Your back muscles are crucial for a healthy, pain-free posture. Along with your core, they help keep everything in alignment. But after months spent under lockdown, shifting from home desk to sofa, they might not be as strong as they once were.
To bolster your back, we asked Tom Eastham, a former London Irish RFC strength and conditioning coach and founder of the Minimal Fitness Method (opens in new tab), for an effective workout anyone can do at home – with or without equipment.
Along with this workout, Eastham recommends finding time to hang out as a good way to keep your back and posture in good shape. “Hanging is one of the best ways to stretch out your thoracic spine – a critical factor in improving your overall back health,” he says.
If you don’t have a pull-up bar at home, a local park may have a purpose-built outdoor gym with a set of pull-up bars to have a go on – but even if not there should be plenty of places to hang out, such as a sturdy branch, climbing frame or even football goalposts. “Just be creative,” Eastham says.
Counterintuitively, this five-move back workout begins with a press-up variation. The scapula press-up will release tightness in the shoulder blades that can build up from hours spent hunched over your work. Next up is a door frame hang that releases tension in the upper back.
The remaining three moves are dumbbell exercises, but if you don’t have a pair, we have included an alternative move that can be done with a resistance band or, failing that, your own bodyweight and a bit of invention.
All three variations will still help you achieve an effective workout, so long as you challenge yourself by increasing the number of sets or reps, reducing the rest periods or slowing the tempo of each exercise.
“Tempo – or the speed of movement in each rep – is an underutilized part of training,” says Eastham. “It becomes even more important when dealing with minimal weights and equipment.” So go slow to make the most of this posture-fixing back workout.
1 Scapula press-up
Sets 2 Reps 10-15 Rest 30sec
Hold the top of a press-up position and, keeping your arms straight and core braced throughout, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together, then slightly arching your upper back to spread them apart. Keep the reps slow and controlled.
2 Door frame hang
Sets 2 Time 30sec Rest 30sec
Now you’ve created space through your shoulder blades, target the rest of your mid to upper back. You will need a sturdy door frame. Grip the top of the frame and, keeping your feet on the floor, let your body hang heavy so you feel a gentle stretch through your upper back. If you can get a good grip, and you’re confident the frame can take the weight, lift your feet off the floor for a dead hang. To progress this further, you can shrug your shoulders up and down – called scapula pull-ups – to build strength in your upper back.
Sets 3 Reps 10-12 each side Rest 60sec
If you have dumbbells, now’s the time to pick them up. Place your feet wide apart and one hand on a chair in front of you so you have a stable base. Hold one dumbbell and, keeping your back flat, row the weight up to your armpit, then back down under control.
Resistance band alternative: Banded single-arm row Stand in the middle of the band and pick up both ends with your hands. Hinge forwards at your hips, keep your back flat and row the band up to your armpit and back down, on one side and then the other.
Bodyweight alternative: Single-arm bedsheet row No kit? Instead jam a bed sheet or towel in the top of your door frame, close the door to hold it in place and give it a tug to make sure it is secure. You’ve just created a makeshift suspension trainer. Stand close to the door, grab the sheet with one hand and carefully lean back to use your bodyweight as resistance. Pull yourself up with one hand, keeping your elbow tight to your body, then lower under control.
Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Rest 60sec
Hold dumbbells by your sides with your palms facing each other. Engage your core and hinge forwards at your hips, sticking your bum out slightly to flatten and protect your back. Retract your shoulder blades to engage your upper back muscles, then raise the weights to your ribs, pause, and lower under control.
Resistance band alternative: Banded bent-over row As with the single-arm row, stand on the resistance band, hinge forwards at the hips and flatten your back. Row the band up to your armpit with both hands simultaneously, then back down. Make it harder with one-and-a-half reps. For each rep row all the way up, halfway down, back up, then all the way down.
Bodyweight alternative: Table row Again this one requires a bit of invention – and sturdy furniture. Lie under your most rock-solid table and hold one side with an overhand grip, shoulder-width apart. Lift your body so only your heels are touching the floor and your arms are extended. Keeping your body in a straight line, pull your chest towards the table, then down under control. Be careful the table doesn’t tip.
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Sets 3 Reps 10-12 Rest 60sec
This one will require lighter dumbbells than the previous moves. Hold the weights together with arms straight, engage your core, hinge forwards at your hips and flatten your back. With your body almost parallel to the floor, raise the weights to the sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the lift, then lower back to the start under control.
Resistance band alternative: Banded pull-apart Stand holding the band in front of your chest with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. You can go for either an overhand or underhand grip. Retract your shoulder blades and pull the band apart, moving your hands laterally to create tension in your upper back, then control them back to the start.
Bodyweight alternative: Towel pull-apart It’s not perfect, but a towel should provide a bit of give if you don’t have a band. Hold the towel with hands wide apart and focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together with small pulses. You’ll still feel it in the muscles if you’re doing it right – it might just take a few extra reps to feel the burn.
Sam Rider is an experienced freelance journalist, specialising in health, fitness and wellness. For over a decade he's reported on Olympic Games, CrossFit Games and World Cups, and quizzed luminaries of elite sport, nutrition and strength and conditioning. Sam is also a REPS level 3 qualified personal trainer, online coach and founder of Your Daily Fix (opens in new tab). Sam is also Coach’s designated reviewer of massage guns and fitness mirrors.
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