7 Bodyweight Back Exercises For A Stronger, Healthier Back
If you’re looking for bodyweight exercises to include in at-home workouts, you probably already have a few that focus on the legs, arms, or abs — bodyweight back exercises aren’t typically the first that come to mind.
This might simply be because your back isn’t always in plain view, but having a strong back is important as it can actually help to improve your overall quality of life!
The lower back supports your posture and is used during most daily activities you do, such as lifting and carrying items like bags, backpacks or groceries. Focusing on improving your back strength at home using bodyweight back exercises can help you to perform these tasks easily and avoid injury.
Find out how you can build a strong back, what muscle groups you need to train, and the best bodyweight back exercises you can do to get there!
Why a strong back is important
Second only to the glutes, the muscles in your back make up the largest in the body and stabilise the spine. There are two main parts: the lower and the upper back.
You use your lower back when lifting or carrying, and to support your posture. While the upper back also supports these activities, it provides a strong base for the shoulders and holds up the head and neck.
Back training can help to prevent injury that may happen during sports, exercise, or daily tasks such as moving things around the house.
Dr. Zacharia Isaac, a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor at Harvard-affiliated Brighman and Women’s Hospital, says there are two basic — yet effective — ways to keep your back healthy: cardiovascular and strength training, as well as maintaining a good sleep cycle and emotional state.
When you do regular back-strengthening exercises you should begin to notice an improvement in mobility, balance and also a reduction in any back pain as a result of poor back or core strength.
Low back pain
According to the American Chiropractic Association, 31 million Americans will experience back pain at any given time. While back pain can be caused by varying factors including overuse, it can also happen as a result from underuse. When you aren’t using muscles above and below the lower back, such as your glutes and upper back, your lower back is less supported.
For example, if you lead a more sedentary lifestyle, your back muscles can lock up and become stiff and sore as a protective mechanism for the spine — especially if you slouch when sitting for long periods of time. When the muscles that support the lower back become tight, this can make back pain even worse.
Of course, it’s always best to seek advice from a trained health professional if you suffer from any type of back pain, but if you have only mild symptoms, there are some things you can do to help treat it.
In addition to moving your body regularly, performing muscular endurance training at home with bodyweight back exercises and activation exercises is a good way to strengthen these muscles.
Good core strength goes hand-in-hand with a healthy back, so learning how to engage your abs correctly during physical exercise can benefit you in the long-term and ensure your spine remains stabilised.
Hip flexor stretches and glute activation exercises can also help with lower back pain by stabilising and strengthening the hip joints — the hips and thoracic spine (that runs from the base of the neck to the abdomen) should be mobile, so if they are weak then the risk of injury to the lower back greatly increases.
Again, if you experience any chronic back pain or pain that won’t go away, make sure you reach out to a health professional to determine whether there may be any underlying issues.
Top back-strengthening exercises at home
Targeted exercises are a great way to strengthen and stretch muscles you want to focus on. As the back requires a lot of energy to train, these bodyweight back exercises are a good addition to any full-body workout for anyone who has a fitness goal in mind, like to lose fat.
Strengthening your back muscles not only helps to maximise your performance in other exercises, such as squats, it can also protect you against back pain that arises from compromised strength in weakened areas.
Lower back exercises
The muscles in the lower back help to stabilise the spine, and are used during rotation, extension and flexion. Try these bodyweight back exercises to strengthen the lower back muscles.
Back extension with fitball
Using a fitball, you can build lower back stability and strength by engaging the spinal erectors — a set of muscles that run along the length of your spine — to help straighten and rotate the back. To avoid injury, as you pause at the top of the exercise, make sure you don’t hyperextend your lower back.
This exercise improves balance, as well as strength in the glutes, hamstrings and core.
- Start lying in a prone (face down) position with your stomach on a fitball and both feet firmly planted on the floor, resting on the balls of your feet. Allow the rest of your torso to follow the natural curvature of the fitball. Bend your elbows to place your hands behind your ears, draw your shoulder blades down and back and engage your abdominal muscles to draw your belly button in towards your spine. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. Using your glutes and the muscles in your lower back, elevate your torso and extend your spine off the fitball until your body forms one straight line from your head to your heels.
- Exhale. Slowly lower your torso to return to the starting position.
Four point arm and leg extension
This is a great muscular endurance exercise that can help to strengthen and support the lower back, particularly if you suffer from any stiffness.
It requires you to engage your core at the same time that you stabilise through the lower back, but essentially recruits muscles across the whole body.
- Starting on all fours on a yoga mat, ensure that your knees are below your hips and your hands are below your shoulders. Set your spine in a neutral position and draw your shoulder blades down and back. This is your starting position.
- Gently draw your ribs to your hips to engage your core. Release and elevate your right arm and left leg until they are in line with your spine, ensuring that your shoulders and hips remain parallel to (in line with) the floor.
- Inhale. Lower your right arm and left leg to return to the starting position.
- Exhale. Release and elevate your left arm and right leg until they are in line with your spine, ensuring that your shoulders and hips remain parallel to (in line with) the floor.
- Inhale. Lower your left arm and right leg to return to the starting position.
Continue alternating between sides for an equal number of repetitions.
This exercise uses the back extensors, which are the muscles that run along your spine to keep you upright, and used when you arch your back. You’ll also work your glutes, hips, shoulders and core in the superman hold.
- Start by lying flat on your stomach on a yoga mat with both legs extended behind you, toes untucked. Place your forearms on top of one another parallel to (in line with) the front edge of the mat and lower your head to rest on top of your forearms. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. Elevate your head and chest off the mat and reach your hands towards your feet, drawing your shoulder blades down and back. At the same time, elevate your legs off the mat slightly with feet pointed. Draw your belly button in towards your spine to prevent discomfort in your lower back.
- Hold this position for approximately five seconds before lowering your legs, chest, forearms and head to return to the starting position.
Upper back exercises
Your upper body contains more than 10 different muscles that work together to help move your arms, shoulders and spine. Because they are such a large group of muscles, upper back exercises are a vital part of hypertrophy workouts and can help to improve and maximise performance in the upper body lifts.
In the scapular pushup, you’ll strengthen the muscles around the scapula (shoulder blades), but the main muscle that you strengthen during this exercise is the serratus anterior.
It joins between the ribs underneath the scapula, and its primary function is to keep the shoulder blades pressed up against the back. When you strengthen the serratus anterior, you can improve shoulder mobility.
- Begin on all fours on a yoga mat, ensuring that your hands are below your shoulders. Extend both legs behind you, resting on your knees. Your spine should be in a neutral position with your shoulder blades down and back. Gently draw your ribs to your hips to engage your core. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. While keeping your arms straight, slowly lower your chest towards the ground and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Exhale and press your arms into the floor to push your chest away from the mat as far as possible while keeping your arms straight. This should feel like your shoulder blades are being pushed apart.
The YTW is an effective exercise for shoulder health. It strengthens the rotator cuff muscles (the deeper muscles that help with shoulder movement) and the shoulder blades.
For anyone who sits at a lot — whether that’s at a desk for work or in the car — YTWs and shoulder stretches can help with rounded shoulders and bad posture.
- Begin lying face down on a yoga mat with your arms extended above your head. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. Draw your arms slightly out to resemble the shape of a ‘Y’ and, using the muscles in your shoulders and back, slowly raise your arms off the ground, ensuring that your thumbs point upwards. You should feel a small squeeze between your shoulder blades.
- Exhale. Lower your arms to return to the starting position. Keeping your arms extended, sweep your arms backwards until they are resting on the floor in line with your shoulders, palms facing downward.
- Inhale. Slowly raise your arms off the ground to resemble the shape of a ‘T’, ensuring that you draw your shoulder blades down and back.
- Exhale. Lower your arms back onto the floor. Keeping your arms extended, sweep your arms backwards until they are by your sides forming a 45-degree angle with your torso.
- Inhale. With your palms facing down, slowly raise your arms off the ground to resemble the shape of a ‘W’, ensuring that you draw your shoulder blades down and back.
- Exhale. Lower your arms back to the floor and sweep them forwards to return to the starting position.
Repeat. Each movement of the arms is equivalent to one repetition.
You shouldn’t attempt this exercise until you’ve mastered the regular plank first. Any plank variation can help to improve muscular endurance and uses the core muscles, which supports your pelvis and spine. You’ll strengthen your upper back muscles more as you reach through to touch your feet in the x plank.
- Place both hands on the floor shoulder-width apart and both feet apart behind you, resting on the balls of your feet. Brace your abdominals and maintain a neutral spine, ensuring your hands are directly below your shoulders. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. While stabilising through your abdominals, elevate your hips and release your left hand to reach towards your right foot (or as far as you can).
- Exhale. Lower your hips and place your left hand on the mat to return to the starting plank position.
- Inhale. While stabilising through your abdominals, elevate your hips and release your right hand to reach towards your left foot (or as far as you can).
- Exhale. Lower your hips and place your right hand on the mat to return to the starting position.
Continue alternating for an equal number of repetitions. Each repetition is equivalent to one touch of your hand to your foot.
While this exercise is demonstrated here using a machine, you can perform pullups or chinups anywhere you can safely lift yourself up!
Pullups target a range of different muscles in your upper body, such as the biceps and forearms, but they are one of the best exercises to target the lats, or latissimus dorsi. The lats start at the middle of your back and extend all the way up towards the armpit and shoulder blade. Learning how to do a pull-up well can be a process, but the basic steps are:
- Hold onto the chin-up bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from your body), and extend your arms so that you are hanging. This is your starting position.
- Using the muscles in your arms and back, bend your elbows and pull your body upwards to bring your chin up and over the chin-up bar. Avoid ‘shrugging’ your shoulders by drawing your shoulder blades down and back.
- Inhale. Extend your elbows and lower your body to return to the starting position.
Train your back at home with these bodyweight exercises
Now that you know why a healthy back is important, make sure that you do what you can to take care of it. Spend some time working out your fitness goals and how they might add more value to your everyday life.
In challenging times like these, it’s important now more than ever to get up and move as much as you can, even if it’s just going for a walk around your area or skipping at home.
Did you try these bodyweight back exercises at home? Let us know in the comments!
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.