14 Best Back-Strengthening Exercises, According to Trainers

POPSUGAR Photography | Chaunté Vaughn
POPSUGAR Photography | Chaunté Vaughn

Throughout my years as a trainer, I've noticed that some people love to train their upper body, whereas others tend to focus more on their lower body. There's nothing wrong with having a personal preference (I'm a fan of leg day, myself), but it's important to spend time strengthening all muscles in order to prevent muscular imbalances and injuries. Back muscles are among the most neglected, despite having many crucial benefits, says UFC GYM Long Island Fitness Director Jude Brun. "Back exercises are important for posture, to help strengthen your core, and to prevent injuries," Brun tells PS. "They're especially important to incorporate as you age to ensure that you don't develop a curvature that can make it look like you're hunched over or slouching." Thankfully, there are several back exercises you can do to build strength, even if you're used to skipping back day.

Before jumping into back exercises for the first time, it helps to know which specific muscles you're targeting. "The back is a very broad muscle group which contains your lats, lower-back, upper-back, and mid-back," Brun explains, adding that different exercises strengthen different back muscles. "Bent-over-row exercises and pull-ups are best for targeting your lats, while close-grip exercises work the middle of the back, and wide-grip exercises work the outside of the back." Certain cardio exercises, like running, can also make a big difference in your back muscles, Brun says.

If you're new to back exercises, Brun suggests stretching and warming up beforehand, then choosing an appropriately challenging weight. "When it comes to picking the best weight, you should be doing sets with a weight that's at least 65 to 75 percent of your PR (personal record — i.e. the heaviest weight that you have ever lifted) or 1RM (one-rep max — i.e. the heaviest weight that you can lift for a single rep)." For those with any medical issues, including joint pain or a herniated disc, Brun also recommends consulting with a doctor before doing any exercise, regardless of age.

If you're notorious for training the same few muscle groups, this is your sign to break the habit. To help make the transition easier, we rounded up a few of the best back exercises to incorporate into your next workout. Check out the following back exercises to build muscle, improve your posture, and prevent injury. Your upper-body strength will thank you in the long run.

— Additional reporting by Chandler Plante

01
Bent-Over Row
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Bent-Over Row

As Brun explains, bent-over rows are great for targeting your lats (the triangle-shaped muscles directly below your shoulder blades), but they also strengthen the rhomboid muscles in your upper back and even engage your core.

  • Lean forward and bend both knees, remembering to keep a flat back.
  • Extend your arms so they are straight. Lift the dumbbells straight up to chest level, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you do. Be sure to keep your elbows in and pointed upward. Don't arch your back.
  • Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position to complete one rep.
02
Superman Lift
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Superman Lift

You'll most likely feel the superman lift in your back, but it's a great bodyweight exercise for overall strength and mobility. "It elongates muscles in your back and lats, and it also activates the shoulders, glutes, and hamstrings," certified personal trainer Jen Lennox Chiudioni previously told PS.

  • Lie on a mat on your stomach with your arms extended in front of you and your legs straight out behind you.
  • Brace your core, lift your chest up, and lift your torso off the floor while simultaneously lifting your hands and feet off the ground. You will look like you are flying through the air like Superman. Stop when you feel a contraction in your lower back. Your limbs should be at least six inches off the floor.
  • Keep your body suspended. Then, in a semicircle motion and keeping your arms straight, push your hands back toward your sides. Stop just before you touch your sides. Hold for a two count.
  • In the same motion, bring your hands back together in front of you.
  • Slowly lower your whole body back into starting position. That completes one rep.
03
Romanian Deadlifts
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Romanian Deadlifts

According to Grace Taylor PT, DPT, at H&D Park Slope in New York City, Romanian deadlifts target your entire posterior chain (aka the muscles all along the back of the body). This includes the hamstrings, lower back, and glutes, but also the core and spinal erectors (the muscles that run alongside your vertebrae).

  • Stand holding a pair of medium-weight dumbbells in each hand, arms at your sides, with your knees slightly bent.
  • Keeping your arms straight and knees slightly bent, slowly bend at your hip joint (not your waist) and lower the weights as far as possible without rounding your back, which should remain straight.
  • Now squeeze your glutes to slowly pull yourself up (don't use your back). This counts as one rep.
04
Rotated Plank
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Rotated Plank

Planks are great for core strength, but they can also help strengthen your upper back. "Some of the benefits of incorporating planks consistently into your routine are improved posture, increased core strength, and decreased back pain," Robin Long, founder of Lindywell Pilates, previously told PS. You can even add weight to this rotating variation for an additional challenge.

  • Start in a high plank position.
  • Twist to the right and reach your arm up to the sky, keeping your back muscles engaged and squeezing your right shoulder blade toward your spine while you twist. Repeat on the other side to complete one rep.
05
Reverse Fly
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Reverse Fly

The reverse fly targets muscles in the upper back, including your rhomboid muscles (which are on each side of your upper back) and your shoulder muscles, per Mayo Clinic.

  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with your knees slightly bent. Keeping your back flat, bend forward at the hip joint.
  • Exhale and lift both arms to the side, maintaining a slight bend in the elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Then, with control, lower the dumbbells back toward the ground. This completes one rep.
06
Plank Dumbbell Row
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Plank Dumbbell Row

Work your back and core all in one move. The plank dumbbell row (also called a renegade row) is good for your lats and shoulders, but expect your entire upper body to feel the burn.

  • Start in a plank position with your legs wider than hip-width distance; the wider stance makes you more stable. Hold onto your dumbbells, keeping your wrist locked to protect the joint.
  • With your core tight and your glutes engaged, exhale, stabilizing your torso as you lift your right elbow to row; feel your right scapula sliding toward your spine as you bend your elbow up toward the ceiling.
  • Keeping your neck long and energized, return the weight to the ground to complete the rep.
07
Upright Row
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Upright Row

The upright row is another classic back exercise. According to the American Sports and Fitness Association (ASFA), you'll feel this most in your shoulders, upper back, biceps, and traps (the muscles that start around the base of the neck and extend down the back and shoulders).

  • Stand with your feet hip-distance apart, and place a dumbbell in each hand. Your closed palms should be facing your body. Your shoulders should be over your pelvis, with knees slightly bent.
  • Keeping the dumbbells close to your body, raise them to your shoulders, bending your elbows out to the sides.
  • Slowly lower them to the starting position. This counts as one rep.
08
Deadlift With Front Row
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Deadlift With Front Row

This exercise combines two great movements into one. Deadlifts are great for strengthening the posterior chain, whereas front rows help build muscle in the shoulders, upper back, biceps, and traps. Over time, rows can also improve your posture.

  • Stand upright, holding your dumbbells in each hand, arms at your sides, with your knees slightly bent.
  • Keeping your arms straight and your knees slightly bent, slowly hinge forward, bending at your hips (not your waist), lowering the weights as far as possible without rounding your back, which should remain straight.
  • Squeeze your glutes to return to standing, keeping your back straight. Once you're standing, pull the weights up the front of your body, bringing them to your chin with elbows wide. Lower the weights to complete one rep.
09
Bird Dog
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Bird Dog

Bird dog exercises help build back and ab strength, targeting the erector spinae muscles in the back, plus the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis muscles in the core. This movement can improve core stability and balance, and can even reduce stubborn back pain.

  • Begin on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Bring your abs to your spine as you bring your left knee and right elbow together under your torso.
  • Keeping your torso stable, straighten your right arm and left leg. Reach through your left heel to engage the muscles on the back of your leg and your butt. This completes one rep.
10
Lawnmower
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Lawnmower

Similar to dumbbell rows, the aptly named lawnmower exercise engages your back, biceps, and shoulders. You may also feel this in your core and leg muscles.

  • Holding one dumbbell in your left hand with your right hand on your hip, squat, bringing the weight toward the floor.
  • Exhale, pull your abs to your spine as you straighten your legs, and pull your elbow behind you, bringing the weight to your chest. Your torso will twist to the left.
  • Bend your knees and squat as you return to the starting position to complete a rep.
11
Kettlebell Swing
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Kettlebell Swing

Kettlebell swings are great for improved mobility, posture, and cardiovascular output. "Swings performed properly help support proper posture by training the often-neglected muscles on the back of the body known as the posterior chain," celebrity trainer Alfonso Moretti previously told PS. "Those muscles are important because they are in part responsible for proper alignment, strength, and stability of the spine."

  • Start with your feet a little wider than hip width apart, holding a kettlebell in both hands.
  • Hinge your hips back, with a slight knee bend, and bring your chest forward, while swinging the kettlebell back between your legs.
  • Driving through the heels, thrust your hips forward by squeezing the glutes and swing the kettlebell up in front of you. Do not bring the kettlebell higher than your shoulders.
  • Allow the kettlebell to swing back down (with control), returning to your starting position. That's one rep.
12
Crab Walks
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Crab Walks

Don't underestimate the power of the crab walk. According to the ASFA, this exercise is great for your core, lower back, hips, and pelvis. As an added bonus, it can also improve posture and help reduce back pain.

  • Sit on the ground with your knees bent, your hands two inches behind you, and your fingers pointing towards your body. If this is too much weight on your wrists, slightly turn your fingers out to the sides of your body. Lift your hips off the ground.
  • Step your right foot forward as you simultaneously move your left hand forward. Then repeat on the opposite side. Focus on perfecting the contralateral movement (moving opposite body parts at the same time).
13
Push-Ups
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Push-Ups

Love 'em or hate 'em, this tried-and-true exercise is ideal for targeting most of your upper body, including the biceps, triceps, serratus anterior (muscles along the sides of the ribcage), and deltoids. Push-ups are also good for strengthening core muscles that support the spine and stabilize the body.

  • Start in a high plank position on the floor, with your hands placed slightly outside of your shoulders, your legs fully extended, and your feet hip-width apart. Gaze down and slightly forward for a neutral neck.
  • Tuck your biceps close to your sides so your elbows are pointed roughly 45 degrees away from your body.
  • Spread your fingers as wide as possible to grip the floor and externally rotate your hands slightly, as if you're screwing them into the floor. Keep your palms flat, distributing the load of your body evenly throughout your hand. Then, engage your core.
  • Keeping your back flat, core engaged, and body forming a straight line, bend your elbows to slowly lower yourself to the floor on an inhale. Stop lowering when you're hovering about 3 inches above the floor.
  • On an exhale, press through your palms to straighten your arms and push back up to the starting position.
14
Single-Arm Row
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Single-Arm Row

Break the basic row down even further with this single-arm variation. You'll work back muscles like the lats, rhomboids, traps, and posterior deltoids, per the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA). If you don't want to stand in a lunge, you can bend over a (flat) bench instead.

  • Hold a dumbbell in your hand and bend your opposite knee in a forward lunge (or place on a bench). If using a bench, your supporting hand should be underneath your shoulder and your knee should be underneath your hip.
  • On an exhale, pull the dumbbell up with control, driving your elbow towards the ceiling. Do not rotate your torso.
  • On an inhale, lower the dumbbell back down to the starting position. This completes one rep.
  • Complete three sets of 12 reps on each arm.

Tamara Pridgett was the associate fitness editor. Likes: box jumps, chai lattes, and sprinting. She's a NASM-certified personal trainer and a Precision Nutrition level 1 coach. She's also a Division 1 All-American sprinter.


Chandler Plante is an assistant editor for POPSUGAR Health & Fitness. Previously, she worked as an editorial assistant for People magazine and contributed to Ladygunn, Millie, and Bustle Digital Group. In her free time, she overshares on the internet, creating content about chronic illness, beauty, and disability.