My London personal training clients already know I’m a big fan of the one-arm dumbbell row (more of that below), as I include it in a lot of their sessions. Here’s some more great exercises for the back:
In my opinion, pullups are the king of back exercises, closely followed by the deadlift (see below). Grab an overhead bar, palms forward, and pull yourself up slowly until your chin is level with the bar, then lower yourself slowly back to the start position. That’s one rep.
You can vary the width of your grip to target different portions of your back. The wider your grip, the more depth of muscle development you get, and the closer your grip the more you target your outer lats.
It’s very tempting to swing and jerk your way up, but for maximum effectiveness you need to keep your torso and legs as still as possible, and focus on pulling upwards with no swinging around. Aim for quality of reps rather than number of reps.
You can also try isometric holds in the mid position of the downward phase for extra intensity. Get a partner to time you, to see how many seconds you can hold the mid-position, with your elbows at a right-angle, before lowering back to the start position.
This is a real mass-builder, and targets so many muscles it qualifies as a whole-body exercise, although it primarily targets your lats and hamstrings. Never perform a heavy deadlift until you have built up a high degree of strength over a long period of time, as the potential for injury is high for the novice. And get a personal trainer to teach you good technique.
Key safety tip: never round your back in any part of this movement, and make sure your legs take their fair share of the load, not just your back. As a personal trainer I’m always looking for ways to minimize risk of injury, and for this exercise I recommend you lift the barbell from the waist-high horizontal bars which form part of the squat-rack, then step back and perform the movement. This avoids you having to lift the bar from the ground at the beginning of the exercise, which is where most injuries occur.
This is a great mass builder for the lats, but again you need to be aware of the risk of injury if you round your back, so good technique is vital.
Bent-over rows can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, or the T-Bar row machine. The same basic principles apply to all three. Grab the weight with a shoulder-width grip, bend over, stick your bum out, keep looking ahead, and don’t round your back. Now pull the weight towards you at a 45 degree angle, squeezing your shoulder blades together and down when you reach the top of the movement, and return slowly. That’s one rep.
The bodybuilder Jay Cutler swore by this exercise to develop his back muscles, particularly the lats. The personal trainer in north London who encouraged me to become a personal trainer myself, was a big fan of the barbell bent-over row. He advised me to experiment with different widths of grip to attack different muscle fibres in the lats. Try this yourself, you’ll really feel it.
One-arm dumbbell row
This enables you to focus on one side at a time. You can perform it bent-over with both feet on the floor, or with one knee up on a bench and one foot on the floor. In both cases, keep a dip in the lower back.
Grab the dumbbell in one hand, grab a stable surface (anywhere between bench and hip level) with the other hand (keeping that arm straight) and perform a smooth rowing movement up at a 45 degree angle backwards until your elbow is higher than your back. Then return to the start position slowly. That’s one rep.
A personal trainer in Chelsea gave me a good coaching tip: imagine there’s a pool of water in the dip of your lower back. The aim is not to let any of the water spill during the movement, which helps you remember to keep your bum sticking out, and not to round your back.
You can either use a seated row machine or a cable-crossover machine. At home, you can use resistance bands looped around a sturdy object like a leg of your bed or sofa.
Keeping your back upright and your chest puffed out, grab the bar at shoulder width with palms down and perform a rowing action to your lower torso, with your legs slightly bent. When your elbows have passed your torso, pause and squeeze the shoulder-blades.
It’s a great exercise for your upper back, particularly your lats and rhomboids and traps. The more you squeeze your shoulder-blades together on the exertion, the more you hit your rhomboids and mid-traps.
I had a personal trainer in north London over a decade ago, who advised me to keep the tempo really slow in order to maximize time under tension, which engages and stimulates your back muscles for longer.
Don’t over-stretch each rep, keep the range of movement smaller than a return to the start position. Most people make the mistake of leaning forward too far in the eccentric (lowering the weight stack) phase, which takes tension away from the target area and reduces the effectiveness of the exercise.
Safety tip: have your knees bent when you grab the bar at the start, and almost straighten your legs as you start pulling back the first rep, so as not to strain your back. If you lean forward and let your back do all the work in the first rep, you’ll risk injury, so let the leg muscles help you get into position on that first rep. The same goes for finishing a set: bend the legs when finishing that last rep.
The lat pulldown machine is a versatile piece of gym equipment for the back, as it doesn’t lock you into an unnatural position like so many gym machines. This is a great exercise for the lats (Latissimus Dorsi), but also works your rhomboids and your spinal erectors (postural muscles which run up your spine).
For stability, keep both feet planted firmly on the floor, and secure your thighs under the pad provided.
When you begin the movement, make sure your arms are straight and your shoulders elevated. You may need to adjust the seat height to achieve this.
Personal trainer tip: Breathe in at the top of the movement, hold your breath for the first half of the pulldown (which stabilizes your torso), then breathe out (exhale) for the second half of the pulldown, the toughest part of the movement, then fill your lungs (inhale) again as you slowly straighten your arms again, lowering the stack of weights in a controlled manner. Never let the weights crash or bang.
I recommend you only pull down to your front, and never pull down behind the neck, as this can strain the neck and also the rotator-cuff muscles of your shoulders. You get a greater range of motion by pulling down to the chest, which makes this exercise more effective as well as safer.
You can vary grip width and even grip attachments to target different parts of your back. Avoid swinging, bouncing, jerking, or arching your back. All these are bad form and increase your risk of injury. The wide-grip pulldown targets the portion of the lat muscles closer to the spine, and closer grips hit the wider lat muscles.
Other muscles worked include the teres major (at the side of your upper back), trapezius (a diamond shaped muscle around your upper spine), and rhomboids (deeper back muscle beneath your trapezius).
Avoiding back problems
There are many things you can do to avoid back problems developing over the long term, just by adjusting your daily activity and posture. Don’t sit for prolonged periods at your desk without getting up and walking around every half hour. Don’t slouch or hunch. Invest in a good mattress. And in the evening, don’t slump on the couch for extended periods, get up and move around regularly.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over 12 years’ experience.