While some people might neglect working their back muscles (you can’t even see them!), the Arms are generally beloved mirror muscles for many. The locations of these muscle groups may make them seem totally unrelated, but in fact they’re quite connected. “Whenever you pull or lift something–whether you’re trying to move an object toward your body or move your body toward an object (as in a pull-up)–you engage your biceps and a handful of your back muscles to make it happen,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. And while you don’t necessarily need to do a specific back and biceps workout each week, you should incorporate back and biceps exercises into your weekly training plan.
Strong back and biceps can be a huge help in your daily life. “The muscles of your back help you stand up straight, reach, pull, and extend your arms, stabilize your shoulders, and stabilize your spine,” Thieme says. As for the biceps, they help you perform everyday movements more efficiently. “Working your biceps is important because your arms are your primary tools for interacting physically with the outside world,” Thieme says. Lifting a child, pulling open a heavy door, moving furniture, putting bags of groceries in your car—countless daily actions require strong arms and a powerful back.
Add These Back Exercises to Your Workout
We painstakingly selected an assortment of some of the best back and biceps exercises. You can easily incorporate these movements into your existing routine if you train yourself, but be sure to warm up before every workout. “Dynamic stretches that mobilize the back, shoulder, and arm muscles – and that move the shoulder joints through their full ranges of motion – are the best ways to prime those muscles for action,” says Thieme.
1.Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
This is a great unilateral exercise—each side works independently—that allows you to move a lot of weight. You’ll get greater range of motion when training unilaterally, and you won’t be restrained if your weaker side fails first. You may also be better able to support your lower back—which may have taken plenty of punishment by now—when placing one hand on a bench. Allowing a slight degree of rotation of the trunk may engage a greater degree of “core” musculature, as well.
Unless you intentionally flare your elbow out wide, this exercise focuses more on your lower lats. Do it anywhere from the middle to the end of your workout for sets of 10-12.
Benefits: This move can help improve posture by challenging the upper and lower back at the same time.
2. Wide-Grip Pull-Up
It’s always a good idea to have an overhead pulling movement in your back routine, and the pull-up is one of the best. Wide-grip pull-ups are excellent for putting emphasis on the upper lats. A closer grip may allow for a longer range of motion, but it may be possible to load the wide-grip pull-up to a greater degree because of an optimized starting joint position. The biggest challenge here for most trainers is training to failure in the right rep range for growth, which is 8-12.
If you do pull-ups early in your workout, you might have to add a weighted belt. Of course, if you find them difficult, you can always use an assisted pull-up machine or a good spotter, or switch to the wide-grip pull-down, which is a solid substitute. If your shoulders are healthy, pulling behind the head is okay.
Good form is extremely important here. In the starting position, the scapula should be retracted—pull your shoulder blades down and toward each other—prior to initiating the pull.
In your workout: Because the pull-up range of motion is so long, several light reps make great warm-up moves for the shoulder joints. Since form is so important with these, it may be best to push pull-ups toward the front of your workout to ensure proper shoulder-joint positioning.
Benefits: This move can help improve posture by challenging the upper and lower back at the same time. Targets lats.
3. EZ bar row
Benefits: This move works the large muscles of the upper back, while the lower back stabilizes and protects the spine.
- Stand upright, feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, holding an EZ bar in front of your body with a wide grip, palms facing forward.
- Keeping your lower back in its natural arch and your shoulder blades pulled back, hinge forward at the hips until your upper body forms about a 45 degree angle to the floor, and the bar is near your knees.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and bend your elbows, pulling the bar up until it contacts your lower abdomen.
- Reverse the move and repeat.
4. Renegade row
Benefits: This move challenges your upper back and lats while you also work your core and shoulder stabilizers.
- Assume a push-up position with your hands just outside your shoulder-width, gripping two light dumbbells. Your feet should be in line with your hands.
- Lift the dumbbell in your right hand off the floor, bringing your hand to the outside of your ribs while keeping your right elbow close to your side. Resist rotation of the body.
- Lower the right dumbbell to the floor and repeat with your left arm, alternating sides.
5. Alternating row and lunge
Benefits: This move works multiple parts of the upper back (lats, traps, and scapular retractors) with light weights, working the muscle fibers responsible for endurance.
- Stand holding two medium to light dumbbells at your sides, palms facing in toward your body.
- Take a big step forward with your left leg, bending it to assume a deep lunge position, keeping your right leg straight.
- Bend forward at your hip, attempting to lay your torso on top of your left thigh. Let your arms hang straight down to the sides of your left leg.
- Bring the dumbbell in your right hand up to the outside of your ribs while keeping your elbow close to your side.
- Reverse the move and repeat with your left arm, alternating sides.
Back Muscle Basics
The muscles of the back are divided into three categories. The deep, or “intrinsic,” muscles move the vertebral column and are responsible for controlling posture; the intermediate back muscles control the movements of the rib cage; and the superficial muscles form the outermost layer, playing a vital role in shoulder movement. These superficial muscles, in partnership with the biceps, are what fire up any time you engage in pulling or rowing motions. “Your back muscles pull your upper arm toward your body, and your biceps flex your elbow, bringing your forearm toward your body,” Thieme explains.
The trapezius muscles, a.k.a. “the traps,” are two of the superficial back muscles that most people associate with a toned or well-developed back. Any time you shrug, extend your neck, or brace your shoulders to lift or carry a heavy object you’re using your traps.
Shaped like the wings of a stingray, your left and right trapezius muscles extend from the base of your skull to your lower thoracic vertebrae (mid back), and laterally to the clavicles (collar bones) and scapulae (shoulder blades).
Latissimus Dorsi Anatomy
The latissimus dorsi muscles, or “the lats,” are the fan-shaped muscles of the lower back. You’ve likely noticed them on competitive swimmers. that’s because the lats are responsible for arm movements like extension, adduction (bringing the arm toward the body), and medial rotation (turning the front of the arm toward the chest)—basically all of the essential arm movements of swimming. When you consider the thousands upon thousands of hours Michael Phelps’ has spent in the pool, his expansive back suddenly adds up.
Each of the latissimus dorsi muscles has multiple origin points (lower back, sacrum, iliac crest, and lower ribs), and a single insertion point on the back of each humerus.
Tips on Effective Fueling
You can be a dedicated exerciser, but if your diet isn’t on point, it’s unlikely that you’ll see the result you want, whether that’s fat loss, a ripped back, bulging biceps, a more defined physique overall. “The back and biceps are no different from any other muscle in the body when it comes to nutrition,” says Thieme. “Eating a healthful diet with sufficient amounts of protein will facilitate recovery and growth.”
Protein is especially important post-workout. “Studies show that consuming protein–particularly whey protein–after you work out can help maximize your muscular gains,” says Thieme. In short, feed your body right, and faster results will follow.