Your First Back Workout

I previously outlined a full body weight training workout that the beginner could perform two to three times a week. A few weeks ago, I started to drill down into that workout routine by describing in more detail weight training for the chest, and last week, I talked about the beginner’s leg workout. Today, it’s the back.


There are only two exercises I have listed for a beginning back weight training workout:

Believe it or not, those two exercises will work pretty much all of your back muscles. Granted, there’s a lot more you can do, but remember, we’re just talking about how a total beginner at weight training starts out working their (your) back.

Seated Machine Rows

machine seated rows
Machine seated rows

Of the two exercises, I recommend you start with seated rows. This will take more out of you since it works multiple muscle groups, so you want to be your strongest when to tackle this exercise. This is a good, all around exercise for the back, since it generally hits the middle and lower back and the lats. Here’s a link to an image showing more detail about the muscles involved.

As with all weight training exercises, you’ll have to experiment a little to find the right weight to set the machine at. Usually on these machines, the height of the seat is adjustable as well as the distance you are placed away from the machine.

Also, as with the other examples I’ve written about for this beginning routine, we’ll assume you’re going to do one set of each exercise at a specific number of reps, like 10 to 15, or to failure at no more than 15 reps.

After setting the weight, adjust the seat height so the pad in front of you is against your chest and the handles are about chest level. The seat should also adjust so that your arms are fully extended in front of you as you grasp the handles. To perform a rep, pull the handles toward you while keeping your elbows as close to your sides as you can.

Pull until the handles are at or near your chest, then start extending your arms back toward the machine until the weights are almost but not completely at the starting position.

Repeat until to reach the desired number of reps or to failure.

There are two different grip options available on most rowing machines, one where your palms are facing each other and the other when they’re facing the floor. For the sake of a beginner’s workout, I don’t really have a recommendation, but my personal preference is palms facing each other.

Don’t forget to exhale as you pull and inhale as you release. When finished, remember to maintain control as you return the weight stack to the starting position.

Congratulations. You’ve just completed your workout on the seated row machine.

When you are performing this exercise, you should feel a squeeze in your upper and middle back area. Try to resist any urge you may have to lean backward too far, because then you’re letting your body weight rather than your biceps and back do the work. Leaning back also puts undo strain on your lower back risking injury.

Like the chest, back muscles can’t really pull on their own and require the use of your arms, and specifically your biceps, to help out.

Lat Pulldowns

I suppose I should explain what a lat or latissimus dorsi muscle is before proceeding. According to Wikipedia:

The latissimus dorsi (plural: latissimi dorsi), meaning ‘broadest [muscle] of the back’ (Latin latus meaning ‘broad’, latissimus meaning ‘broadest’ and dorsum meaning the back), is the larger, flat, dorso-lateral muscle on the trunk, posterior to the arm, and partly covered by the trapezius on its median dorsal region. Latissimi dorsi are commonly known as “lats”, especially among bodybuilders.

medium-grip lat pulldown
Medium-grip lat pulldown

Working this muscle contributes to broadening the mid-portion of your back, although a lat pulldown will also engage your biceps and shoulders. Here’s a link to an image showing you which muscles are worked.

Besides the weight, on this type of machine, you can only adjust the height of the kneepad.

Note: There are LifeFitness and Nautilus machines that you can also use for pulldowns where the seat is adjustable and kneepads are not present, but for the sake of this illustration, I’m describing a more typical weight room machine.

You’ll need to adjust the kneepad so it firmly holds your thighs in position and prevents you from being raised off of the seat working the exercise, but you’ll also need to be able to reach the bar above your head.

Note: On this machine, the bar is detachable and any number of different handles and bars can be substituted. but I recommend the traditional t-bar with the handles bent slightly down as shown in the accompanying photo.

While popular wisdom states that a wide grip (which is wider than shoulder width) on the bar is best, I’ve read articles stating that there is effectively no difference in how your lats are worked if you use a medium width (which is shoulder width) grip instead. Just make sure the position of your arms is reasonably comfortable for you and doesn’t overly stress your shoulders.

Caution: I strongly recommend that you pull the bar down in front of you and not behind you. Some weight trainers, particularly body builders, use a behind the neck pull, but that’s a recipe for damaging your rotator cuffs which will end your upper body workouts until they heal, and particularly for the older weight trainer, healing takes longer.

Set the weight of the machine and the kneepad height and then sit in the machine. Reach up and grasp the bar (you may have to lift yourself slightly off of the seat to do this).

Tip: You can use an overhand or underhand grip on the bar. I prefer the overhand since it’s more traditional.

With both arms fully extended, pull the bar down until it touches your upper chest just below your neck. Remember to exhale as you pull. Try to squeeze your back muscles as you pull and when the bar is at your chest, hold it there for a moment. Then slowly raise the bar and inhale until the weight stack is almost but not quite at the starting position.

Repeat for the desired number of reps, and then rest the weight stack in the starting position while fully keeping control of the weight.

Congratulations. You’ve just completed the lat pulldown exercise and today’s back workout.

Bonus: Back Extensions

You don’t have to, especially as a beginner, but if you want to get a jump on strengthening your core besides the usual situps and crunches, you can do back extensions specifically targeting the lower back.

Caution: Lower back injuries are not uncommon in beginners and especially older athletes, so go slow and light until you figure out what amount of weight and strain works for you.

Back extension machine
Back extension machine

You can either do this on a Roman Chair as shown here or on a LifeFitness or Nautilus machine using a weight stack as shown in the accompanying photo.

The former uses just body weight but you can always hold a weighted plate if you want to add more load. I wouldn’t recommend that at the start as body weight is all you’ll need for a while.

The roman chair adjusts to accommodate your body length. Place your feet in the ankle pads and lay across the body cushion. I find that just hanging there for a few seconds stretches out my back and relaxes me.

I usually cross my arms across my chest but you can place your hands behind your head if you prefer. Keep your back straight and inhale as you lift your body to the point to where you feel a nice stretch in your hamstrings, then exhale as you lower yourself. Repeat for the desired number of reps and stop if your back starts to hurt.

Avoid the temptation to lift your body into an arch, which will risk injury to your lower back.

Once you’re done, get off the machine.

You can also use the seated machine equivalent. Besides the weight, the angle of the seat can be adjusted to allow as great or as little range of motion as you desires. Adjust the seat and weight, sit in the machine and place your feet under the ankle pads.

Caution: Set the weight to be lighter than what you think you can lift, at least at first. Going too heavy will risk injury to your lower back.

Lean back as you exhale to lift the weight and then go forward inhaling to where the weight stack is near the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of reps and when you’re done, in a controlled manner, lower the weight stack to the starting position.


Now you’re really finished with your back workout. Well done. Oh, you probably won’t get to the point where your back will look like the image at the top of the screen…but who knows?

There are many more exercises that you can use to work out your back. As you begin to advance, you’ll first want to make adjustments such as increasing the number of reps, increasing weight, and increasing the number of sets. Eventually though, using the same two or three exercises will result in you encountering the law of diminishing returns, or you’ll get bored and want to see what else you can include in your routine. However, what I’ve described today is a good beginning.

Next week, we’ll go through weight training with your arms.

There are two types of people who will tell you that you cannot make a difference in this world: those who are afraid to try and those who are afraid you will succeed.

Ray Goforth


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