Try these moves and workouts to give your back muscles some much-needed attention.
In today’s world, most of our daily movements—hunching over phones and computers, lounging on the couch, and slouching as we drive—put us in positions that can weaken our back muscles. It’s also difficult to engage the muscles we can’t see, so it’s common to lack an awareness of how our back muscles move through space. But failing to activate these muscles can lead to imbalances in our training—and in our bodies.
“Without awareness of the muscles in your back and how to use them, you may be putting yourself at risk of overcompensating with other areas of your body or muscle atrophy, which causes pain,” says Kristina Centenari, a Tonal coach and certified personal trainer.
With up to 80 percent of adults experiencing back pain at some point in their lives, it’s never too early to start strengthening your back muscles. While back pain has many causes, including injuries, limited mobility, and weak core or glute muscles, taking the time to focus on your back muscles adds a layer of durability to your body. This makes you more resilient against injury in daily movements or your workouts.
Josh Clay, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and Fitness Programming Specialist at Tonal, says exercising the back is essential for “building connective tissue that can tolerate the demands of everyday life, and the demands of whatever your goals are.”
Here’s what you need to know about the different muscles in your back and the best exercises for keeping your back strong and stable.
What Are the Back Muscles?
If you think of all the different ways you can bend, twist, and rotate your back—plus the role your back plays in moving your arms—it shouldn’t be surprising that the back is composed of multiple muscle groups, each with its own function.
The largest of these muscles is the triangle-shaped latissimus dorsi, or lats, which power back and shoulder movements including raising, lowering, and rotating the upper arm. Movements that involve pulling the shoulder blades together are controlled by the rhomboids and rear deltoids. Your trapezoids are responsible for lifting your arms, raising and lowering your shoulders, and turning your head and neck. Finally, there are the erector spinae (not pictured below as they’re layered under the other muscles) that run along the length of your spine and are used to flex and extend your back and bend from side to side.
Since the back muscles are involved with so many movement patterns, training them will likely improve your performance in many of your workouts.
“These muscles are all stabilizing muscles for other regions of our body which is why it is so important to keep them strong,” says Centenari. “If we can activate these muscles properly, they aid in creating proper tension with our heavier lifts, like squats and deadlifts. This type of training, in which we create tension to control external load, carries over into life outside the gym.”
A well-rounded at-home back workout gives equal attention to all these muscle groups for a strong and functional posterior chain.
At-Home Bodyweight Back Exercises
You don’t need resistance to start training your back. The exercises below can be done at home and are smart, effective options if you’re just getting started or recovering from an injury. For these moves, go for duration instead of reps so you can focus on your form and how your muscles feel during the exercises.
1. Superhero Iso Hold
Why it Works: Tonal coach and certified personal trainer Tanysha Renee calls this isometric hold “phenomenal” for strengthening the thoracic or middle section of your spine. Since we often focus on the muscles in the front side of the body—and engage these more than the back muscles as we sit during the day—it’s an opportunity to activate the back.
How to Do it: Lie face down on your mat. Extend your arms upward and out about 45 degrees from your head. Extend your legs about hip distance apart. Imagine strings from the ceiling lifting all 4 limbs off the floor while you balance on your pelvis and low belly. With your back and glutes engaged, hold here.
2. Pillar Bridge
Why it Works: The back muscles often work overtime when your core is weak in comparison, so Renee recommends this move for firing up the midsection. The pillar bridge also recruits your glutes and hamstrings, two other muscle groups that need to be strong to support your back.
How to Do it: Get onto your mat facing the floor with both elbows under your shoulders and feet hip distance apart, toes tucked. Lift the knees to extend the legs and push the floor away from you through your elbows.
3. Elevated Glute Bridge
Why it Works: Although we primarily think of this exercise as a glute and hamstring move, Renee says it’s also effective at relieving pain in the lower back. “When the glutes are strong, it releases pressure from the back,” she says. Compared to doing this move on the floor, Renee says that performing it elevated allows for a wider range of motion and deeper engagement of the muscles.
How to Do it: Place your shoulders and upper back on the bench with arms extended to the side. Bring your knees over your ankles hip-width apart with hips just above the floor. Push the floor away from you, squeezing your glutes to lift your hips toward the ceiling while keeping your ribcage drawn in. Lower your hips back down toward the floor, bringing your torso with you, and repeat.
4. Bird Dog
Why it Works: Along with strengthening the core, this move also trains the lower back to resist rotation. Both Centenari and Renee recommend it as a low-impact exercise to help stabilize the spine.
How to Do it: Get onto your hands and knees on the mat, wrists under your shoulders, knees under your hips, and toes tucked. Lift one arm about 45 degrees from your head with your thumb toward the ceiling like you’re throwing something behind you. Lift the opposite leg simultaneously and balance on the other limbs. Lower your arm and leg and alternate sides.
5. Dead Bug
Why it Works: Centenari says this move “works core stability and control while maintaining breathing patterns that all assist in supporting your low back muscles.” By strengthening the core, this move may help relieve lower back pain.
How to Do it: Lie face up on your mat and bring your arms extended over your chest, with knees bent over your hips in a tabletop position. Pretend there is a gummy bear under your low back that you want to touch but not smash as you extend one arm and the opposite leg toward the floor. Once your limbs are just above the floor, return to start without letting your back lift off the gummy bear and switch sides.
Back Exercises on Tonal
Once you’ve built a foundation of strength, it’s important to train your back with a variety of movement patterns to ensure you’re hitting all the major muscles, says Clay. On Tonal, you can do a balanced, at-home back workout with resistance to gain strength. He recommends staying within the 3- to 10-rep range for the exercises below (lifting heavier at the lower end of that range and lighter at the top end) to build muscle while still managing fatigue and allowing for recovery.
1. Neutral Lat Pulldown
Why it Works: For building the back and shoulders, it’s hard to beat the lat pulldown. Because you’re working with the full range of motion in your shoulders, Clay explains you’ll be able to pull with heavy resistance to develop strong lats.
How to Do it: Start with arms extended overhead, palms facing Tonal. Drive the elbows down toward the floor and pull the handles to the outside of your shoulders, rotating your hands to face your body. Control the weight back up to starting position, straightening at the elbows.
2. Seated Row
Why it Works: This move strengthens the lats, traps, and rhomboids all in one motion as you work to pull the shoulder blades together. If you spend most of your day seated and slouched forward, the row will strengthen the postural muscles that keep you upright. “The horizontal pull is going to be great for that retraction of the back,” says Renee.
How to Do it: Using your back, drive your elbows like you’re trying to touch the wall behind you and pull the handles to your torso, palms facing your ribcage. Release the weight forward again with control, rotating the palms to face the floor, and repeat.
3. Single-Arm Bent Over Row
Why it Works: Centenari says this unilateral variation of the row is ideal for “targeting those stabilizing muscles around your shoulders as well as recruiting core stabilizers. It helps you address asymmetries on both sides of your body.”
How to Do it: Grab the handle with one hand. On the same side, plant your leg firmly on the floor with a soft knee. Place your opposite limbs on the bench, hand under your shoulder and knee under your hip. Using your back, imagine your shoulder blades are sliding down to your hips and pull the handle toward your torso with your palm facing your body. Release the weight forward again with control, and repeat on the same side.
4. Face Pull
Why it Works: Clay especially likes this move for beginners looking to strengthen the upper back and rear delts. “It’s a super streamlined learning curve,” he says. “It’s not a very difficult move to learn.”
How to Do it: Using the shoulders and back, pull the rope toward your ears by aiming your elbows wide toward the wall behind you. Slowly move your hands forward to return to the starting position, and repeat.
5. Reverse Fly
Why it Works: This move is one of Clay’s top picks for training the rhomboids and rear deltoids. Paired with exercises that target the lats, it helps to work the shoulders from another angle.
How to Do it: Stand facing Tonal. Take the left handle in the right hand and the right handle in the left hand. Bring your hands in front of your chest with your arms slightly bent. Using your back and keeping distance between your shoulders and ears, open your arms back to the wall behind you until the elbows are in line with the shoulders. Bring your arms back to the center like you’re hugging a beach ball in front of your chest and repeat.
Tonal’s At-Home Back Workouts
With the Custom Workout feature on Tonal, it’s easy to design your own at-home back workout with the moves above. Tonal will offer personalized weight recommendations for each exercise and track your progress. You can also try a coach-led workout focused on the back muscles to get expert guidance with every rep.
This fast at-home back workout activates the muscles of the upper, middle, and lower back, and includes unilateral (one-sided) moves to address any weaknesses while improving your balance and stability.
As you strengthen your back muscles in this workout, you’ll also work on your posture. If you spend most of the day sitting, you’ll appreciate giving your entire posterior chain some much-needed attention.
For a quick upper body workout, this session targets both the chest and back with big lifts that develop both pushing and pulling muscles.
If you’re currently experiencing back pain, try this gentle mobility session that focuses on loosening up tight hip flexors and correcting anterior pelvic tilt—two common culprits behind an achy lower back.
The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions, injuries, or concerns should consult with their healthcare provider before trying a new exercise or nutrition regimen.