Most of the common trouble spots—tummy, thighs, arms—are front and center every time we get dressed or check our reflections in the mirror. It's easy to overlook the areas that aren't as visible to us, like our backs. You might go days without seeing it, but you can bet your bottom dollar that your back is getting plenty of face time with anyone who happens to be behind you, especially when you're wearing tank tops or swimsuits.
Although there's no way to spot-reduce fat in certain areas, including back-targeting exercises in your routine a couple times a week will help to build up those muscles. In addition to achieving a sculpted appearance, exercising your back can help to improve your posture and strengthen your core. And because back muscles are some of the largest in the body, building them up will help to burn more calories and fat all through the day. That said, all the pull-ups in the world won't counteract the effects of a poor diet or lack of cardio.
"As far as showing definition in the back, that comes down to growing your muscles while cleaning up your diet to reduce overall body fat," says Ashley Pitt, personal trainer, group fitness instructor and blogger at A Lady Goes West. Try to include plenty of whole foods that are high in lean protein and low in added sugars and refined carbs. "You should also focus on perfecting your posture by standing up straight and rolling your shoulders back and down—this will help to show off your back muscles."
If you haven't done back exercises before, patience is key—don't expect visible results overnight. "Sculpting your back will take time and focused effort, especially since you're probably a good bit behind in your back training compared to the muscles that you can easily see in the mirror," says Tyler Spraul, head trainer with Exercise.com. "You might have a hard time initially 'feeling' the right muscles firing because they're so under-used, but don't let that discourage you."
Spraul recommends keeping the weights light enough for you to handle properly in order to get the correct muscles firing, then gradually going heavier. How heavy? According to trainer Catherine Basu from Fit Armadillo, you should choose a weight that only allows you to complete 12 to 15 repetitions of any given exercise. Shoot for two to three rest periods in between sets, which should be no more than 90 minutes long in order to work the muscles effectively. "It's also important to give yourself 48 hours between strength training sessions that focus on the same muscle group," says Basu. "That means if Monday is back day, Tuesday can’t be another back day, but Wednesday could be."
To keep from getting bored, try a variety of exercises from all angles using different types of equipment. Read on for some of our experts' favorite back-boosting moves.
To build definition in the back, it's tough to beat the effectiveness of the classic pull-up. "Lots of different muscles have to work together to allow you to pull yourself up to the bar," says Julia Buckley, one of Britain's top fitness trainers. "This means you'll be strengthening, toning and firming up your whole upper back, shoulders and arms in just one power-packed move. Plus, pull-ups also work the core, so you'll be shredding your abs and building very functional strength at the same time." The extra muscle activation and intense effort also mean that more fat is burned.
If a pull-up seems like an impossible feat right now, start small and stick with it—over time, regular training will pay off. For beginners, Buckley suggests using a resistance band for extra support, then transitioning down to lighter bands as you build strength. If you belong to a gym, you can also try using an assisted pull-up machine until you're able to perform the movement on your own.
Yoga is about more than stretching and de-stressing—it can also be a great way to strengthen and tone your muscles. Yoga instructor Irena Miller recommends the crocodile pose for a strong, sculpted back and improved posture.
Start by lying down on your belly with your arms at 90 degrees (like a cactus), with both legs extended behind you, feet pointed and about hip distance wide.
Press the tops of the feet firmly onto the earth, scoop your tailbone and engage your lower belly.
Drawing your shoulder blades toward each other and down your back, lift your chest, head and finally your arms. Keep your elbows in line with your shoulders.
Lengthen from the belly out through the crown of your head and back through the balls of your feet. Hold for three breaths. Repeat for 12 to 16 repetitions.
Spraul recommends this exercise for improving your posture and building your trapezius muscles. For those who do a lot of pushing exercises, like push-ups and bench presses, this move helps to balance out the shoulders. The face pull can be done with a cable machine and rope attachment or with a resistance band.
Stand in front of a cable station with a rope attached to the high pulley (about head height). Grab the rope so that your palms are facing inward and your thumbs are in line with your chin.
Back up a few feet so that your arms are straight out in front of you and you feel tension in your arms.
Begin the exercise by flaring your elbows out and bending your arms while pulling the rope back toward your eyes with each hand on either side of your head.
The ending position should look like you are flexing your biceps with your knuckles facing your ears. Return to the starting position and repeat the movement eight to 12 times.
Rachel Straub, co-author of "Weight Training Without Injury", recommends this exercise to work the middle back muscles, as well as the chest and shoulders. This requires a cable system with the stirrups attached to the end of each cable.
Stand in front of the cable system with feet shoulder distance apart.
Grip the left stirrup with your right hand and the right stirrup with your left hand so that the cables are crossed in front of you.
Pull your arms back and out as far as possible, pulling your shoulder blades together.
Pause for two to three seconds and then return your hands to the starting position. Repeat eight to 12 times.
Miller recommends this stretch to unlock the tight knots in the upper back that limit you from moving and strengthening your upper back. "Twists are wonderful poses for detoxification," she says. "They also help to improve your posture and tone your abs."
Starting from a high lunge with your right leg back, lower your knee toward the floor.
Bring both hands onto your front thigh. Extend your right arm toward the sky as you press your left hand down onto your front thigh.
Lengthen from your hips to your underarms and twist toward your left leg. Bring your right elbow across the thigh and stack your hands in a prayer position. Keep the mound of your left big toe pressed down, your outer left hip tucked back and your right toes spread.
Take three breaths, then switch sides. Repeat for eight to 12 reps.
Spraul recommends the one-arm dumbbell row as a great back builder. "This exercise is ideal for starting to build your lats if you're having a hard time seeing or feeling them," he says. "It's important to really get the form down so that you're targeting these muscles instead of relying on momentum and arm strength."
With a dumbbell on each side of a flat bench, place your right hand and your right knee on the bench.
With a straight back and your stomach parallel to the weight bench, grasp the left-hand side dumbbell with your left hand, palm facing toward you.
Exhaling, bring the dumbbell straight up to your chest by bending the elbow back to a 90-degree angle.
Inhaling, lower the dumbbell until your arm is straight down and your elbow has only a slight bend.
Repeat eight to 12 times and then switch sides.
Back Tendu Lifts
If you've always wanted a dancer's body, emulate the moves of a dancer while adding weight and repetitions. Shuler recommends using barre-based moves, like back tendu lifts, as an effective way to slenderize the back. "Back tendu lifts strengthen your lower back, abdominals and glutes when performed correctly," Shuler says.
Start by facing a barre or the back of a chair with your heels together and feet turned out (in first position).
Bend your knees slightly and keep your heels planted on the floor.
Putting your weight onto your right foot, extend your left leg behind you, keeping it as straight as you can.
Lower the extended leg, tap your toe on the floor and then lift the leg again, keeping your toe pointed. Lift to where you feel your glute tighten and your back muscles engage. Make sure that you aren’t arching your back.
Do eight to 12 repetitions, then switch to the other leg. For an extra challenge, try pulsing for 16 more counts after each set of regular lifts.
For a strong, healthy back, Carole Frazey, trainer with The Fit School, recommends doing one minute of pushups each day. Set your timer for one minute, then do as many pushups as you can.
Can't do a full pushup? No problem—Frazey suggests starting with modified pushups from your knees. When you need a break, stop and do the cobra stretch followed by child's pose, then return to the modified pushups again until your minute is complete. When you get to a point where you can do modified pushups for the entire minute, start your session with one regular (military) pushup, followed by modified pushups,resting when needed. The following week, start with two regular (military) pushups, followed by modified pushups. Continue adding one more regular (military) pushup each week, for at least two or three sessions per week.
Including a variety of back-targeting moves in your full-body routine two or three times per week—in combination with a clean, calorie-controlled diet and regular cardio workouts—will get you on track to a sleek, sculpted rear view.
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.