Balance everything out with these workouts for the upper and lower back.
Next time you’re in the gym, look around and take note of the muscles most people are working. The chances are that the majority will be training their chest, arms or abs, also known as the “mirror muscles” – because they can be seen in the mirror as they lift and lower the weight.
But to build a balanced, strong, functional and injury-proofed body you need to spend just as much time on your posterior chain muscles, which are located down the back of your body. Achieving equal muscle size and strength across the front and back of your torso is the only way to get into the shape of your life and that’s what these workouts help with – effectively training your upper and lower back muscles to make them bigger and stronger, and to bring better balance to your body.
Upper Back Workouts
The workouts in parts one and two are designed as two separate workouts to be done on different days. Leave two or three days between each to give your muscles time to recover properly.
You can add these workouts into a longer gym session or just keep it short and focus on the three exercises in each, making sure that you maintain enough intensity to exhaust the muscles.
The upper back is prone to injury, so don't go too hard and heavy. Pause at the top of each exercise to make sure you're using a manageable weight and don't rely on momentum to power the lift, because that can damage ligaments.
Warm up for the workouts with five minutes on a rowing machine and some press-ups.
Rest for two to three minutes between exercises.
Upper Back Workout 1
1 Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
Sets 4 Reps 8
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Hold dumbbells by your thighs. Keeping your back straight, bend forward at the hips and allow the weights to slide down your shins. Bend your knees slightly as you lower.
Why If you keep good form with shoulder blades retracted, stand up fully at the top of the movement and contract your back, this is a huge compound move that hits the trapezius and central upper back muscles.
2 Wide grip pull-up
Sets 3 Reps up to 10
Hold an overhead bar with your hands twice shoulder-width apart and palms facing forwards. Let your body hang straight down, then squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your chest up towards the bar. Lower yourself all the way down before repeating. Do as many reps as you can up to ten.
Why This is a tough exercise that can humble regular gym-goers because the wide grip places a massive emphasis on your underworked upper back muscles. But stick with it and you’ll soon build enough new back muscle strength to do the ten full reps.
RECOMMENDED: How To Master The Pull-Up
3 Standing unilateral low-cable row
Sets 3 Reps 6 each side
Stand at a cable stack with the pulley set to a low position and hold the handle with your palm facing inwards. Start with one leg slightly ahead of the other, bending your knees. Keep your torso square-on to the stack and then pull the handle in a straight line. Your hand should end up by your abs.
Why Not only will this exercise iron out any strength imbalances in the sides of your back, but your core will also have to counteract the effort on the non-working side. This will improve rotational stability in your upper spine.
Upper Back Workout 2
1 Close-grip seated row
Sets 4 Reps 8
Sit at a seated row cable machine and select a weight that you can do ten reps with. Begin with knees bent, torso upright and shoulders back. Hold the double D-handles with straight arms in front of your upper abdomen. Brace your core, then pull the handle in to your upper abdomen without moving your torso.
Why Pulling a weight towards you on a horizontal plane is the most direct way to fire up all the large upper-back muscles. Doing it sitting down takes the lower back out of the equation. Go slow and steady and not too heavy at first – you can increase the weight once you perfect the form.
Sets 3 Reps 8
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell by your hips with palms facing inwards and hands in a close grip. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, brace your core and pull the bar directly upwards, taking care not to roll your shoulders forwards.
Why This exercise targets the traps in the reverse movement to the pull-up to balance the muscle strength along the opposite plane of motion. It also recruits the front and mid-shoulder muscles, allowing you to move more weight and increase growth potential.
3 Unilateral hammer-grip pull-down
Sets 3 Reps 6 each side
Hold a D-handle with a neutral grip, palm facing down. Lean back slightly, locking your shoulders and lower back into position. Brace your core and pull the handle straight down to the side of your ribcage. Pause, then lower the weight under control and repeat six times before switching sides.
Why Isolating the upper lats on each side of the back will balance out your weaker side and allow you to focus your dwindling energy at the end of the workout. The different grip will hit the muscle from a new angle, forcing it to adapt to the training stimulus.
This will ensure your lifts are not thrown off-balance. Kneel in front of a Swiss ball and place your right hand on top of the ball. Then lean forward, bending at the hips, until you feel the stretch in your lats beneath your armpits. Hold the position for ten to 20 seconds unless you are about to exercise, in which case hold for three to five seconds. Then repeat the stretch with your left arm. Alternate, doing five stretches on each side.
Lower Back Workouts – The Most Important Workouts You’re Not Doing
The lower back might not be the focus of many workouts – but it’s the area that can make or break your results in the gym. Like the other muscles that make up the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings), this muscle group is often neglected simply because it’s not visible in the mirror.
Working alongside the core and abdominal muscles, a strong lower back can protect against injury and give you the power you need to achieve all-round muscle growth. A strong lower back is also essential when carrying out the most popular big lifts or pushing bodyweight exercises to their limit.
Your lower back muscles can be strengthened with various training methods such as compound lifts, isometric holds and bodyweight exercises to engage the core and stimulate muscle growth – each of which is included in these workouts.
Parts one and two are separate workouts. Leave at least three days between each of the workouts to give your back muscles enough time to recover.
Lower Back Workout 1
Sets 3 Reps 10
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your lower back in a neutral, non-rounded position. Hold a light barbell across the top of your shoulders. Slowly bend over at the hips, keeping your lower back in a neutral position until your torso is almost level with the floor. Return and repeat.
Why This multi-muscle move will fire up the backs of your thighs while working your lower back and promoting new muscle growth. You do it at the start of the workout because that’s when you have the most energy.
Sets 3 Time 10-20 seconds
Lie on the floor with your arms and legs stretched out. Brace your core, then raise your arms, head and shoulders off the floor in a “flying” position. Hold this pose for 10-20 seconds.
Why This is an isometric hold, which will improve your muscular stamina and train the small muscles around your spine. The nerve terminals in these muscles sense when your back is moving and activate to counter this movement, which stabilises your spine. This also prompts the larger lower back muscles to fire.
3 Gym ball back extension
Sets 2 Reps 10
Lie on a gym ball with your abdomen resting on the ball and your feet pressed against a wall for support. Put your fingertips by the side of your head, raise your elbows and brace your core. Then lift your shoulders and chest off the ball. Pause, then return and repeat.
Why This is a simple lower back exercise that concentrates the effort in the top section of the erector spinae, nearest to the shoulders. It will increase strength and promote new muscle growth.
Lower Back Workout 2
This workout builds on the previous one and will help to stabilise your body, improve your posture and injury-proof your midsection. It’s important to remember that these are two separate workouts and are not to be done in one session – and leave at least three days between workouts for recovery.
1 Back extension
Sets 3 Reps 8-12
Lie on a back extension bench facing the floor with your heels hooked behind in a retaining bar. Start with your hands across your chest or behind your head. Keeping your shoulders back, bend at the hips and lower yourself as far as is comfortable. Pause at the bottom to control your weight, then lift yourself up again by engaging your back muscles until your body is in a straight line from neck to ankles.
Why Adding resistance (a weight plate) to this classic exercise will increase the level of fatigue in your lower back muscles and encourage the growth of new muscle tissue.
2 Trap bar deadlift
Sets 3 Reps 8-12
Load a trap bar, also known as a hex bar, with your preferred weight. Stand in the centre and grasp both handles while keeping your head and chest up. Lower your hips to a comfortable position, then drive through your heels and extending your hips and knees on the way back up. Avoid rounding your back.
Why The trap bar has been proven to limit the pressure on the spine caused by pulling from behind a bar, as in the traditional barbell deadlift. This is also a beginner-friendly variation, as the trap bar’s configuration helps to keep the torso in an upright position with far fewer technical requirements.
3 Knee roll
Sets 3 Reps 8-10 each side
Lie on your back with your knees bent and pressed together. Keep your upper body still with your arms out wide for stability. Roll both your knees to one side along with your pelvis, keeping both shoulders flat on the floor. Hold the stretch for one deep breath, then return to the starting position.
Why: This exercise stretches and mobilises the spine. It can also be used for relief from lower back pain, and can be performed at the start or end of any workout to assist healthy movement in the lower back area.
Written by Men’s Fitness for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.Recover from a tough back workout with mobility and recovery tools designed to protect your spine and relieve soreness and built up tension. Visit RAD to learn more now!