When it comes to strength training, few of us think about strengthening our backs — until we are plagued by an achey lower back or, worse, instructions from a doctor. Unfortunately, both lower back pain and injuries that are the result of weak back muscles are both common — especially as we age.
If you spend a lot of time in your car, at your desk or hunched over your phone, you might notice yourself slumping — no matter your age. Slouching may seem like no big deal, but it's a symptom of back weakness that you don't want to ignore. The good news is that there's a lot you can do to improve your back strength!
Why is back strength so important?
Recent research suggests that, while older adults generally experience a decrease in benign or mild back pain, the risk of severe back back pain increases over the age of 65. So, it's really important not to ignore the creep of pesky back pain. It may be no big deal today — and you probably want to keep it that way.
The good news is that there’s something you can do about it! Strengthening your back through exercise is one of the best tools in combating and preventing back pain and weakness. Not only that, but it has aesthetic benefits, as well.
A lot of folks have a tendency to think of back exercises as the domain of beefy men. But not only can everyone benefit from increased back strength, having a strong back makes you look better. I don't believe in cow-towing to limiting beauty standards, but this is almost universally true.
Why? Posture. Back strength contributes greatly to having good posture and — wait for it — studies show that people judge people who have good posture to be more attractive than people who don't. So, even if you only workout for aesthetic reasons, you might want to consider upping your back game.
If that doesn't convince you, research also shows that sitting up straight — which you can only do if your back is strong — is also associated with higher self-esteem, better moods and increased stress resilience. That's a lot of bang for a few back exercises.
When should you do back strength training?
One of the reasons a lot of folks end up skipping back strength training is easy to fix. A lot of us organize our workouts into upper body, lower body and cardio. That can totally work if you vary your workouts enough to make sure that your back isn't neglected.
But if you find yourself thinking of upper body as arms and lower body as legs, you may need to revise your workout plan. Instead, you can plan each workout based on the major muscle groups you're engaging. You want to combine opposing major muscle groups on the same day.
That means that it may be more helpful to organize your strength training workouts into four categories:
- Chest and back
- Quads and hamstrings
- Biceps, triceps and shoulders
- Glutes and abdominals
Being more detailed about your workout planning may seem a bit fussy, but it doesn't have to make it harder or more complicated. It could just be a simple mindset shift that helps you remember to work your back!
How often should you do back strength training?
The general rule of thumb of strength training is this: the bigger a muscle is the more time it needs to recover from a workout. For example, because the muscles in your abdominals are small, you can work your core every day. Because the quads are big, you can't do strength work with them two days in a row. They need a break.
Since the muscles in the upper back are smaller than say, the quads, you shouldn't work them out two days in a row. But you can do back strength training 3 to 4 days a week. That being said, start small! If you haven't done back strength training before, start by adding it in once a week. Once your body has adjusted — you'll be able to tell because those muscles will start to feel less fatigued after working out — then you can gradually increase the amount of back strength training you do.
Best exercises for back strength
You can use these bodyweight and dumbbell exercises to help you strengthen and tone your back muscles and improve your quality of life by reducing pain.
Resistance band pull-apart
In a standing position, grab the resistance band in both hands and extend your arms straight out in front of you at shoulder height. The band should be taught and parallel to the floor. With arms straight, pull the band apart and straight out to either side. Maintain a neutral spine position and engage your core. When pulling apart the resistance band, squeeze your shoulder blades together. Return to the start position then repeat 10 times.
World’s greatest stretch
Step forward with the right leg into a kneeling lunge position. Place your hands on the floor on either side of your right foot. Then extend your left arm straight up toward the sky, twisting your torso and chest open toward your bent knee. Repeat for 10 repetitions before changing position to complete on the other side.
Good mornings with dumbbells
Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, grab a dumbbell in each hand and hold them on your shoulders with palms facing inward. Slightly bend your knees, keeping your back straight and core engaged as you hinge at the hips. Push your hips back until your torso is parallel to the floor. Return to the starting position, then repeat 10 times.
Single-arm bent-over dumbbell rows
Grab a single dumbbell. I recommend a 3- or 5-pound weight for beginners. Open your feet about hip-width apart and step one leg back into a staggered stance. With a slight bend in your knees, push your hips back and allow your torso to lower, making sure to maintain a straight back and strong, engaged core. For the movement, think of starting up a mower. Using a neutral grip, engage your lats and drive your elbow up toward the sky, pulling the weight in toward your body. Then, slowly lower the weight down back to the starting point and repeat 10 times. Perform 10 reps on the opposite side.
Rear lateral raise
Hold a dumbbell in each hand. With your feet hip-width apart, slightly bend your knees, and push your hips back, allowing your torso to hinge forward. Maintain a straight back while doing so, engaging your core. Keep a neutral gaze that follows your torso, without arching your neck to gaze up. With a neutral grip on the dumbbells, slightly bend your elbows. Raise your arms out to the sides and back forming an upside down “V”. Stop the range of motion when you reach shoulder height. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Start in a plank position with dumbbells in hand. Pull your abs in. Start by pulling one of the dumbbells up toward your waist, driving your elbow up toward the ceiling back into a rowing motion. Return to the starting position, then repeat the movement with the other arm. Complete 10 reps on each side, taking breaks as needed.
Bent-over rows with underhand grip
Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Standing with feet hips-width apart, slightly bend your knees before hinging forward by pressing your hips back. Maintain a straight back and strong, engaged core. Extend your arms down, palms facing away with dumbbells in hand. Engage your core and back before pulling both elbows back towards your hips. Pause to create muscle tension, then slowly lower to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
This exercise only requires one dumbbell. Lie on your back on a flat surface and grab your dumbbell with both hands, think of cupping one end of the dumbbell for an optimal holding position. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Raise the dumbbell up so it’s over your chest. Slowly let the dumbbell move behind your head, keeping your arms straight, until it creates a 45-degrees with the floor. Return back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Standing with feet hip-width apart, slightly bend your knees. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, push your hips back to hinge forward. Think of trying to push your butt against a wall behind you or shut a door with your butt. Maintain an engaged core. Press your feet into the floor as you allow the dumbbells to brush down your legs stopping around your shins. Each person is different, but the goal is to continue moving down your legs until your hips can’t push back any further and you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. Pause, then return back to the starting position by engaging the hamstrings. Repeat 10 times.
Grab both dumbbells. Standing with your feet hip-width apart, slightly bend your knees before hinging forward by pressing your hips back. Maintain a straight back and strong, engaged core. Extend your arms down, palms facing you with dumbbells in hand. Engage your core and lats before pulling both weights up toward your chest. Pause to create muscle tension, then slowly lower to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
Standing with your feet hip-width apart, grab a dumbbell in each hand and hold them with palms facing you. With your core engaged and your chest up, raise the dumbbells up toward your chin by lifting the elbows to the ceiling. Lower to the starting position. Repeat for 10 reps.
No dumbbells? No problem! These exercises can all be done using your bodyweight.
Come onto your hands and knees, with your hands under the shoulders and the knees under the hips. Pull the abs in and step the feet back to come up into a plank position. Make sure the shoulders stay over the wrists and you spread the fingers out wide. Keep your back flat and try not to allow it to sag or round. Keep your abs drawn in to support your back.
This exercise engages the entire back of the body, from the upper back to the bottom of the legs. Lifting up into this position teaches the posterior muscles to work together in tandem, with the shoulders lifting up the arms and the glutes, hamstrings and back working to lift the legs. Lie on your stomach and reach the arms forward and legs back. Open the legs as wide as the hips and the arms as wide as the shoulders. Pull the belly button in away from the ground to engage the abs. Relax the shoulders as you reach the arms up off of the ground and squeeze the quads as you lift the legs off the ground. Avoid putting too much pressure on the low back by ensuring that the abdominals stay contracted. All the muscles in the back of the body, from the calves to the upper back, will be engaged.
Start this move just like your standard Superman, lying on your stomach and reaching your arms forward, with legs extended behind you. Squeeze your glutes and low back as you raise your arms and legs off the floor. Then, pull your elbows back, squeezing your shoulder blades together and forming a “W” shape with your arms. Mimicking a pull-up motion, extend your arms straight out, and engage your back muscles to pull your arms back toward your chest. Repeat.
This exercise trains the back of the body to work in opposition to improve balance and spinal strength and mobility. Similar to the Superman exercise, you’ll start by lying down on your stomach. This time, instead of reaching up both arms and legs at the same time, you’ll lift up the right arm and the left leg off the ground. Then alternate, lifting the left arm and the right leg off the ground. Continue alternating, being sure to pull the abs in the entire time.
Reverse snow angels
No, you don’t have to head outside to do this one, but who knew that something as fun as making a snow angel — albeit a reverse one — could be an effective bodyweight back exercise? To get started, get into a superman position. Then, slowly move your arms, first out to the sides and then straight back, down the side of the body until they touch your torso. Then slowly move in reverse back into the starting position. Repeat.
You can also perform good mornings without any weights. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your hands placed behind your head. Focus on keeping your shoulders back and your core muscles engaged. Take a deep breath in and on the exhale, hinge forward at the hips and lower your chest toward the ground, so that your body forms an upside-down “L” shape. Stop when you feel a slight stretch in the back of the hamstrings. If you feel any pain or uncomfortable pulling, you’ve lowered too far! Slowly move back into a standing position on your exhale. Repeat.
Lie on your back with your head resting on the floor. Keep your arms straight at your sides with your palms on the floor and bend your knees so your heels are under your knees. Slowly raise your hips in the direction of the ceiling. When you are fully extended, hold the pose for ten seconds. While holding the pose, squeeze your glutes — butt muscles — together as well. Also, pull your navel in toward your spine and make sure that your shoulders are relaxed with your shoulder blades still on the floor. Lower your hips and repeat the exercise. To make the move more effective, don’t touch the floor in between reps.
This exercise challenges the low back and core to stabilize while the lower part of the legs are moving. Keep the hips steady as you lift each foot off the ground. You can even place your hands on your hips to ensure that they are staying stationary. Lying on your back, bend your knees, and open your feet as wide as your hips. Relax the arms by your sides. Pull the naval in toward the spine as if you’re zipping into a tight pair of pants. Slowly roll the hips so that you lift up your low back off the ground and then your middle back. Press down through the feet, then lift the right foot off the ground as if you’re beginning to march.
Alternate limb raises
Get on the floor on all fours. Keeping your hands directly under your shoulders, bend your elbows and align your knees under your hips. Try to ensure that your body forms a straight line and that you pull your shoulder blades down and in. Keeping your back as straight as possible, extend your right arm forward and your left leg back. Feel the back of your right arm and shoulder as well as the back of your left leg tightening. You’ll probably feel the glute burning a little bit as it fires up! Hold the pose for between five and ten seconds and then lower yourself back into the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
Place your hands alongside your chest and push an imaginary marble forward with your nose to lift up your head, neck and chest. Press down firmly through your hands and hug your elbows in towards your sides. Pull your navel in toward your spine and press your thighs down into the ground. Bring the shoulders back and lift the chin up. Take a deep breath in, and then rest.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward. (As you move through the exercise, be mindful that your knees never go forward past your toes.) Keep your chest up and make sure not to tilt your head down. Pull your navel in toward your spine to engage your core. Bend at the hips and knees while keeping your heels and toes on the floor. Slowly sit back into a squat position with your chest up, your shoulders back and abs in. Make sure that your knees are not crossing over your toes, and that you are as close to a 90-degree angle as possible. Straighten your legs by pressing into your heels to stand back up. Squeeze your glutes at the top, tilting your pelvis forward.