There are no strong people with weak backs.
The muscles of the back – from the traps to the glutes – are essential for performance in CrossFit. Everything from weightlifting to gymnastics or even strongman exercise will require a strong back and great control.
Today, we’re going to discuss some of the best, simplest ways to strengthen your back for CrossFit. These range from warm-ups and gentle beginner’s training to some of the most advanced and effective techniques for strengthening these crucial muscles.
How to Train the Back for CrossFit
The back breaks down into a few key muscle groups/movements that you need to cover to maintain balance. We’re going to discuss these, how they relate to your training, and what you should be doing to train them.
Starting at the bottom, the glutes and lower back are essential for posture. This is all about keeping a neutral spine – especially the lower, or lumbar, region where most serious injuries occur. The glutes are also involved in hip extension – the process of opening up the front of the hips that we see in a deadlift or clean.
The upper back has two key roles: pulling in a rowing or pull-up motion and supporting weight overhead.
The first is important for the gymnastic skills you need in CrossFit – being able to pull up, transition into muscle ups, and build strong lats/rhomboids is key. These keep your upper body balanced, support the shoulders, and even play a role in keeping the spine neutral.
The second is all about strong supporting muscles around the shoulder blades, or scapula. These are key for Olympic lifts which require you to support seriously heavy weights overhead, as well as handstand push-ups, and any pressing.
The workouts below aim to work all of these movements in some way, often combining them and building up the entire back at once. These can be added to the end of a workout 1-2 times a week for additional strength work. This will carry over to every area of your training as postural strength, increased explosiveness, and can improve knee/spine health.
1. Preparation and Power
This is a workout aimed at increasing power, coordination, and involving the hips in dynamic exercise. CrossFit back workouts additionally fit seamlessly into exercises for the back because they’re light enough that it provides a good workout for the beginner and a great warm-up for the advanced athlete. If you’re sufficiently advanced, it could even be a good form of active recovery on rest days!
The focus continues to be on involving the whole back in this workout, but in a way that doesn’t load too heavily, and is based on developing athletic characteristics. It’s not about brute strength but making sure that you’re using everything correctly. This is going to show up in the rest of your movement and contributes to a well-rounded physique and performance.
5 Rounds, 2min rest
Inverted Row – 10 reps
Overhead MedBall Throw – 5 reps (for height/distance)
Banded Crab Walk – 6 reps in each direction
Banded Good Morning – 20 reps
2. Basic S&C
This workout is a bit more focused than the previous session. It focuses on similar principles of movement and strength together, but with an increased focus on the type of training, you’d see in an elite athlete’s program.
The ring row is the main strength exercise, working the essential pulling muscles of the upper back in a way that builds towards more-effective chin-ups and pull-ups. If you’re still working on getting your pull-ups, this is a great scaling/progression exercise.
The medball throw and Kettlebell Swing work on strength and power under fatigue and increase the endurance demand of the workout. This is great since the ability to perform long workouts – or repeated bouts of intense output – are key to CrossFit training.
Ring Rows – 50 reps
Rotating Medball Tosses – 50 reps (25 each side)
Kettlebell swings – 50 reps
These are 3 of the most important exercises for balancing the most commonly neglected movements and muscles: the upper back, rotational exercises that combine the core and back, and the hip hinge using the hamstrings/glutes. Training these 3 simple exercises can make big changes to your posture and health.
The focus of the workouts should always be quality and this is no exception. Try and get 50 clean reps as fast as possible – quality takes precedence over speed. The best way to approach this is as sets of 5 for both ring rows and med ball tosses, while the kettlebell swings should be completed all at once.
3. The Best Basic Dumbbell Back Workout for CrossFit
This is the simplest way to hit all of the muscles of the back without using a barbell or other objects. We’re only going to use the dumbbell with this workout – and it’s going to be incredibly effective.
Using the dumbbell is a great way of building unilateral strength – the arms are tasked individually and you have to make sure you control them more actively. This is great for addressing imbalance and keeping your posture and physique balanced.
The movements we use in this exercise – row, snatch, and press – work the 3 major sets of muscles from extension to rowing/pulling to overhead stability. This makes it a very quick, effective workout that can be added to the end of your WOD and completed in a short space of time to add more back volume/stability to your training.
4 rounds, 90s rest:
Dumbbell Row – 10 reps (Each side)
Dumbbell Snatch – 10 reps (Each side)
Dumbbell Press – 10 reps (each side)
These are simple to do, and you should work with a weight that feels like about 80% of your max 10reps on the first round. It’s going to feel very tough by the last round, so don’t over-do the weight. If you want to make it harder, add pauses to the top of each movement.
4. Barbell Trio
Once you’ve had some “fun” with the dumbbell workout, try a barbell version that relies on heavier weights with a lower stability challenge. It’s a great way to increase your strength and provides a number of different stimuli that you might not see in your CrossFit training very often.
There’s a mixture of basic rowing and overhead stability in the first pair of exercises for this workout: the behind-the-neck push press is a great way of working overhead stability in a way that is specific to weightlifting movements, as well as handstand push-ups.
The Pendlays row finishes this workout off with a pulling motion to work the muscles more and ensure that you’re getting plenty of volume where it counts.
Press – Walk – Row, AMRAP – Rounds, 8min time cap
Behind the Neck Push Press – 5 reps
Overhead Walk – 1 length
Pendlay Row – 5 reps
5. The Death March
The most effective, unpleasant, amazing exercise in the world for the lower back is the death march.
Used and popularised by USA Weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, this is an amazing exercise to train the muscles of the back through the full range of motion. While most exercises focus on a neutral spine, this relies on intentionally moving the back from straight to round and then back again.
It also gets the hamstrings and upper back working in a secondary role, making it a great exercise to train the whole back. We’ve put it after a pair of key exercises – the stiff-leg deadlift and the chin up – as it is a brutal finisher and you’ll not want to train anything else after the death march!
- Strength Duo, 4 rounds, 2min rest
Stiff-Leg Deadlift – 6 reps
Chin-Up – AMRAP
- The Death March, 4 rounds, 90s rest
Death March – 2 lengths
This is a tough workout, so make sure that you’re only doing this workout 1-2 times a week when you have a rest day afterwards. You’re going to have a sore back, glutes, and hamstrings. This can be a real risk for injury during other exercises, so be sure to rest and recover well.
6. Snatch and Kettlebells
This workout revolves around the brutal Weightlifting assistance exercise – the Snatch RDL. It combines the difficulty of a regular snatch grip deadlift with the increased focus on the glutes and hamstrings that come with the conventional Romanian Deadlift.
It’s a great exercise for overall back development and, when performed correctly, transfers beautifully to the Snatch. It’s another difficult exercise that’s going to really challenge you. However, we’re following it up with a tri-set of Kettlebell exercises: the row, swing, and cluster.
This is a rough workout and it’s the first one we’d call “intermediate-advanced”. It’s definitely not for beginners, but if you’re familiar with CrossFit training, this is a great workout to build serious strength and stability in the whole back.
- Snatch RDL, 4 rounds, 90s rest
Snatch-Grip RDL – 6 reps
- Kettlebell Trio Workout, AMRAP, 3 minutes per exercise
Focus on keeping the back locked in position in each exercise. There are really no scaling options for this workout, which is why it’s aimed at more experienced athletes. You can start performing this with 15-20kg for the snatch deadlift and a light kettlebell, but you need to be able to keep the proper positions in the snatch portion of the workout.
7. Jacked and Pumped
This workout is a simple two-piece workout that focuses on strength lifts followed by a circuit of exercises that are designed to focus on size in the pulling muscles. This is a great way to combine training of the movement and coordination of big exercises, while also building muscle quality and conditioning the joints for future loading.
This type of combination is common in high-level athletes, who focus on a combination of movement quality and tissue-change. These are the two aspects of getting strong, and you can’t afford to leave either of them out if you want to get better at CrossFit.
- Heavy Weights, 4 rounds, 60s rest
Hang Clean Pull – 6 reps
Stiff-Legged Deadlift – 6 reps
- Pulling Pump, AMRAP: 4 rounds, 1min per exercise
This covers all of the muscles discussed at the start of this article in ways that are essential for building up back strength and positions. Combining the stiff-legged deadlift with the clean pull is a great way to cue the proper balance through the heel, as well as using the hips to control positions in the top of the clean.
8. Total Back Training
As you might have guessed, this is a workout that covers everything from swings to rows and even includes some light squats. It’s not just about building strength in the muscles of the back – but also about incorporating these changes into other crucial movements. The muscles of the glutes are a key aspect of back training, but obviously also control the movement of the knees.
Moving from specific to general, this workout also provides excellent prehab options and ensures that your movement and muscles are being trained specifically. If you’ve got time and you’re ready to build some serious, functional back strength then this is the way to go.
- Movement Trio, 5 rounds, 2min rest
Snatch RDL – 6 reps
Kettlebell Swing – 12 reps
Paused Goblet Squat – 10 reps
- Rows and Flyes
Ring Row – 20 reps for time
Reverse Flye – 30 reps for time
As you become more advanced it may be possible to replace the ring rows in this workout with chin-ups to ensure you’re working more specifically and translating your work to the competition movements.
This is a workout that should be performed once a week at most – it will be a seriously tasking workout to recover from. You’re likely to feel some fatigue in the back after this workout so makes sure it’s performed the day before a rest day. This is a common note on these exercises because the lower back muscles are relatively small and easily fatigued.
Managing recovery is a key part of making these strength workouts productive – you won’t get stronger if you don’t recover from each training session.
9. Big Pump Back Chipper
This workout is a cross between a regular descending chipper and a bodybuilding back workout. It’s a high-volume, to-failure workout. These shouldn’t be a big part of your training as they can really challenge your recovery ability. However, when you’re experiencing a stall in performance and need to provide a big stimulus, this is a great way to do it.
As Many Rounds As Possible, 12 minutes
Rubish Row – 20 reps
Chin up – 20 reps
DB Snatch – 12 reps
Chin Up – 12 reps
Kettlebell Swing – 30 reps
Ring Row – 30 reps
This is a workout where the main focus is getting every rep to count. The timer is mostly going to be an upper limit as you should be able to get at least one round done. If you can do more, we strongly recommend it. As this is a to-failure workout, the best way to go is to keep going until you physically cannot complete another rep.
If you get to a point where you are failing before a single round, you should scale the movements and keep the reps. This means swapping out chins for ring rows earlier on, etc. to make sure you’re getting through at least one round.
10. Descending Pairs
This workout consists of 4 pairs of paired exercises that decrease in difficulty. It is likely to be about the same levels of overall volume as the previous workout, though it brings a lot more structure to the training session and isn’t about going to fail in the same way.
While it’s still going to be challenging, there’s an end-point. This means that you should be able to perform this workout more often and have a better idea of how it’s going to feel each time. This is a great alternative for advanced lifters who like to work within a more structured program.
If you’re trying to monitor your training volume and work towards a well-rounded training program, this is a fantastic workout for building and monitoring strength.
- The First Pair, 3 rounds, 2 mins rest
Muscle Up – AMRAP
Stiff-Legged Deadlift – 10 reps
- The Second Pair, 3 rounds, 90s rest
Chin Up – 10 reps
Kettlebell Deadlift – 15 reps
- The Third Pair, 5 rounds, 90s rest
Ring Row – 10 reps
Kettlebell Swing – 20 reps
- The Fourth Pair, AMRAP – Rounds, 60s rest
Kettlebell Row – AMRAP
Banded Good Morning – 20 reps
These are dedicated to the different movements that we discussed above – striking a balance on each essential category – and adding additional volume for strength and size. This is a key way of making sure that you’re still making progress as you get tired. You’re going to have to gear-down as you get through the rounds, so we scale down after each pair!
Having a strong back is crucial for better exercise and health. The way that this shows up in your training is through better posture, better control, and a much-improved extension in everything from running to weightlifting.
The muscles of the back – especially the glutes and scapula – are key to balancing out the muscles and joints that we’ve allowed to become weak and imbalanced in modern life. This approach to training the back is pro-strength, but it’s also designed to counter the acquired diseases of poor posture, joint injury risk, and debilitating lower back pain.
Train with an eye on quality and recovery, and these workouts will provide a great selection of ways to improve your strength, endurance, and resilience to injury. We’re firm believers that proper training in the posterior chain is enough to solve a lot of problems with training and your whole lift.
Being more human starts with solving the symptoms of an unnatural, inactive modern life!