Build Powerful Pulling Strength and Shape Your Whole Upper Body by Working Your Back
Strengthening and toning the back muscles, specifically the lats or latissimus dorsi, can have a dramatic effect on your upper body strength as well as the aesthetic appeal of your muscles. Women start out with a deficit in upper body strength compared to men, so many women neglect their upper bodies in the gym. Let’s fix that together!
Back exercises are also excellent for building and shaping the biceps, which means you can spend less time fiddling with low-calorie burn isolation exercises such as biceps curls and still get awesomely toned and strong arms. Another great benefit of training the back is that the lats and related pulling muscles constitute one of your body’s major large muscle groups, thus are a calorie-burning powerhouse. You’ll lose body fat faster and easier if you add back workouts into your fitness regime.
FAT LOSS DISCLAIMER: Recognize that no back exercise will burn excess body fat directly off your back. If you’re looking to lose back fat or love handles, back exercises are not your number one ally; instead, you must integrate cardio, nutrition, and a balanced strength training program that includes but is not limited to back workouts. Let’s take a second and lay out why that is the case. The idea that specific exercises burn fat directly off the area they are working is a frustrating fitness myth referred to as “spot reduction”. It’s the bane of a trainer’s existence. In a nutshell, that’s just not how fat loss works. Losing body fat is a systemic process that results from a calorie deficit; that is, from burning more calories than you eat. You will burn fat off the whole body, though for most women, the lower body and triceps tend to be the most stubborn areas for hormonal reasons. All that being said, back workouts are an essential part of a fat burning fitness plan due to the use of one of your major muscle groups, which adds a lot to your daily calorie burn.
So are you ready to learn the key exercises for building and sculpting your back muscles while burning tons of calories and shedding body fat? Keep reading to learn my favorite exercises for getting a strong, beautifully toned back while improving your posture, strengthening your core, and encouraging healthy, sustainable fat loss. I’ll lay out the best back workout itself, and also get into important tips for maximizing your back workouts, integrating back workouts into your overall training plan, eating to support your strength training and fat loss, and even supplementing toward those goals.
The Lovely Lats Best Back Workout for Women
The time has come to reveal everything you need to know to build that gorgeous back you are after. Here are the moves you must do, the best order to complete them in, as well as tips and tricks for milking every rep for all it’s worth. First, let’s talk tips and guidelines.
Tips and Guidelines for the Lovely Lats Workout:
- Do the Main Events Circuit a minimum of twice through and up to four times through.
- Rest 60 seconds between exercises or as long as it takes to feel ready to complete another excellent set
- Just don’t pause TOO long between exercises to avoid letting your metabolism drop too much
- NEVER NEGLECT YOUR CORE during back exercises (or any exercises!)
- Keep your core engaged while you’re working by contracting your bellybutton toward your spine and squeezing your glutes
- Pick a weight that will really wear you out by the end of your set
- If you don’t know how much weight to use, start on the lighter side. Safety first!
- If the set was too easy, add more weight next time
- If the set is too hard or your can’t complete the set with good form, stop and choose a lighter weight
- Complete the entire workout twice weekly at least 48 hours apart to allow enough time for your muscles to recover between sessions
Lovely Lats Best Back Workout Main Events Circuit
Pull Ups or Pull Downs – 15 reps
Vertical pulling, through a pull up or pull down exercise, is an essential functional movement pattern for building upper body strength. It’s also an outstanding way to shed body fat due to high large muscle group recruitment. You’ll also provide a lot of action for the biceps, which is great for arm toning.
If you can do a pull up, you don’t need to also do pulldowns. If you can’t do a pull up, pull downs are a fine substitute until you get stronger and/or lose the excess body fat that is hindering you from pulling your own weight upward.
To do a set of pull ups:
Use the pull up assist machine for your set of pull ups. Choose your desired assistance and grasp the handles with a wide overhand grip (palms facing forward). Put your feet on the assist and get tight in your core, ensuring that your ribcage stays stacked directly over your pelvis and does not tilt backward excessively. PULL strongly from your back, envisioning your shoulder blades sweeping downward and toward each other as you pull your body up. Keep your elbows lateral to your body; don’t let them creep forward. There is a saying with pull ups: “don’t let the shoulders poison the ears”. Keep your shoulders down and plugged into their sockets throughout the duration of the exercise, paying special attention at the bottom of each rep when your shoulders are going to want to sag.
To do a pull down, use a cable pulldown with a wide grip or if you don’t have access to one, a pulldown machine will suffice. Follow the same form guidelines discussed above, the main difference being you are seated in a stable position and pulling the bar downward toward your chest instead of being plank-straight and pulling your body upward.
Row – 15 reps
The row is a wonderful exercise for toning and strengthening the lats and training horizontal pulling, another key functional movement pattern. Rows also strengthen the midback like no other exercise, which is excellent news for your posture and can reverse many of the harmful effects of too much computer time.
To do a set of rows:
There are many variations on the row, but my favorite way to do rows is on a seated cable machine. Have a seat and put your feet on the footrests. Grasping the handles, find firm upright posture with your gaze straight ahead and your neck in a neutral alignment with the rest of your spine. Keeping your elbows close to your ribcage, pull the handles toward your solar plexus. Keep your elbows so close that it’s almost as if they skim the ribcage on their way past. With control, return to the starting position. Like pull ups, make sure you keep your shoulders plugged into their sockets even at the bottom of the rep. To feel a little stretch is OK, but be careful of stretching your shoulder joints under tension.
Back Fly – 15 reps
Back flies are an awesome exercise for working the upper and midback as well as the rear delts, also known as the backs of your shoulders. Not only will your shoulders and upper back muscles look great, you’ll be improving your posture and preventing back and neck pain at the same time. Like the row, they are a great choice for encouraging muscle balance between the front and back of your torso.
To do a set of back flies:
You’ve got a couple of good options when it comes to executing your back flies. You can use the back/chest fly machine commonly found in gyms or you can use dumbbells. As the machine is pretty self-explanatory, let’s talk about the free weight version with dumbbells. Most of the form tips hold true for the machine as well, so take note even if you’re just going to do the machine. Grab a set of two dumbbells. Start out with 5 to 8 pounds to get the feel for the exercise before adding more weight. You need to get your torso parallel to the floor to be able to do a back fly, so with feet hip-width apart, back into your hips and bend your knees, keeping them directly above your ankles. If you’re familiar with deadlifts, the starting position is basically the bottom of a deadlift. Maintaining this bent over position, squeeze your midback muscles together as you lift your arms into a T-shape, keeping a slight bend in your elbows so your arms aren’t stick-straight. Keep your shoulders down, don’t crane your neck forward, and don’t rise up. Keep your chest parallel to the floor although your urge will be to rise.
Supine Row – 15 reps
Supine Row is a variation on the Row described above that requires you to row using your bodyweight rather than a separate source of resistance. Supine rows are an incredible exercise for building functional strength and they’re also great for your core, your neck, and your posture when executed correctly.
To do a set of supine rows:
Use the TRX suspension trainer, the bar of the Smith Press machine, or the empty bar on the J-hooks of the squat rack. Grab hold of whatever piece of equipment you’re using with an overhand grip (palms down). Get a tight core by pulling your bellybutton toward your spine and squeezing your glutes. If you saw yourself from the side, you’d want to see a plank-straight alignment running from your ears all the way down to your ankles. Straighten your arms to let your body down to the bottom position, using control to avoid overstretching your shoulders out of their sockets. Keep them plugged in at all times. Pulling from your back and squeezing your shoulder blades together, pull your mid-chest up to touch the bar. Use care to avoid collapsing the core or craning your neck forward.
Stability Ball Cobra with Dumbbells – 15 reps + 15 second hold, two sets back to back
Here’s an exercise that works great as a finisher for your back workout. The cobra is similar to the back fly, but it works not only the mid and upper back, but also the lower back, glutes, and core.
How to do stability ball cobra with dumbbells:
Grab a stability ball and two light dumbbells, maybe 3 or 5 pounds to start. Put your feet against a wall right where it meets the floor and put the stability ball under your hip crease so it’s partly on your thighs, partly on your belly. Like back fly, you’ll squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift your arms into a T-shape. In cobra, though, at the same time you lift your arms, you’ll also squeeze your glutes together as you lift your chest upward, arching your back. Return to the starting position and repeat for your set of 15, then rise up to the top position and hold it static for 15 seconds, feeling the burn! Rest for about 30 seconds then repeat the 15 rep/15 second hold sequence.
Tips for Fitting the Best Back Workout into Your Fitness Plan
Recognize that even the best back workout, taken on its own, does not constitute a total upper body weight training plan. You’ll also need to do chest workouts at minimum and ideally shoulder workouts too. If you do these three things, you don’t have to waste much time isolating the biceps, triceps, or forearms, because the chest, back, and shoulder exercises already cover those bases nicely.
You can do a chest workout and back workout on the same day, or you can split them up onto different days if you’re trying to really focus on either muscle group through high training volume. For most women’s purposes, I recommend working chest, back, and shoulders all on the same day as part of a full upper body day around twice a week. Alternately, you can work lower volumes of chest, back, and shoulder exercises into full body workouts that you’re doing three to four times weekly. The topic of all fitness plan options is too vast to cover in this article, but the take home message I have for you is that this back workout will function best when stacked with chest and shoulder workouts on the same day.
CARDIO Considerations for Back Building and Body Fat Loss
Whether you wish to lose fat, get stronger, more toned, or even bulk up, everyone needs some kind of cardio for fitness and cardiovascular health. For healthy adults, general cardio guidelines say to achieve at least 90 minutes of vigorous cardio or 120 minutes of more moderate cardio per week. If you seek to cut excess body fat, you will want to err on the vigorous side (respecting your starting point, of course) and dial up the time to 120-150 minutes. Break up your cardio into smaller chunks so you are doing 30-45 minutes at a time spread over the week rather than marathon cardio sessions. It’s more beneficial for your metabolism to spread your cardio over more time.
To accelerate your fat loss and rapidly improve your cardio recovery, add intervals into your program. Interval training requires you to elevate your heart rate quite a bit and then take a brief recover interval where your beats per minute return to a more moderate rate. There are lots of different interval programs out there, and most of them are highly beneficial. Start by exploring the interval options on the ARC trainers, ellipticals, or AMTs at your gym. Also look up Tabata, a high intensity interval protocol that has been shown to rapidly improve your cardio and encourage better body composition.
A cardio machine that allows you to directly work the back is the Concept 2 Rower or other similar rowing machines. From a seated position, you will be pulling strongly from your lats and mid back over and over to drive the movement. This goes a long way toward improving muscle endurance and tone in the back musculature. Your heart rate will also be elevated, making rowing an excellent choice for cardio conditioning. Mix in rowing with other forms of cardio that require you to stand up; too much rowing in a seated position can begin to cause muscle imbalances in the form of tight hip flexors and hamstrings.
Nutrition Notes for Back Building
Of course, we could talk about nutrition all day. But as this is not a nutrition article, I just want to give you some general guidelines for back building and fat loss. Most women who strength train the back are trying to accomplish both.
To lose fat from the back and anywhere else on the body while maintaining that all-important metabolically active lean muscle tissue, you need the right balance of strength training, cardio, and nutrition. Recall that to lose fat, you need to establish a calorie deficit day by day and week by week. Your body will begin to dip into body fat storage to meet your energy needs and excess fat will get burnt up over time. Many women will do well consuming 1300-1500 calories per day to establish this deficit, though your individual calorie needs may be higher or lower depending on your metabolism and activity level. Learn about women and body fat percentage.
When you’re working that calorie deficit, you need the right building blocks in the right proportions. Protein guidelines for muscle maintenance and building are about 1g of protein per pound of lean body mass. As an example, if you are 160 pounds and you have 30% body fat, that means you are made up of 112 pounds of lean mass (muscles, bones, organs and connective tissues) and 48 pounds of body fat. Based on the guideline above, you should shoot for about 112 grams of protein per day. You can get your protein from lean meat, fish, grains paired with beans, dairy, and protein supplements.
I know carbs are painted as the big baddies these days, but truth be told, you need carbs for basic body functions such as running your brain, muscles, and organs, as well as to help shuttle protein into your cells. Unless you’re on a perfect paleo or primal plan, you’ll feel like utter crap without adequate carb intake and you’ll fall off the wagon sooner than later. You also won’t have enough mental and physical energy to make it through your workouts or the rest of your daily tasks! So even if you want fast fat loss, don’t cut out ALL carbs! Instead, focus on cutting out processed and refined carb sources and eat healthy carb sources such as whole grains, potatoes and yams, dairy, and fruits and veggies.
Supplementation Tips for the Best Back Workout for Women
When you want real results as quickly as possible, supplementation is a common consideration. Let me tell you about the best supplements for women who want to build back muscle strength and tone.
The first item is to ensure you are getting adequate protein, as discussed in the section on nutrition. You can get all your protein from whole food sources such as lean meats, dairy, and grains paired with legumes, but it’s a lot easier to meet your protein requirements by drinking a high-quality protein supplement after your workout. If you can do dairy, look into whey protein isolate for the purest protein you can get without the extra sugar. If you are lactose intolerant or vegan, there are some great plant-based protein supplements out there.
The second most important supplement to consider adding is creatine monohydrate. In clinical trials, creatine has been shown to be effective for helping athletes develop strength and power. To put it simply, creatine helps your body produce more energy more quickly so you can lift more weight with more power. Creatine is also naturally found in food sources such as red meat. When supplementing with creatine, you will notice that your muscles appear to develop this more quickly. In part, this is legit muscle growth from being able to attain higher training volume; the remainder of this quick growth is explained by the fact that creatine causes your muscles to uptake and store more water and nutrients. The effect from storage of water and nutrients is transient, but the accelerated muscle growth due to higher training volume is, of course, more long-lasting.
If you choose to take creatine, and are also supplementing with other fitness supplements, always read the labels. Many protein powders and preworkouts also contain a fair amount of creatine already. Be smart about how much you are taking so you don’t unknowingly take in excessive creatine.
For folks without liver or kidney problems, creatine has been shown to be safe and highly effective. When you are supplementing with creatine, it is absolutely essential that you consume enough water to avoid getting constipated and/or dehydrated. If you are in doubt as to whether ANY supplement is safe for you to take, be sure to consult with your doctor.
Lovely Lats Back Workout for Women: The Bottom Line
Try out this workout and experience the power of your strong, sculpted back muscles! Did you get a stronger, more beautiful back through doing these exercises? How are your pull ups going? Do you need any further advice or tips? Did we forget to include any of your favorite back building tips or tricks? We always love hearing from you, readers, so let us know in the comments below!