Weak back muscles can lead to a variety of issues with posture which can lead to chronic pain, the most common of which is lower back pain.

With back strengthening exercises the back can be trained just like every other aspect of the body, improving posture, daily function, and overall strength.

The back consists of many major muscles including the: trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and a few others that assist in every day movement such as the levator scapulae or infraspinatus which is part of the rotator cuff.

To create and sculpt a stronger back, each one of these aspects must be considered and trained accordingly.

In addition, if aesthetics are the goal, or decreasing asymmetries, the posterior deltoid should also be emphasized.

The body is meant to function as a unit, and as such the most functional exercises will include multi-joint activities. Movements such as the squat, deadlift and other compound exercises will also indirectly strengthen the back just by how much load they usually deal with as well as the stabilization needed in order to stay balanced while performing these movements.

For the purpose of this article, only the exercises that specifically target the main prime movers (agonists) of the entire back region will be discussed.

Let’s look at some truly effective back strengthening exercises

Back Musculature Focus

· Latissimus Dorsi

o Location: Originates at the crest of the ilium, sacrum, lumbar processes and lower six thoracic processes and inserts in the intertubercular groove of the humerus. (bottom of the spine to the front of the upper arm, near the ball of the shoulder.) This muscle is sometimes referred to as the “wings”.

o Movements: regular and horizontal adduction and extension of the glenohumeral joint (Bringing the upper, proximal arm (humerus) towards the body from a raised position as well as extending behind)

· Erector Spinae

o Location: Group of three muscles that originate and insert along the pelvis (iliac crest), posterior ribs, spinous processes and bottom of the skull (occipital bone). These muscles travel up and down on either side of the spine along the entire back.

o Movements: Spinal flexion, extension and lateral flexion. (bending forwards, backwards and side to side).

back strengthening exercises_1

· Trapezius

o Location: A muscle that can be split into three sections of fibers, (lower, middle and upper.) Originates on the base of the skull (occipital protuberance), down the seventh cervical spinal process and all of the thoracic processes. Insertion occurs on the back of the clavicle (collarbone), acromion process and scapular spine.

o Movements: shoulder elevation (shrugging the shoulders), upward rotation of the scapula (bringing the upper arm away from the body), and adduction of the scapula (pinching the shoulders together).

· Rhomboids

o Location: between the scapula or shoulder blades. Originates on the seventh cervical vertebrae and first five thoracic vertebrae and attaches or inserts on the medial scapula.

o Movements: Scapular adduction or retraction (pinching the shoulders together), as well as downward rotation such as bringing the arms from overhead to the sides.

· Quadratus Lumborum

o Location: Either side of the spine, just above the iliac crest (upper, posterior pelvis) or lower back. Originates on the back of the iliac crest and attaches to the twelfth rib and the upper four lumbar vertebrae.

o Movements: Lateral flexion (bending to the side), extension of the spine (bending over backwards), and pelvic rotation.

· Posterior Deltoid

o Location: Back of the shoulder, originating on the lower spine of the scapula and inserting on the deltoid tuberosity of the lateral humerus (upper arm).

o Movements: abduction (lifting arm up sideways), extension (lifting the arm backwards), horizontal abduction (holding the arm parallel to the ground and moving it front to back), and external rotation (twisting the arm clockwise in the joint).



Exercises and Muscles They Engage

Examples of the following movements and variations can be found here.

1. Lat pull down

This exercise utilizes a machine and is relatively easy to learn. Typically, this exercise is performed in the seated position with the knees under a pad, keeping the legs stationary. (A variation could be facing outwards, allowing the legs to be free and causing the core to become much more engaged in order to keep the legs stationary to correctly complete the movement.)

A bar or handles are located overhead and it should be a comfortable stretch in order to grasp it while sitting. Hand position should be a few inches wider than shoulder width; this assists in shifting the emphasis of pull from the arms to the back musculature.

Muscles engaged:

a. Latissimus Dorsi

b. Rhomboids

c. Trapezius (lower and middle)

d. Posterior deltoid


2. Rows

This exercise can be completed in a variety of ways including dumbbells, machines, standing, sitting, bent over, or incline. This is a pull exercise, meaning it doesn’t matter which position you are in either way you are pulling your arms towards your chest. As an example, the single arm bent over dumbbell row will require a single dumbbell and a bench.

To set up, the left knee can be placed on the bench so that it is tracking the same way as the length of the bench. The right foot will stay on the ground during this lift. The left arm is used as a brace against the bench and to hold the upper body up. At this point, all appendages but the right arm is stable, and in contact with either the bench or ground.

The weight will be grasped with the right hand and keeping the back flat (parallel with the ground) and level, pull the weight up, keeping the arm tight to the body. Stop and let the weight down when the dumbbell reaches the chest.

Muscles engaged:

a. Trapezius (lower and middle)

b. Rhomboids

c. Latissimus Dorsi

d. Posterior deltoid


3. Nordic Curl

To complete this movement, a partner or machine is required. This exercise requires the body to act as a lever, with the force being generated from the lower back specifically. It can be thought of as the opposite of a sit up in a way. When performing this exercise, it is important to keep the core tight and back straight to avoid injury and to efficiently target the musculature of the back.

Muscles engaged:

a. Erector Spinae

b. Quadratus Lumborum


4. Shoulder Shrugs

Shoulder shrugs are a very common exercise to see at the gym. Many bodybuilders use this to sculpt out the upper shoulders and “fill” out the neck. However, many times full range of motion (which stimulates an increased hypertrophy, force production and strength) is sacrificed for big weight.

To complete this exercise using dumbbells, two will be needed and gripped in each hand. While keeping the arms as straight as possible, hanging down at the side, shrug the shoulders straight up and then slowly return to the relaxed position. This can be completed seated or standing as long and the back remains straight and arms down perpendicular to the floor.

Once again, this exercise should be completed using a weight that can be shrugged through the full range of motion.

Muscles engaged:

a. Trapezius (middle and upper fibers)


5. Pull-ups

The pull up is an exercise that may have the most number of variations per specific movement. Between hand position (pronated, supinated, etc.) and width, (wide, narrow, etc.) the opportunities are endless. Typically, this exercise is performed by hanging from a bar by the hands.

A supinated grip means that the palms of the hands are facing towards you, and pronated is just the opposite. A supinated grip allows for greater synergy of the biceps brachii which tends to allow for an easier movement. The pronated grip shifts the emphasis and forces the back musculature to engage more.

Additionally, the width of the grip from hand to hand also effects the difficulty and emphasis of muscle recruitment. However, the wider grip also decreases range of motion.

At the end of the day, width really determines bicep involvement. In saying this, an ideal grip width should be just a few inches outside of the shoulders to either side.

Muscles engaged:

a. Latissimus Dorsi

b. Rhomboids

c. Trapezius (lower and middle)

d. Posterior deltoid


6. Reverse Fly’s

Reverse flies can be completed using a machine or free weights. The general idea is to utilize horizontal abduction to engage the posterior deltoid. Using free weights or dumbbells, lay face down on an inclined or flat bench with the weights hanging down in each hand.

When lifting the weights, the arms should be straight accept for a slight bend in the elbows. Machine use for this exercise usually can be completed on the same piece of equipment as a regular fly machine with some slight adjustment.

Once again, the same basic movement of extending the arms horizontally behind the body (horizontal abduction) will be utilized.

Muscles engaged:

a. Posterior deltoids

b. Rhomboids

c. Trapezius (lower and middle)


Take Home Message

By incorporating all of these exercises and their variations into your workout, you can attain that sculpted, stronger back you’ve always wanted or possibly even get rid of that pesky back pain that has stayed with you for years! Safety, and completing the exercises through the full range of motion will help you achieve the best results.

If you can’t lift the weight through that range, you need to decrease the resistance. Small weights can lead to big results if done correctly!

NOTE: This was not an exhaustive list of the musculature of the back. Additionally, other muscles are involved with each these exercises and movements called synergists that were not mentioned in this article. Emphasis when describing the musculature involved with the movements was placed on the muscles previously stated in beginning of the article.

Connect here with WatchFit Expert Jon kilian

References: Manual of Structural Kinesiology



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