People have a tendency to take their back for granted right up until the moment something goes wrong. We slump for hours at our desks before heading to the gym to work solely on the muscles we can see, like the biceps, chest and abs, not worrying too much about those we can’t. All of this is – you can see where this is going, can’t you? – a huge mistake.
A strong back is the foundation of many of the big lifts you’ll tackle in the gym and key to maintaining good posture in your everyday life. And if you’re motivated by aesthetics as much as practical reasons rest assured that a bigger, broader back is going to make you look dynamite on the beach.
Below you’ll find videos and explanations for the best beginner, intermediate and advanced back exercises as selected by strength and conditioning coach Richard Tidmarsh, founder of Reach Fitness. All the exercises can be scaled to your level by adding or removing weight, so even if you fancy yourself an expert in the gym don’t skip the beginner moves – they’re just as important as the other exercises and well worth mastering first.
Tidmarsh has also given his suggestions for sets and reps for each exercise so you can build them all into the ultimate back workout, should you so desire.
Beginner Back Exercises
Sets 3 Reps 3-3-3
Holding light dumbbells in each hand, bend forwards by hinging at the hips bend at the hips until your torso is at a roughly 45° angle to the floor, keep your back flat and your shoulder blades squeezed. You should feel tension down your hamstrings. Extend your arms up so you form a letter I, then lower again. Do three reps of I, then extend your arms up and out to form a Y. Do three reps of Y, then three for T. Despite the light weight you’ll feel the burn. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong.
Sets 3 Reps 8
Grab the TRX handles with an overhand grip and walk under them to your desired depth – the further you go, the harder the row. Your body should be straight with your shoulder blades should be pulled down your back, and you shouldn’t use any momentum from your hips. Rotate your wrists as you row so they face the ceiling at the top of the move.
Single-arm kettlebell row
Sets 3 Reps 8 each arm
Bend at your hips until your torso is at a roughly 45° angle to the floor, keep your back flat and your shoulder blades squeezed, engaging your legs to form a strong foundation. Row a kettlebell up past your ribs, keeping your elbow close to your body.
Intermediate Back Exercises
Sets 3 Reps 6 each arm
Get into an elevated press-up position with your hands holding dumbbells. Tilt your pelvis forwards and switch on your glutes to hold a rock-solid plank as you row one dumbbell up past your hips. Repeat on each side with no movement in your body.
Sets 3 Reps 8
Deadlift a barbell for one rep, then hinge forwards until your torso is at a roughly 45° angle to the floor. With your back ramrod-straight, pull the bar in to your bellybutton with no kick from your legs or hips. Squeeze your back muscles, then lower the bar slowly.
Advanced Back Exercises
Single-arm cable row
Sets 3 Reps 6 each arm
Set a cable to bellybutton height. Step away from the machine holding the cable in one hand. Drop into a squat before pulling the cable back at the same time as you drive back up. Add a body twist (as in the video) when you feel like you have mastered the movement pattern.
Sets 3 Reps 6
With an underhand grip, grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart. Slowly drop to full extension, then pull your chest up to the bar, keeping your elbows in. Lower slowly back to full extension – take three seconds. This exercise can be made easier by using a resistance band for assistance.
Exercises To Help Relieve Back Pain
If you are one of the millions of people in the UK who experience back pain, it might not be wise to go to the gym and immediately start lifting heavy weights with the aim of strengthening your back. Instead, go back to basics and begin with stretches and simple bodyweight exercises. Here are a couple of great options anyone can do.
Lie on your side with your knees and hips bent at 90°, and your arms extended in front of you. Take your top arm up and over, rotating your torso so the arm comes over to point in the other direction and both your shoulders are touching the ground. Hold for a beat, then rotate back over.
Yoga aficionados will know this as the cobra pose. Lie face down on the floor with your palms face down in front of you and in line with your elbows, which should be bent at 90°. Push through your palms to raise your chest while keeping your hips in contact with the ground. Raise your torso until you feel the stretch in your lower back.