A ripped back looks good. That's why all of us guys want one. But did you know it can help you feel good, too? Since the back is the starting point for many of the movements you go through in a typical day, strength in the upper, middle and lower back is integral to your overall health. Think about it -- when you push yourself up out of bed you're using your back. When you reach for something on a shelf or bend over to pick up a child you're relying on your center of gravity, your core … your back.
The largest back muscles are the lattissimus dorsi (lats), which enfold your body below the armpits and down your back. The deltoids spread over the outer portion of your shoulders. The trapezius muscles cover the inner portion of the shoulders and extend down into the middle of the back. Finally, your lower back consists of the rectus abdominis and obliques.
Now that you're familiar with the back's major muscle groups and the benefits of a strong core, let's get to sculpting a well-defined and healthy you. We begin by going old-school.
Pull-ups are an old staple of any workout regimen and for good reason -- they're effective and can be done with limited space and equipment. All you need is a secure bar that is hung at least 6 inches (15 centimeters) above your head. Your local gym probably has a pull-up machine that will assist you by providing some lift. Pull-up machines are great if you're just starting out.
To get the most out of a pull-up, focus on getting the correct grip. It will ensure that your back muscles are fully engaged. Stand under the bar, and grip the bar with your palms facing away from you. Your hand position should be slightly wider than shoulder width. Bend your knees and let your body hang below the bar. Pull yourself up so that your chin clears the bar, then slowly ease yourself back down. Don't drop back to the hanging position -- it's inefficient and it could strain your shoulder and arm joints.
Pull-ups work your shoulder and upper back muscles (delts and traps.) Start with two or three sets of 5-10 repetitions. If you're new to pull-ups, you may have difficulty doing that much (or any complete pull-up, for that matter) but just keep trying and in a couple of weeks you'll see marked improvement [source: Murphy].
Think of lat pull-downs as the opposite of pull-ups in terms of movement. For this exercise, you'll need gym equipment or a home gym setup. Lat pull-downs, as the name suggests, work the latissimus dorsi.
Seat yourself at the pull-down machine, grab the bar the same way you did with pull-ups -- palms facing outward and arms slightly wider than your shoulders. With a slow and measured movement, pull the bar down to your chest and hold it there for a second or two. Slowly bring the bar back to its original position, allowing the upward tension to engage your muscles [source: Murphy].
Start with a weight you can reasonably handle for 10 repetitions. Complete three sets. Remember, form is important -- don't sacrifice form by using too much weight. You'll be able to increase the weight with time.
If you were ever a member of a college or club crew, seated cable rows will be very familiar -- you just won't be gliding on the top of a river or lake. Seated cable rows sculpt your lats, delts and traps, and even work your legs a bit.
Begin by attaching a narrow bar to the cable. Once seated, lean forward and grab the bar with both hands, placing your feet on the plates in front of you with knees slightly bent. Make sure your arms are straight -- this will engage the lats right from the start. Now, lean back so you're sitting up straight and bring your arms to your stomach. Pause in this upright position and tense your back muscles for full effect. You should feel it in your upper back, arms and your legs. Pause for few seconds before slowly returning to your starting position while keeping your legs bent slightly the whole time [source: Iron Workout].
You'll want to start with a lighter weight until you get the form down. Once you're comfortable with the mechanics of the exercise, you can increase the weight.
A great exercise to help you develop what weightlifters commonly call "cobra lats" (flared lats that give your body a v-shape) is the inverted row. And here's a bonus -- it's good for your abdominal muscles, too. Place a straight bar down low on a squat rack so that it's just over an arm's length from the ground. Lie underneath the bar, then reach up and grab it with your palms facing away from you. This is the same position you would be in for a bench press, but instead of lifting the bar off the rack, you're going to pull yourself upward until your chest nearly touches the bar. Pause at the top of the movement before lowering yourself. For maximum effect, lower your body as slowly as possible and don't allow your body to touch the ground between reps [source: Murphy]. In addition, tighten your abs as you perform the exercise.
The push-up may be the simplest exercise ever invented. However, the benefits of doing this basic exercise can be huge.
There are numerous variations of the push-up that allow you to focus on different muscle groups. A standard push-up begins with your body horizontal to the ground and your arms locked out in front of you. Position your hands slightly wider than shoulder length. Extend your legs behind you and stay up on your toes. Now lower yourself toward the floor while maintaining a straight line from the top of your head to your feet. When you have reach the lowest position possible without touching the floor, push yourself back up (hence, the name), then repeat.
Placing your hands at different widths will force secondary muscles groups to work harder. For example, a narrow placement of the hands will not only strengthen your back, it will give your triceps a workout. Widen your hand placement and your chest muscles will be brought into play [source: Men's Health]. No matter how you do it, this old-guard workout is a must for those seeking a ripped back.
You'll need some specialized equipment for this exercise. A back extension machine consists of a large, single pad for you to rest your hips on, two pads behind you that you'll use to support your weight and two metal plates for your feet. Start by positioning your lower abdomen and hips on the larger pad with your legs extended behind you. Your calves should be butted up against the two smaller pads with your feet firmly planted on the plates. Extend your body beyond the machine so you can easily bend at the waist. Once you're comfortable, hug your arms across your chest and lower your torso slowly toward the ground, then raise your torso back up slowly.
Take this exercise slow so you don't overextend yourself and risk pulling a muscle. To increase the difficulty level, hold a small weight against your chest as you perform the exercise [source: Body Building].
For a great all-around exercise, it's hard to beat the crossover reverse lunge. It will strengthen your lower back, abs, thighs and hamstrings. The crossover reverse lunge has many variations that will ensure that your back is in top condition.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and then step backward to the reverse lunge position. Remember to keep both knees at a 90 degree angle -- do not overextend. As you're performing the reverse lunge, rotate your torso across the front leg. You should feel the tension in your lower back, thighs and abs. Hold this position for a couple of seconds before returning to the starting position. Repeat the movements with the other side of the body, making sure to bend across the opposite leg [source: Body Building].
Once you've become comfortable with the exercise and feel ready for a new challenge, try hugging a weight to your chest as you lunge and turn. This variety of the crossover reverse lunge will strengthen your arms as well.
If you're looking for an exercise that will work both your upper and middle back then you can't go wrong with rows.
People perform rows most commonly using a bench and dumbbells. Start by bending over with your right knee on the bench and your left leg extended to the ground. Grasp the dumbbell with your left hand while placing your right hand on the bench for balance. Lift the dumbbell up so your elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle. Hold for two to three seconds, and then slowly lower your arm. Complete 10 repetitions before moving the dumbbell to your right hand and kneeling on the bench with your left knee [source: Iron Workout]. You can also complete rows in a standing position. Simply bend at the waist as you perform the exercise [source: Body Building].
Want to really increase the intensity? Trade those dumbbells for kettle bells, or large ball-shaped weights with a curved handle on top. They add an extra dimension of instability to the weight. The swaying motion of the kettle bell will increase the difficulty of the exercise and engage more muscles.
The Superman, like the push-up, requires nothing more than you and a floor. It's easy to perform -- at least for a few reps -- and it'll help you reach the ultimate goal of having a strong, attractive back.
Lie face down on the floor with your arms extended in front of you, just like -- you guessed it -- Superman. Now comes the tough part. Lift your arms, head, chest and legs so it appears that you're flying (with nothing but your torso and abdomen touching the ground). Hold this position for three seconds before slowly lowering yourself back to the floor. At the top of the movement, focus on contracting your lower back and abs. Repeat the exercise 10-15 times [source: Body Building.com]. With practice, discipline and time, you'll be feeling like the Man of Steel himself.
The deadlift is one of the best all-in-one exercises because it develops power in your thighs, buttocks, hips, forearms, and yes, your back. Be advised, however, if you rely too heavily upon the back -- failing to squat and lift with your back perpendicular to the ground -- you are at a high risk for injury. In short, you're doing the deadlift wrong. Let's look at how to do it correctly.
Put the weight you will lift on a straight bar, remembering to be conservative in the early going. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, bend at the hips and knees while looking up to insure your back remains straight. Grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width with one palm facing out and the other palm facing in for stability. Lift the bar using your legs and torso until you're standing up straight. At the top of the lift, pull your shoulders back. Pause momentarily before squatting back down and placing the bar on the floor [source: Iron Workout]. Repeat approximately 10 times. With practice, you'll be able to increase the weight and the number of sets.
As you can see, the tools for getting a ripped back are readily available and, in some cases, involve nothing more than your own body weight and a small space to work in. All you need is the desire and discipline to stick with it.
HowStuffWorks looks at a study linking time spent with childhood friends with improved outcomes in men's health.
- Body Building.com."Exercise Guides-Lower back exercise." 2011. (Mar. 9, 2011)http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises/finder/lookup/filter/muscle/id/5/muscle/lower-back
- Iron Workout."Back Exercises." 2011. (Mar. 10, 2011)http://www.ironworkout.com/back_workout.htm
- Men's Health."Power Pushups." May 8, 2003. (Mar. 10, 2011)http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/pushups-muscle-building
- Murphy, Matt. Men's Health."Build a V-Shaped Torso." 2011. (Mar. 6, 2011)http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/back-muscles
- Parker-Pope, Tara. "An Enduring Measure of Fitness: The Simple Push-Up." The New York Times. March 11, 2008. (Mar. 10, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/11/health/nutrition/11well.html?_r=1