I have a confession to make: my waist isn’t as small as it looks. Women often compliment my “tiny” waist, guessing it’s 25 inches, but that’s not true. I wear a 29-waist in jeans, and I’m a size six in dresses. Of course that’s not “big,” but people always seem to think that I’m more petite than I am, and part of the reason is the muscle in my back.

It’s not just guys who want wider backs. Ladies benefit from broadening their lats because they make the waist look smaller by comparison. Meanwhile, a more defined upper back also looks great in a halter top, razorback tank, or backless dress, and a strong lower back helps you pull off a keyhole dress or crop top. And those are just the aesthetic benefits. Stronger back muscles are a must for good posture and injury prevention. Since most people (both women and men) focus on muscles they can see in the mirror, it’s the ones on the back side of the body that need the most attention, and must be built up for a balanced look.

Strengthen and Tone Your Back with These Workouts

The following are my favorite workouts for targeting every major component of the back musculature. Most of them are doable with only minimal equipment, but I’ve also included routines that are specially designed for a small home gym or a few pairs of light dumbbells.

Pre-Workout Back Stretches

Every workout should begin with a mobility warmup that prepares your joints, tissues, and nervous system for the kind of training you’re about to do. Onnit Durability Coach Cristian Plascencia (@cristian_thedurableathlete) offers the following movements for prepping the back and shoulders for strong pulling.

The Full Back Workout for Women

This routine works the entire back, from the muscles around the shoulder blades to the lats (the big muscles on the sides of your back) and spinal erectors (the ones that start at your lower back and run up the center).

Many people have trouble feeling their back muscles when doing exercises like pulldowns and rows. They feel the work more in their arms than in the back, and so they never fully activate the target muscles. This is why I’m starting you off with scap pullups. You simply hang from a pullup bar and draw your shoulder blades down to raise your body up. They don’t look like much—you’ll only move a few inches—but they’ll help you connect your mind to your muscles and feel your back working. This should help you focus on the right muscles during the rest of the workout. Note: don’t worry if you’re not strong enough to do a full pullup—you only have to pull with your back muscles on a scap pullup. Your elbows don’t bend.

Directions

The exercises are grouped and marked with letters. Do one set of 1A, then one set of 1B, and then 1C. Rest 60 seconds, and repeat for 3 total rounds. Perform the remaining groups of exercises in the same fashion. For the last two exercises, 4 and 5, perform only one set of each, resting 15 seconds after 4.

1A Scap Pullup

Reps: 6–8R

Step 1. Hang from a pullup bar with hands outside shoulder width.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades down and together to raise your body up. The range of motion will only be a few inches. Hold the top position a moment.

1B Band Face Pull

Reps: 12

Step 1. Attach an elastic exercise band to a sturdy object at about chest height. Grasp the loop with both hands a few inches apart and stand back so that your arms extend in front of you and there’s tension on the band.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades back together and downward as you pull the band to neck level, flaring your elbows out to your sides. Pause for a moment and then extend your arms again.

1C Suspension Row

Reps: 12

Step 1. Set the handles of a suspension trainer to about hip level. Grasp the handles and hang from them with arms straight. Draw your shoulder blades together and downward (“proud chest”). Your body should form a straight line from your head to your feet. Brace your core.

Step 2. Row your body up to the handles, contracting your back fully.

2A Seated Cable Row

Reps: 12

Step 1. Attach a V-grip handle to a seated cable row station and sit tall on the bench with knees bent.

Step 2. Row the handle to your sternum, drawing your shoulders back together and downward as you pull. Stay upright; don’t lean back.

2B Pilates Double Kick

Reps: 10

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and turn your head to rest on your right cheek. Bring your hands behind your back to rest one on top of the other. Draw your elbows out wide and down to the floor. Squeeze your legs together.Bend your knees to bring your heels to your butt—“kick” it twice—and then lower your legs to the floor again.

Step 2. Take a deep breath into your belly. Extend your arms behind you, toward the floor, and raise your torso off the floor while looking in front of you. Hold for a moment, and then turn your head to the opposite side, bend your elbows, and lower back down to rest on the other cheek. The next rep begins with another kick of the feet.

2C Posture Band Hold

Reps: Hold for 20–30 seconds

Step 1. Sit on the floor with legs extended and wrap a band around the bottom of your feet. Hold a loop of the band in each hand and sit upright with your shoulders down and back (think: “proud chest”). Engage your core.

Step 2. Row the band to your belly and hold the position.

3A Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Reps: 15

Step 1. Hold a pair of dumbbells and, keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend your hips back until your torso is about 45 degrees to the floor.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades together and downward as you row the weights to your sides.

3B Renegade Row

Reps: 6–8 (each side)

Step 1. Get into a pushup position, resting your hands on a pair of dumbbells. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Lean your weight to your right side, pushing that hand into the floor. Your left side will feel lighter. Now row the left-hand dumbbell to your side, but avoid twisting your hips or shoulders. Lower the weight and repeat on the other side.

3C Pilates Dart

Reps: 4

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor with your arms at your sides. Lengthen your neck and tuck your tailbone under so that your pelvis is perpendicular to the floor. You can rest your forehead on a towel. Inhale into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Extend your back to raise your head off the floor. Tuck your chin. Drive your shoulder blades back and down, and extend your arms as you rise, raising them slightly off the floor and turning your palms to face down. You should look like a dart flying toward its target. Exhale and lower back to the starting position.

3D Dancer Half Lift

Reps: 10

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor, resting your head on the back of your hands. Tuck your tailbone under slightly so that your pelvis is perpendicular to the floor and brace your core.

Step 2. Take a deep breath into your belly and extend your back to raise your torso and hands off the floor.


Step 3.
Extend your arms out and away from your sides, rotating your wrists so that your thumbs face behind you.

Step 4. Continue reaching back with your arms until they’re at your sides, palms facing the floor. That’s one rep.

4 Ballistic Row

Reps: Perform reps for 60 seconds

Step 1. Hold a dumbbell (or kettlebell, as shown here) in one hand. Bend your hips back while keeping a long spine from your head to your hips. You can raise your free arm out to the side to help you keep your shoulders parallel to the floor.

Step 2. Explosively row the weight to your side and then let it go, catching it with the opposite hand in mid air. Lower the weight under control, and then row it explosively and catch it with the opposite hand again. Work for 60 seconds and then rest 15 seconds.

5 Swimmer

Reps: Perform reps for 60 seconds

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and extend your arms and legs. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Raise your left arm and right leg. Lower them as you raise your right arm and left leg. Continue fluttering your legs and arms as if swimming. Work for 60 seconds.

Upper-Back Workout For Women

Most women don’t want big, bulky traps like a wrestler. But a little extra muscle and definition in the upper back goes a long way toward building overall body strength, and making an off-the-shoulder top look great on you. This workout targets the traps, rhomboids, and rear delts—no “bro” exercises like shrugs necessary.

Directions

The exercises are grouped and marked with letters. Do one set of 1A, then one set of 1B, and then 1C. Rest 60 seconds, and repeat for 3 total rounds. Perform the remaining groups of exercises in the same fashion.

1A Negative Pullup

Reps: 6–8

Step 1. Stand on a box or step so you can reach the pullup bar. Grasp the bar with hands just outside shoulder width (or use the neutral-grip handles if your bar has them). Jump up so your chin is over the bar and hold yourself there.

Step 2. Lower your body under control until you’re at a dead hang. (Aim for 3–5 seconds.) Jump back up to begin the next rep. If that’s too hard, perform only one rep, but lower yourself as slowly as you can.

1B Pilates Foam Roller Pull

Reps: 10

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and extend your arms in front of you, resting them on a foam roller. Point your thumbs to the ceiling. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades down and together and maintain the position as you exhale, raise your torso off the floor, and drive your forearms into the roller. The movement will roll the foam toward you a few inches. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

1C Suspension Row

Reps: 12

Step 1. Set the handles of a suspension trainer to about hip level. Grasp the handles and hang from them with arms straight. Draw your shoulder blades together and downward (“proud chest”). Your body should form a straight line from your head to your feet. Brace your core.

Step 2. Row your body up to the handles, contracting your back fully.

2A Rear-Delt Flye

Reps: 12

Step 1. Hold a pair of dumbbells and, keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend your hips back so your torso is at 45 degrees to the floor.

Step 2. Raise your arms out 90 degrees, drawing your shoulders back and downward.

2B Seal Row

Reps: 12

Step 1. Lie chest down on a bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand.

Step 2. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core. Raise your torso as you row the weights to your sides. Hold the top position a moment.

2C Pilates Upper Back Lift

1Reps: 10

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor (you can use a rolled up towel to cushion your forehead). Rest your arms away from your sides with elbows bent and palms flat.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades together and downward as you raise your arms off the floor until your feel your upper back contract fully. Hold for a moment.

3A Wide-Grip Cable Row

Reps: 15

Step 1. Attach a long lat bar to a seated cable row station and sit tall on the bench with knees bent. Your grip should be outside shoulder width.

Step 2. Row the bar to your sternum, drawing your shoulders back together and downward as you pull. Stay upright; don’t lean back.

3B Cable External Rotation

Reps: 12 (each side)

Step 1. Attach a D-handle to the cable of a pulley station. Set the pulley at about elbow height. Stand far enough away from the station so that the tension of the cable pulls your forearm gently in front of your body.

Step 2. Keeping your arm at your side, rotate your forearm outward until your knuckles point behind you.

Lower-Back Workout for Women

Virtually everyone deals with lower-back pain at one time or another—either because the person doesn’t lift at all, or because of the way that person lifts (i.e., bad form, like rounding your back on a stiff-legged deadlift, mountain climber, etc.). This routine strengthens the lower back with joint-friendly exercises that will help to alleviate pain and prevent any more of it. I borrow a lot of moves from Pilates here because they’re safe to perform and help the back feel better while you’re doing them.

Directions

The exercises are grouped and marked with letters. Do one set of 1A, then one set of 1B, and then 1C. Rest 60 seconds, and repeat for 3 total rounds. For 2A–2D, perform each exercise for 30 seconds and rest 10 seconds between moves. For the windshield wiper, just do 3 sets for the one move by itself.

1A Back Extension

Reps: 12

Step 1. Set the pad of a back extension bench so that, when you lie on it, the top is at the crease of your hips. Set up on the bench and secure your feet behind the ankle pads. Keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend at the hips and lower your torso until your body is bent 90 degrees.

Step 2. Squeeze your glutes and extend your hips until your body forms a straight line. Do not hyperextend your back to come up any higher.

1B Superman

Reps: 12

Step 1. Lie on the floor facedown and extend your arms in front of you.

Step 2. Brace your core. Raise your torso and legs off the floor as high as you can while reaching forward with your arms and back with your legs. Hold the top position for a moment.

1C Pilates Flat Back Reach

Reps: 12

Step 1. Keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend your hips back until your torso is parallel to the floor and reach your arms out wide. Twist your torso as far as you can to the right, keeping your arms spread as wide as possible.

Step 2. Twist as far as you can to the left. Keep your spine long with your lower back neutral. That’s one rep.

2A Swimmer

Reps: Work for 30 sec.

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and extend your arms and legs. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Raise your left arm and right leg. Lower them as you raise your right arm and left leg. Continue fluttering your legs and arms as if swimming.

2B Pilates Double Kick

Reps: Work for 30 sec.

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and turn your head to rest on your right cheek. Bring your hands behind your back to rest one on top of the other. Draw your elbows out wide and down to the floor. Squeeze your legs together.Bend your knees to bring your heels to your butt—“kick” it twice—and then lower your legs to the floor again.

Step 2. Take a deep breath into your belly. Extend your arms behind you, toward the floor, and raise your torso off the floor while looking in front of you. Hold for a moment, and then turn your head to the opposite side, bend your elbows, and lower back down to rest on the other cheek. The next rep begins with another kick of the feet.

2C Swimming Superman

Reps: Work for 30 sec.

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor with arms and legs extended. Tuck your tailbone slightly so that your pelvis is perpendicular to the floor. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Raise your torso off the floor and spread your arms out wide and then behind you—as if performing a breast stroke—until your palms touch your legs.

2D Slow Bridge

Reps: Work for 30 sec.

Step 1. Lie on your back on the floor and bend your knees so your heels are close to your butt. You’re your tailbone under and take a deep breath into your belly. Brace your core.

Step 2. Drive through your heels to raise your butt in the air. Avoid hyperextending your lower back. Lower back to the floor HOW SLOWLY?

3 Windshield Wiper

Sets: 3  Reps: 8 (each side)

Step 1. Lie on your back on the floor and extend your arms out 90 degrees to your sides. Bend your hips 90 degrees and raise your legs straight up in the air. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Twist your hips to the left, lowering your legs as far as you can toward the floor. Raise them back up and to the other side. That’s one rep.

Dumbbell Back Workout for Women

Whether I’m working out in a small hotel gym or in my aunt’s garage with her little pink weights, dumbbells are my secret weapon. You don’t need more than a pair or two to get in a great session. Take this routine on the road with you.

Directions

The exercises are grouped and marked with letters. Do one set of 1A, then one set of 1B, and then 1C. Rest 60 seconds, and repeat for 3 total rounds. Perform the remaining groups of exercises in the same fashion.

If you’re limited to very light weights, simply perform your reps more slowly, extending the time your muscles spend under tension. If you have them, a pair of five-pounders, 15s, and 25s would work great here.

1A Overhand Bent-Over Row

Reps: 12

Step 1. Hold a pair of dumbbells and, keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend your hips back until your torso is about 45 degrees to the floor.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades together and downward as you row the weights to your sides.

1B One-Arm Bent-Over Row

Reps: 10 (each side)

Step 1. Hold a dumbbell in one hand. Bend your hips back while keeping a long spine from your head to your hips. Rest your forearm on your lead leg to help brace you.

Step 2. Row the weight to your side.

1C Alternating Row

Reps: 12 (each side)

Perform as you did the bent-over row but alternate arms. Row your left and lower down, and then your right. Avoid twisting.

2A Pilates Upper-Back Lift

Reps: 12

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor (you can use a rolled up towel to cushion your forehead). Rest your arms away from your sides with elbows bent and palms flat.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades together and downward as you raise your arms off the floor until your feel your upper back contract fully. Hold for a moment.

2B Alternating Bear Row

Reps: 6 (each)

Step 1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and get on all fours on the floor. Press your hands into the dumbbells and drive your toes into the floor to raise your knees about an inch. Brace your core. Your head, spine, and pelvis should form a long line.

Step 2. Row one dumbbell to your side, replace it, and then row the other. Avoid twisting in either direction and keep your core tight.

2C Renegade Row

Reps: 6 (each side)

Step 1. Get into a pushup position, resting your hands on a pair of dumbbells. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Lean your weight to your right side, pushing that hand into the floor. Your left side will feel lighter. Now row the left-hand dumbbell to your side, but avoid twisting your hips or shoulders. Lower the weight and repeat on the other side.

3A Bent-Over Twisting Row

Reps: 12

Step 1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and, keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend your hips back until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.

Step 2. Row the weights to your sides, twisting your wrists outward as you pull so that your palms face up at the top of the movement.

3B Swimmer

Reps: 16

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and extend your arms and legs. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Raise your left arm and right leg. Lower them as you raise your right arm and left leg. Continue fluttering your legs and arms as if swimming.

3C Swimming Superman

Reps: 10

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor with your hands at your sides. Tuck your tailbone so that your pelvis is perpendicular to the floor and brace your core. Take a deep breath into your belly and extend your back to raise your torso off the floor while reaching out 90 degrees with your arms.

Step 2. Keep your torso up as you reach behind you with your arms. Lower yourself back to the floor to complete the rep.

At-Home Back Workout

Back is a muscle group that people tend to use a lot of machines to work. Cable pulleys give you a variety of ways to keep tension on the muscles in positions where there normally wouldn’t be much, such as at the bottom of a row. But bands are a good substitute for cables, and are much easier to store in a home gym. Meanwhile, old-fashioned dumbbell rows consistently come up on trainers’ lists of the best back exercises, because they work the back and core simultaneously. Both kinds of exercises form the foundation of this workout.

Directions

The exercises are grouped and marked with letters. Do one set of 1A, then one set of 1B, and then 1C. Rest 60 seconds, and repeat for 3 total rounds. Perform the remaining groups of exercises in the same fashion. To end the workout, do one set of the Pilates double kick by itself, performing reps for 60 seconds (or until failure).

1A Single-Arm Deep Bent-Over Row

Reps: 10 (each side)

Step 1. Grasp a light dumbbell in your left hand and take a long stride forward with your right leg. Keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend your torso forward until it’s about 45 degrees to the floor. Brace your torso by driving your right forearm into your right leg.

Step 2. Row the weight to your hip. Avoid twisting your shoulders or hips. Complete your reps on that side and then switch sides.

1B Bent-Over Twisting Dumbbell Row

Sets: 15

Step 1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and, keeping a long spine from your head to your hips, bend your hips back until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor.

Step 2. Row the weights to your sides, twisting your wrists outward as you pull so that your palms face up at the top of the movement.

1C Pilates Foam-Roller Pull

Sets: 12

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and extend your arms in front of you, resting them on a foam roller. Point your thumbs to the ceiling. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Draw your shoulder blades down and together and maintain the position as you exhale, raise your torso off the floor, and drive your forearms into the roller. The movement will roll the foam toward you a few inches.

2A Alternating Bear Row

Reps: 6 (each side)

Step 1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and get on all fours on the floor. Press your hands into the dumbbells and drive your toes into the floor to raise your knees about an inch. Brace your core. Your head, spine, and pelvis should form a long line.

Step 2. Row one dumbbell to your side, replace it, and then row the other. Avoid twisting in either direction and keep your core tight.

2B Bird Dog

Reps: 10 (each side)

Step 1. Get on all fours and tuck your tailbone so that your pelvis is perpendicular to the floor. Brace your core.

Step 2. Simultaneously extend your right arm and left leg. Avoid twisting in any direction. Return to all fours and repeat on the opposite side.

2C Swimmer

Reps: 10 (each side)

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and extend your arms and legs. Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core.

Step 2. Raise your left arm and right leg. Lower them as you raise your right arm and left leg. Continue fluttering your legs and arms as if swimming.

3A Band Row

Reps: 10 (hold the last one)

Step 1. Sit on the floor and wrap a band around both feet and grasp the loop ends with both hands. Sit tall and upright.

Step 2. Row the band to your sides. Hold your last rep for 10–20 seconds.

3B Single-Arm Band Row

Reps: 10 (each side)

Step 1. Sit on the floor and wrap a band around your left foot. Extend your legs in front of you and sit tall. Draw your shoulder blades together and downward (“proud chest”).

Step 2. Row the band to your side. Complete your reps on that side and then switch sides.

3C Superman

Reps: 12

Step 1. Lie on the floor facedown and extend your arms in front of you.

Step 2. Brace your core. Raise your torso and legs off the floor as high as you can while reaching forward with your arms and back with your legs. Hold the top position for a moment.

4 Pilates Double Kick

Reps: Work for 60 sec.

Step 1. Lie facedown on the floor and turn your head to rest on your right cheek. Bring your hands behind your back to rest one on top of the other. Draw your elbows out wide and down to the floor. Squeeze your legs together.Bend your knees to bring your heels to your butt—“kick” it twice—and then lower your legs to the floor again.

Step 2. Take a deep breath into your belly. Extend your arms behind you, toward the floor, and raise your torso off the floor while looking in front of you. Hold for a moment, and then turn your head to the opposite side, bend your elbows, and lower back down to rest on the other cheek. The next rep begins with another kick of the feet.