Don't waste your time on exercises that use lots of energy, but give little in terms of results. If you want a broad, strong and functional back, choose compound exercises that target multiple joints and that get at all the muscles of this broad region — from the ones you see when you wear a tight shirt to those that support your posture.
A strong back helps you lift more weight when you squat and bench press too, plus you'll build bigger arms while working the back as many of the best exercises hit your biceps, too. The gym offers you the most options when choosing back exercises.
The American Council on Exercise listed the 45-degree incline row as one of the top three exercises for the shoulders — but a very particular region, the posterior deltoids. These are the muscles that span your upper back. Work them to contribute to a coveted V-shaped torso and improve posture by helping you contract the shoulder blades and stand up tall.
How To: Position yourself face first on a workout bench inclined to 45 degrees. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and allow the arms to hang down toward the floor. Inhale and pull your elbows back to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Keep the points of the elbows pointed to the sides of the room. Release to complete one rep.
A study published in Dynamic Medicine in 2004 found that a seated row, when compared to several other back exercises, elicited the most activation in the middle trapezius and rhomboids, muscles of the middle back. You'll find a seated row machine at most gyms, some are plate loaded, some are cable-based and others use a pin to adjust the weight. Use any to get results.
How To: Sit on the machine's seat. Place your chest against the pad, if one is provided, and grasp the handles. Focus on sitting up tall as you bend your elbows to pull the handles to your chest. Push your chest forward and keep your low-back straight and engaged. Straighten the elbows to complete one rep.
If you have access to a pull-up bar at your gym, even an assisted pull-up machine, this may be the most functional back exercise you can choose, notes a study in a 2013 issue of Sports Biomechanics. But, the lat pull-down is another valuable exercise that targets many of the same muscles, specifically the latissimus dorsi — the broadest muscle of the back. This machine should be on your gym floor, either as an attachment to a cable complex or as a free-standing station.
How To: Sit on the machine's seat, grasp the long handle with a wide, overhand grip and fix your thighs under the bracing pads. Pull the bar down to the front of your neck or collarbones, the most effective method of using the exercise, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Straighten your elbows to complete one rep.
Strengthening the muscles that stabilize the spine, including the erector spinae and the multifidus, are essential in good posture and back health. Don't skip these moves in favor of working the sexy, superficial muscles.
Dr. Stuart McGill of the University of Waterloo, an internationally acclaimed researcher on back health and function, oversaw a 2003 study for the American Council on Exercise finding that four specific moves were best to promote back health. Find a mat in a stretching corner of your facility and get to work.
Bird Dog: Get into an all-fours position with a neutral spine. Extend your right arm forward and your left leg back. Pause for five to 10 counts. Bring these limbs to center and repeat with your left arm and right leg.
Cat-Cow: From all-fours, sink your spine as you lift your chest and tailbone. Hold for about 10 seconds, then arch your back dramatically, tucking your chin and tailbone. Hold this for an equal amount of time.
Curl-Up: Lie on your back and bend one knee and plant the foot, your other leg stays long on the mat. Place your hands under your lower back to support the arch there. Raise your head neck and shoulders as you focus on pulling your navel in toward your spine. Lower your head, switch legs and repeat.
Side Bridge: Lie on your side with your knees bent. Lift your hips — using the support of your bottom arm. Maintain stacked hips with your top hand resting on the top hip. Concentrate on pulling your hips up to create an arc, or rainbow. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, and release. Repeat on the opposite side.