A common theme amongst women in the gym is that they dedicate a lot of time to training legs and abdominals. Placing a focus on these areas is deemed by most to generate the best results. Training back, therefore, can be overlooked – but it shouldn’t be.
Our back makes up a large portion of our body. So, whether you’re wanting to rock that backless dress or the beach next summer, a strong toned back is a great way to do it. And hey, there’s nothing unimpressive about being able to do a pull-up or 5. Get it!
In this article, I’m going to cover some of the best back exercises for women and why and how you should be doing them. Don’t worry about where you are on your fitness journey, we’ve got you covered from beginner back exercises to something for the more advanced.
Why You Should Never Skip Back Day
The muscles in your back fuel a lot of your everyday movements. They are also responsible for supporting your spine. Your back plays an integral role in your posture.
Having a range of good back exercises spread across your workout week, or even a concentrated back day every week, will ensure that you create a strong and mobile back that can support a healthy posture.
Weak muscles throughout the back can result in numerous painful issues. For example, weak muscles in the upper back can lead to rounded shoulders and a frozen thoracic spine, which then puts additional load on your lower back. A weak lower back can create pain when lifting heavy objects or when sitting for too long.
So, keeping your back strong and mobile is a great way to reduce pain.
And then, of course, there’s the aesthetic payoff of not skipping back day. There’s nothing like a toned and shapely back to compliment your physique. Performing a range of back exercises for your upper, middle and lower back creates a nice balanced aesthetic result.
It’s important to remember that when it comes to aesthetics, training is just one part of it – a good diet and low level of body fat is the other main contributor to that toned and defined look.
Without further ado, let’s get onto the exercises!
Here are 9 of the top exercises for strengthening and sculpting your back. These exercises target the different muscles in your back and range in difficulty, from beginner to advanced. Make sure you check out the video clips included with each exercise, for a visual guide on how to perform them correctly.
This lot of exercises provides a great starting point for women who are just starting out in their fitness journeys. They can be done safely with limited baseline strength and will generate a good foundation for more advanced exercises to come.
This exercise requires only your body weight and is a safe starting point for women who want to start strengthening their back. The Superman works your whole back, especially your lower back.
It is a perfect beginner exercise as is effective in helping you develop good firing mechanics and the static strength and control needed for more advanced movements. There are a few variations of this exercise, but in this article, we’re going to look at the standard version.
To perform this exercise correctly, start off by lying face down on your stomach with your arms extended above your head. From here, simultaneously lift your legs, arms, head, and chest off the ground as high as you can. Hold for a second in this position before returning to starting position.
Be mindful to not overextend through the lower back. Your range of motion should increase as your strength and mobility improve.
You can do this exercise in sets of 3 for 10 to 12 reps.
2. Wide Grip Lat Pull Down
The Wide Grip Lat Down is a great exercise for building upper body strength. It is a weighted exercise, but offers the stability and support of a machine, and is, therefore, suitable for beginners.
This exercise works your lats mostly, but also a lot of other smaller muscles through your back and arms. I find this exercise to be very effective, performed in conjunction with exercises that target your rhomboids (inner, upper back).
To do the Wide Grip Pull Down, adjust the machine so your thighs fit comfortably under the supports. Hold the bar with a pronated grip, over shoulder width apart.
Exhale as you pull the bar down to just above your upper chest. Your elbows should be close to your sides and your shoulder blades should be squeezed together. Hold for a second or two and then return to starting position in a controlled, slow movement.
This exercise is best performed in higher reps of 12 to 15 over 3 or 4 sets and with a weight suitable to maintain good form throughout.
3. Single Arm Dumbbell Row
This exercise never goes astray in my back workouts! I love the unilateral aspect of it, meaning it allows you to develop equal strength and coordination through both your left and right side of your back.
The Single Arm Dumbbell Row effectively targets your lats, traps, and rhomboids through your back, but also your biceps. Depending on what your training goals are, this exercise can be done with heavy weight and few reps or lighter weights and more reps. I like to do this exercise for 8 to 10 reps in sets of 4.
This exercise has the added benefit of being able to stabilize your body on a bench, so you can pull more weight. Start off by kneeling on a bench with one leg, supporting your upper body with the corresponding arm. Your back should be flat, dumbbell hanging on an extended arm.
Retract your shoulder blade then row the weight up to your ribs, focussing on lifting with your back and rear deltoid, rather then with your arm. Hold for a second whilst your muscles are fully contracted and then return to starting position.
Form comes first so make sure you choose a weight you can manage, to get the most of out this exercise.
If you’ve been working out for a while and have enough core strength to adequately protect your spine from injury under load, these intermediate exercises would be great for you to try out!
4. Renegade Row
This exercise combines your body weight and the use of dumbbells. It requires a good baseline core strength to be able to perform safely and is not suitable for beginners.
Hitting your back from all angles as you lift with one side and stabilize with the other, the Renegade Row is perfect for getting that sculpted back. It also works a lot of other muscles and burns an impressive number of calories – a great option for women who are training for weight loss.
This exercise is effective, but only if done correctly. When done with poor form, you open yourself up to injury through the lower back. The Renegade Row doesn’t need to be done with heavy weights to be effective. In fact, if you do it correctly, you should get owned by this exercise, regardless of the weight you’re using!
Go into push up position with a dumbbell in each hand and your feet shoulder width apart. Your body should be in a straight line, with a neutral spine. Without rotating through the hips, row one dumbbell to your chest/ribs, alternating from left to right arm. Try for 20 alternating reps.
The technique is very important with this exercise, so make sure you watch this before attempting it!
5. Wide Grip Bent Over Barbell Row
This exercise is a slight variation from the standard Bent Over Row. I prefer this wide grip version to the standard version, as it places a more significant focus on the traps, rear deltoids, and rhomboids, in addition to the lats.
This is one of my personal go-to back exercises. A wider grip allows you to reduce the amount of work you do through your biceps and encourages you to use your back as the main pulling force. As it doesn’t utilize the stability of a bench or machine, it is also that extra bit challenging.
I like to do this exercise for 10 to 12 reps over 3 or 4 sets.
To do the Wide Grip Bent Over Row, load up an Olympic bar with an appropriate weight. Assuming a hip-width stance, grab the barbell with your hands over shoulder width apart in an overhand grip.
Bend forward around 45-degrees at the hips with a soft bend in the knees. The barbell should be on extended arms, hanging in a straight line from your shoulders. Keeping your back neutral and the muscles under your scapular engaged, pull the weight up to your ribs and hold for a second or two. Then return to the starting position without rounding through the upper back.
6. T-Bar Row
The T-Bar Row is a great exercise for hitting your lats, traps as well as your erector spinae. This version of the Row requires a narrow grip hand positioning whereby your palms face each other.
This exercise frequently features in my strength regime as one of my main back exercises. It is a good heavy lift, performed over few reps. Try the T-Bar Row for 6 to 8 reps, as heavy as you can manage with good form.
Very effective in developing strength and tone, the T-Bar Row shouldn’t be missed by women who are looking to shape and tone their backs, as well as get strong.
To do this exercise, place an Olympic bar in a corner or in a landmine attachment. Hook a narrow grip handle under the collar of the top end of the bar and straddle the bar with a hip width foot stance.
Maintaining a neutral spine, push your hips back creating tension in your glutes and hamstrings. From here, pull the bar to your chest and hold for a two-second count, whilst your middle back and lats are fully contracted.
To get the most out of this lift, make sure your breathing is right – exhale on the exertion phase (the pull element of the movement).
If you’re a seasoned gym-goer and have established a good foundation of full body strength and conditioning, these exercises are safe for you to do! In my opinion, this lot are the cream of the crop when it comes to the best back exercises for women.
7. Chin Ups
The famous chin up! Apart from the fact that this exercise is a sheer achievement to be able to do, which makes it extra cool, it has many other benefits. It is a good test of strength and shouldn’t be missing from your back routine.
Different from the Pull Up, the Chin Up assumes a shoulder width supine grip (underhand grip) and targets the lower part of your lats and your biceps. Hanging on extended arms to begin with, engage through your lats and pull yourself up until your chin reaches the bar.
Hold in the top position for a second and then lower yourself back down over 3 seconds before going into your next rep.
There’s no arguing that this is an effective exercise, which is why it would be rare for you to step foot inside a gym without seeing someone perform it!
12 to 15 chin-ups over the duration of your session would be a good starting point, until you can build up to doing straight sets of 10 reps.
8. Rack Pulls
The Rack Pull is a perfect exercise for increasing your pull strength and general lower back strength. A variation of the Deadlift, the Rack Pull is essentially the top phase of a Deadlift, which allows you to require less torque generation through your legs and focus more on your upper body.
This exercise is effective in building strength if performed over fewer reps and more sets. Try it out for 5 sets of 5 reps, as heavy as you can manage.
Start with an Olympic bar supported in a rack at around knee height, or just above. Grip the bar overhand with your arms in line with your shoulders. Push your hips back, and keep your shoulders engaged (scapular retracted) throughout the lift.
Lift the weight by standing up to straight. Then lower the weight back down the front of your legs by pushing your hips backward.
As this is an exercise done with heavier weight, make sure you get the technique right to avoid injury! Here’s how to do it.
9. Bent Over Reverse Dumbbell Fly
Although the Bent Over Reverse Dumbbell Fly is commonly done amongst beginners, it does, in fact, require a great deal of mobility and strength to be able to perform effectively.
To get the most out of this exercise, you need enough core strength to stabilize your spine, and enough range of movement to hit your back muscles appropriately. This exercise targets your upper back, and rear deltoids.
I would highly recommend it for women who are wanting to create a toned upper back… that looks awesome in workout shirts!
Start with a dumbbell in each hand, bent forward at the hips so your chest is almost parallel to the ground. Your hands should be together with your palms facing each other. With a slight bend in the elbows, lift the dumbbells out wide, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hold for a second and return to starting position.
The eccentric phase of this movement is equally as important, so don’t rush this exercise. Aim for slow and steady.
This exercise works well over more reps. Try 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps. I also like doing this exercise as a burnout exercise at the end of a workout, in which case you can go until failure.
Ladies, these 9 exercises will help you achieve your goal of a sexy toned back and will come complete with strength gains as a bonus!
All these exercises are effective if done correctly. Remember that a range of back exercises are required to hit all the different muscles in your back – so keep it varied. If you’re a beginner, be sure to master the first few exercises before moving onto the others.
For the more advanced, all exercises included are beneficial for you to do when giving your back a well-rounded workout.
An Olympic Bar was a common feature of these exercises. If you’re in need of your own one to be able to perform these exercises at home, check out our buying guide.
As always, we’d love to hear your opinions. Let us know in the comments section below what your top back exercises are, and why!