It’s not often that we think about what’s going on with our back — since we’re usually the last person to see it. Couple that with the fact that plenty of women still buy into the myth that lifting too many weights can bulk you up, and it makes sense why back exercises for women still have an air of mystery around them.
But seriously, guys. We know a lot more about the human body, and especially the human woman’s body, than we did even 10 years ago. We know that weightlifting isn’t just for men. Lifting weights may help you burn fat and increase your resting metabolic weight (the number of calories that your body burns at rest), along with reducing your risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.
For all those health benefits and more — plus a really, extra good-looking back — these five back exercises will get you started:
1. Dumbbell single-arm overhead squat
This is a full-body exercise that will make you feel strong from head to toe. You work your legs with the squat while targeting your upper and lower back with the overhead lift.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand, one dumbbell weighing twice as much as the other (e.g., if one dumbbell is five pounds, the other should be 10 pounds). Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed straight ahead.
Hold the light dumbbell overhead in your nondominant hand, with the heavier dumbbell between your legs, keeping both arms straight. Push your hips back and lower yourself until your upper thighs are parallel to the floor, holding the lighter dumbbell straight up over your shoulders, tightening the back of your shoulder and upper back muscles. Keep your abs pulled in tight.3
Rise back to the start position and do one to two sets of 15 repetitions each. Switch arms and repeat.
“This move is effective because it works multiple muscles at once. You can get more bang for your buck! It tones your upper back and shoulder area and even works your core — bonus!” Marks advises, “Be sure to keep you belly button drawn into your spine the entire time to engage your core. Don’t let your knees go past your toes when you squat.”
2. Dumbbell one-point row
This exercise works your back and core muscles while challenging your balance. If you find it too difficult, perform the row with your toes touching the floor.1
Holding a dumbbell in each hand, balance your weight on your left foot, bending forward at the hips and raising your right leg so it forms a T with your torso and left leg. Your chest and right leg are parallel to the floor and your shoulders are square to the floor.2
Hold the weights below your shoulders, arms straight (remain balanced on your left leg). Pull the weights straight up to your sides, keeping your shoulders square to the floor, and squeeze your shoulder blades together.3
Slowly lower weights to start (you are still balanced on one leg) and repeat for eight repetitions. Switch legs and repeat for eight repetitions. Do two sets.
Angie Sloan, World Gym’s Global Fitness Ambassador, says that while the one-point dumbbell row is a more advanced back exercise that requires balance, it can be “extremely effective for targeting the mid-back muscles and recruiting the core muscles to maintain your balance.”
3. Lat pullover
This is a full upper-body exercise that emphasizes your lats (the muscles that help you pull your arm
down and back).1
Lie on your back on a bench (or floor if you don’t have a bench), feet flat on the bench (or floor), knees bent; hold a weight in both hands or a weight in each hand over your chest, arms straight up. Lower the weight or weights straight back behind your head until your arms are in line with your torso and parallel to the floor. If you are not using a bench, lower your arms until the weights are just above but not touching the floor .2
Keeping your arms straight, pull your arms to start position over your chest. As you reach start position, think about tightening your lat muscles. Do one to two sets of 15 repetitions each.
And according to Marks, “This move is effective because it specifically targets your lats — an area that many women neglect! [The lat pullover] tones your lats (the muscle right along your ribs that your bra strap digs into). Be sure to press your lower back into the ground while performing this exercise. It will engage your core and protect your lower back.”
4. Back extensions
A strong lower back will reduce your risk of injury to your vertebral discs. This exercise is also called prone cobra in yoga.1
Lie face-down on a mat or well-padded floor, arms straight by your sides, palms up, forehead facing the floor. The tops of your feet should be flat against the floor.2
Slowly lift your head and shoulders off the floor, lifting your arms, squeezing your shoulder blades together and hold for five seconds. Lower to start position and do one to two sets of 15 repetitions each.
Sloan says, “This is a very important exercise for overall back health, especially the lower back. Having a strong core including your lower back is a necessity for maintenance of health. These [extensions] will also give you that deep definition where your spine runs through.”
5. Dumbbell bent-over row
Back rows work your entire back and can work your core muscles if you keep your abdominal muscles pulled in and your back flat.1
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides, a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your knees slightly, pushing your hips back, and bend forward at your hips without rounding your back. Hold the weights straight down from your shoulders with your wrists facing back and your knuckles facing forward. Pull the weights straight up to the sides, bending your elbows, while keeping your torso in the same position. You are only moving your arms, not the rest of your body. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as your elbows reach to the ceiling.2
Slowly lower the weights to start position. Be sure to keep your back flat. Do one to two sets of 15 repetitions each.
For those sunny summer days where clothing may be a little more optional, Sloan recommends the bent-over row, calling it “one of the best movements for improving posture and building those muscles in the mid-back area.” She says, “These are the muscles you will see in that swimsuit!” To get the most out of the exercise, Marks advises, “When you perform this exercise, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together.”