Having a strong back helps improve your quality of life.
A strong back allows you to perform daily tasks with relative ease and is protective against injury.
The “back” isn’t an actual body part, but rather a descriptive term. In this article, it means the area from the base of the neck to the top of the pelvis.
Functionally, we can divide the back into two parts:
- The lower back, which is primarily involved in lifting, carrying and supporting our upright posture
- The upper back, which provides a foundation for the shoulder girdle and supports our head and neck
In a way, the back also encompasses the “core” and the “shoulder”, which is a good reminder that these are all labels that we give to the body – it functions as a whole, and the separation is only in the way we think about things.
So with that in mind, we can still use these concepts to help us build a strong back.
You don’t need expensive or fancy equipment. Muscles only respond to tension, which can be generated in a number of ways, with or without external weights
Barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, along with pull up bars and suspension trainers to leverage your own body weight are all fantastic ways to develop back strength, and of course, you have specialised machines that can help develop a strong back.
The key is to find an approach that works for your body and your situation.
Top Reasons To Build A Strong Back
- The act of strength training is protective against back pain (1)
- Strength training for the upper back was the best intervention for pain in desk bound office workers (2)
- A strong back helps maintain your optimal posture (more on posture here)
- The mid back is a common site for osteoporotic fractures – strength training prevents this (3)
- After the legs, the back muscles are the biggest and strongest in the body, training them expends a lot of energy, helping maintain body composition and blood glucose levels (4)
- Strong backs look good (don’t underestimate the importance of a positive self image)
Pull, Lift, Carry
There are 3 main actions you can perform with your back muscles:
- Pulling actions, where you pull yourself towards something, or something towards you. Examples include chin ups, rows and climbing. These movements tend to develop predominantly upper back strength by working on the muscles the move the shoulder blades and arms.
- Lifting actions, which are those actions where you pick something up (usually from the ground). Examples include deadlifts and power cleans.
- Once you have picked something up, you can also carry the object for time or distance. Both lifting and carrying exercises develop both lower and upper back strength by working the muscles that stabilise the spine. They usually develop leg strength as well, so are very efficient exercises.
The Best Pulling Exercises
There are a variety of ways to train the pulling movement.
When you consider the freedom of movement the shoulder girdle has, it allows a high number of variations.
The shoulder blade (scapula) has a number of ways it can move, but when it comes to pulling, the 3 we are concerned with are:
- Retraction: squeezing your shoulder blades together, as in when you perform a rowing action. Examples would be all the row variations in the world!
- Depression: pulling your shoulder blades down, as in when you pull yourself up to a bar/ledge. Examples would be chin ups and lat pulldowns.
- Upward rotation and elevation: when your shoulder blades turn upwards and raise, as in when you are pulling something in front of your body to your neck. Examples of these are upright rows, shrugs, high pulls, cleans and snatches.
For most people, I like body weight pulling exercises, like chin ups, inverted rows and climbs, though these are often very challenging and hard to scale down for beginners.
Where To Start
In the gym, cable rows and pulldowns, along with barbell and dumbell rows are the go to, with a large number of variation available via hand position, body angle and line of pull through the shoulder.
In practice, a $6 band from Kmart can be a great tool to enable you to perform pulling actions. Loop it around a post and pull it toward you. Loop it around your feet and pull it up. Loop it around a rafter/beam/tree branch and pull it down.
Do More Reps!
As a rule of thumb, pulling exercises are better as volume exercises, not intensity.
That is, perform a higher number of reps per set on average.
You can still load pulling exercises quite highly, but the combination of distraction force through the upper limb and ambiguous end point make it hard to do so as effectively as deadlifts, presses and squats.
One class of exercises that are often overlooked in both rehabilitation programs and fitness programs outside of the weightlifting/powerlifting world are shrugs and high pulls.
These train the upward rotation and elevation motion in the shoulder blades (shrugging), which strengthen the trapezius muscle.
A strong trapezius muscle supports healthy shoulder and neck function, but unfortunately, because many people with neck pain report a “tight” trapezius, these exercises were vilified. What was missed is that in these people, their trapezius feels “tight” because it is weak, and strengthening relieves their symptoms.
My Personal Favourites
So while my favourite pulling exercises are:
- Chin ups (palms facing toward you) and pull ups (palms facing away from you)
- Inverted rows (elbows high and elbows low)
- High pull/upright row
In a perfect world, I would help all my clients develop competency and strength in these movements. But because I live and work in an imperfect world, and time, equipment and money are often limiting factors, the exercises I use most in clinical practice are:
- Band pulldown
- Band row
- Band upright row
The deadlift is a fantastic all-round back strength exercise. It also concurrently helps develop strong legs, particularly the posterior chain muscles, including the hamstrings and gluteals.
It involves picking up a weight implement (barbell, dumbell, kettlebell, etc) from the ground and then lowering it back down again.
There are countless deadlift variations, but my favourite is the barbell deadlift from blocks.
A close (equal) second is the trap bar deadlift and the kettlebell deadlift.
Why do I favour the barbell deadlift from blocks over other deadlift variations to build a strong back?
- It allows us to infinitely and incrementally load the pattern, compared to kettlebells, which come in large jumps (usually 4 kg) and only go up to 48 kg in pro-grade style or (very large) 92 kg classic style.
- We can control the range (rather than lifting based on the height of the weight plates) and ensure the movement is performed within a range that is safe for an individual’s mobility and strength.
- It is better than a rack pull because the moment arm (from the centre of the bar to the load, not of the load on your spine) is larger (allows better leverage when starting the lift) and as a bonus, protects the bar.
- Compared to the trap bar, the straight barbell requires a more bent over position, creating a large anterior shear moment on each vetebrae, which the back muscles have to resist, which develops high levels of strength in the spinal stabilisers.
The main downside to the barbell deadlift from blocks is it is more technically challenging/less intuitive than the trap bar or kettlebell deadlift. However, even though these are simpler, and some might argue more “functional” in that they require you to stand between the handle (like a wheelbarrow) or have the load between you (like lifting a heavy bag of fertiliser), I feel like they understimulate the back and posterior chain (relatively).
A second issue is equipment, while most gyms, and many clinics will have a barbell, not many have access to proper lifting blocks. A compromise is to use aerobic steps or weight plates, though they are just that, a compromise.
In reality, you can use a variety of deadlift variations, it doesn’t really matter, as long as you are developing the strength to pick things up from the ground.
Typically, deadlifts can be performed heavy for lower repetitions, or lighter for higher repetitions. They lend themselves well to both applications.
Not Quite Deadlifts
There are a number of exercises that have a similar pattern to the deadlift – the hip hinge movement – that aren’t quite the deadlift.
Think of exercises like:
- Good mornings
- Kettlebell swings
- Back extensions
- Reverse hypers
These are all great exercises.
They definitely have a place as deadlift alternatives or additions to deadlifts.
The reason I list them as a second tier, is because for most people, I seek maximum training economy, and with that in mind, deadlifts are more than enough stimulation. I would mostly use alternatives when deadlifts are not appropriate:
Loaded carries are an under utilised exercise in both performance and rehabilitation.
They are simple movements, but are definitely not simplistic.
Loaded carries can be performed in a few ways:
- Bilateral loading
- Unilateral loading
And with the load in different positions
- By sides (farmer’s walks, suitcase carries)
- In the rack position (with kettlebells or a barbell)
- Yoke carries (across the shoulders)
The most important thing to ensure with loaded carries is to retain postural integrity. The idea is to train dynamic stabilisation under load, not test your limits of how far you can carry a heavy object.
A good guideline is to work with 75% of your bodyweight for farmer’s walks. This might sound light for experienced athletes, but remember, we are trying to build strength, not test it. Building strength can be done with sub-maximal loads, and it allows for faster recovery and better movement patterns.
Pulls, deadlifts and carries are more than enough to build a strong back.
However, there are many other variations of exercises that can be used too.
I’m not in the business of vilifying movements, and given the low activity levels of the majority of Australians, almost any movement is good movement.
Whichever movements you choose, for most people 2-3 times per week is the optimal frequency to develop strength, while the exact amount volume of work you do is individual, the idea is to do more over time.
What I have listed here are the best back exercises for the majority of people, the majority of the time.
While in theory, structured exercise is not essential for health, when it comes to developing a strong back, the simple truth is that the majority of Australians are not physically active enough to develop and maintain adequate strength throughout their lifetime, and so need a structured program to make up for it.
Do you need a stronger back?
If you feel like you could benefit from increased back strength and a holistic exercise program, then contact me to arrange a consultation. This can be done in person or online, depending on your location.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.