If you’re not doing back workouts, you’re just not working out. Not only are back muscles essential for body stabilization, but they’re damn fun to exercise.
Even better, if your gym is still closed, a lot of our favorite back exercises are easy to do at home without tons of expensive equipment. With just a pull-up bar and gym mat, you can still work up a sweat with some of the best back workouts.
We’ve gone ahead and rounded up some of our favorite back workouts for men who want to get their swole on. We’ve selected the exercises here with a few things in mind. First, we wanted to ensure you get a general good back workout and are able to target the major back muscles. Second, we wanted to give you some options that, with some basic equipment, you can do at home. For serious muscle growth and work, you’ll need to head to a gym or build your own home power rack, but you’d be surprised how much work you can do in an open space at home or in a public park, even when it comes to your back.
Of course, exercise and muscle targeting are not exact sciences and what works well for one person may not work as well for another, but all of these exercises we picked are generally tried and true to deliver gains to their targeted muscles and some of them are surprisingly home-friendly too.
So, what exactly are the major back muscles?
The Muscles Powering Your Favorite Back Exercises
Your back actually has multiple layers of muscles, stemming from its importance in stabilizing your body for just about every bit of work your body can perform. The muscles you hear about mostly are the superficial muscles: the trapezius, the latissimus dorsi and the rhomboids, major and minor.
The trapezius, aka the traps
The muscles that run up and down your spine and out to your shoulder, thus forming a triangular shape. Traps help pull your shoulders up when you’re shrugging and pull your shoulders back.
The latissimus dorsi, aka the lats or “the wings”
The lower back muscles that run from your hips toward your spine and up the inside of your arm. When flexed in a muscular body, large lats give your torso that cobra-like shape, hence the “wings” moniker. You don’t heavily engage your lats very often, but they help stabilize your back in exercises like squats and deadlifts and while extending your shoulders in exercises like pull-ups and chin-ups.
The rhomboids (no cute abbreviation here, unfortunately)
The back muscles that run from your upper spine to your shoulder blades. They help your traps to bring your shoulder blades together.
Before we dive into the back workouts and equipment, here are a few evergreen workout tips to always keep in mind:
- Start your workout with some light stretching and/or warm your muscles up with a light weight.
- For every exercise here that involves standing you should be standing with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Be safe and listen to your muscles. The exercises should stress your muscles but if you feel sharp pains or more pain than you can handle, stop.
- Design your own exercise routine so it suits you and your needs. We’ve got the exercises you need, but it’s up to you to figure out whether you want more reps and sets with lighter weights or fewer reps with heavier weights or whether you want to target this or that muscle more.
- Always breathe! Proper breathing while exercising is more difficult than it sounds, but mastering breathing techniques will help you get the best workout you can. You generally want to exhale when feeling the push of the exercise, and you want to inhale when relaxing and releasing muscle tension.
The Best Back Exercises for Men
Without further ado, let’s jump into some great back workouts for men who want to leave no body part unworked. If that’s you, check out our shoulder exercises and hamstring exercises too. (You’ll note some similar or the same exercises in the shoulder exercises write-up because a good workout engages multiple muscle groups. The key is engaging the muscles you want to target when performing the lift.) In addition, since a lot of gyms are still closed, we’ll share the fitness equipment you’ll need to perform these exercises at home.
1. Bent-Over Rows
The above video demonstrates the basic form and shows how to tweak the exercise to better target either your upper or lower back, but here are the basics: With dumbbells in your hands at your sides, bend your knees slightly and bend over, keeping your back straight. You want to be almost flat, but not quite. Engage your lats and traps to lift the dumbbells vertically toward your ribs and lower them back down for one rep.
As noted in the video, if you change your grip with your knuckles facing forward and lift the weight up and out farther away from you ribs, this helps hit your upper traps, rhomboids and shoulder delts better. To target your rhomboids even more, switch to an underhand grip and perform the same lift. Trust us, you’ll feel the difference.
If you want to use bands for this exercise, simply stand on top of the band with the grips in your hands instead of the dumbbells, and perform the lift the exact same way. If you have access to a gym, row machines with cable rows will hit the muscles in the same way.
If you are at trying to exercise at home, we recommend the Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells. They cost a lot upfront (and even more now during the pandemic), but for a steep one-time investment you have the easiest-to-use dumbbells ever. All you do is turn a dial when the weights are sitting in their racks to adjust the weight you want and the dumbbell takes care of the rest to adjust the plates. Lift the dumbbells out of the racks and you’re good to go.
If you’re more of of a resistance bands kind of person, we highly recommend Fitness Insanity Resistance Bands. These bands use woven cords in the tubes to help prevent the tubes from breaking and dangerously snapping at you. With this set, you get five bands of different weights, two handles, two ankle straps and a door anchor.
Shrugs not only work your shoulder delts, but also your upper traps and make a great addition to any back workout routine.
Hold a set of dumbbells at your sides with your back straight and your arms straight. Engage your upper traps and raise your shoulders straight up like you want them to kiss your ears. Lower the dumbbell back to the starting position for one rep. When performing this lift, do not roll your shoulders. The lift should be straight up and straight down. The cadence should involve a short pause between lifts because doing the exercise too quickly is less effective and could make you more prone to injury. Alternatively, instead of lifting both shoulders at once for one rep, it can be fun (and a harder workout) to do one shoulder at a time and then a single lift of both shoulders for one rep. You can also pause and hold at the top of the lift for a few seconds for increased burn during a single rep.
3. Incline Reverse Fly
The reverse fly is one of the great back workouts for men trying to hit their mid and upper traps, rhomboids and even a little bit of lats.
Hop on an incline bench set to a 45-degree angle with your torso facing down (hence the reverse) and with dumbbells in your arms hanging straight down. To help you stabilize your body before the lift, flex your abs and stiffen your core. Raise the dumbbells in an outward arc motion, keeping your arms straight, until your arms and shoulders form a straight line. As you lift the dumbbells up, squeeze your shoulder blades together to help with the lift and engage your back in the exercise. Try your absolute best to not arch your back while lifting and if you find you’re bending your arms to lift the weight, you’re using too much weight. Once you hit that point where you can’t lift the weight any higher, lower the dumbbells back to the starting position for one rep. Gyms will also have machines you can sit on for reverse flies.
But if you’re trying to assemble a home gym, you can’t go wrong with the Flybird Adjustable Weight Bench. It’s fully adjustable and will be a great support bench for back, chest and arm exercises and any other bench-driven lifts you might want to try.
Pull-ups are one of the best back workouts for men looking to get that cobra-like look in the torso because they seriously engage the lats. Plus, you can get a doorway pull-up bar for $30-$50.
Start by gripping the bar with your hands a bit more than shoulder width apart with your palms facing away from you. You should be hanging with your arms straight (not vertically), forming a V or triangle shape with your arms and the bar. Now begin to pull yourself toward the bar by squeezing your shoulder blades and lower back together and trying to pull your elbows downward toward your hips. As you pull up try to press your chest against the bar and maintain that angle throughout the pull-up to best target your back.
Your arms and elbow will naturally bend during the lift, but really try not to engage your biceps if you want to maximize the gains on your back. Also avoid kicking or swinging your body to gain momentum. Sure, you’ll get your head over the bar, but you won’t really be exercising your back. Once you’ve reached your peak, begin to relax your back and arms and lower your body back down to the hanging position for one rep. Always maintain control of your body, especially during the dropping part because a quick drop can risk serious injury. If you do this properly, you will find pull-ups extremely difficult at first, but don’t give up. If this guy can do it, so can you.
Another great way to really hit your lats is through a pull-down machine with cables. If you can get to a gym, we highly recommend using that as well and the exercise motion and grips are basically identical to those of a pull-up.
But you really don’t need to get to a gym if you can get an Ikonfitness Pull-Up Bar in your house. This pull-up bar doesn’t need any screws, it’s pretty heavy duty, with a weight limit up to 440 pounds, and the raised bar means even taller people can easily make it work. The only thing to be aware before buying is that this bar is designed for doors wider than 27.5 inches, so make sure you measure your planned door frame before sinking the money.
No back workout is complete without deadlifts. They engage pretty much your entire back and strengthen your hips and core because of the stabilization required to perform the lift. While deadlifts are typically performed with barbells, there’s no reason you can’t do them with dumbbells and the only real differences are starting with dumbbells in your hands or lifting the barbell off the ground as well as where the weight rests in your grip. Dumbbells will be a little off to your side while a barbell will be directly in front of you.
Begin with the dumbbells in your hands just off to the sides in front of your body, with your body bent over about 30 degrees and your knees bent. Keeping the dumbbells straight, engage your core and back, squeezing your back and shoulder blades and thrusting your hips forward, to lift the weights straight up. Return to the start position for one rep. Remember to keep your back straight and focus on the back part of your lift. If you’re using a barbell, the weight is more in front of your body and you can set the barbell (briefly) on the ground when you return to the lowered position. (Check out this barbell deadlift for good form.) For more work and a greater range of back motion, bend your knees further and lower your butt a bit more but not quite as low as a squat. This brings the weights closer to the floor and means you end up lifting the weights over a greater distance.
Supermans are a simple back workout that can be performed anywhere. All you need is a gym mat and you’re good to go. Not only are they like crunches for your back muscles, but they also engage your shoulders, legs and core.
Lie flat on your stomach, preferably with a mat, with your legs flat and toes pointed backward and your arms extended in front of you with your palms flat. Lift your arms straight up off the ground and your legs straight up off the ground at least a few inches. Hold the position for a second or two if you like before returning to the rest position for one rep. Be sure to keep your head and neck straight; there’s no reason to lift your head to look forward.
To make this even easier, whether you’re at home or at a gym, we recommend an exercise mat. Heathyoga’s Yoga Mat is non-slip and doesn’t use any latex, PVC or metals. That not only helps with keeping smells off, but it’s a win for the environment too.
Like supermans, cobras are a simple back workout that stretches and strengthens your back and core.
Lie flat on the floor with your hands flat on your sides next to your chest and your feet out behind you. You can curl your toes against the floor for additional traction and stability if you want or point them out behind you. Press your hips into the floor and squeeze your back to lift your chest off the floor, using your arms to stabilize your body. Hold this position for a few seconds and then lower your body back to the starting position for one rep. Try not to lift your body too much with your arms. The lift should come from the squeezing and crunching of the back, in a way similar to supermans.