Back Exercises


Back exercises are any type of exercises performed on muscles within the back or on muscles that affect the back. The back of humans consists of the large posterior area of the body (opposite of the chest), ranging from its bottom (the top of the buttocks) to its top (the back of the neck and shoulders), and including everything in the middle. The muscles of the back include the large muscles on either side of the back (latissimus dorsi), the lower back (erector spinae), and the upper back (rhomboids and trapezius). The back also includes the spine, sometimes also called the backbone, which protects the spinal canal and all of its nerves that spread out throughout the body.


The purpose of back exercises is to strengthen the back muscles so they can best protect the spine (vertebral column), which helps to physically support the upper body and to offer protection for the spinal cord. Consequently, a strong back provides for better overall health and fitness to the entire body. Back exercises also help to rehabilitate the spine and alleviate muscle pain when back pain occurs. Generally, back exercises are used in strength training to strengthen all of the muscles of the back, or to target certain muscles within the back that are causing pain or various problems. When back exercises are performed properly, they help to add flexibility and strengthening to the back muscles, which helps to avoid injury and to minimize its severity when injury does occur.

When severe back pain occurs, it is usually recommended to stay in bed or at least to stop any strenuous back movement for a day or so. However, other than for this short period, it is better to perform back exercises so the healing process can more quickly begin. It is always best to confer with a medical professional before starting such exercises.


Back exercises are used by anyone with back problems, such as those with painful or sore backs, and anyone with a desire to maintain a healthy and fit lifestyle.


The benefits of exercise have been known for more than 2,000 years. The exact reasons why exercise is important in staying fit and healthy was only first discovered in the middle part of the twentieth century. At that time, medical studies were performed that showed higher (lower) rates of heart attacks with men in occupations that required small (high) levels of exercise. Since then, many related studies have verified these initial studies, and further extended data available on the benefits of exercising, including back exercises, for all humans.


The back consists of many muscles, some small in size, and others much larger. The smaller ones are used to facilitate the movement of the upper limbs and the spine. When performing back exercises the three main muscles in the back that receive the most benefit are the latissimus dorsi, the erector spinae, and the trapezius. They are the three primary muscles that increase in strength and size when performing back exercises.

The latissimus dorsi muscle is nicknamed the “lats” by bodybuilders. This very broad-sized muscle is a flat, triangular, dorso-lateral muscle that is located in the lower part of the thoracic region of the back and posterior to the arm. It is partially covered by the trapezius muscle. It is used for adduction (to draw inward toward the median axis), extension, transverse extension, flexion (to bend, from an extended position), and internal rotation (specifically, of the shoulder joint).

Exercises to strengthen the back muscles. While benefiting the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the spine, these exercises also help to fortify the adjoining abdominal, gluteus, and hip muscles.

The erector spinae, which is made up of many muscles and tendons, is basically the muscle that makes up the lower back. It consists of flat, long, triangular muscles that run vertically from the lower length of the spine to the gluteus maximus (buttock) muscle. Three of them—iliocostalis (medium in size and most lateral), longissimus (middle in location, and longest in size), and spinalis (smallest in size)—extend throughout the cervical, lumbar, and thoracic regions of the back. The erector spinae muscle is also located just underneath the latissimus dorsi muscle.

The trapezius muscle, abbreviated as the “traps,” are located longitudinally from the back of the neck (occipital bone) to the middle of the back (lower thoracic vertebrae), and extends laterally from the spine to each shoulder blade (scapula). It is used for movement within three regions: the superior region (which supports the weight of the arm), the inferior region (which rotates and depresses the scapulae), and the intermediate region (which retracts the scapulae).

Besides strengthening the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the spine, back exercises also help to strengthen the adjoining abdominal (stomach) muscles, gluteus (buttock) muscles, and hip muscles. When exercised on a regular basis, these large muscles can help to reduce or eliminate back pain because they all help to keep the spine properly aligned, along with facilitating the twisting and turning motions of the spine. A proper back exercise program should be comprehensive in order to be effective. That is, it should involve the entire body with a combination of stretching exercises, strengthening exercises, and low-impact aerobic conditioning.

Stretching exercises

The stretching of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons within the back and spine, and in the neighboring regions of the buttocks, hip, neck, and legs is part of a back exercise routine. When these soft tissues are restricted in their motions (such as from injury or lack of use), pain in the back can be more severe. By stretching these soft tissues, relief from back pain is much more likely. For instance, the stretching of the back can lower tension and pain within the back and increase its mobility.

The muscles in the hip and buttocks should also be stretched, which facilitates back flexibility. Generally, it takes weeks, and sometimes months, to properly stretch back muscles before pain relief is attained. When pain is reduced or eliminated, it is necessary to continue these stretching exercises on a regular basis to maintain this regained flexibility and mobility.

Erector spinae—
Also called extensor spinae, a group of muscles and tendons that run primarily vertically within the back, lying in a groove next to the vertebral column and extending throughout the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical regions.
The process of rupturing within the wall of a body cavity, such as the spinal column.
Latissimus dorsi—
The broadest muscle in the back, which is a flat dorso-lateral muscle on the trunk and behind the arms.
Rhombus-shaped muscles that are used for retraction; two main ones are called the rhomboid major muscle and the rhomboid minor muscle.
Two large flat triangular muscles that are located from the back of the neck to each shoulder blade, which help to move the shoulder blades, support the arms, and move the head backward.
Strengthening exercises

Two common back strengthening exercise methods are Dynamic Lumbar Stabilization exercises and McKenzie exercises. Dynamic Lumbar Stabilization exercises are geared toward keeping back muscles strong, while the McKenzie exercises are used to reduce pain within the back. Since each have different but sometimes matching goals, they can often be used together for individual exercise programs.

Dynamic Lumbar Stabilization exercises are used to keep the back strong and the spine well positioned. Thus, a well-positioned and comfortable spine is one that is in a position of neutrality—what is called a “neutral” spine.

The McKenzie exercises are used to reduce back pain caused from problems within the discs of the spine. These exercises extend the spine through various exercises. As such, they help to reduce disc herniation and to eliminate unnecessary nerve pressure within the spinal cord. Many different exercises are available within the McKenzie program; however, all use contraction of the muscles, along with arm movements, to extend the spine.

Low-impact aerobic conditioning

Low-impact aerobic exercises increase blood flow to the back while minimizing unnecessary impacts to the spine. Blood contains essential nutrients that help to improve the condition of bones within the back. With nutrients added to the backbone from a low-impact aerobic conditioning program, the back can heal faster when injured or better maintain its strength over the years.

Several types of aerobic exercise are available. These include walking, bicycling, or swimming; using a stationary bicycle or elliptical or step machine, or performing various types of water exercises and therapies. For instance, walking 2–3 mi (3.2–4.8 km) three times each week is an easy way to improve back strength without serious jarring motions to the back. In addition, for people unable to walk long distances, stationary upright or recumbent bicycles are comfortable ways to strengthen the back while getting a solid aerobic workout.


It is always recommended to seek professional help before starting a back exercise routine. Medical doctors advise people with back problems as to the correct type of individualized program for back exercises based on the type of problem that is occurring. Instructions are provided that state the correct form and technique that individuals should use with these exercises.


Risks from back exercises can be minimized by first seeking medical advice from a trusted medical professional. Make sure the body is ready for back exercises by gradually building up an exercise routine. If the exercise feels comfortable for the back, then it is appropriate for one's level. Never do too much and risk injuring back muscles.


The back muscles are some of the largest muscles in the human body. Therefore, when injured or inactive, these muscles can adversely affect many other parts of the body. When strong, these muscles provide much strength and support to the upper body. A strong back helps to prevent injuries to other muscles when exercising or doing physical activities as part of a normal daily routine at work, home, or school. Low back pain has been experienced by more than 80% of adults in the United States at some time in their lives. Low back pain can be relieved through strong back muscles.

  • Should I attempt back exercises? If so, what type of back exercises should I do?
  • How long should I wait before doing back exercises if I have a serious back injury?
  • What types of lifestyle changes will help along with back exercises?

A regular and proper set of back exercises will help to maintain a trim and fit figure because exercising such muscles burns many calories. Further, a strong, wide back helps to maintain correct posture, and makes the waist appear smaller. In addition, strong back muscles allow people to perform better in sports and in everyday activities.

See also Bicycling ; Low back pain ; Muscle pain ; Stretching ; Walking .



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Dagenals, Simon, and Scott Haldeman, eds. Evidence-based Management of Low Back Pain. St. Louis: Elsevier Mosby, 2012.

Key, Josephine. Back Pain: A Movement Problem, A Clinical Approach Incorporating Relevant Research and Practice. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, 2010.

Moorman III, Claude T., and Donald T. Kirkendall, eds. Praeger Handbook of Sports Medicine and Athlete Health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011.

Smith, William. Exercises for Back Pain. Long Island, NY: Hatherleigh Press, 2009.


“Slide Show: Back Exercises in 15 Minutes a Day.” Mayo Clinic. May 3, 2016. (accessed January 9, 2017).


American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 9400 W Higgins Rd., Rosemont, IL, 60018, (847) 823-7186, (800) 626-6726, Fax: (847) 823-8125,, .

American Pain Society, 8735 W Higgins Rd., Ste. 300, Chicago, IL, 60631, (847) 375-4715,, .

North American Spine Association, 7075 Veterans Blvd., Burr Ridge, IL, 60527, (630) 230-3600, .

William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.