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Wide Grip Back Pushup

Back Muscles 102: Focusing on Workouts

The too-oft-neglected back muscles deserve a lot of attention. And, we’ve already given them a whole article. However, that article was more about the muscles than it was about how to bulk them.

Knowing the muscles and what they do is important, but it’s not everything. We’ve been getting feedback that while our initial article was informative it didn’t have enough workouts. So, we’re back for round two.

If you missed Back Muscles 101, be sure to check it out for all of that good background content. This is Back Muscles 102, and it’s all about exercises.

Muscles of the Back

A Quick Note on Back Muscle Function

Before we talk about actual exercises, I find it helpful to think about function. This isn’t going to be a deep dive like we did in the last article but thinking about how you use your body a little differently can help you build it more actively.

Most of the back muscles, particularly the muscles of the lower back, are “postural muscles.” That means that they’re actively engaged in supporting your body any time that it’s upright. This has two important connotations.

One is that whenever you listen to your inner mother and mind your posture, you’re doing your back a favor. You’re keeping these muscles engaged throughout the day and you’re keeping your back in proper alignment, which makes working out that much easier and safer.

The other is that running into problems with your back – whether it’s by neglecting your back when you work out, doing exercises with poor form, or pulling things by putting too much weight on or doing many sets and reps – can ruin more than just your workout.

While most of the lower back muscles are postural, many of the upper back muscles are primarily involved in moving the arms and some are agonists to the chest muscles. As a result, mindfully doing exercises that are meant to target the chest can also target the back.

Major Muscles of the Back

Review of Workouts from Back Muscles 101

Just in case you didn’t read (or re-read) our first article, let’s throw in some TLDRs for some classic back muscle exercises. Again, these exercises are discussed in greater detail in our first back article, linked above. 

Some of the new exercises that we’ll cover below are easier to pickup if you’re familiar with these more basic exercises.

The Lat Pulldown

The classic Lat Pulldown used to require a machine that most people only had access to through gym memberships. However, many of even the most basic home gyms have reasonable facsimiles through tension cables.

The exercise, which involves pulling a bar above the head toward the shoulders against weights or resistance, can be done using the chest muscles or arm muscles. However, mindfully engaging the back muscles instead can help you target this tricky area.

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Rowing Machines and (Chest) Flies

Rowing is another exercise that typically requires a special machine. Because it is done sitting up, it engages the core and postural muscles, as well as the chest, arms, and upper back. 

Similarly, the “chest” fly does target some of the chest muscles, but also involves some of the upper back muscles. This is largely because, as mentioned above, some of the chest and upper back muscles are antagonistic to one another – meaning when one of them flexes the other relaxes.

Wide Grip Pull Up for Back Muscle Exercise

More Advanced Exercises

With the theory and refreshers out of the way, let’s cover some new ground.

Body Resistance Exercises

Don’t have a machine or access to the gym? Who needs it? A number of body resistance exercises and free weight lifts can replicate some of those fancy machine exercises. Or, is it the fancy machine exercises that do the replicating?

If you think about rowing, it’s not that different from a pushup. Wide Arm push ups in particular are good at targeting the back. Essentially, instead of pulling against resistance as in a row, you’re pushing against a weight, namely your bodyweight.

The same basic principle goes for pullups opposed to lat pulldowns. The lat pulldown is pulling down against resistance, while the pullup is pulling up against your bodyweight. Bars that can be fixed to doorways – even temporarily, for those living in rentals – can be purchased inexpensively from sporting goods stores or online retailers.

If you have some free weights to hand, your options are expanded even further.

Bent Over Barbell Row Exercise

Breaking Out the Barbells and Dumbbells

Bent over barbell and dumbbell rows both use variable weight to replicate the motion of rowing without big machines – or boats (Caciolo, 22 – 23). 

For the barbell row, stand with back slightly bent at the waist and knees slightly bent holding the barbell with arms extended. Rise the barbell toward the stomach by bending the elbows so that your upper arms come into line with your back.

For the dumbbell row, take a dumbbell in one hand. Support the opposite leg and arm on a workout bench – on one side the bent leg and arm should be supported on the bench, on the other the arm should be holding a weight and the leg should be extended. For each rep,lift the weight up in a straight line as if you were pulling the chord on a lawnmower.

Deadlift Back Exercise

Learning from Heavy Lifting

If you’re more ambitious – or if you’re looking into or are more familiar with weightlifting and power lifting – the classic deadlift does much the same thing, while incorporating more muscle groups.

If you have the barbell and weights for a deadlift, you should also be able to manage T-Bar rows. There is a machine for this at most gyms but you don’t need one – just take the weights off of one end of the barbel and put it in the corner of the room to hold it in place.

Put weights on the other end of the barbell and stand on that end with one leg on either side of the barbell. Holding the barbell with both hands below the weights, raise and lower the barbell for each rep by flexing and extending the elbows.

Barbell Standing Bent Over Row

Targeting Hard-to-reach Muscles

These exercises are great but one over the top exercise for working out hard to target shoulder and back muscles is the dumbbell pullover.

For this exercise, lie on a workout bench holding a dumbbell with both hands, arms above the head, elbows bent. Then, without extending the elbows, bring the dumbbells over the top of the workout bench – one on each side of your head – coming to rest with the weights just above the shoulder blades.

If you’ve done this exercise before, you probably did it as a chest exercise – and that’s fine. But, to target the back muscles even more effectively, lower the head-end of your workout bench so that your head and upper body is lower to the ground.

As well as more familiar and superficial muscles like the lats, this exercise is one of the only exercises that actively targets more obscure and deep muscles like the teres and rhomboid groups

Whether you go for the declined version or the standard version of this exercise, it can be a little awkward. There is some danger of pulling something or dropping the weights on yourself – particularly if you aren’t familiar with the exercise and tackle it with too much weight. As I often suggest for awkward exercises, don’t be afraid to master form on lighter weights.

Dumbbell Pull Over Flat Bench Muscle Flex

Get Out There!

Hopefully, the workouts recommended in this article will get you started on the road to a more cared-for back and body.

Just remember, there are lots of workouts that can be back muscle workouts. If you notice an arm, chest, or core workout that you didn’t expect causing that workout burn in your back, don’t be afraid of dropping the weight and seeing if it can be a back workout.

Further Reading

Caciolo, C. (ed.). “Men’s Health Total Body Workbook.” Rodale. 2007.

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