How to Develop Effective Back Workouts

A toned woman standing on the beach, seen from the back.
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Your back is a powerhouse that helps you perform many movements, protects your spine, and contributes to your posture. When back muscles are weak, it can lead to pain and stiffness. Choosing the proper back workouts and incorporating them into your exercise routine can help you build a stronger, fitter back. 

Understand Back Anatomy

To plan workouts that bring out your back's potential, you'll need to be aware of its three major muscle groups.

  • Latissimus dorsi: Located on each side of the back; helps you extend, rotate, and pull your arms toward your body.
  • Erector spinae: Made up of three muscles that run the length of your back from your neck to your buttocks. The erector spinae is involved in flexion and extension of the upper body, as well as rotation.
  • Rhomboids (major and minor): Also muscles known as the "posture" muscles, these are located between the shoulder blades and aid in rotation, elevation, and retraction of the shoulder blades.

Benefits of Working Out Your Back

Your back muscles are involved in just about every activity you do each day, so they must be strong enough to handle all that work. Strength training your back muscles will add muscle mass to your upper body, which can help make your waist look smaller. Like your chest, your back is made up of big muscles that can handle heavy weight and, therefore, help you burn more calories.

Strengthening your back is essential for reducing your risk of pain and injury. When back muscles become fatigued, poor posture and improper form can result in injuries. It's vital to increase muscular endurance and strength to prevent this.

If your back muscles are weak, your body will rely on the tendons and ligaments that connect bones for support and stability. This can lead to soreness and dysfunction. Having a stronger back can improve your performance overall in your daily functioning, workouts, or sports.

The Best Back Workouts

Just as sets and rep ranges are determined by your goals, so are your exercise choices. Choose a mixture of different exercises to target your back from a variety of directions. Vary your routine every four to six weeks to avoid plateaus.

Back exercises are divided into compound movements, and isolation movements. The compound exercises activate multiple muscles at the same time.

Compound Movements

Compound, multi-jointed movements are those that work several muscle groups at once to perform the exercise. They are the basis of any properly designed strength training program, as they most closely mimic the movement patterns necessary for everyday functioning.

Since the back contains so many muscles that work together, most back exercises are compound movements. Compound exercises for your back include:

Isolation Movements

Isolation exercises will provide the least amount of stimulus to the back muscles. However, these types of exercises can help target areas that are not growing equally to the rest of the back muscles. They help bring balance when muscles are lagging. Isolation movements for the back include:

Pull-up and lat pull-downs exercises help build width of your back, while rowing motions, like in the seated row, dumbbell row, and rear delt row, build thickness of the midback.

How Much Should You Train?

Like all muscles in your body, you can perform back exercises up to three non-consecutive days a week. If you're lifting heavy weights—enough that you can only complete six to eight repetitions—you'll need two or more days of rest before you perform the exercise again. For this reason, you might only work your back once or twice a week.

If your goal is to gain endurance and strength, stick with one to three sets of 12 to 16 repetitions, using a weight that fatigues your muscle in that rep range.

You will want to make sure that you take at least one day of rest before you perform the same exercises again. Doing more and not allowing your body to heal after workouts can lead to overtraining, which will eventually negate any training gains you make.

Frequently Asked Questions

What workouts can I do if I have lower back pain?

If you have persistent lower back pain, you should speak to your doctor before performing any workouts. Avoid exercises that cause pain or strain on your back. Your doctor may suggest some exercises that will help, or refer you to a physical therapist.

What are some back workouts that use pushing?

Back exercises that use pushing include push-ups, sled pushes, and tire flips.

What workouts should you avoid if you pull a back muscle?

If you pull a muscle, you should avoid all exercise until you have been cleared by a medical professional.

A Word From Verywell

Effective back workouts can help improve strength, fitness, and stability. While a strong back can decrease your risk of back pain, if you have back problems, you should use caution and talk to your doctor before beginning any new workout program.

Avoid injury by stopping an exercise if it hurts and not overexerting yourself. Be sure you use the correct form while performing any exercise; a personal trainer can guide you, if necessary.

1 Source
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  1. Cleveland Clinic. Why a strong core can help reduce low back pain.

By Paige Waehner
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."