We all want to be able to squat and deadlift like cro-mags while also showing off a chiseled chest, arms, and abs. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you want to be somewhat impressed — you want to see validation that all the hard work you’ve been putting in on the racks and treadmill, and in keeping your diet clean and focused, is paying off.
Well, diet and exercise is the way to get there, but you need to remember that there are parts that often go neglected — parts that you may not be able to see directly, but that others can see. It’s like skipping leg day — if you want to be muscular but you ignore certain muscle groups, you’re going to look asymmetrical. And nobody wants that.
We’re talking about your back, of course. Often lost in the mix as we focus on our arms, legs, and core, the back houses important muscles that are imperative to functionality, and ensures that our other muscle groups can work as a cohesive unit. You’re not going to do much power cleaning or deadlifting with a weak back, after all.
But since most of us don’t give our back much thought, it can be difficult to know where to start when putting together a workout. There are numerous exercises — many that you’re probably already doing — that target the muscle groups in your back, so you’re likely halfway there. Just consider adding a day per week dedicated to training those muscles, and you can start with these five exercises.
1. Bent-over rows
Chances are, if you’re a serious gym rat, you’re probably already doing rows of some sort. Rows can be done in a number of ways. You can use barbells, dumbbells, or machines, with any number of attachments. According to StrongLifts, you should choose one and get your form down. You’ll want to make sure you’re not doing them incorrectly, as you can easily injure yourself. Rows will work your lats and traps and are an excellent lift to build a back-centric workout around, says Muscle & Fitness.
Shrugs are literally just that — shrugs. Pick up something heavy, be it a barbell, some dumbbells (these typically work better), or even kettlebells, and use your shoulders and back to shrug the weight up. It may not sound like much, but you’ll feel it after a couple of reps. Shrugs will activate your traps and rhomboids, and you may feel sore in places the next day that you’ve never felt before.
Yes — one of your main compound lifts, one that you should have employed already as one of your fitness cornerstones, is also fantastic for strengthening and toning your back. The deadlift, like the squat, requires your entire body to work in unison to get the weight off the ground, and the muscle groups in the back are absolutely essential to making that happen. Of course, this is also one of those lifts that requires perfect form so that you don’t hurt yourself. So keep that in mind.
But if you haven’t already, get the deadlift into your routine. There are a number of ways that you can do it, and if you don’t have the necessary equipment, try an alternative.
4. Lat pulldowns
The lat pulldown requires access to a machine, so hopefully you can jump on one at your gym or fitness center. The exercise itself is similar, physiologically speaking, to a pull-up; you’re essentially pulling weight down to your chest from above your head, but you’re not using gravity and your own body weight in this instance. When doing this exercise, it’s easy to lose your form, so stick to it and lessen the resistance if need be. You can do it either sitting or standing, and with variations in grip as well. Try a few different methods, and make note of what gets you results.
5. Pull-ups and chin-ups
Here it is — the most difficult back exercise of them all. While some people make them look easy, there’s no doubt that a workout incorporating pull-ups is guaranteed to be strenuous. This is because you’re lifting your entire body weight with just your lats, shoulders, arms, and core, and you need a decent amount of grip strength to even get you hanging on the bar as well.
Can’t do a full pull-up yet? No worries — you can try an iso-eccentric pull-up first. You start this by jumping up to the bar so it’s at chest height, and then slowly lowering yourself down.
Additional reporting by Lauren Weiler.