Your Ultimate Guide to a Strength-Based Back Workout

Authored by P S

Your Ultimate Guide to a Strength-Based Back Workout

Did you know that back pain is one of the most common chronic conditions in Canada? Every four out of five adults between the ages of 30-50 will experience at least one episode of back pain at some point in their life [1]. 

Whether you’re looking to build muscle for the aesthetic, increase strength to push more weight, or simply improve your posture to prevent pain, a strength-based back workout is the best recipe for success.

Follow along as we explore the top fundamental back exercises that target every major muscle group, plus a few optional modifications as well! 

The Mighty Back Muscles

Before diving head first into the ultimate back exercise routine, it’s helpful to take a look at the major back muscles and how they work together to help us lift weight effectively [2]. 

Latissimus Dorsi 

The latissimus dorsi is one of the largest muscles in our upper body covering the width of our middle and lower back in a flat triangular shape.

Thanks to the impressive complexity of this muscle, the latissimus dorsi has fibres that span in several directions to help adduct the arm (bringing it towards the body), medially rotate, and extend the shoulder. 

Trapezius 

The trapezius muscle, also known as “the traps” is a broad muscle that makes up most of the upper back. This muscle is responsible for assisting with posture in our upper back and neck, as well as facilitating most shoulder and scapula movements (i.e. elevating, depression, and retraction). 

Posterior Deltoids

The deltoids are made up of three parts that wrap the shoulder: anterior, medial, and posterior. The posterior delts, also known as “rear delts” assist other major back muscles to help move the shoulders backwards. 

Rhomboids 

The rhomboids are a collective group of accessory muscles. Sitting just below the traps, the rhomboids function to retract the shoulder blades, moving the shoulders backwards and providing stability for both the shoulder joint and scapula.

Erector Spinae 

The erector spinae is comprised of a long group of muscles that start from our tailbone and extend vertically along the length of the back. It's responsible for extending and laterally bending the spine as well as providing stability and balance for our torso. 

Quadratus Lumborum 

Lastly, we have the quadratus lumborum, a deep and strong back muscle that spans the lower part of our back. It's responsible for stabilizing the movement of our spine to keep us in an upright position while walking, running, and jumping. 

Benefits of Exercising the Back Muscles

It’s not abnormal for many of us to spend our days seated at a desk, hunched over on our phones or computers for hours on end. Unfortunately, this type of sedentary lifestyle can play a negative role in our back health. 

Without proper conditioning, our back muscles are likely to weaken which can lead to stiffness, pain, and instability. 

Exercising these muscle groups can help lower our risk of injury by strengthening the muscles, helping to stabilize our core, and improving our overall flexibility and functional range of motion of the spine which can lead to greater physical health and well-being [3].

How to Effectively Work Your Back Muscles 

Alright, so we know we need to start training our back. The problem is that when it comes to exercising the back, many people neglect to include a wide range of exercises to target all the different muscles that make up this part of our body. 

Here are the top 5 exercises to strengthen, tone, and build your back so that you can get the most out of every workout. 

1. Wide Grip Lat Pulldown 

The wide grip lat pulldown is a simple yet effective exercise when it comes to building a strong back. Using the lats to pull your arms down and into your body, you’ll receive all the benefits that pull-ups have to offer without having to lift your entire body up off the ground. 

Using a lat pulldown machine, you’ll set yourself up in a seated position with your legs tucked under the thigh pad for support. Grasp the bar with a wide grip, palms facing down and keeping your torso upright. Begin by retracting your scapula back as you pull the bar down in front of your upper chest. Squeeze your lats as you pull your elbows down to your sides. 

With control, allow the weight of the machine to extend your arms back up. Avoid leaning back as you move through this exercise. 

Optional Modification: Close Grip Lat Pulldown

You can modify this exercise slightly by adjusting your hand grip for a close grip lat pulldown. Starting with your hands right next to each other, use the same technique mentioned above to perform the close grip pulldown. Remember to squeeze your lats as you pull your elbows close to your ribcage. 

2. Deadlift 

Deadlifts are a full-body exercise that works to increase functional strength through the lower back and legs [4]. 

To begin, stand with your mid-foot just below the barbell and bend by hinging at your hips to grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip, palms facing down. Your knees should bend slightly too. Begin to pull the bar up along the path of your shins, lifting your chest and straightening your lower back. 

Among the many common mistakes that people make during a deadlift, one of the biggest is having a rounded lower back. It’s important to maintain a “neutral spine” throughout this exercise to avoid injury. 

Return back to starting position holding the bar with straight arms against your upper thighs. Slowly allow the bar to drop down back to the floor in a neutral spine position and repeat. 

3. T-Bar Row

The T-bar row is a functional exercise that combines strength gains with balance and stability. 

Begin by loading a barbel with weight plates on one end leaving the other secured in a corner of the gym. In a standing position, straddle the bar with one leg on either side. Like a deadlift, lower your body down to the bar by hinging at the hips and use a neutral grip (palms facing each other) to prepare to lift the bar. 

Keeping your elbows tight to your body, begin to pull the bar up towards your chest using your lats, rhomboids, rear delts and biceps. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top then slowly lower the bar back down by extending the arms, keeping your hips bent in a neutral spine position. 

4. Cable Row 

The cable row exercise targets a large group of muscles in the mid and upper back region. Unlike lat pulldowns which move up and down, we will be moving planes to pull the weight from front to back. 

Beginning in a seated position, place your feet securely on the foot platform and bend at your hips without rounding the spine to grab hold of the cable attachment. Using a neutral grip, extend your legs back slightly, allowing your shoulder blades to come forward in an open or protracted position. 

Tuck your chin slightly down and begin pulling the weight of the cable towards the middle of your chest. Squeeze your scapula together, keeping your elbows tight against your ribcage. Pause for a few seconds then slowly return to starting position, allowing your arms to extend and shoulders to roll forward.

Optional Modification: Bent Over Dumbbell Row 

You can opt to perform this same type of exercise with a dumbbell, only you’ll be bent over a bench rather than seated on a machine. 

Resting your left knee and left hand on a bench, hold the dumbbell with your right hand. Keeping a neutral spine, activate your lats, traps, and rhomboids to pull the dumbbell towards the side of your body. Keep your elbow tucked tight behind you and hold 1-2 seconds before slowly extending your arm. Switch to the other arm once you’ve completed your desired repetitions. 

5. Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell swing is a classic exercise used to strengthen the core and most of the posterior muscles including the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and upper back.

Start by standing tall with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart gripping the kettlebell with extended arms. Soften your knees and begin to shift your body weight into your heels as you lower your glutes back behind you. Engage your core and drive the kettlebell up in front of you by extending your hips forward. Contract your glutes and quads as you do this. 

Repeat this exercise for a desired number of reps, making sure the kettlebell stays below chest level during each rep.

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Your Ultimate Guide to a Strength-Based Back Workout

Your Ultimate Guide to a Strength-Based Back Workout

Did you know that back pain is one of the most common chronic conditions in Canada? Every four out of five adults between the ages of 30-50 will experience at least one episode of back pain at some point in their life [1]. 

Whether you’re looking to build muscle for the aesthetic, increase strength to push more weight, or simply improve your posture to prevent pain, a strength-based back workout is the best recipe for success.

Follow along as we explore the top fundamental back exercises that target every major muscle group, plus a few optional modifications as well! 

The Mighty Back Muscles

Before diving head first into the ultimate back exercise routine, it’s helpful to take a look at the major back muscles and how they work together to help us lift weight effectively [2]. 

Latissimus Dorsi 

The latissimus dorsi is one of the largest muscles in our upper body covering the width of our middle and lower back in a flat triangular shape.

Thanks to the impressive complexity of this muscle, the latissimus dorsi has fibres that span in several directions to help adduct the arm (bringing it towards the body), medially rotate, and extend the shoulder. 

Trapezius 

The trapezius muscle, also known as “the traps” is a broad muscle that makes up most of the upper back. This muscle is responsible for assisting with posture in our upper back and neck, as well as facilitating most shoulder and scapula movements (i.e. elevating, depression, and retraction). 

Posterior Deltoids

The deltoids are made up of three parts that wrap the shoulder: anterior, medial, and posterior. The posterior delts, also known as “rear delts” assist other major back muscles to help move the shoulders backwards. 

Rhomboids 

The rhomboids are a collective group of accessory muscles. Sitting just below the traps, the rhomboids function to retract the shoulder blades, moving the shoulders backwards and providing stability for both the shoulder joint and scapula.

Erector Spinae 

The erector spinae is comprised of a long group of muscles that start from our tailbone and extend vertically along the length of the back. It's responsible for extending and laterally bending the spine as well as providing stability and balance for our torso. 

Quadratus Lumborum 

Lastly, we have the quadratus lumborum, a deep and strong back muscle that spans the lower part of our back. It's responsible for stabilizing the movement of our spine to keep us in an upright position while walking, running, and jumping. 

Benefits of Exercising the Back Muscles

It’s not abnormal for many of us to spend our days seated at a desk, hunched over on our phones or computers for hours on end. Unfortunately, this type of sedentary lifestyle can play a negative role in our back health. 

Without proper conditioning, our back muscles are likely to weaken which can lead to stiffness, pain, and instability. 

Exercising these muscle groups can help lower our risk of injury by strengthening the muscles, helping to stabilize our core, and improving our overall flexibility and functional range of motion of the spine which can lead to greater physical health and well-being [3].

How to Effectively Work Your Back Muscles 

Alright, so we know we need to start training our back. The problem is that when it comes to exercising the back, many people neglect to include a wide range of exercises to target all the different muscles that make up this part of our body. 

Here are the top 5 exercises to strengthen, tone, and build your back so that you can get the most out of every workout. 

1. Wide Grip Lat Pulldown 

The wide grip lat pulldown is a simple yet effective exercise when it comes to building a strong back. Using the lats to pull your arms down and into your body, you’ll receive all the benefits that pull-ups have to offer without having to lift your entire body up off the ground. 

Using a lat pulldown machine, you’ll set yourself up in a seated position with your legs tucked under the thigh pad for support. Grasp the bar with a wide grip, palms facing down and keeping your torso upright. Begin by retracting your scapula back as you pull the bar down in front of your upper chest. Squeeze your lats as you pull your elbows down to your sides. 

With control, allow the weight of the machine to extend your arms back up. Avoid leaning back as you move through this exercise. 

Optional Modification: Close Grip Lat Pulldown

You can modify this exercise slightly by adjusting your hand grip for a close grip lat pulldown. Starting with your hands right next to each other, use the same technique mentioned above to perform the close grip pulldown. Remember to squeeze your lats as you pull your elbows close to your ribcage. 

2. Deadlift 

Deadlifts are a full-body exercise that works to increase functional strength through the lower back and legs [4]. 

To begin, stand with your mid-foot just below the barbell and bend by hinging at your hips to grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip, palms facing down. Your knees should bend slightly too. Begin to pull the bar up along the path of your shins, lifting your chest and straightening your lower back. 

Among the many common mistakes that people make during a deadlift, one of the biggest is having a rounded lower back. It’s important to maintain a “neutral spine” throughout this exercise to avoid injury. 

Return back to starting position holding the bar with straight arms against your upper thighs. Slowly allow the bar to drop down back to the floor in a neutral spine position and repeat. 

3. T-Bar Row

The T-bar row is a functional exercise that combines strength gains with balance and stability. 

Begin by loading a barbel with weight plates on one end leaving the other secured in a corner of the gym. In a standing position, straddle the bar with one leg on either side. Like a deadlift, lower your body down to the bar by hinging at the hips and use a neutral grip (palms facing each other) to prepare to lift the bar. 

Keeping your elbows tight to your body, begin to pull the bar up towards your chest using your lats, rhomboids, rear delts and biceps. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top then slowly lower the bar back down by extending the arms, keeping your hips bent in a neutral spine position. 

4. Cable Row 

The cable row exercise targets a large group of muscles in the mid and upper back region. Unlike lat pulldowns which move up and down, we will be moving planes to pull the weight from front to back. 

Beginning in a seated position, place your feet securely on the foot platform and bend at your hips without rounding the spine to grab hold of the cable attachment. Using a neutral grip, extend your legs back slightly, allowing your shoulder blades to come forward in an open or protracted position. 

Tuck your chin slightly down and begin pulling the weight of the cable towards the middle of your chest. Squeeze your scapula together, keeping your elbows tight against your ribcage. Pause for a few seconds then slowly return to starting position, allowing your arms to extend and shoulders to roll forward.

Optional Modification: Bent Over Dumbbell Row 

You can opt to perform this same type of exercise with a dumbbell, only you’ll be bent over a bench rather than seated on a machine. 

Resting your left knee and left hand on a bench, hold the dumbbell with your right hand. Keeping a neutral spine, activate your lats, traps, and rhomboids to pull the dumbbell towards the side of your body. Keep your elbow tucked tight behind you and hold 1-2 seconds before slowly extending your arm. Switch to the other arm once you’ve completed your desired repetitions. 

5. Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell swing is a classic exercise used to strengthen the core and most of the posterior muscles including the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and upper back.

Start by standing tall with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart gripping the kettlebell with extended arms. Soften your knees and begin to shift your body weight into your heels as you lower your glutes back behind you. Engage your core and drive the kettlebell up in front of you by extending your hips forward. Contract your glutes and quads as you do this. 

Repeat this exercise for a desired number of reps, making sure the kettlebell stays below chest level during each rep.

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