Not everyone pays as much attention to back muscles as they should. It can be far too easy to focus on chest, abs, and arms. However, working out all of your muscles is important.
An overdeveloped front and underworked back muscles can have you looking freakish, sure. However, it can also lead to major problems down the road. When you use your muscles, they pull on the bones that they are attached to. So, neglecting major muscle groups can lead to chiropractic issues down the road.
Here, we’ll go over the major back muscles, including what they do and how to exercise them.
A Quick Note on Muscle Terminology
This article is going to get into how to work out back muscles, but it’s also going to get a bit anatomical. As a result, it’s important to have some quick terminology out of the way.
Muscles (or at least, all of the muscles we’ll talk about here) connect two bones. The “start” point of a muscle is called the “origin” and the “end point” of a muscle is called the “insertion.” When a muscle contracts, the insertion is brought closer to the origin.
Understanding this will help you get through this article. More importantly in the long run, it will help you understand what muscles new exercises target if you encounter one that you are unfamiliar with.
If you learn more about the origin and insertion, you can also dive into advanced body building concepts like reverse muscle action and antagonistic muscle groups. That’s a bit heavy for this article, however.
Major Back Muscles
There are lots of muscles in the back including a lot that are virtually impossible to target. However, there are two major muscles in the back that you should definitely be aware of.
Just like we think of the front as chest and abs (it’s more complicated than that, but that’s how we often think of it), you can think of the back as the Lats and Traps. They’re the largest back muscles, and they’re the closest to the surface.
The Latissimus Dorsi – or “Lats”
The Latissimus Dorsi are kind of like the “abs of the back.” The name roughly translates to “across the back.”
One of these lower back muscles from our list originates on the top of each side of the pelvis and near the spine along the lower back. The large, flat muscle then tapers up under the arm and inserts near the top of the upper arm bone.
We’ll get into exercises for this muscle in a little bit. In the meantime, any time that you are using the lower back to move the upper arm, it’s likely a latissimus dorsi action.
Trapezius – or “Traps”
The Trapezius is a large, diamond-shaped muscle. A pair of them cover most of the upper back.
Each trapezius muscle originates along the base of the skull and along the neck. They insert on the collar bone and on the scapula. We didn’t talk about the scapula, but they’re more commonly called the “shoulder blades.”
A good way to think about exercises is to do the action without holding anything or bearing any weight. If you “mime” a back exercise like this and it looks like you’re shrugging, you’re working the traps.
Minor and Adjacent Back Muscles
There are a lot of smaller neck and back muscles. We won’t talk about all of them. Some of them are pretty small and hard to target, but there are a few that it’s good to know.
Here, we’ll also talk about some of the main shoulder muscles. A lot of back muscles are really involved in moving the arms. As a result, it’s good to think about the shoulder muscles as back muscles and the upper back muscles as shoulder muscles.
“Deltoid” roughly translates to “triangle-like.” Like most of the muscles in this section, this muscle originates on the shoulder blade and inserts on the upper arm. Along the way it wraps over the shoulder.
Often neglected on arm day, working out this muscle with your back muscles will pay out in appearance and endurance. That’s particularly true if you also play sports that use your arms. The arms are largely held into the upper body by a collection of muscles and injury to these muscles can put the whole arm out of commission.
The Major and Minor Rhomboids
These two muscles connect the shoulderblades to the spine. Both of them are entirely underneath the Trapezius muscle.
When you expand and contract your chest, move your arms from your front to your sides, and do other similar motions, you’re working these muscles. This gets back to that idea of working out the whole body. A lot of the exercises that work these muscles are usually thought of as chest or shoulder exercises. But we’ll get back to that.
The Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, and Coracobrachialis
All of these muscles, along with the Teres Major and Teres Minor, originate on the shoulder blade and insert on the upper-arm bone. The lower of these muscles are visible on the back below the shoulder while the upper muscles are covered by the traps and delts.
These muscles, like many that we have seen in this article, are located on the back but function more to move the arm and shoulder than anything else.
Working out the Back Muscles
And now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for: a couple of workout recommendations for building the muscles we’ve been talking about.
The Lat Pulldown
If you regularly go to the gym, you probably fall into one of two camps: You’ve seen a lat pulldown machine and didn’t know what it was or how to use it, or you’ve used it but didn’t know what it did.
To do a Lat Pulldown, sit on the bench and grab the bar, then pull it down. It’s a simple but super effective workout. If done correctly, it works out almost all of the muscles we’ve talked about here. Not so much the shoulder muscles like the deltoids and some of the other minor muscles. But all of the major back muscles, as well as the chest and arms.
If you’re reading this article because you aren’t used to working out the back: a word of caution. If you’re a chest-and-arms kind of person, it can be tempting to do a lat pulldown just using your chest and arms. However, this robs your back muscle of a great workout and puts you at greater risk of injuring yourself.
Rowing (with a machine or in a real boat) is another bang-up back muscle exercise. It works kind of like a lat pulldown flipped on its head. You sit on the bench and the bar is below and in front of you. You grab the bar and pull it in towards you.
Like the lat pulldown, rowing works out just about every muscle that we’ve talked about. Ironically, because of the seated position that rowing puts you in, it probably does a better job of working the lats than the lat pulldown does. Similarly, it doesn’t work your traps quite as much as the lat pulldown, though it does target a lot of the smaller muscles that we talked about.
The (Chest) Fly
Yes, it’s called the “Chest” Fly. Maybe you’re already using this machine to work out your chest. But bare with me.
To do this exercise, you sit down, grab the handle on either side, and bring them together in front of you. It’s a good workout for the chest, into the upper arms, and a few of those minor back-shoulder muscles. But here’s the rub:
I know that I said that we wouldn’t talk about antagonistic muscle groups and reverse muscle action, but we can just a little, right?
There you are, you’ve brought the handles together in front of you. Now, instead of relaxing and letting the handles just fall back, oppose them. Let them go back to their starting position, but apply a gentle resistance the whole time, letting them return slowly.
While doing the exercise like you might be used to works out the chest, this method of doing the exercise “backwards” works out a lot of your back muscles.
Now Get Out There!
Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding and more respect for your back muscles. Or, at the very least, given you some inspiration and ideas on how to work them better, harder, and more often.