14 Exercises to Strengthen Your Back and Core

1
Dumbbell Pullover

This exercise targets both the lats on either side of the back as well as the lower body and core since you're holding yourself in a bridge position. The exercise is shown using an exercise ball but can be done on a bench or step for more stability.

  1. Lie face up on the ball with the head and shoulders supported, weight resting over the chest.
  2. Keep the glutes contracted to lift the body into a bridge position, making a straight line from knees to head.
  3. Take the weight straight up over the chest, arms slightly bent. You can hold a dumbbell on either side or use a medicine ball.
  4. Keeping the body tight and stable, slowly lower the weight behind you, keeping the elbows slightly bent.
  5. Only lower the weight as far as your flexibility allows and try not to lower the weight below your head.
  6. Contract the back muscles to pull the weight back up over the chest and complete 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps

Tips

  • If you've never done this exercise, practice on the floor or a bench before trying it on the ball.
  • Begin with a light weight to practice good form and control.
  • If you have any shoulder problems, skip this exercise.
  • It's normal also to feel this move in the triceps and chest as well as the back.

2
Barbell Pullovers

This exercise is much like the dumbbell pullover but, by using a barbell, you add intensity to the movement and can typically handle more weight. Because of the heavier weight, you do this move with your elbows bent to provide more control and stability.

  1. Lie face up on the ball with the head and shoulders supported, bar just over the chest with elbows bent.
  2. Keep the glutes contracted to lift the body into a bridge position, making a straight line from knees to head.
  3. Keeping the elbows in a fixed position, take the weight over and behind the head as far as you safely and comfortably can.
  4. Keep the abs tight and the body stable.
  5. Contract the back muscles to pull the weight back up over the chest and complete 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps

Tips

  • If you've never done this exercise, try it with a light dumbbell first.
  • If you have any shoulder problems, skip this exercise.
  • It's normal also to feel this move in the triceps and chest as well as the back.

3
Barbell Rows

The barbell row is one variation of bentover rows and allows you to use heavier weights while working all the muscles of the back. Take care with this exercise and make sure your abs are contracted to protect the lower back as you bend over.

  1. With feet about hip-distance apart and hands a bit wider than shoulders on the bar, bend forward at the waist until you're at about a 45-degree angle. Keep the shoulders back, the knees slightly bent and the abs tight and look straight forward.
  2. Begin the movement by taking the weight out in front of the knees.
  3. Bend the elbows and contract the back to pull the weight in towards the bellybutton, following the line of the legs.
  4. Bring the elbows just past the torso and squeeze the back.
  5. Lower down and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps

Tips

  • Be sure your abs are engaged. If this hurts your back, skip this exercise or adjust your position.

4
Barbell High Rows

Paige Waehner

Barbell High Rows are much like regular rows except that you're bent over until the torso is parallel to the floor, you hold the bar with palms facing in and you pull the bar up towards your chest rather than into your belly button. Because you're in this position, you'll need a lighter weight for this move.

  1. With feet about hip-distance apart and hands a bit wider than shoulders on the bar, bend forward at the waist until your torso is parallel to the floor. Keep the shoulders back, the knees slightly bent and the abs tight.
  2. Bend the elbows and contract the back to pull the weight up towards the chest.
  3. Bring the elbows just past the torso and squeeze the back.
  4. Lower down and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps

Tips

  • Be sure your abs are engaged. If this hurts your back, skip this exercise or adjust your position.

5
One Arm Row

Dumbbell rows are a great way to target the lat muscles and doing them one arm at a time, as in the one arm row, allows you to lift heavier weights and focus more on the lats as well as the biceps (which also work during this exercise). The key is to give you lower back some support by propping one foot on a step or platform (as shown) or, even better, propping one knee on a weight bench and using the non-working hand to support your body.

  1. Place the left foot on a step or platform and rest the left hand or forearm on the upper thigh.
  2. Hold a medium-heavy weight in the right hand, tip forward keeping the back flat and the abs in, and hang the weight down towards the floor.
  3. Bend the elbow and pull it up in a rowing motion until it is level with the torso or just above it.
  4. At the top of the movement, squeeze the back while keeping the hips square and the abs engaged.
  5. Lower down and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps, then switch sides.

Tips

  • Be sure to keep all the movement in the arm and avoid turning at the hips.
  • Only pull the elbow up to torso-level.

6
Dumbbell Rows

Paige Waehner

One armed rows are great for working the lats with heavier weights, but you can challenge the lower back by doing them with both arms at the same time. You may need to use a lighter weight than with one arm rows and keep the knees bent to protect the lower back. If you feel any back pain, go back to one arm rows where you can support the back with the non-working arm.

  1. Bend over at the waist until the torso is parallel to floor or at 45 degree angle, abs in and knees slightly bent.
  2. Hold medium-heavy weights straight down without locking the elbows.
  3. Bend the elbows and pull the weights up until the elbows are level with the torso in a rowing motion. Try to keep the shoulders relaxed and away from the ears.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps.

7
Seated Row with Resistance Band

Paige Waehner

Using a resistance band is just one way to vary a traditional dumbbell row and add a different level of intensity to the move.

  1. Wrap the resistance band around a sturdy object in front of you (or use a door attachment) and stand or sit so that there's tension on the band and the bend is about chest-height.
  2. Hold the handles in each hand, arms straight out in front with the palms facing each other.
  3. Contract the back to pull the elbows in towards the torso in a rowing motion.
  4. Keep the shoulders relaxed and down and only pull the elbows back to about torso level.
  5. Return to start and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps.

Tips

  • Use a medium to heavy band to get the most out of this exercise.

8
Lat Pulldowns with a Resistance Band

Paige Waehner

The lat pulldown machine is great for targeting the back and arms, but if you don't have access to a lat pulldown machine, using a resistance band is the next best thing. The exercise listed shows the move one arm at a time but you can also use a door attachment and attach the middle of the band at the top of a door and perform the exercise while kneeling, with both arms at the same time.

  1. Stand or sit and hold a band in both hands above your head. Hands are a bit wider than shoulder-width.
  2. Sit up straight and keep the abs engaged.
  3. Keeping the left hand stable, contract the lat muscles on the right side to pull the elbow down towards the ribcage.
  4. Return to start and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps before switching sides.

Tips

  • You control the tension in this exercise. If you need more intensity, hold the hands closer together or use a heavy band.
  • Don't move the non-working arm but, instead, contract your muscles to keep the arm completely stable as the other arm moves.

9
Alternating Dumbbell Rows

Paige Waehner

This version of the dumbbell row adds a little challenge by having you alternate your arms. With this version, you may need to use lighter weights and you'll find you really engage the abs in this exercise as well.

  1. Bend over at the waist until torso parallel to floor or at 45 degree angle, abs in and knees slightly bent.
  2. Hold the weights straight down without locking the elbows.
  3. Bend the right elbow and pull the arm up until it's level or slightly higher than the torso.
  4. Lower the arm and immediately repeat the exercise with the left arm, keeping the movements slow and controlled.
  5. Repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps total on each arm.

Tips

  • Be sure to keep your abs contracted throughout the movement to support the lower back.
  • If this exercise hurts your lower back, try doing it one arm at a time with the hand supported on a bench or ball.

10
Back Extension

Paige Waehner

The above exercises featured moves targeting the lats, the largest muscles in the back. The back extension is a more subtle movement targeting the lower back. Many of us work our abs, but neglect to work the lower back, which can lead to muscle weakness and imbalance.

  1. Lie face down on a mat and place the hands on the floor or behind the head (more advanced).
  2. Contract the abs and keep them contracted throughout the exercise.
  3. Squeeze the back to lift the chest a few inches off the floor.
  4. Lower and repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps total on each arm.

Tips

  • Imagine that you're lengthening the torso as you lift the chest up.
  • To add intensity, you can also lift the legs off the floor at the same time.

11
Bridge

Paige Waehner

The bridge is simple, gentle way to strengthen the lower back while also targeting the glutes and hamstrings. You can do this move isometrically, holding for a period of time (30-60 seconds) or you can lift and lower for a more dynamic exercise.

  1. Lie on the floor with hands at your sides, knees bent.
  2. Lift the hips off the floor until the body is in a straight line from the knees to the head.
  3. Try not to hyperextend the back. Only come up until your hips are straight.
  4. Hold briefly and lower the hips, repeating for 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps.
  5. Add intensity by holding weights on the thighs or doing this move with one leg lifted.

12
Seated Alternating Resistance Band Rows

Paige Waehner

This seated version of an alternating row is one of my favorites. The rotation engages both the abs and lower back and the row engages the lats, making this a great compound upper body exercise. You'll want to use a band with heavier tension for this move.

  1. Sit tall with legs straight and wrap the band around the tops of the feet, looping each side of the band around the bottom of each foot. The bands should now be coming from the inside of the feet.
  2. Holding handles in each hand, rotate to the right and pull the elbow in towards the torso, squeezing the back.
  3. Try to keep the lower body stationary throughout the movement.
  4. Rotate back to center and then rotate to the other side, doing a row with the left arm.
  5. Continue to rotate to each side for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.
  6. For more tension, hold onto the band closer to the feet or wrap the band several times around you hands, if you can do so safely.

13
Renegade Rows

Paige Waehner

A renegade row is as off the wall as it sounds - A row that you do from a plank position, targeting the core and the back all at the same time.  You should be very comfortable with planks before trying this exercise and be sure to start with a light weight to practice the move first.

  1. Begin in a plank position, gripping two weights and resting on the toes (harder) or the knees (modified).
  2. Holding that position and keeping the hips square to the floor, lift the right arm, bringing the elbow to torso level in a rowing motion.
  3. Lower the weight and repeat the row on the other side.
  4. Continue, alternating sides as you hold the plank position for 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps.

14
Modified Renegade Rows

Paige Waehner

If traditional renegade rows are a little tough for you, don't worry.  You can still enjoy them with this modified version.  By staying on the hands and knees, instead of in a plank position, you can build the strength you need to progress to more challenging versions.  I know...you can't wait, can you?

  1. Hold onto two dumbbells (a medium to heavy weight) and get into an all-fours position. 
  2. Grip the weights with the hands directly under the shoulders and the knees directly under the hips.
  3. Bracing the core, bend the right arm and bring the elbow up to the torso in a rowing motion, squeezing the back.
  4. Make sure you don't twist with the movement but, instead, keep the chest and hips facing the floor.
  5. Take the weight back down and repeat on the other side, completely 1-3 sets of 8-16 reps on each side.
  6. Walk the hands out further and drop the hips for more of a challenge.

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