The 8 Best Back Exercises for Those Hard-to-Tone Muscles
These moves sculpt and strengthen your lower traps and rhomboids.
Back fat, bra bulge ... whatever you call it, it’s frustratingly stubborn. What's more: Your desk job can actually mess with your efforts to sculpt your rear view, says Ideen Chelengar, a master instructor and Tier 3+ trainer at Equinox Sports Club Boston. That's because when you sit hunched over all day, the way your shoulder blades function during exercise can change—and it may become even tougher to target your upper-middle back. Read: Ugh.
Of course, even if you were targeting those muscles properly, exercise alone wouldn't blast away back fat: “In reality, losing fat comes down to your diet more than exercise,” Chelengar points out. But a challenging fitness routine—one that combines cardio and resistance training—plays a key role as well. And the benefits of back workouts go way beyond weight loss.
For starters, training your back the right way can actually help combat "computer posture." It can also help balance out your body, Chelengar adds, since "[w]e tend to use our shoulders and chest muscles more often than our back muscles."
So next time you hit the gym, try these eight moves and start building up strength in those hard-to-tone spots.
Thoracic Spine Extension
Start with knees on a pad, 1 to 2 feet away from a bench. Prop elbows on the bench. Sit back into hips (similar to how you would in Child’s Pose). With elbows propped and hips bent, drive chest toward ground. From here, keeping chest down, lift head up as high as possible. Then tuck chin down as though trying to lengthen neck. While keeping chest down, drive back of neck toward ceiling. You should feel this in middle of back, between shoulder blades. You may also feel some tightness through upper arm and armpits. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
Why it works: When you live your days hunched, your shoulders don’t function as they should, making it tricky to target that lower trap and rhomboid area everyone wants to tone, says Chelengar. The first step to hitting those areas? Teaching your body how to extend from the thoracic spine and not the lumbar spine, he says. This move does that.
Start on back with arms up and hips, knees, and ankles at 90 degrees. Cross a resistance band around soles of feet so that right arm is pulling at left foot and vice versa. Start by reaching right arm as far as possible overhead. While you reach, make sure your legs stay still, ribs stay down, and that subtle arch in low back is unchanged. Bring right arm back to center. Switch sides. Complete 2 sets of 15 to 25 reps.
Why it works: "Maintaining proper posture is key to getting the middle-back muscles involved, and that means getting your core to participate," says Chelengar. "This is a great way to teach your body the relationship between your arms and spine."
Back-to-Wall Band Vertical Retraction
Pull band lightly apart, maintain that tension. Press arms up and down making sure forearms stay vertical and wrists stay over elbows. Band can be in front or behind head. Complete 2 sets of 15 to 25 reps.
Why it works: This exercise teaches your body proper shoulder blade rhythm during a vertical pulling motion, says Chelengar. “I like using walls for feedback on your posture. Be aware of the subtle curve in your lower back and make sure you don’t hyperextend.”
Start with bar in-line with boney part of ankles. With soft knees and flat back, push hips back until you can reach bar without rounding back. (If you still can’t reach, add more knee bend until you can.) Build tension in torso by squeezing shoulder blades together and down. Maintain a broad chest but tight core, drive through feet and push hips forward. (The subtle curves in back shouldn’t change at all through the movement.) If torso maintains stiffness, this forward movement will lift the bar from the ground. Complete 3 to 5 sets of 4 to 10 reps.
Why it works: But wait—deadlifts shouldn’t work my back, you’re thinking. And you’re right! “Proper dead lift is driven by your glutes and hamstrings,” notes Chelengar. “However, to actually move the weight, the horizontal movement of your hips has to be transferred to vertical movement of the bar through a stiff back and core.” There are few better ways to test your ability to maintain a good posture than the dead lift. Voila!
Bent Over Row with Horizontal Band Resistance
Set up light resistance band pulling at right arm from left side, perpendicular to torso. Wrap band around weight or wrist. Focus on keeping shoulder blades down as you pull. Leave about a fist-sized gap between elbow and ribs. Pull from elbow, not hand. Don't rock torso. Stop at midline. Complete 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Why it works: This move is a difficult twist to your standard horizontal row, says Chelengar. “By adding the horizontal band resistance, you increase activation of the posterior deltoid—one of the hard-to-hit muscles on the backside of your shoulder.”
Legs should stay straight and still, ribs down. Retract shoulder blades (imagine pulling them into back pockets), and focus on keeping shoulders away from ears. Elbows should stay right under wrists, and you pull collarbone directly to the bar. If you find yourself hiking up at shoulders, add some assistance (or lower the weight if you’re doing lat pull downs). Control the descent. Complete 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Why it works: This might be a basic move but many people miss their middle back muscles through slight faults in technique, says Chelengar. Doing this move right targets the back spot-on.
Pull rope to face with high elbows. At the end, keep elbows up and try to rotate arms open as much as you can, as though pointing at glutes with thumbs. Keep chest broad and ribs down. Complete 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Why it works: This exercise helps you work on retraction and external rotation—movements that are key for proper function and strength-building, notes Chelengar.
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Single-Arm Overhead Carry
Start with a single weight in hand at shoulder. Think about pressing weight up with shoulder, not hand. Reach up and get arm in line with ear. Keep chest up and ribs down. Upper back on the loaded side should be tight. Walk slowly forward maintaining a strong posture. Complete 3 rounds of 20 yards.
Why it works: “Being able to press a weight overhead required good scapula function, a stable spine, and a strong upper back,” says Chelengar. “The single arm overhead carry tests your ability to press and maintain that press under load.” If you do it right, you should feel your upper back just as much as your shoulder.