, saving time and energy.

  1. Stand facing a loaded barbell with your shins approximately 4 inches from the bar and your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Squat down keeping your back straight back and grip the bar overhand at shoulder width.
  3. Contract your glutes and legs, pull your hips down, and push your chest up.
  4. Pull up on the barbell to remove the slack. You will hear a clink when the barbell hits the plates.
  5. Keep your arms extended and flatten your back, engaging your lats, and try to spread the floor.
  6. Screw your feet into the ground by rotating your femurs outward to activate the sides of your glutes and legs.
  7. Stand holding the barbell by pushing through your feet. Do not allow your hips to shoot up first. Keep the bar very close to your body to protect your lower back. Keep your chest up.
  8. Push your hips forward, locking them out. Reverse the movement, fulling controlling the descent.
  9. Aim for 10 to 12 repetitions.

Lat Pulldown

Lat pulldowns are similar to a pull-up but isolate the back and reduce the work from the rest of your body. This exercise is easier to master than the pull-up but with less reward. However, it's excellent for adding volume if you cannot perform more pull-ups or if you want variety. It's also a good alternative if you cannot perform a pull-up yet.

  1. Engage your core, and keep your chest up and back slightly arched.
  2. Pull the handle until it reaches the top of your chest while pulling your elbows back to your sides.
  3. Return the bar slowly and avoid letting the weight stack touch down.
  4. Repeat for 10 to 12 reps.

A Word From Verywell

The goal of obtaining a strong back with muscular definition is an excellent investment for your health. Your back will be more stable and less prone to injuries and strain. While muscles don't tone, people often mean they would like some muscle mass when using this term. Try the exercises above which will certainly help grow muscle when performed consistently with progressive overload and volume added. Ask a personal trainer to help you if you need more guidance.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does it take to tone your back?

    Tone is not an action your body takes but typically thought of as a particular look. How long it takes to have defined muscles with lower body fat depends on your body composition when you start and the workout program and nutrition you follow.

  • Can I workout my back every day?

    You should workout your back two to three times per week with rest days for that body part in between. Working out your back everyday won't provide time for recovery and muscle growth.

  • Do pushups tone your back?

    Push-ups help to build strength and could help build muscle on your back, providing a "toned" look. However, they are primarily a chest exercise.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Losing weight.

  2. Koliaki C, Spinos T, Spinou Μ, Brinia ΜE, Mitsopoulou D, Katsilambros N. Defining the Optimal Dietary Approach for Safe, Effective and Sustainable Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese AdultsHealthcare (Basel). 2018;6(3):73. doi:10.3390/healthcare6030073

  3. Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, Gonzalez AM, et al. The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained menPhysiological Reports. 2015;3(8):e12472. doi:10.14814/phy2.12472

  4. Oranchuk DJ, Storey AG, Nelson AR, Cronin JB. Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2019;29(4):484-503. doi:10.1111/sms.13375

  5. Walker S, Blazevich AJ, Haff GG, Tufano JJ, Newton RU, Häkkinen K. Greater strength gains after training with accentuated eccentric than traditional isoinertial loads in already strength-trained menFront Physiol. 2016;7. doi:10.3389/fphys.2016.00149

  6. Paoli A, Gentil P, Moro T, Marcolin G, Bianco A. Resistance training with single vs. Multi-joint exercises at equal total load volume: effects on body composition, cardiorespiratory fitness, and muscle strengthFront Physiol. 2017;8:1105. doi:10.3389%2Ffphys.2017.01105

  7. National Strength and Conditioning Association. The deadlift and its application to overall performance.

By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.