Want to see some real gains – activate your back muscles!

The back. Where gains go to die! I mean you can’t really see your back muscles, so what’s the point in training them. So you should just skip them.  The End!

Of course I am just kidding.


Benefits of strong back muscles

Strong back muscles have a tremendous carryover to other exercises that you would do on a regular basis.

I mean, try to deadlift without a strong back and strong lats (lats give you wings). You probably could, but it would be super inefficient, probably sloppy and difficult.

Not only that, but having a strong back, specifically your lower back can reduce your chances of having back pain or a back injury.

The question is: Can you activate the muscles in your back?

Can you tap into the powerhouse that is your back?

Although anecdotal in nature, my experience as a fitness professional has shown me that it is harder to tap into the back muscles than you would think.

When you think of training your back, you think dumbbell rows, pulldowns or pull-ups. However, what usually happens when people perform these exercises is that most of the “pulling” comes from the arms and shoulders.

So it requires a step back and taking a “part to whole” teaching technique where I’ll teach individual portions of a movement to lead to the whole movement.


On a dumbbell row, simple retraction and protraction exercises can teach how the shoulder blade should glide over the ribs.  From there, a progression from retraction to an unweighted retraction and row to ingrain a new movement.  Then finally putting it all together for a full dumbbell row.

The effect of small movement drills

Now the reasoning behind all that small movement drills is to activate and engage the correct muscles.

Due to the simple fact that if you’re not using the correct muscles for an exercise, you’re likely not getting any benefit out of it, or worse, you are creating a problem.

These movements and exercises don’t have to take a long time to perform; however, they will give you a tremendous carry over as they can “wake up” your muscles and establish good muscle recruitment patterns.

Aside from the example I mentioned above, there are a few “activation” exercises I’ll use with clients so they wake up their muscles.  Sometimes it’ll be in a warm-up, or within the workout itself.

Exercises that hit the spot

Straight Arm Pulldown: similar to a Lat Pulldown but standing. I prefer to do this exercise with a band rather than machine as it’s easier to regress and there’s no tendency to overload.

The key is making sure you are pulling from the lats and keeping the shoulders back.  Avoid just moving from the shoulders or “hunching” over.  A quick set of 15-20 will get those lats activated and ready for your training.

Prone T-Raise: A useful exercise for mid/lower trap activation. I prefer these over their Y cousin as there is less tendency to shrug the shoulders in order to get range of motion.

Laying on your stomach, preferably with an Airex pad on your chest, you bring your arms out to the side as if your body was a “t.” With the thumb facing up and your palms facing out, lift the arms by engaging the muscles around your shoulder blades.  We’re looking for shoulder blade movement, not just arm movement.

Anti-Extension Deadbugs: A big one not only for maintaining lat activation, but a great core exercise as well.

Additionally, you can throw in some pullovers to this exercise to further activate and engage your lats.  Bands work best for this exercise as you can make it harder or easier just by moving closer or farther away from where you tie the band.

Bodyweight Rows: Using a TRX or similar bodyweight training system, you can easily work on the movement of your shoulder blades through a full range of motion.

Bodyweight rows are simple, but they most certainly aren’t easy when done correctly.  Like I mentioned with the dumbbell rows above, it’s important to get a good rhythm between your shoulder and your shoulder blade as they need to work together for this exercise.

We’re looking for the back to fire and for the shoulder blades to retract.  We’re not looking for just the shoulders to move.


There you have it.  Some awesome activation techniques to send your back workouts soaring. Because if you’re not engaging what you’re supposed to, how are you ever going to get strong?

Avoid loading or overloading these exercises too much.  Remember we are looking for activation of the back muscles, not necessarily testing how heavy or hard we can go. Save that for the workout.

You want to do just enough to activate but not annihilate.  Minimum effective dose.

Read more from WatchFit Expert Chris Cooper

WatchFit Experts change lives!

And they can do the same for you.


Pollyanna Hale Health and Lifestyle coaches
Lost 13 Kg in Total
Mel, 32y Location: London, United Kingdom Working with Pollyanna changed everything. I lost 13kg, got toned and have more energy than ever! Get same results!


Chriz Zaremba Fitness Consultant
Lost 45 Kg in Total
Chris, 50y Location: London, United Kingdom Lost 45kg after the age of 50 and now competes and wins physique competitions and runs marathons Check our weight loss plans