4 Simple Back Exercises You Can Do at Home

Improve your muscle balance, strengthen your core, and avoid poor posture with these expert-approved back exercises that can help prevent pain and injury.

The importance of a strong back

It sometimes seems to hold the weight of the world, so it’s no wonder your back is complicated.

A number of large and small muscle groups in your back all work together to help support your spine and allow for movement throughout your core. This includes your torso, hips, and shoulders.

Just think about it—would you be able to throw a ball without the muscles of your back? Or could you shift or lift a hip without help from the muscles of your low back? Of course not.

The muscles of your back are an incredibly important part of the kinetic chain that allows for the compound, fluid motions you largely take for granted every day.

Unfortunately, due to inactive lifestyles, poor posture, and a general tendency for people to “forget” to train the less obvious muscles spanning the back half of the body, the major muscle groups of the back are often subject to weaknesses, imbalances, and, as a result, are more prone to injury. (Try these exercises for lower back pain.)

“Everything in your body is connected,” says Alyssa Kuhn, a physical therapist, arthritis specialist, and founder of Keep the Adventure Alive, in Sandy, Utah.

“Our back is extremely important because it dictates how the rest of our body responds, especially with posture. If our back muscles get weakened, we tend to get into that rounded shoulder, hunched-over position that nobody wants.”

(Here’s how to improve posture for back pain relief.)

When you start to keep your back strong and healthy through back exercises at home or at the gym, Kuhn emphasizes that the rest of your body and joints are likely to remain healthier and more mobile because they’re not being hampered in their movements by your back’s weaknesses or imbalances.

“In that hunched-over position, you have a very high risk of developing shoulder and neck pain or experiencing an injury,” she says.

(These are the surprising ways bad posture can affect your health.)

Strength training with back exercises at home

The solution? Make sure you’re performing strength training moves that target the major muscle groups of your back on a regular basis. You can do this at home, a park, or a gym without much equipment, but you’ll want access to dumbbells (or you can sub in kettlebells), a resistance band, and a suspension trainer.

You can even make your own suspension trainer for about $20— no need to buy something expensive. However, if you aren’t into DIY, you can also buy a suspension trainer on Amazon or at a sporting goods store.

Investing in a suspension trainer of some sort is a good idea, according to Kuhn. “There are lots of exercises you can do with the suspension straps because they not only work your back, but they also challenge your core which is a big plus,” she says.

Of course, if you have the strength to perform pull-ups, access to a pull-up bar is wonderful as well, but pull-ups are not a requirement of an excellent back workout. Consider the following exercises suggested by Kuhn.

Single-arm dumbbell row

The single-arm dumbbell row is an excellent, compound (multiple-muscle group) exercise that targets the latissimus dorsi, traps, and rhomboids.

Together, these are the largest muscle groups of the back, along with the posterior side of the shoulder, the biceps, and even the core and spinal erectors to help you maintain the proper position.

Because it’s a single-side movement, performing this exercise regularly can help you correct any side-to-side differences in strength that you may have (most people do).

Single Arm Dumbbell Row ExerciseCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C

How to do it

Using a bench or a sturdy chair, set up by placing your right hand and right knee on the bench, extending your left leg behind you to provide balance on the ball of your left foot.

Your back should be flat from your hips to the top of your head, your hips and shoulders level. (Your left hip and shoulder shouldn’t be higher, or angled up and out, from your right side.)

Check to make sure your right palm is under your right shoulder, your right knee under your right hip.

Hold a dumbbell in your left hand, your arm fully extended and perpendicular to the ground, your hand holding the dumbbell directly under your left shoulder, your palm facing inward.

Tighten your core as you take a breath in to help keep your torso completely steady as you perform the movement.

As you exhale, pull your shoulder blade in toward your spine and use the muscles of your upper- and mid-back to draw the dumbbell straight up to your chest, your elbow bending backward, but remaining close to your side.

Check your left shoulder when the dumbbell reaches your chest—is it still level with your right shoulder? You don’t want to “start a lawnmower” during this move, yanking your shoulder back and twisting your torso as you pull the dumbbell to your chest. The focus should be solely on the muscles of your back, not your shoulder.

Reverse the movement and return the dumbbell back to the starting position. Slow and steady is the key—don’t start using momentum to “help you” lift heavier weights.

Aim for 10 to 12 repetitions where the last one or two reps are hard, but not impossible, to perform with perfect form. Switch sides. Complete a total of two to three sets per side.

(Try these easy moves to get stronger arms.)

Two-arm suspension row

As Kuhn points out, suspension trainer exercises are helpful because, in addition to targeting the major muscles of the back, they also require a greater level of core engagement to remain steady and stable as you perform each repetition.

The muscles targeted during two-arm suspension rows are very similar to those of the single-arm dumbbell row (lats, traps, rhomboids, shoulders, and biceps). However, you’re going to experience higher levels of engagement through your spinal erectors, abdominals, hips, and the stabilizers of your shoulders as well.

One more thing to remember about suspension trainer moves is that you’re lifting your body’s weight and using gravity to provide resistance. The greater the angle of your body, the more challenging the exercise will be because you’re ultimately lifting more of your body’s weight.

It may take a few tries to figure out exactly what angle you want or need your body to be when performing these rows, but it’s easy to make adjustments as you go by simply changing your foot position.

Two Arm Suspension Row ExerciseCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C

How to do it

Hold the handle of a suspension trainer in each hand and take a few steps back from the axis point, fully straightening the straps. With your feet planted firmly roughly hip-distance apart, slowly lean back, straightening your arms fully.

Your body should form a completely straight line from heels to head, with your body creating an angle anywhere between 30 degrees and 85 degrees with the floor.

From this position, inhale and engage your core to help keep your torso completely steady as you perform the exercise. As you exhale, pull your shoulder blades in toward your spine and bend your elbows, drawing your chest and torso up to meet the handles.

Hold for a beat, then with complete control (and this is important), slowly extend your elbows and lower yourself back to the starting position.

If you find it’s too hard to perform this downward (eccentric) portion of the movement with control, you’ll need to adjust your foot position so your body’s angle is closer to perpendicular. Perform a total of eight to 12 reps with perfect form, making any angle adjustments as needed. Complete two to three total sets.

(Here are some upper body exercises to do with dumbbells.)

Single-arm suspension row

The single-arm suspension row is performed in almost the exact same way as the two-arm row, and it likewise targets the same major muscle groups. The main difference is that it’s focusing on one side of the body.

It’s important to keep your torso level throughout the movement (if you’re working your right side, you don’t want to lose control of the position of the left side of your body) and it’s going to further challenge your core.

For this reason, you’ll likely need to choose a body position that’s closer to perpendicular (more in the 60- to 85-degree angle range) than when performing the two-arm row.

Single Arm Suspension Row ExerciseCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C

How to do it

Set up in the same general manner as with the two-arm row, but only hold a suspension trainer handle in your right hand.

Find a foot position, with the trainer fully extended from its axis point, and plant your feet firmly. Engage your core completely before starting to lean back.

Since you’re only holding one handle, the natural inclination as you lean back will be for the left side of your body to allow gravity to continue pulling it toward the ground, opening your left shoulder and hip outward. You don’t want to do this. Rather, as you lean back, your goal is to maintain perfectly level hips and shoulders from side-to-side.

When your right arm is fully extended, your left shoulder and hip won’t be angled downward from your right shoulder and hip.

You’ll also want to make sure that from your starting position, your right palm is facing inward. From this position, exhale and use the muscles of the right side of your back to pull your chest and torso toward the suspension trainer handle.

Keep your elbow and upper arm close to your side as you draw yourself upward. This will help protect the shoulder joint.

When your chest reaches the handle, hold for a beat, then very slowly and steadily, extend your right arm and lower yourself back to the starting position. Aim to perform 8 to 10 repetitions before switching sides. Complete a total of two sets per side.

(Work out your core more with these best core exercises.)

Banded pull-aparts

Banded pull-aparts are an excellent option for targeting the major muscles of the upper back (the lats, traps, and rhomboids). It also puts a greater focus on the backside of the shoulder—an area that’s often forgotten.

All you need to perform this move is a long resistance band (you can also use a long looped band if it’s what you have on hand.

Banded Pull Aparts ExerciseCourtesy Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C

How to do it

Stand straight and tall with perfect posture, your core engaged, your knees very slightly bent, and your ears “stacked” in line with your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.

Hold a resistance band between your hands and extend your arms directly in front of your shoulders so your hands are roughly shoulder-distance apart, your palms facing down, and the resistance band taut, but not tight.

Keeping your torso completely steady and your arms straight, on an exhale, pull your hands apart, squeezing your shoulder blades toward your spine to move your arms until they make a “T” with your torso. Hold for a beat, and then steadily reverse the movement, returning your hands to their starting position.

Perform eight to 12 repetitions per set, aiming for a total of two to three sets.

Next, if you only have resistance bands, try this resistance band full-body workout.

Sources
  • Alyssa Kuhn, DPT, physical therapist, arthritis specialist, and founder of Keep the Adventure Alive
  • HASfit: $20 DIY TRX | DIY Suspension Trainer

Laura Williams Bustos, MS, ACSM EP-C
I'm a fitness expert with a master's degree in exercise science and certifications in exercise physiology, yoga, sports nutrition, sports conditioning, behavioral change, and youth fitness. I've written professionally in the field for more than 10 years, with bylines in Men's Journal, VerywellFit, Runner's World, Health, LiveStrong, Onnit, Bodybuilding.com, and Thrillist. I'm also the author of the internationally-published book, Partner Workouts, published by DK Books. In addition to writing about health and fitness, I worked as a professor of exercise science for three years.