Back exercises are one of the simplest ways to strengthen and tone: 6 best for women, according to top experts

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A woman performing the best back exercises
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Curious to learn about the best back exercises for women? You're in the right place. Not only are back exercises great for both strengthening and toning, but they're also key to easing back pain, too.

Did you know? One in six people in England complains of back pain, according to the charity Arthritis Research UK, more of us should probably be looking for weight training exercises for our back - so you are well ahead of the curve by already getting started. 

When we have back pain, many people think avoiding movement is the right thing to do. But having a strong back is the best way to improve and prevent pain (though if you are currently struggling with any pain, it's best to check with your GP first, FYI).

Research from 2018 published in the Frontiers of Neuroscience journal found that back pain in both athletes and non-exercisers was down to weaknesses in the muscles along their spines, while a 2021 paper found that 16 weeks of posterior chain resistance training (which means training the muscles on the back of the body) significantly reduced back pain and disability over general exercise. 

It makes sense that a stronger back is a more resilient one. The spine is busy - we ask it to hold us up and move in all sorts of directions, yet we put it under stress by carrying too-heavy bags and sitting in less than ideal positions for eight hours a day at our desk (just us?). Making the muscles that surround the spine stronger is a great start to looking after our bodies better. 

Back pain can also be helped by performing glute exercises and ab exercises, but for now, we're focusing on back exercises. I'm Chloe Gray, a health and fitness writer and personal trainer who has the benefit of regularly talking to the best in the biz. I've asked expert PTs to share their favourite moves, outlined below.

Don't miss our guides to glute exercises, resistance band exercises, dumbbell exercises and kettlebell exercises

Back exercises for women: your guide

There are lots of different muscles in your back, so there's no one exercise that will work all of them. The three main muscles include: 

  • Traps, at the bottom of the neck
  • Rhomboids, in the middle of the upper back
  • The lats, running along the side of the back

Targeting all of these will give you well-rounded back strength. Remember that strength comes from challenging your body by working against resistance for up to 15 reps. You shouldn't feel like you could do any more reps at the end of your set - there's more about that in this strength training for beginners guide.

Most back-focused exercises are done by pulling weights towards you, whether that's pulling a barbell or dumbbell from the floor, a resistance band towards your face or your body weight against a bar. Try the following exercises to strengthen your back. 

Back exercises for women

1. Pull ups

Pull-ups are one of the best exercises for your back because they require very little kit. By using just your body weight, you will be targeting your lats, as well as engaging your traps and rhomboids. 

How to: Stand beneath a sturdy pull-up bar (on a box or bench if you can't reach it). Take a long resistance band and loop it around the bar. Grab the bar a little wider than shoulder-width apart and place your feet into the loop. Pull your shoulders back and down and squeeze your core, then begin to pull your body weight up. You want your chin to come just above the bar, then slowly lower down. 

How long: 60 seconds.

Top tip: the thicker the resistance band, the easier the pull-up will be. If you don't have a band, negative pull ups are a great alternative. They involve jumping to the top of the movement and slowly lowering yourself down.

2. Bent over row

Bent-over rows can be performed with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, resistance band (or even bodyweight for pure back activation during warm up exercises). It targets the whole back, so you get a real bang for your buck with this move. 

How to: Hold your piece of kit in both hands with an underhand grip, with your palms facing away from you. Hinge at the hips so your upper body is tilted towards the floor. Engage your core and roll your shoulders down. Pull your elbows back, shaving the side of your body and squeezing your back. Slowly lower back down. 

How long: 60 seconds.

3. Single arm dumbbell row

Rows are a great way to target the whole back but particularly the upper back. "This is a unilateral exercise that strengthens the back but also incorporates core and arm work," says Molly. Unilateral exercises are also great because they help to even out any imbalances by working one side at a time. 

How to: Stand to the side of your bench, exercise ball, sofa or table. Place your right knee on the surface and hinge the hips to place your right hand down - your knee should be directly your hips and your hand under your shoulder - keep your hips flat so they're not twisting to one side. 

Hold a dumbbell in your left hand and roll your left shoulder back and down. Begin to pull your left arm back, bending your arm so your elbow shaves the side of your body. Slowly lower back down. 

How long: 60 seconds.

4. Seated cable row

This exercise uses the cable machine, which is an underrated piece of kit - it has lots of different ways to set up so it can always be perfect for you. "By alternating grips, you can target every part of your back from lats to traps to rhomboids," says Eleanor. "I love including a one-second squeeze as I pull back - I feel powerful yet in control of the movement." 

How to: You can sit on a step or the floor in front of the cable machine, with your feet firmly placed against the machine or on the floor. Place the adjustment at chest height, holding the long bar, V bar or handles. 

Roll your shoulders back and down, engage your core and pull the attachment towards you as you row your elbows back past your ribs. Squeeze, then release back to the starting position.

How long: 60 seconds.

5. Close grip lat pull-down

"I love this exercise for either a warm-up before pull-ups or as an exercise on its own," says Georgey. "I am able to slow the reps right down under the control of a cable and fully activate my back. It's also a great way to build up strength to help you achieve a full pull-up."

How to:  Attach the V bar to the lat pull-up machine (alternatively, use the long bar but place your hands closer together. You can also use a resistance band attached to a high surface). 

Holding the bar or band above you, roll your shoulders back and down and pull the bar towards your chest. Slowly raise it back up to the starting position. 

How long: 60 seconds.

6. Kettlebell gorilla row

"This is a great way to work each side of the back individually while maintaining a stable foundation. Keep your back flat and knees bent with a neutral spine for the best outcome," says Jess. 

How to: Place two kettlebells on the floor between your feet. Hinge at the hips to reach down and hold the handles. Engage your core and ground down into the floor with your feet as you lift one kettlebell up, driving your elbows back and shaving your ribs. Slowly lower back down. Repeat on the other side.

How long: 60 seconds.

What is the best workout for back?

Any combination of the above six moves - that's pull ups, bent over rows, dumbbell rows, cable rows, lat pull downs, and gorilla rows - will make a great workout, share the experts.

The main thing to focus on is the correct form, and not over-exerting yourself if you haven't been to the gym for a while.

Chloe Gray
Contributing Health Writer

Chloe Gray is a freelance journalist who writes and talks about health, fitness, and wellbeing through a feminist lens. She was part of the launch team for Stylist magazine's fitness brand, Strong Women, and has written for i news, Women's Health, Red magazine, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, and more. She's all about building mental and physical strength, eating delicious food that fuels you well, and making the fitness industry more accessible and enjoyable. She's also a qualified fitness trainer and research nerd, so you can be sure everything you read is backed by proper science.