Put Your Back Into It

Spanning from the iron itself to our ability to withstand any kind of personal fight, the word strength can hold so many inspiring associations from one person to the next. Strength goes above and beyond the physical training, and for many, it’s an additional means of building confidence. This confidence boost in ourselves can come from reaching a physical goal (whether performance, health or aesthetics) and then can be transferred to accomplishments in all aspects of a life and just being. Strength training is a powerful tool!

Metaphorically, when I think of strength, I think of a strong back and shoulders for carrying a heavy load. A strong back is a stable and tall posture that allows us to remain calm, sturdy and courageous in the face of uncertainty, pain or distress. To me, a strong back is both confidence and comfort.

Physically, a strong back is lends to the protection of our spine, helps us bear load and keeps our posture tall. Everyone talks about having a strong “core” and while that includes the pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis and obliques, it also includes the muscles in our back.

Aesthetically, during my days of competing in Figure, I was told that competitions were won from the back. Among other criteria, the V taper was incredibility important which is the shape from your shoulders to your waist. When training our backside, we have a large territory of muscles to cover including but not limited to our rear delts, our mid and lower traps, our lats and our erector spinae.

As with most exercise selections, there are certainly ones that provide a lot of “bang for your buck” along with others that may not scream “wow” on the coolness scale but are equally important. Without further adieu, the following are “five” of my favorite back exercises that should cover all bases:


1. Pull Up / Chin Up – I think it’s incredibly important to be able to master your own body weight. Mix your grips from time to time. It’ll change the exercise enough. I prefer a neutral grip pull up because it’s shoulder friendly, but I still aim to perform traditional pull ups because they’re a bit more difficult and chin ups to incorporate my biceps more.

For those of you still working towards your pull ups, check out Neghar’s tutorial here and her recent article in The Washington Post! If you’re looking for an assisting tool, I like to use superbands hooked around the pull up bar and your knee. Last but not least, if you want to make them more difficult, load yourself with a weight vest, a weight belt or vary the tempo of your pull up.


2. Barbell or Dumbell Bent Over Row – the movement will be different obviously depending on the tool of choice, especially if it’s unilateral or bilateral, but both are excellent options for a horizontal pulling movement. (other variations for the row are also cable rows – seated or standing).


3. Recline Pull – another one of my favorites for using your bodyweight as the resistance. These can be done via TRX or with an overhand or underhand grip on a barbell. The more horizontal your body, the more difficult the exercise.


4. Y’s and T’s – something I include in almost every warm up. Other times, I load them for more upper-body work. Y’s and T’s help to strengthen our mid and lower trapezius muscles which are important for posture and function of the scapula. Many people tend to over use their upper traps and don’t spend enough focus on their mid and lower traps, which then continues to fuel the overuse of the upper traps because we’re not executing our upper body exercises properly.


5. Good mornings and or deadlift variations (hip extension movements) – for the sake of choosing for this list, I like to perform single leg barbell good mornings but many back extension exercises will do. Essentially, in addition to working the glutes and hamstrings, you get a solid emphasis on your erector spinae.


This is certainly not an exhaustive list. When training your back, as well as anything else, aim for both foundational exercises but don’t let the smaller muscle groups and movements be an afterthought or worse, neglected.

Again, there are so many ways to add variance from the tools used (dumbbells, barbells, bodyweight, TRX, etc), the program design (exercise selection, sets, reps, etc), and the exercise selection itself (vertical movements, horizontal movements, angled movements, unilateral, bilateral, etc.) Hopefully, this will give you a good start.

Please let us know in the comments section what (a.) having a strong back means to you (b.) your favorite back exercise and (c.) any further questions that we could piggy back on this for a future blog post.


About the Author: Alli Mckee

Alli is a certified strength and conditioning specialist based out of Baltimore, Maryland. She's contributed to and modeled for a number of major publications including Oxygen magazine and the New Rules of Lifting: Supercharged. You can find out more about Alli on her personal blog at www.allimckee.com.

  • Rachael Frank

    How about a sample back day for you with reps and sets? And a little explanation of why you chose that exercise, in that order, and what to feels etc?

  • Dawn

    Stupid question of the day – what are Ys and Ts?

    • Jessica Scheider

      Not stupid…I’d like to know too. :)

      • http://allimckee.com/ Alli

        Hi all, my apologies for the delayed response on this question regarding Y’s and T’s. Attached is a you tube link that Jen Sinkler and I did to explain the Y’s and T’s for Experience Life Magazine. If you’d like to skip to the direct example, it’s around minute 2:10 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tMcpnj1Gg8

        Hope that helps!

  • http://twitter.com/moefaherty maureen faherty

    The title of this post reminds me of one of my all-time fave ’90’s song (“Uhh. Ice Cube, baybee..”)… so I knew it was going to be a good post :)

    I love being able to show off strong back muscles in a tank top or strapless dress. Aside from the aesthetic bonuses though, and as someone who grew up with scoliosis (and eventually underwent corrective surgery), having a strong back allows me to keep pain to a minimum, maintain nice posture and stay healthy.

    My favorite back exercise is definitely the chin-up! I finally learned to master bodyweight chin-ups last year and nothing makes me feel stronger than being able to churn out reps with good form (no kipping).

    Next goal is mastering chin-ups with a weight vest! yay yayy.

    • http://allimckee.com/ Alli

      That’s awesome, Maureen! I love the chin up too.. feels great to master your own body weight. Have fun with the weight vest!

  • kialei

    If there’s ever an exercise name that you hear and you’re not sure what it means, YouTube is your best friend. (for those people asking about the Ys and Ts)

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