Did you know within the back lies the largest muscle in the upper body? Yet somehow, it’s also one of the most neglected areas for women. If you’re looking to highlight a small waist, building a stronger back is key.
Women can benefit from strengthening their backs and broadening their lats just as much as men can. It has major aesthetic benefits, improves posture, reduces muscle imbalances, and prevents injury.
But since most people (men and women) focus on training the muscles they can see in the mirror—the anterior muscles like the shoulders, biceps, core, and quads—the muscles on the backside of the body must be built up to achieve a balanced look.
Need help figuring out where to start with back training? We have your back, quite literally! We’re giving you a rundown of the best back workouts for women to build, strengthen, and tone.
Anatomy Of The Back
There’s no denying that the back is a big muscle—but it's actually multiple muscles. It consists of the skin and fascia that cover the spine, scapulae, muscle groups, nerves, vessels, and the presacral vertebrae.
Some back muscles are attached to processes of the vertebrae to promote proper upright posture, while others are involved in the movement of the upper extremities1.
The primary movements of the back include:
- Flexion and extension
- Lateral bending
- Rotation of the trunk
In terms of muscles, they’re divided into three layers: deep, intermediate, and superficial. These muscles can also be grouped into extrinsic and intrinsic back muscles.
Although the back serves many different functions, its central role is the primary structural support for the human torso and support flexibility for movement 1.
The muscles that comprise the back are as follows:
Superficial (extrinsic): assist in the movement of the upper limbs
- Latissimus dorsi
- Levator scapulae
- Rhomboid major
- Rhomboid minor
- Intermediate (extrinsic): assist in respiration
- Serratus posterior inferior
- Serratus posterior superior
Deep (intrinsic): responsible for the motion of the axial skeleton
- Deep fascia
- Erector spinae muscles
- Transversospinalis group
Although knowing the muscles of the back inside and out isn’t necessary for a killer back workout, when you do, you quickly realize that building a bigger and stronger back is more than just doing rows—you need to hit it from all angles and work all muscles.
The Importance Of A Strong Back For Women
Let’s face it—men love a strong, broad back. It’s something they regularly hit at the gym in hopes of achieving a tapered waist with “wings.” But when it comes to women’s training, the back is often undertrained.
Be it for fear of having a large backside or just a lack of knowledge on how to train back effectively, women tend to miss it—but training your back is just as important as training every other area of the body.
We want to avoid developing compensation patterns and muscle imbalances, so if you train the front (i.e., chest), you must also train the back.
Generally speaking, the “pull” motion contracts all the muscles in the back. But more often than not, they’ll also incorporate the biceps, which is why you see “back and biceps” grouped—they’re both pulling muscles that can easily be trained in the same workout.
But why is a strong back important?
Besides aesthetics and getting that sexy V-shaped body—the tiny waist and broad upper back—strong back muscles are also important for 2, 3:
- Spinal stability
- Injury prevention
The Top 10 Exercises To Build A Strong Back
If you’re sold on a sexy, sculpted back, you’re probably wondering what exercises are best—we have your answer.
We’re giving you the best back workouts for women that target both the upper and lower back. Adding strength improves your physique, carries over into other lifts and sports, and improves your posture and functionality.
Here are the best back exercises for women.
The lat pull-down is one of the best compound exercises to engage your lats and upper back and is a must in any of the best back workouts for women.
Latissimus dorsi is a large, flat muscle running across the middle of your back that helps to provide that V-shape we’re striving for. Strong lats are also needed to master the pull-up!
- Using the lat pulldown machine, grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart
- Depress your shoulder blades slightly and maintain this position throughout the entire movement—don’t let your shoulder blades lift towards your ears
- As you pull the bar, drive your elbows toward your body and pull your scapula down. Finish the movement once the bar reaches your collarbones
- With control, return to starting position
Seated cable row
The seated cable row builds strength in the lats and rhomboids and engages the traps.
However, the muscles engaged largely depend on your grip—narrow vs. wide, overhand vs. underhand, and volume vs. progression. Depending on your goals, there are plenty of variations you can do.
- On the seated cable machine, place your feet flat on the footrests and maintain a slight bend in the knees
- If using a bar, choose from an overhand or underhand grip. If using a triangle-shaped handle, grip with your palms facing each other
- Pull the shoulder back and down, engage the back, and maintain a straight spine. Do not let your shoulder round forward
- Pull the cable toward your lower stomach, keeping the back muscles engaged and retracting the scapula
- Slowly straighten your arms and with control, bring the cable back to starting position
Overhand bent over rows
The overhand bent-over row is great for building muscle and strength in the traps, rhomboids, and upper lats.
Try changing it up between overhand and underhand grips to target different muscles in the back. Switching week-to-week between the two ensures the even development of all muscles.
- With feet shoulder-width apart, grab a barbell (or two dumbbells) with an overhand (palms facing your body) grip
- Maintain a neutral spine and sit back to hinge forward at the hips, with the knees slightly bent; you want knees at about a 45-degree angle
- Pull the shoulders down and back, and with control, bend at the elbows and bring the bar toward your abdominals, letting the elbows come past your body. Keep the elbows bent and tucked, and don’t let them flare out
- Straighten the arms and lower the bar back to starting position
Renegade rows are a must if you strive for that lean, muscular look. They’re one of the best exercises for simultaneously building back and core strength.
- Place two dumbbells on the ground slightly wider than shoulder-width
- Get into a high plank position hands and toes on the floor with legs fully extended). Your feet should be just wider than hip-width, with the core tight
- With the spine in a neutral position and scapula retracted, keep your gaze on the floor and grab a dumbbell in each hand. You want to maintain the high plank position with your body in a straight line from head to toe
- Drive the right elbow past your body as you pull the dumbbell toward your right hip, feeling the back muscles squeeze. Be mindful not to rotate the hips or shoulders during this movement—keep them square to the floor
- Lower the dumbbell back to the floor with control and repeat on the other side
They’re a simple move but highly effective for building size and strength in the posterior chain muscles without loading the spine and increasing lower back strength and muscular endurance.
If you want more of a challenge, add a resistance band or hold a weight (DB, KB, plate).
- Lie face down on a hyperextension bench, ensuring your ankles are tucked securely under the footpads. Your thighs should be flat across the wider pad so you can bend at the waist without restriction.
- With your body straight, cross your arms in front of you (if you’re not using weight.
- Inhale and bend forward at the hips as far as you can while keeping your back flat until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. Avoid rounding the back as you lower.
- Slowly raise your torso back starting position.
Single-arm dumbbell row
The single-arm dumbbell row is a staple in any back workout that targets the traps, rhomboids, and lats. It’s a great exercise for identifying back muscle imbalances and can easily be progressed as you gain strength.
- Grab a dumbbell in your left hand with an overhand grip (palms facing slightly toward your body)
- Place your right hand and knee on a bench and align your hand under your shoulder and your knee with your hips
- With a straight back, retract and depress your should blades, keeping your back muscles engaged. Your left arm should be directly below the left shoulder, with your palm facing your body
- Bend at the elbow and row the arm back, driving the elbow toward the ceiling. Keep the elbow tucked and avoid letting it flare. Pause for a second and squeeze your back at the top of the movement.
- Slowly lower the arm until back at starting position
Pull-ups (or negatives)
There’s no denying that pull-ups are tricky, but just because they’re tough doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make them part of a back workout for women. They’re great for targeting your lats and lower traps.
If doing a full pull-up seems impossible, the assisted pull-up machine or resistance bans are a great alternative to work your way up - and your back will thank you!
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place your hands in an overhand grip (palms facing away) on the pull-up bar. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width but keep your feet hip-width. If you can't reach the bar from the floor, use a box or step to boost yourself up
- Hang from the bar and lift your feet from the floor, bending at the knees. Retract your shoulder blades and engage the back
- Bend your elbows toward your hips as you slowly lift your body toward the bar until your chin passes the bar. Your arms should be at about a 90-degree angle
- Control yourself back down to starting position
Kettlebell farmer’s carry
While the farmer’s carry isn’t technically a sole upper-body workout, it’s great for building upper-body strength. It encourages good posture and maximizes calorie burn if you go heavy enough.
It’s also a fantastic exercise for building forearm and grip strength and working the lower body. Kettlebells are the best weights for this, but you can also use dumbbells if you don’t have access to bells.
- Hold a heavy kettlebell in each hand with arms straight at your sides.
- The feet should be about hip-width apart, the core engaged, and the back straight. Retract and depress your shoulder blades, keeping your chest up.
- Taking short, fast steps, starting walking forward. Ensure your core stays engaged and your shoulders back and down while walking.
- Walk for a set distance or time before placing the kettlebells back on the ground.
The dumbbell pullover is one of the best exercises for isolating the lats—something that’s hard to do. If you have the mobility and stability to perform a pullover, it’s also great for improving shoulder mobility, control, and overall upper-body range of motion.
- Lie face-up on a bench and hold a dumbbell in both hands with your palms facing each other (your hands should be holding each end of the dumbbell, not the bar)
- Straighten your arms over your chest toward the ceiling
- With the core engaged and the shoulder braces, keep your arms straight and slowly lower the dumbbell over and behind your head. Stop when your arms are parallel with the rest of your body (you don’t want to over-extend and risk injury)
- Engage the lats and bring your arms and dumbbell back to starting position
The suspension row is a great starting point if you struggle with pull-ups, but you can easily incorporate both into your workout. The inverted row is great for activating your rhomboids and traps to build size and strength.
Research has found that compared to a bent-over barbell row and a single-arm cable row, the inverted row elicited more powerful contractions in the lats and upper back muscles while providing more stability to the lower back4.
- Hold the suspension trainer handles in each hand, with your palms facing together
- Facing the anchor point, lean backward until the straps are tight and your arms are straight. Your body should form a straight line
- Retract and depress your shoulders and bend your elbows. Pull your body up and keep your elbows tucked at your sides as they drive behind the body. Be sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together throughout the movement
- Pause for 1-2 seconds at the top before slowly lowering yourself back to starting position with control
- Modes RJ, Lafci Fahrioglu S. Anatomy, Back. [Updated 2022 Feb 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539746/
- Shiri R, Coggon D, Falah-Hassani K. Exercise for the Prevention of Low Back Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. Am J Epidemiol. 2018;187(5):1093-1101.
- Watson SL, Weeks BK, Weis LJ, Horan SA, Beck BR. Heavy resistance training is safe and improves bone, function, and stature in postmenopausal women with low to very low bone mass: novel early findings from the LIFTMOR trial. Osteoporos Int. 2015;26(12):2889-2894.
- Fenwick CM, Brown SH, McGill SM. Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(2):350-358.