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Back Workouts for Women

Sculpt This, Not That: Build a Beautiful Back

This four-exercise workout targets the key areas of your upper back for outstanding results.

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From backless holiday dresses to bikini season, your flip side is often in full view, and nothing shows off your training dedication quite like a set of shapely lats and a lean-and-mean upper back.  

The following workout, done once or twice a week as part of your regular training protocol, specifically targets the key areas of your upper body you’ll want to highlight for optimal back development. Each of these four moves is extremely effective, especially if you follow our “Sculpt This, Not That” advice to pinpoint the focus where it needs to be for flawless results. 

The Build a Beautiful Back Workout

Exercise Sets Reps
Pull-Up 4 10, 10, 10, 10
Lat Pulldown Machine 4 15, 12, 10, 8
Seated Cable Row 3 12, 10, 8
Dumbbell Pullover 3 12, 10, 8

Pull-Up 

Take an overhand grasp on a fixed pull-up bar and hang freely in a dead hang with your arms and legs fully extended. Look up toward the bar, draw your shoulder blades in toward your spine, and then drive your elbows down and back to pull your chin up and over the bar. Pause briefly and then slowly lower all the way back to a dead hang.  

Sculpt This, Not That: Taking a wide overhand grip is key for this move because your elbows stay out to the sides as you pull yourself up. This puts the stress on the latissimus dorsi — the fan-shaped muscles that cover your back from your spine to the outer edges of your back — instead of the biceps and midback, areas that might come into play with a narrow or underhand grip.

Lat Pulldown Machine

Adjust a lat pulldown machine so your thighs fit snugly under the pads. Place your feet flat on the floor and take an overhand grasp on the angled ends of a pulldown bar. Arch your upper back slightly to lift your chest, then draw your shoulder blades in toward your spine and drive your elbows down and back until the bar touches or nearly touches your clavicle and upper chest. Hold briefly and then slowly allow the bar to return to the start. 

Expert Tip: Don’t let the weight stack touch down between reps. 

Sculpt This, Not That: To create the best angle of pull and directly target the lats while minimizing the engagement of your biceps, don’t sit up completely upright. Angle your upper body back a few degrees by hinging at your hips (while keeping your spine straight), then lift your chest and begin your reps.

Fair Trade: Secure a resistance band to an overhead bar and perform pulldowns in the same manner.

Seated Cable Row 

Sit upright with your feet firmly against the platform and your knees bent. Take an inward-facing grip on a V-handle with your arms extended and sit up tall. Keeping your arms in close to your sides, drive your elbows back to pull the handle into your midsection. Pause briefly and then slowly return almost to the start and go right into the next rep without letting the stack touch down.  

Sculpt This, Not That: Trainers the world over might admonish you if you allow movement at your hips, claiming that it brings the lower back into play and thereby detracting from the work of the upper and midback muscles. But Dan Roberts, strength and conditioning coach and founder of the Dan Roberts Group, disagrees. “I like a little bit of hip hinge during seated rows,” he says. “I find that the strict, seated upright form isn’t functional for an active and athletic lifestyle, so I suggest around a 20-degree ‘sway’ to help with momentum.” 

Fair Trade: Secure a resistance band to a stationary object at shoulder height and perform rows in the same manner.

Dumbbell Pullover 

Lie faceup on a flat bench with your spine arching naturally and your feet flat on the floor for stability. Hold a dumbbell with both hands straight up over your upper chest. Slowly lower the weight down and overhead until your elbows align with your ears. Pause briefly, then reverse direction to return to the start.  

Sculpt This, Not ThatYour arms should be straight (but not locked) throughout the move to hit the intended muscles. If you allow your elbows to bend during the exercise, the move works your triceps rather than your back and serratus anterior.