Back Exercises & Stretches

The muscles of your back are in constant use throughout the day. The lower-back muscles help your body to maintain an upright position and give you the ability to right yourself when you bend over. The muscles of the upper and middle back, at some point, attach to your arms, which means that every time you use your arms to push, pull or lift something, you are also using the muscles of your back. This perpetual use of the back can sometimes lead to pain or injury. The Mayo Clinic recommends building muscle strength and flexibility in the back to prevent pain, improve physical conditioning and learn proper body mechanics.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row primarily works the latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid and the trapezius muscles of the upper and middle back. Grasp a dumbbell in one hand and use the opposite hand and knee to support your body on a bench. Lift the weight upward next to the body with your elbow bent. Slowly lower the weight back down. Repeat this move on the other arm.

Lat Pull-Down

The lat pull-down specifically targets the large latissimus dorsi muscle of the middle back. Sit facing a pull-down machine with your legs positioned under the pads. Grip the bar with a wide overhand grip. Stabilize your core and pull the bar down to the top of your chest while pulling the elbows back. With control, allow the bar to return to its resting position.

Good Morning

The good morning exercise is effective at targeting the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum muscles of the lower back as well as the hamstrings and gluteal muscles. Stand with your feet slightly apart and an empty barbell resting across your upper back. Stabilize your core and bend your torso forward, keeping your back and knees straight. Contract your gluteal muscles and return to the standing position.

Seated Row

The entire back is used to complete a seated row, specifically the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and erector spinae muscles. Sit facing a weighted rowing machine with your feet resting on the foot pads and your torso bent forward. Grasp the handle and pull it toward the base of your sternum by straightening your back and pulling your elbows back as far as possible. Smoothly and with control, return to the initial position. To prevent injuring your back, never round it when performing rows.


The knee-to-chest exercise will help you relax while stretching your lower back. Lie on your back with one leg stretched out with a slight bend. Use both hands to grab the other knee and gently press it toward your chest. Hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds then switch legs. When you finish with the second leg, pull both knees to your chest and hold for 25 to 30 seconds.

Eye of the Needle

The eye of the needle stretch twists the spine and stretches the deep stabilizer muscles as well as the large muscles of the upper back. Get on all fours and place your legs hip-width apart. Place your hands directly under your shoulders. Place your weight onto your left arm and take a big breath in. As you exhale, lift the right arm and let the back of your right hand glide along the floor through the space between your left knee and hand. Push your hips a bit to the right, and bend your left arm. You should feel this stretch between and across your shoulder blades. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds then repeat the stretch on your left side.

Shell Stretch

The shell stretch helps relax and release the back extensors that run along your spine. Get on all fours with your legs hip-width apart, and inhale. As you exhale, push down with the palms of your hands and sit back onto your heels, while working to tuck your tail bone under. In the down position, your arms should be outstretched above your head, your head relaxed and resting on the floor, and your spine rounded. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds.

About this Author

Jen Weir is an honor graduate of Montana State University where she acquired her Bachelor of Science in health and human development with a concentration in exercise science. She has also earned a personal trainer certification from the American College of Sports Medicine.